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Intombi Drift - 12th March 1879

Written by Graham Alexander.

Following the overwhelming Zulu victory at Isandlwana, Lord Chelmsford’s forces withdrew to the border country to restructure. In the North, amongst the forces of Brigadier General Sir Henry Evelyn Wood, were four companies of the 80th regiment. They were responsible for the movement of supplies from Derby to Luneberg, the route of which included the crossing of several rivers, including a tributary of the Pongola called the Intombi.

On the 7th March, a company of the 80th commanded by Captain David Moriarty, marched out of Luneberg to accompany a convoy of 18 waggons bringing in ammunition, flour and mealies from Derby. He was advised that some waggons had broken down on the little Intombi river and his orders were to bring these waggons or their loads into Luneberg. If this was not possible, then he was to laager the waggons at the Intombi river and wait until he was able to do so. When they arrived at the Intombi, they found that the convoy had arrived there on the 5th March, but owing to heavy rain, the river had risen and stopped the waggons crossing at the drift.

intombi map

Part of the escorting force, commanded by Lieutenant Henry Harward, camped on the Luneberg side of the river, while Captain Moriarty and 69 men moved into a laager made by the trapped waggons on the north side of the river. By the 11th March, the rains had finally stopped and the river fallen about 4 feet. The flow of the river however, was still so rapid so that nothing could be got across.

Captain David Moriarty

The defensive laager, in the shape of an inverted letter “V” had become a complete sea of mud, flooded by the river and churned up by the men and cattle.

Captain Moriarty retired for the night in the hope that the following morning would allow him to start moving the stranded waggons across the river.

At about 3.30 am a shot was fired near the camp and the men quickly turned out. It was still dark, with mist and rain in the air. Captain Moriarty decided that it was nothing and allowed his men to return to their beds, after warning the sentries to be extra vigilant. At about 5 am, the mist began to clear and in the first light of dawn, the sentry on the Luneberg side of the river saw Zulus close to the laager. He fired his rifle which alerted the other sentries. The camp began to scramble to their feet when a vast number of Zulus, estimated by some to be in excess of 4,000 men, fell upon the camp and overwhelmed Captain Moriarty’s men in minutes. Some men tried to swim across the river to safety but most of them were swept away and drowned. The Zulus followed the men into the river and a hand to hand fight ensued. The troops on the Luneberg side fired volley after volley into the seething mass of men, but it was a hopeless situation. When the Zulus were seen crossing the river further upstream in an attempt to outflank them, it became a matter of necessity to fall back to Luneberg.

Battle at Intombi Drift

Lieutenant Harward in his official report stated that he attempted to rally his men but that they were much scattered and he found reformation impossible. He saddled up a horse and left the survivors under the command of Sergeant Anthony Booth, while he raced back to Luneberg. Sergeant Booth fell back steadily, stopping his party of 43 men and firing a volley at the pursuing Zulus when they got too close. He was followed for at least three and a half miles, until the Zulus finally gave up and returned to the river. For this act of extreme courage he was awarded the Victoria Cross and promotion to the rank of Colour Sergeant.

Sergeant Anthony BoothLieutenant Henry Harward

A relief party was sent from Luneberg when the alarm was raised. They saw a party of Zulus about 4,000 strong extending for about 2 mile along Umbeline’s hill, evidently retiring from the fight. When they arrived at the Intombi drift, the sight that they saw reminded the men of a small scale Isandlwana. The troops had been stripped and disembowelled, the cattle driven off and the laager ransacked. Captain Moriarty was found dead with 41 troops and 17 civilian drivers. A further 20 men of the 80th were missing believed drowned, although 6 of their bodies were discovered in the next few days. Lieutenant Harward was charged with deserting his men in the face of the enemy, but the subsequent court martial found him not guilty. It did not stop comments about his unacceptable behaviour being read out to every regiment in the British army.

Coming just 49 days after the Isandlwana disaster, it showed that the Zulu was a very formidable opponent and that their military skills were to be respected by all in the future.