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British High Commissioner Sir Henry Bartle-Frere seeks to dismantle
the powerful neighbouring kingdom of the Zulus and uses an incursion
along the disputed border as his justification for war. He issues an
impossible ultimatum to the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, demanding he
disband his armies and pay massive reparations. With a heavy heart,
the king prepares his nation for war against their former allies.
Chelmsford, a highly experienced officer fresh off a decisive triumph
over the neighbouring Xhosa tribes. He and Frere are convinced that a
quick victory over the Zulus will negate any repercussions from the
home government for launching what is, in essence, an illegal war.
and Richard Lowe; members of C Company, 1/24th Regiment of Foot under
the venerable Captain Reginald Younghusband. Eager for adventure,
they are prepared to do their duty both for the Empire and for their
friends. As Frere’s ultimatum expires, the army of British redcoats
and allied African auxiliaries crosses the uMzinyathi River at
Rorke’s Drift into Zululand. Ten days later, the British and Zulus
will meet their destiny at the base of a mountain called Isandlwana.
African allies cross the uMzinyathi River to commence the invasion of
the Zulu Kingdom, a handful of redcoats from B Company, 2/24th
Regiment are left to guard the centre column’s supply depot at
miles to the east, comes under attack from the entire Zulu army and
is utterly destroyed. Four thousand warriors from King Cetshwayo’s
elite Undi Corps remained in reserve and were denied any chance to
take part in the fighting. Led by Prince Dabulamanzi, they disobey
the king’s orders and cross into British Natal, seeking their share
in triumph and spoils. They soon converge on Rorke’s Drift; an easy
prize, with its paltry force of 150 redcoats to be readily swept aside.
the tiny British garrison readies to receive the coming onslaught.
Leading them is Lieutenant John Chard, a newly-arrived engineer
officer with no actual combat experience. Aiding him is B Company’s
previously undistinguished officer commanding, Lieutenant Gonville
Bromhead, along with 24-year old Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne, and a
retired soldier-turned civilian volunteer named James Dalton.
fifteen miles further east, at Mangeni Falls. However, with a huge
Zulu force of over twenty-thousand warriors between them and the
drift, their ammunition and ration stores taken or destroyed, and an
impossible distance to cover, Chelmsford’s battered column cannot
possibly come to the depot’s aid, and must look to their own
survival. The defenders of Rorke’s Drift stand alone.
22 January 1879
Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne
Senior Non-Commissioned Officer, B Company, 2/24th
By mid-afternoon, the soldiers at Rorke’s Drift were becoming anxious for any news regarding their mates at Isandlwana. The cannon fire had ceased; it was around this time that Major Stewart Smith ordered the guns limbered, that he might redeploy or try to save them from falling into the hands of the Zulus. Rolling volleys of musketry from the six infantry companies of the 24th guarding the camp continued sporadically.
“Something’s wrong,” Second Corporal Atwood said quietly. He sat atop the railing of the stairs leading into the small attic in the storehouse.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Sergeant Joseph Windridge replied, joining the corporal. “Sounds like the lads are giving the Zulus a damn good thrashing.”
Windridge had come to the storehouse to see about acquiring a patch kit for his section’s tent, when he saw the Service Corps NCO looking despondent. The two men were in their mid-thirties, making them substantially older than most of the garrison at Rorke’s Drift. As such, they had formed a friendship over the past few weeks.
“Perhaps,” Atwood conceded. “And if that’s the case, then I suppose we’ll all be raising a toast of the finest whiskey to Her Majesty and Lord Chelmsford…beg your pardon, sergeant.”
Frances felt awkward at the mention of Joseph Windridge’s crippling vice. By his own admission, his want for the bottle was worse than William Allan’s. A former quartermaster sergeant, and previously colour sergeant of 2nd Battalion’s C Company, Windridge was, at one time, considered a potential successor to the battalion’s sergeant major. He managed to confine his drunkenness to when he was not on duty, but in recent years it became an unbearable burden to both he and his family. After his latest stint in hospital for overindulging, Windridge requested a voluntary reduction of two ranks to sergeant, so that he might sort himself out. Though greatly disappointed, the sergeant major relented and recommended Lieutenant Colonel Degacher reduce Joseph back to sergeant, allowing him to command a section of riflemen in B Company. Though Windridge had previously served with C Company, both Degacher and the sergeant major thought it might cause a bit of awkwardness to place him back in the company where he previously served as their colour sergeant.
“Nothing to apologise for,” he said, consoling Atwood. “I know my vices well, and what it’s done to me, my wife, and even my children. Of course, Quartermaster Sergeant Leitch was all-too-happy to accept promotion into my former billet. It may have cost me in terms of pounds and shillings, but returning to the ranks saved my sanity, and possibly my life. Besides, the lads in B Company are a good lot. Even Lance Sergeant Williams, who likely thinks I ‘stole’ his promotion.”
The call of a sentry distracted them. They were puzzled when they saw no signs of horsemen coming from the road that led northeast to the drift.
“Over there,” Atwood said, pointing south.
“Who the bloody hell is that?” Windridge asked, squinting and using his hand to shade is eyes from the sun. His face was suddenly ashen, as he too was filled with the same sense of dread as Francis Atwood.
Lieutenant Bromhead and Commissary Dunne were enjoying a late lunch in the shade of Bromhead’s tent, when they were alerted by the same call from the southern sentries.
“That’s odd,” Dunne remarked.
“Riders coming up from the south,” the commissary answered. “Why did they not come via the ponts?”
“No idea,” Bromhead remarked dismissively. With his hearing impediment, it was difficult for him to ascertain the origins of most noises. For all he knew, the sentries’ reports could have come from the northeast rather than the south. He took a bite of tinned beef and suddenly paused mid-chew. “There’s another drift, ten miles to the south. But why in God’s name would anyone use it?”
“Especially with the river swollen from the recent rains,” Dunne added. “It’d be a bloody nightmare.”
“And from what I recall, there’s no road,” Gunny remarked. “It would take a madman to try and cross there.”
“Or one under extreme duress.”
The sound of sloshing footsteps came towards them. The commissary peaked around the open tent flap and saw Private William Jones escorting a pair of rather dishevelled soldiers from the Imperial Mounted Infantry. They were completely soaked, hair matted, and both had lost their helmets.
“Beg your pardon, Mister Bromhead, but these men come with an urgent despatch from the column,” Jones reported.
“Good heavens, man,” Bromhead said, as the two battered soldiers stepped into his tent. “What reason could you have to swim down from the column? Couldn’t you have crossed at the ponts?”
“From Captain Gardner, sir,” one of the men reported, handing Bromhead a hastily scribbled note. Alan Gardner was a cavalry officer from the 14th Hussars, serving as one of the column staff officers. Bromhead was well acquainted with him, yet it was baffling that a note would come directly from Gardner, rather than Lord Chelmsford, Colonel Glyn, or even Lieutenant Colonel Degacher.
Gunny’s eyes grew wide in disbelief as he scanned the despatch before handing it to Dunne. It read:
Camp at Isandlwana taken by the enemy. Colonels Durnford and Pulleine dead, Lord Chelmsford cut off at Mangeni. Suspect Zulu impi will next attack Rorke’s Drift. Hold position, if practical.
A. Gardner, Capt.
“We’re lucky to be alive, sir,” the other soldier added. “Can’t say as much for the rest of the camp.”
Like Henderson and his troopers, they had gotten away before the Zulu ‘horns’ sealed off any chance of escape. There was little doubt in their minds that the camp had fallen and everyone within would soon be dead. The two soldiers shuddered as a rifle volley echoed faintly in the distance.
“This cannot be,” the commissary said, shaking his head; even though he recognised Captain Gardner’s signature. “Pulleine and Durnford’s commands gone, just like that?”
The first soldier extended his hand, asking for the message back. “Your pardon, sir, but we need inform Major Spalding and the lads at Helpmekaar. Can’t say for certain, but we believe that is where any survivors will be headed.”
Bromhead said nothing and handed the note back.
Their duty done, the two soldiers quickly backed out of the tent, anxious to ride away lest the officers order them to remain. They nearly stumbled into Assistant Commissary James Dalton. One of the men nervously blurted out, “The camp at Isandlwana has fallen. You’ll want to bugger off as soon as you can.”
Dalton showed little surprise at this news or at the unkempt state of the two men. Nothing was said as the IMI soldiers mounted and rode away towards Helpmekaar. James entered Bromhead’s tent and was rather put out to see his immediate supervisor, Walter Dunne, as well as B Company’s officer commanding sitting in a state of numbing shock. Dunne relayed the message to Dalton who, after a brief pause, clapped his hands together, breaking the men out of their stupor.
“Come on, Mister Bromhead,” he said with emphasis. “No sense sitting around here on our arses.”
The no-nonsense determination on the face of the old soldier gave Gunny the confidence needed to steel himself to his duty. Now was not the time to dwell on the ramifications of the disaster at Isandlwana. It was time to ready his men for battle.
including seven Ancient History best-sellers, and two South African
History best-sellers. He penned the initial draft of his first novel,
“Soldier of Rome: The Legionary”, as a cathartic means of
escapism while serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq from 2004 to 2005.
His works span numerous eras, from Ancient Rome to the British Empire.
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