The Witch's Head/Book II/Chapter XIX

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Midnight came, and the camp was sunk in sleep. Up to the sky, whither it was decreed their spirits should pass, before the dark closed in again and hit their mangled corpses, floated the faint breath of some fourteen hundred men. There they lay, sleeping the healthy sleep of vigorous manhood, their brains busy with the fantastic madness of a hundred dreams, and little recking of the inevitable morrow. There, in his sleep, the white man saw his native village, with its tall, wind-swayed elms, and the grey old church that for centuries had watched the last slumber of his race; the Kafir, the sunny slope of fair Natal, with its bright light dancing on his cattle's horns, and the green of the gardens, where, for his well-being, his wives and children toiled. To some that night came dreams of high ambition, of brave adventure, crowned with the perfect triumph we never reach; to some, visions of beloved faces, long since passed away; to some, the reflected light of a far-off home, and echoes of the happy laughter of little children. And so their lamps wavered hither and thither in the spiritual breath of sleep, flickering wildly, ere they went out for ever.

The night-wind swept in sad gusts across Isandhlwana's plain, tossing the green grass, which to-morrow would be red. It moaned against Inhlazatye's Mountain and died upon Upindo, fanning the dark faces of a host of warriors who rested there upon their spears, sharpened for the coming slaughter. And as it breathed upon them, they turned, those brave soldiers of U'Cetywayo—“born to be killed,” as their saying runs, at Cetywayo's bidding—and, grasping their assegais, raised themselves to listen. It was nothing, death was not yet; death for the morrow, sleep for the night.

A little after one o'clock on the morning of the 22nd of January, Ernest was roused by the sound of a horse's hoofs and the hard challenge of the sentries. “Despatch from Major Dartnell,” was the answer, and the messenger passed on. Half an hour more and the reveille was sounded, and the camp hummed in the darkness like a hive of bees making ready for the dawn.

Soon it was known that the General and Colonel Glynn were about to move out to the support of Major Dartnell, who reported a large force of the enemy in front of him, with six companies of the second battalion of the 24th Regiment, four guns, and the mounted infantry.

At dawn they left.

At eight o'clock a report arrived from a picket, stationed about a mile away on a hill to the north of the camp, that a body of Zulus was approaching from the north-east.

At nine o'clock the enemy showed over the crest of the hills for a few minutes, and then disappeared.

At ten o'clock Colonel Durnford arrived from Rorke's Drift with a rocket battery and two hundred and fifty mounted native soldiers, and took over the command of the camp from Colonel Pulleine. As he came up he stopped for a minute to speak to Alston, whom he knew, and Ernest noticed him. He was a handsome, soldier-like man, with his arm in a sling, a long, fair moustache, and a restless, anxious expression of face.

At 10.30 Colonel Durnford's force, divided into two portions, was, with the rocket battery, pushed some miles forwards to ascertain the enemy's movements, and a company of the 24th was directed to take up a position on the hill about a mile to the north of the camp. Meanwhile, the enemy, which they afterwards heard consisted of the Undi Corps, the Nokenke and Umcitu Regiments, and the Nkobamakosi and Imbonambi Regiments, in all about twenty thousand men, were resting about two miles from Isandhlwana, with no intention of attacking that day. They had not yet been “moutied” (doctored), and the condition of the moon was not propitious.

Unfortunately, however, Colonel Durnford's mounted Basutos, in pushing forwards, came upon a portion of the Umcitu Regiment, and fired on it; whereupon the Umcitu came into action, driving Durnford's Horse before them, and then engaged the company of the 24th, which had been stationed on the hill to the north of the camp, and, after a stubborn resistance, annihilating it. It was followed by the Nokenke, Imbonambi, and Nkobamakosi Regiments, who executed a flanking movement, and threatened the front of the camp. For a while the Undi Corps, which formed the chest of the army, held its ground. Then it marched off to the right, and directed its course to the north of Isandhlwana Mountain, with the object of turning the position.

Meanwhile, the remaining companies of the 24th were advanced to various positions in front of the camp, and engaged the enemy, for a while holding them in check; the two guns under Major Smith shelling the Nokenke Regiment, which formed the Zulu left centre, with great effect. The shells could be seen bursting amid the dense masses of Zulus, who were coming on slowly and in perfect silence, making large gaps in their ranks, which instantly closed up over the dead.

At this point the advance of the Undi Regiment to the Zulu right and the English left was reported; and Alston's Horse were ordered to proceed, and, if possible, to check it. Accordingly they left, and, riding behind the company of the 24th on the hill, to the north of the camp, which was now hotly engaged with the Umcitu, and Durnford's Basutos, who, fighting splendidly, were slowly being pushed back, made for the north side of Isandhlwana. As soon as they got on to the high ground they caught sight of the Undi, who, something over three thousand strong, were running swiftly in a formation of companies, about half a mile to the northward.

“By Heaven, they mean to turn the mountain, and seize the waggon-road!” said Mr. Alston. “Gallop!”

The troop dashed down the slope towards a pass in a stony ridge, which would command the path of the Undi, as they did so breaking through and killing two or three of a thin line of Zulus that formed the extreme point of one of the horns or nippers, by means of which the enemy intended to enclose the camp and crush it.

After this Alston's Horse saw nothing more of the general fight; but it may be as well to briefly relate what happened. The Zulus of the various regiments pushed slowly on towards the camp, notwithstanding their heavy losses. Their object was to give time to the horns or nippers to close round it. Meanwhile, those in command realised too late the extreme seriousness of the position, and began to concentrate the various companies. Too late! The enemy saw that the nippers had closed. He knew, too, that the Undi could not be far off the waggon-road, the only way of retreat; and so, abandoning his silence and his slow advance, he raised the Zulu war-shout, and charged it from a distance of from six to eight hundred yards.

Up to this time the English loss had been small, for the shooting of the Zulus was vile. The enemy, on the contrary, had, especially during the last half-hour before they charged lost heavily. But now the tables were turned. First the Natal Contingent, seeing that they were surrounded, bolted and laid open the right and rear flank of the troops. In poured the Zulus, so that most of the soldiers had not even time to fix bayonets. In another minute, our men were being assegaied right and left, and the retreat on the camp had become a fearful rout. But even then there was nowhere to run to. The Undi Corps (which afterwards passed on and attacked the post at Rorke's Drift) already held the waggon-road, and the only practical way of retreat was down a gully to the south of the road. Into this the broken fragments of the force plunged wildly, and after them and mixed up with them, went their Zulu foes massacring every living thing they came across.

So the camp was cleared. When a couple of hours afterwards, Commandant Lonsdale, of Londsdale's Horse, was sent back by General Chelmsford to ascertain what the firing was about, he could see nothing wrong. The tents were sanding, the waggons were there; there were even soldiers moving about. It did not occur to him that it was the soldiers' coats which were moving on the backs of Kafirs, and that the soldiers themselves would never move again. So he rode quickly up to the headquarters tents; out of which, to his surprise, there suddenly stalked a huge naked Zulu, smeared all over with blood, and waving in his hand a bloody assegai.

Having seen enough, he then rode back again to tell the General that his camp was taken.

To God's good providence and Cetywayo's clemency, rather than to our own wisdom, do we owe it that all the outlying homesteads in Natal were not laid in ashes, and men, women, and children put to the assegai.