THE ANGLO ZULU WAR OF 1879
ROBERT GERRARD FRGS
The Battle of iNtombi Drift
12th March 1879
During the last week of February an unescorted convoy of 18 wagons loaded with 90,000 rounds of ammunition and other supplies left the little town of Lydenberg in the Transvaal for Luneberg in Natal. Although it was perceived unnecessary for the convoy to be escorted while travelling through the Transvaal, the last 40 miles of the journey they'd have to proceed through the iNtombe Valley, the area where Mbelini and Manyanyoba’s strongholds existed.
On the 7th March Major Tucker, commanding the post at Luneberg, despatched Captain Moriarty, with 103 men of the 80th, to Derby to escort the convoy for the last 20 to 30 miles into Luneberg. 5 miles out of Luneberg they came to Meyer's Drift on the iNtombe River, which was in flood and saw 7 of the wagons on the northern side of the river. It had been raining for days, the wagons had got stuck in the mud and the drivers and voorlopers had been forced to split the convoy as they manhandled each wagon along the sodden track.
Moriarty set his force the task of building a raft and by the following day all but 2 platoons of the 80th had crossed to the northern bank, leaving Lieutenant Lindop in command of the two platoons to improve the water-logged track on the southern bank. Moriarty then set off to find and help the other 11 wagons that had fallen behind.
By the time Moriarty returned to Meyer's Drift he discovered that 2 wagons had made the crossing but the iNtombe River was now impassable, flowing at about 7 knots. There was nothing he could do until the river waters dropped, and he gave orders for the 16 wagons on the northern bank to be laagered in the form of an inverted 'v' with the open-legs of the 'v' facing towards the river.
The 3 ammunition carts and oxen were secured inside the 'v' and the 71 men tented in 4 bell tents along the left leg of the laager. Moriarty's own tent was at the point of the 'v' on the edge of the wagon track. Lindop's 35 men on the southern bank, unable to create a laager with 2 wagons, pitched their tents along the sides of the wagons.
By the afternoon of the 11th the rains had cleared and Major Tucker, escorted by Lieutenant Harward, arrived at the drift from Luneberg to inspect the work in progress. Tucker immediately noticed that Moriarty's laager was poor. Large gaps existed between each wagon and the end of the laager legs were too far from the river. Tucker advised Moriarty to improve his laager and rode back to Luneberg with Lieutenants Tucker and Lindop, leaving Lieutenant Harward in command of the 35 men on the southern bank.
As dusk fell it began to drizzle once more. No piquets were posted, a sentry stood guard on either bank as 'D' Company turned in for another wet night. At 4.00am the following morning, the sentry on the southern bank heard a shot fired from the northern bank and awoke Harward, who stood his men to and sent a soldier across the river to ensure that Moriart'’s position was secure. A few minutes later the soldier returned, informed Harward that he'd woken Moriarty, telling him of the shot and that Moriarty had then given orders for his force to stand to.
Whether Moriarty was ever advised of the shot one will never know as he, together with his men, was asleep when about 1,000 of Mbelini's marauding warriors assaulted the laagered position, firing their rifles and thrusting with their assegais as the men stumbled out of their tents. Harward and his force on the southern bank immediately opened fire causing hundreds of Mbelini's warriors to cross the river and assault Harward's unfortified position.
In amongst the chaos on the northern bank, Moriarty was seen in his nightshirt, shouting Guards out. Within seconds Moriarty was surrounded by a number of warriors but fought his way down the side of the laager to the river, killing 2 Zulu with his revolver and snatching an assegai from one that he'd shot. Once his revolver was empty he thrust and stabbed with the assegai at those assaulting him, receiving an assegai wound and bullet in his chest, he fell shouting I’m done. Fire away boys. Death or glory, as an assegai ended his life. Moriarty’s men were totally out-numbered and slaughtered in their nightshirts as they tumbled out of their tents.
Those on the southern bank were scattered by superior numbers. Harward, Colour Sergeant Booth, Corporal Burgess, and 10 men survived the initial assault. Harward ordered Colour Sergeant Booth to retreat up the track towards Luneberg and a deserted farm house 2 miles to the south, and he would ride to Luneberg for reinforcements.
By 6.00am Major Tucker, with as many mounted men as he'd been able to gather, galloped out of Luneberg for Meyer's Drift, followed by 2 Companies of Infantry.
Colour Sergeant Booth had held his men together. On several occasions they'd been assaulted by Mbelini and his warriors but by standing together and firing steadily, they'd driven each assault off. By the time Tucker's mounted force reached them, 4 of his men were dead and Mbelini and his warriors had fled.
As the mounted force rode into the camp at Meyer's Drift they were stunned into silence. 80 of Moriarty's force lay dead and disembowelled and all the wagons had been looted. Mbelini's force had taken with them the ammunition and supplies to join the abaQulusi at Hlobane Mountain, from where he'd advise Cetshwayo of his successful assault and that the only British Invasion Force that was still active, was preparing to assault Hlobane.
When Chelmsford heard of this disaster he was furious. Lieutenant Harward was court martialled a year later, accused of abandoning his men and not having laagered the camp. He was acquitted, having put up a strong case in which he pointed out that he only had 2 wagons, therefore could not laager. He was the only man with a horse and had he not ridden for help, the probability was that the whole force would have been slaughtered, not just Moriarty's force on the north bank. Before the court martial convened, Colour Sergeant Booth was awarded the Victoria Cross.
When General Sir Garnet Wolseley learnt of Harward's acquittal, he refused to condone the findings, and stated Had I accepted the verdict it would have been a tacit acknowledgement that I concurred in what appears to me a monstrous theory, viz, that a regimental officer, who is the only officer present with a party of soldiers actually and seriously engaged with the enemy, can, under any pretext whatever, be justified in deserting them, and by so doing, leaving them to their fate. The more helpless a position in which an officer finds his men, the more it is his bounden duty to stay and share their fortune, whether for good or ill. It is because the British officer has always done so that he possesses the influence he does in the ranks of our army. The soldier has learnt to feel, that come what may, he can in the direst moment of danger look with implicit faith to his officer, knowing that he will never desert him under any possible circumstances. And went on to say It is to this faith of the British soldier in his officers that we owe most of the gallant deeds recorded in our military annals, and it is because the verdict of this court martial strikes at the root of this faith, that I feel it necessary to mark officially, my emphatic dissent from the theory upon which the verdict has been found.
Harsh words, but words similar to those he would use when he learnt that staff and transport officers who had survived the Battle of ISandlwana by leaving the field early, had later claimed that they had no command and could therefore save themselves. Lieutenant Harward had however returned to duty.
The Duke of Cambridge approved of Wolseley's comments and ordered the findings and Wolseley's comments to be read at the head of every regiment in Her Majesty's service.
Rob Gerrard FRGS, the resident historian at ISandlwana Lodge, relates these events of all the battles of the Anglo Zulu War with passion and knowledge as if he had been there. Battles themselves have limited interest, but he brings the characters involved on both sides to life and relating information found in trunks and archives, his audience is spell-bound.
Next Month The Battle of Hlobane
Copyright © Robert J. Gerrard 2003
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