For ios devices you can download Episode 5 of The Redcoat History Podcast here.
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Hallo old man, welcome to my bell tent. Put your bundhook over there and feel free to rest a little. You boys of the northern column have had a rough time of it. Hlobane was a hell of a scrape, were you there? Well, At least you managed to show the Zulus some real British pluck at Kambula – I hear it was a bit of a massacre. What about Ntombe? That was a sad affair wasn’t it? You had a friend there, you say? Can you tell me the story?
The Battle of Ntombe Drift
Rain, rain and more rain. Everything is wet, uniforms sodden, boots squelching. The men – a company sized detachment of the 80th regiment – are exhausted from days of constant effort trying to move a column of stuck wagons along the track to their base at Luneburg on the Zululand border. It’s backbreaking work – the narrow wagon track has become thick mud and the Intombe river – their final major obstacle before completing the mission – is swollen, wide and brown and flowing fast.
It’s the early morning of Wednesday March 12th 1879. The rain is finally slowing but a thick fog has obscured the small British encampment that has sprung up on both sides of the river around the spot known as Myers or Intombe drift.
On the north side of the bank are 69 men of the 80th regiment as well as a civilian surgeon and a number of wagon drivers – both white and black. The Officer Commanding – Captain DB Moriarty has formed the wagons into an inverted V shaped laager – a poor defensive shield as the wagons aren’t close enough together there’s gaping gaps between them. His own tent is pitched outside the northern tip of the laager, perhaps for privacy. Two sentries, tired and miserable, stand-to nearby but their field of view is limited by the uneven terrain and the terrible weather.
On the South side the senior officer is Lt Harwood, accompanied by Sergeant Booth, a tough looking NCO with a thick, manly moustache and a middle parting. There’s also 33 privates and some wagon drivers with them.
On the horizon is the ominous black outline of the Tafelburg – a large flat-topped hill that is one of the strongholds of a local Zulu commander of Swazi origin called Mbelini. He’s already proven himself to be an intelligent and wily commander who has realised the importance of raids and guerrilla-style warfare to help defeat the British.
CRACK – Just after 4am a single gunshot shatters the silence. Lt Harwood, awake and alert on the south bank tells Sergeant Booth to alert the men north of the river. He calls across to Private George Tucker who informs him that Captain Moriarty had instructed the men to get dressed but to remain in their tents for now.
In fact, Moriarty has done no such thing and seems to have been so unimpressed with the news of the gunshot that he promptly falls straight back to sleep.
Sergeant Anthony Clarke Booth has been in the army since 1864 and his instinct makes him edgy. Instead of going back to sleep he grabs his rifle and puts on his ammunition belt before heading over to the commissariat wagon to do some work.
Then, suddenly just before 5am, a sentry cries out, “Guard, turn out.” Another shot is fired. As the fog begins to clear and the first light of dawn paints the horizon with a faint glow hundreds of Zulus emerge from the grassy, corrugated landscape.
The soldiers on the north bank, most of them still naked and fast asleep in their tents, don’t stand a chance. The Zulus fire their weapons into the tents and then throw them aside to finish the job with their assegais, storming forward with their war cry of “Usuthu”.
Captain Moriarty, now awake, adrenaline racing through his body takes his pistol and shoots three of the enemy as he runs towards the laager. He’s hit with a spear, the blood flowing freely. He continues to fight until a musket ball thuds into his chest, he knows it’s the end. In his Irish accent he shouts, “I”m done boys, fire away – death or glory.”
Inside the laager there is chaos: shooting, stabbing, screaming – the cattle going crazy trying to escape the carnage.
On the South Side of the river Lt Harward quickly gathers together his men, “get under the wagon boys,” he shouts and they begin to fire volleys across the river into the attacking Zulus.
Private William Crawford, another Irishman, runs from his tent on the north side and jumps into the river to escape – a horde of Zulus following him.
Booth lines up his sites and pulls the trigger on his martini henri – bullseye – his shot slams into the forehead of a Zulu just as he was about to stab Crawford.
Crawford, exhausted, blood-spattered and shivering scuttles up the bank.
At least 200 Zulus, now taking casualties from the men on the South bank turn their attention to the drift and begin to cross in numbers.
There are too many of them. The fight became close-quarter bayonet against spear.
if Harward, Booth and the others stay here they’ll quickly be outflanked, overwhelmed and killed.
Harward, seeing the danger calls to Booth, “I’m going to Luneburg to bring reinforcements. Lead the men to that deserted farmhouse two miles to the rear.” He mounts his horse and rides away.
Booth watches him go, shocked and angered. How could an officer leave his men in the middle of a life or death struggle?
Booth, supported by Corporal Burgess gathers the survivors around them and cooly directs volleys into the enemy as they withdraw in a sort of ragged square – the Zulus desperately trying to outflank them and cut off their withdrawal.
In Luneburg the commander – Major Tucker is wrenched from his sleep – ‘Major, Major.’ Someone is shouting – he is up in an instant and there at his tent door, on his knees, the picture of death is Harward. ‘The camp is in the hands of the enemy; they are all slaughtered and I have galloped in for my life.’ He cries before collapsing in a heap on the floor.
Tucker, a tough man, loved by his men, quickly gathers every mounted soldier in Luneburg and sets off to see what’s happening, followed by another150 infantrymen of the 80th.
Meanwhile, Booth has to lead a tremendous and exhausting, textbook fighting withdrawal to an abandoned farmhouse at which point the Zulus finally have finally broken off their pursuit.
Tucker and the mounted men race to the river and find a terrible scene. Dead bodies litter the ground and everything of value has been plundered.
There is a great documentary here about Sergeant Booth – who was subsequently awarded the VC for this action – and the battle of Ntombe drift, it’s well worth a watch:
As for Harward…well, actually if you listen to the podcast you’ll find out more.
The battle of Hlobane
The next battle of the northern column that we cover in episode 5 of the podcast is Hlobane. Another British defeat that comes very close to disaster. So far I haven’t visited the battlefield myself so I haven’t been able to post any of my own videos.
But below is one I found on YouTube which will give you a good idea of the terrain around Devil’s pass where the mounted British and local troops were ambushed and nearly wiped out.
It’s quite a confusing battle to write about, but maybe like me you may find a map helpful in getting to grips with it.
I struggled to find a good one online, but this image will hopefully give you a good idea of the battlefield and where the main incidents happened.
And finally we come to…
The battle of Kambula
After the mounted men of the northern column were forced into a hasty and disorganised withdrawl from Hlobane they fell back to the camp at kambula. The next day the weight of the entire Zulu impi fell on them – 20,000 strong.
For a better understanding of the terrain I made this video early in 2019. It’s still a great battlefield to visit.
And here is a map of the British positions
As you will have heard the battle of Kambula was a crushing defeat for the Zulus, their first of the war and it gave a much needed psychological boost to the British. The victory even allowed Northern column commander Evelyn Wood to gloss over the disaster at Hlobane and avoid any censure for his terrible battle plan.
If you want to read more about the battles covered in this episode of the podcast then below is a select bibliography of the sources I used for my research – they have amazon links and if you purchase via these links it wont cost you anything more than usual but does mean that Amazon will throw me a small percentage and maybe I’ll get to fill my canteen with a little shot of cheap gin with the proceeds.
Blood on the painted mountain is a cracking read by the ever dependable Ron Lock, who sadly I understand, passed away not too long ago.
For a close look at the battle of Ntombe drift and to learn more about Sergeant Booth then I highly recommend this rare work by Robert Hope – The Zulu war and the 80th regiment of foot.
As always it’s not a full bibliography without at least one book by the main man himself Ian Knight – The National Army Museum Book of the Zulu war – is another great read.
I also went back to the primary sources and read a number of first hand accounts including the autobiographies of Evelyn Wood and George Dennison whose book Zulu Frontiersman is well worth a read.