The Natal Mounted Rifles is an armoured regiment of the South African Army. As a reserve unit, it has a status roughly equivalent to that of a British Territorial Army or United States Army National Guard unit. It is part of the South African Army Armour Formation and is based in the city of Durban
In May 1868 the Regimental Committee of the Durban Mounted Rifles, presided over by Captain WH Addison, held a meeting to discuss the forming of the Natal Mounted Rifles.
The formation of the regiment would entail the amalgamation of four Volunteer Units; Royal D’urban Rangers (1854), Victoria Mounted Rifles (1862), Alexander Mounted Rifles (1865) and Durban Mounted Rifles (1873)
Major General Sir Dartnell
The Natal Mounted Police (NMP) was formed in 1874 by a retired British Army officer, Major (later Major-General Sir) John Dartnell as a para-military force and the first line of defence in the Colony of Natal.
Its men first saw action in the Zulu War of 1879, where one detachment went in search of the Zulu army while another stayed and fought in the Battle of Isandlwana.
Twenty-five of the latter died of whom 21 fought in a last stand with 19 Natal Carbineers trying to protect the camp commander, Colonel Durnford. Two men, one of whom was killed, took part in the Battle of Rorke's Drift.
Natal Mounted Policemen later served in the Basuto Rebellion (1880/1) and the Transvaal Rebellion (1st Anglo-Boer War) (1880/1). Normal policing included providing an escort for the Empress Eugenie in 1880 when she visited the site where her son, the Prince Imperial, Louis Napoleon, was killed during the Zulu War. After 1881, out-stations were established throughout Natal and policing often consisted of long patrols in out-of-the-way places.
|19 Natal Carbineers HQ|
This story gives and account including a version of the Battle.
“The Mounted Police of Natal.” (1913)
Holt, H.P.: The Mounted Police of Natal (1913)
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THE Natal Police have a fighting record second to that of no similar body of men in the world, and on two occasions they have had the distinguished honour of covering the retreat of British troops.
The first was during the retirement of Lord Chelmsford’s force from Isandhlwana to Rorke’s Drift, on the 23rd January 1879. And the second was after the disaster at Laing’s Nek in the Boer War of
1881 , when the column under General Colley retired to Mount Prospect on the 28th January.
The corps has had its ups and downs, but it is to-day the best organised police force in South Africa
In order not to lose touch with the Zulus, Major Dartnell decided to bivouac with the police,
volunteers, and Native Contingent on the ground he had taken up, and two Staff officers, Major Gosset and Captain Buller, returned to the main camp to report the presence of the enemy and ask approval of the bivouac.
In many accounts of the Zulu war it is stated that he appealed for reinforcements, but this
is incorrect. He had decided to attack the impi at dawn, adding that a company or two of the
24th Regiment might instill confidence in the Native Contingent, but whether they came or not the attack would be made at 6 a.m.
The promised hot dinner having long gone cold, far away, the men had a cheerless prospect. They
were without blankets, and the night was bitterly cold. Moreover, there was the ever-constant dread
of a surprise attack. The troopers hitched up their belts, and bids up to ten shillings were made for a
single biscuit ; but nobody had any to sell. The horses were linked, one man in each section of fours
being left on guard over them, and the Native Contingent provided outlying pickets.
In several ways it was a night never to be forgotten. Captain Davy, adjutant of volunteers, had
gone back to the camp, and it was anxiously hoped that he would return with some food. He returned
late at night with a very inadequate supply of provisions, which quickly disappeared.
Quietness reigned during the early hours of the night, but just before the ‘witching hour a shot was
fired by one of the outlying pickets. Instantly there was terrible confusion. The whole Native
Contingent, consisting of 1600 men, stampeded into the bivouac, rattling their shields and assegais.
The sudden awakening from sleep, the din, the hoarse cries of the natives, the knowledge that a
large body of the enemy was in the vicinity, the difficulty of distinguishing friend from foe in the
darkness, and the confusion that invariably follows a stampede, would have been sufficient to startle
the best troops in the world. The natives crouched down near the white men for protection, and for a
time nobody knew what had caused the panic.
The wonder is that many of the native soldiers were not shot by the white troopers. The discipline of
colonial troops has rarely been put to a more severe test. The small body of police and volunteers,
miles away from support, fell in quietly and quickly, and remained perfectly steady.
Some of the natives declared that an impi had passed close to the bivouac, and was going to make
an attack. The troopers were ordered out to the brow of the hill to feel for the enemy. Suddenly
shots began to ring out, and bullets whizzed past the white men. The scared Native Contingent,
blundering again, had opened fire on the troopers, who were not sorry to get the order to retire.
It was so dark that the force would have been practically helpless had a large impi rushed down on them, and the majority of them never expected to see daylight again; but the Zulus did not come, and
the natives were with difficulty driven to their own bivouac.
A couple of hours afterwards the weary troopers were awakened by another similar panic, and again
shots were sent flying by the natives, who almost got beyond control. Their officers and their European non-commissioned officers were so disgusted that they spent the rest of the night with the police.
The experience was a striking proof of the unreliability of undisciplined native troops in the hour
of danger. It is a wonder that the whole force was not exterminated, for from what Mehlogazulu, a son of Sirayo, afterwards told General Wood, it appeared that the chiefs of the neighbouring impi decided to postpone such an easy task until they had first ” eaten up ” the main camp.
There were many pale, haggard faces when daylight broke on the morning of the eventful 22nd
January. The colonial troops were not destined to fight a battle on their own account, for at 6 a.m.
Lord Chelmsford joined them with Mounted Infantry, four guns of the Royal Artillery, and six companies of the 24th Regiment.
The Zulus had retired from the ridge before dawn, so the British force moved into the valley in
search of the impi. Small parties were seen about four miles away, and several hours were spent in
chasing them. There was some skirmishing, and about sixty Zulus, who took refuge in caves and amongst the boulders on a hill, were surrounded and killed.
The dongas running down from the hills offered a very serious obstacle to the passage of guns and
ambulances, and greatly retarded the men’s movements, so a halt was called at midday, when a rumour was circulated that fighting was going on at the Isandhlwana camp.
The firing of heavy guns could be heard, and the General decided to return with the Mounted Infantry and volunteers, leaving the police and men of the 24th Regiment to bivouac with part of the Native Contingent a prospect which was not at all appreciated after the experience of the previous night.
The General had promised to send out rations, and firewood was being collected from a deserted kraal when a Staff officer galloped up with instructions that the whole force had to return to camp instantly.
The disastrous battle of Isandhlwana was in progress, and a man on a spent horse had come out with
the following thrilling message :
” For God’s sake come, with all your men ; the camp is surrounded and will be taken unless
Still worse was a report from Colonel Lonsdale.
He had unsuspectingly ridden close to the camp, and was within a few yards of the tents, when he was fired at.
He then recognized that all the Zulus near were wearing soldier’s clothing, and that the camp was
entirely in the enemy’s hands. He turned back quickly and escaped the bullets.
The smoke of the infantry fire had been seen, and the occasional boom of the 7-pounder field-guns was heard. Thousands of the enemy could be seen in the distance, retiring from the camp to the hill which they had occupied previously. It was late in the afternoon when Lord Chelmsford briefly addressed the force under him, prior to the dash back to the camp, at a spruit about two miles from the tents.
The situation was as bad as it could be, he said, but they must retake the camp.
He expressed his confidence in them to avenge the death of their comrades and uphold the honour of the British flag.
The column gave three cheers, and then advanced in the deepening gloom upon what appeared to be
a most desperate venture. Ammunition was scarce, there was no food, the greater part of the men had
marched for two days and had passed a sleepless night, while over and above these material
disadvantages there was the depressing knowledge that the enemy which could annihilate one-half of the force in the daylight might, favoured by night, with equal certainty demolish the other half.
Much has been written about the ghastly massacre at Isandhlwana in which Cetewayo’s overwhelming army of about 20,000 men killed 689 officers and men of the Imperial troops and 133 officers and men of colonial volunteers, Natal Police, and Native Contingents ; and scarcely any one has denied that the colossal tragedy was due to blundering.
It was the intention of Cetewayo to drive the third column back to Natal, but he never contemplated an attack on the 22nd January until he found his enemy had split up, spreading itself over a great area and practically delivered itself into his hands. The state of the moon was not propitious, according to Zulu tradition, and the inevitable sprinkling of medicine before a battle had not taken place, but when the king saw an obvious opportunity staring him in the face he made his attack and won.
The Zulus were not seen from the camp until 9 a.m., when a small number were observed on the
crests of the hills. An hour later Colonel Durnford arrived from Rorke’s Drift, and went out with a body of mounted natives. Every one was utterly ignorant of the fact that such a huge impi was near, and forces were sent out in several directions. A large body of Zulus attacked Colonel Durnford, who retired to a donga, disputing every yard of the way. When reinforced by twoscore mounted men he made a stand, every shot appearing to take effect amongst the solid mass of black some hundreds of yards away.
The natives employed their usual well-organized method of attack, being formed into a figure roughly resembling that of a beast, with horns, chest, and loins.
A feint is generally made with one horn while the other, under cover of a hill, or bush, sweeps round to encircle the enemy. The vast chest then advances and crushes the foe. The loins are left a little
distance behind, ready to join in pursuit where necessary.
It was the left horn of Cetewayo’s army that was held in check by Colonel Durnford. The chest, or
main body, became engaged with the force at the camp, and the right horn was swinging round the hills to the rear of Isandhlwana.
The Zulus were fast surrounding the camp, when the Native Contingent and camp followers fled in all directions, seized by panic. Steadily, remorselessly, the impi closed in, a hungry sea of Zulus of overwhelming strength. Then followed the ghastly butchery. With short stabbing assegais the naked savages rushed straight on, treading under foot those in their own ranks who were shot.
Mercy was neither expected nor granted during that brief scene of slaughter.
Fighting like demons, a party of the 24th men, the Natal Police, and volunteers rallied round Colonel
Durnford and held their ground gallantly, attacked on all sides by a shrieking mass of blacks, until their last cartridge was fired.
Then they were stabbed to death. Twenty-five of the police were amongst the victims, and of these a score were afterwards found lying round the body of Colonel Durnford. They had fallen where they fought, and died fighting.
Practically nothing is known of what happened in that awful few minutes at the finish, for the Zulus
were not very communicative on the subject for many years afterwards.
While in prison Mehlogazulu, who had been in command of one portion of the impi, made the
following statement :
” We were fired on first by the mounted men, who checked our advance for some little time. The rest of the Zulu regiments became engaged with the soldiers, who were in skirmishing order. When we pressed on, the mounted men retired to a donga, where they stopped us, and we lost heavily from their fire. As we could not drive them out we extended our horn to the bottom of the donga, the lower part crossing and advancing on to the camp in a semicircle.
” When the mounted men saw this they galloped out of the donga to the camp. The main body of
the Zulus then closed in. The soldiers were massing together. All this time the mounted men kept up
a steady fire, and kept going farther into the camp.
The soldiers, when they got together, fired at a fearful rate, but all of a sudden stopped, divided, and some started to run. We did not take any notice of those who ran, thinking that the end of our horn would catch them, but pressed on to those who remained.
They got into and under the wagons and fired, but we killed them all at that part of the camp.
When we closed in we came on to a mixed party of mounted men and infantry, who had evidently
been stopped by the horn. They numbered about a hundred, and made a desperate resistance, some firing with pistols and others using swords.
I repeatedly heard the command ‘ fire,’ but we proved too many for them, and killed them all where they stood.
” When all was over I had a look at these men, and saw an officer with his arm in a sling, and with
a big moustache, surrounded by carbineers, soldiers, and other men I did not know. We ransacked the
camp and took away everything we could, including some ammunition which we got out of boxes. “
Before the living ling finally closed round the doomed men, a rush was made by those who could
escape in the direction of the Buffalo River. These were followed by a section of the enemy, who hacked the fugitives as they ran.
Of the 34 members of the Natal Police who had been left at the camp by Major Dartnell, only 9 escaped. The bodies of three were found a couple of hundred yards away, and one was lying in Fugitives’ Drift.
The members of the force who were killed at Isandhlwana were : Corporal Lally, Lance-Corporal
Campbell, and Troopers Banger, Berry, Blakeman, Capps, J. Clarke, Daniells, Dorey, Eason, Fletcher, Lloyd, McRae, Meares, Niel, Pearse, Parsons; Pollard, Pleydell, F. Secretan, Siddall, Stimson, Thicke, C.White, and Winkle.
The men who escaped were : Lance-Corporal Eaton, Trumpeter Stevens, and Troopers Collier, Doig, Dorehill, W. Hayes (died of fever at Helpmakaar), Kincade, Shannon, and Sparks.
So sharp and terrible had been the onslaught that the police who survived were unable to say much about the last scenes. They had been sent out with all the mounted men to hold the main Zulu army in check, which they did until their ammunition was exhausted.
Messengers galloped back frantically for more cartridges, but did not return, so the whole body retired. It was then learnt that the messengers had found the cartridges, tightly screwed up in boxes, and it was impossible to get at them.
The practice of screwing down the lids was abolished when the news of this incident reached England.
At the moment the mounted men fell back to the camp the right horn of the impi appeared on the
nek, closing the road to Rorke’s Drift. Even then, had the troops been concentrated, and ammunition
available, it is possible that the position might have been held, but the infantry were split up, and it was too late to move away.
As the final rush came, Colonel Durnford clearly saw that death was inevitable for nearly every one.
‘ ‘ Get away as best you can , ” he shouted to the police and volunteers near, but very few heard or obeyed him.
To escape along the Rorke’s Drift road was impossible, and those who left could only make a
dash over terribly rocky ground where even horsemen had the greatest difficulty in avoiding the pursuing natives.
Scarcely a single person on foot reached the Buffalo River alive. The river was in flood, but
the Zulus pressed hard behind, and there was no time to look for a ford. Each man dashed into the
stream as he reached it. Trumpeter Stevens, of the police, was washed off his horse, which swam
across. The trumpeter owed his life to a native constable, who caught the animal and bravely took
it back, enabling Stevens to cross the river before the Zulus attacked him.
While the historic tragedy was in progress the force under Lord Chelmsford was approaching.
They did not get close to the camp until it was dark, and merely the black outline of the hills could be seen. Shrapnel shells were sent bursting over the camp, but not a sign came from the desolate place, and the force advanced cautiously up the slope. When within three hundred yards of the nek they opened fire again, and a detachment was sent to take a kopje on the south.
Not a Zulu was seen, and the force moved up to the place where dead men only were encamped.
Stumbling over the bodies of white men and natives in the darkness, they made their way, awestricken,to the nek.
Every man was knocked up with continual marching and lack of food, and they lay down;
weary and almost broken-hearted amidst the debris of the plundered camp and the mangled corpses
of men and horses. It was a night of horror. The men who lived through it do not care to recall the
Bright fires were seen in the distance, so the horses were not unsaddled but were ringed,
and stood uneasily all night with the bodies of dead men lying round them.
” I had charge of thirty of the horses during part of the night,” writes Colonel Clarke in his diary.
‘ There were the corpses of four men of the 24th Regiment in the ring, and others under the horses*
legs, which caused the animals to surge to and fro so that it was almost impossible to control them.
At one time we were on top of the adjoining ring, which brought curses on my head. I was not sorry
to be relieved.
‘ There were several false alarms, with some firing. In the middle of the night some one found
a commissariat wagon and called out ‘ Roll up for biscuits/ but there was no response so far as we were concerned.
” The night seemed endless, but at break of dawn we were able to realize the horrors of our situation.
Mutilated bodies were lying everywhere, some naked, some only in shirts; and nearly all without
boots. The Zulus had done their plundering very thoroughly.”
Most of the fallen men were mutilated, but with few exceptions the members of the police had been
killed with one or two stabs. Everything in the camp was broken ; sacks of mealies and oats were ripped open, tins of bully beef were stabbed, bottles were broken and tents destroyed. Even the wagons had been overturned into dongas in the mad carnival of wrecking.
In the numerous descriptions of the battlefield very little mention is made of the fact that the police
shared with an equal number of volunteers the honour of having made the last stand on the nek of
the hill. At the crest where the dead men were lying thick, a large proportion of them were in the
uniform of the Natal Mounted Police.
In a patch of long grass, near the right flank of the camp, lay Colonel Durnford’s body, a central figure of a knot of brave men who had fought it out around their chief to the bitter end.
Around him lay 14 carbineers and 21 of the police. Clearly they had rallied round the Colonel
in a last despairing attempt to cover the flank of the camp, and had stood fast from choice when they
might have essayed to fly for their horses, which were close by at the picket line.
The Natal Native Contingent was a large force of auxiliary soldiers in British South Africa, forming a large portion of the defence forces of the British colony of Natal, and saw action during the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War.
Instead, the British commander of the invasion force, Lord Chelmsford, frequently assigned NNC troops to menial labouring tasks, believing that their fighting ability was almost non-existent.
Battlefield performance was very uneven.
At the Battle of Isandhlwana, units of the NNC fought hard alongside their British allies, and sustained heavy casualties. Many of the NNC were killed in fierce hand to hand fights while trying to retreat across the Buffalo river.
At the Battle of Rorke's Drift, the NNC officers, NCO's and soldiers who possessed firearms were deployed along the barricade. The rest of the NNC, stripped of their command, armed only with spears, were posted outside the mealy bag and biscuit box barricade within the stone-walled cattle kraal.
They broke and fled as soon as the Zulu force came into sight, some NCOs and Captain Stephenson joining them. A Swiss corporal of the contingent, Christian Ferdinand Schiess, remained and won the Victoria Cross for his gallantry in the ensuing battle.
To the right understanding of what follows it is necessary to give a somewhat detailed account of the situation. The leading feature of the plain on the southern slopes of which the English camp was placed is the Isandhlwana, or Lion Hill.
News was now brought in that the Zulus in very large numbers were driving the pickets before them. A later messenger—a native without uniform, supposed by some to be a Zulu purposely sent with false intelligence—brought the news that the Zulus had divided into three columns, one of which it was supposed was about to attack Colonel Durnford's baggage, still on the road from Rorke's Drift, the other to harass Lord Chelmsford and Colonel Glyn's party in their rear, whilst the third was to hover round and watch the camp.
Finally came the news "Zulus retiring in all directions." Colonel Durnford thereupon asked Colonel Pulleine to lend him a couple of the 24th companies, but he declined, saying his orders were to guard the camp, and he could not, under the circumstances, let them go without a positive command.
Durnford then determined to go on with his own force, which he divided into three, one part being sent up the hill to the left (east), one to the left front, and the third to the rear, in the direction of Rorke's Drift, to act as an escort for the baggage not yet arrived.
The rocket battery was of the party that proceeded to the front under Colonel Durnford in person, to a distance of four or five miles from the camp, but being unable to keep pace with the mounted force was soon left behind.
The body of troops despatched to the left became engaged with the enemy almost immediately, and firing was soon heard all along the crest of the hill. In about an hour Durnford's mounted men re-appeared over the hills, hotly pursued by swarms of Zulus; at the same time the horsemen to the front were also driven back.
These, after retiring steadily in skirmishing order for about two miles, came upon the remains of the rocket battery, which had been cut off and broken up, whilst a hand to hand engagement was going on with those who remained.
It appears that Russell, whilst advancing with his battery, perceived a body of the enemy on his left, he fired three rockets with some effect; then the Zulus fired a volley, upon which the Native Contingent of infantry retreated, the mules were frightened, and disorder ensued.
Taking advantage of this, the enemy charged down the hill, a mêlée ensued, and Russell was killed. As the mounted men retired towards them, the Zulus retreated to their cover, and they, after making a final stand in a spruit about a mile and a half in front of the camp, were eventually driven in.
Underestimating the Zulus' speed of movement and fighting ability, Chelmsford split his column. On 22 January 1879 his camp, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pulleine, was surprised by the Zulu army at Isandlwana. The camp had not been adequately prepared to resist attack.
All who died with him. One wonders why they remained. Perhaps this passage explains the reasons.
This book based on the Bishop's instructions was called The Ruin of Zululand: an account of British doing in Zululand since the invasion of 1879.
Frances Colenso includes a passage that can also be found in "The Soldier's Life in South
Africa 1872 - 1879" by Edward Durnford.
In a memoir of the late Colonel A. W. Durnford, K.E. (• A Soldier's Life and Work in
South Africa,' by Lieut.- Colonel E. Durnford; Sampson Low & Co. publishers)
we find at p. 101 the following sentences, taken from a letter from Colonel Durnford
to his parents in England
" The tribe of Langalibalele has been pardoned, and the Bishop of Natal has a scheme of
buying land for them in a dozen different places (as they must not live together
as a tribe) they working out the purchase money.
They say they will all come to me [Colonel Durnford was acting as Colonial Engineer
in Natal at this time, and could employ them on the public works] ; and they
are right too.
They stood to their chief like men, and deserved every credit for it.
Have we not exchanged ' love-tokens ?
' Are not their dead on the field where they fell, and am not I half a cripple yet ?
" And again at p. 104
he writes : — " They come to me for protection, which I give to all who ask.
You see these Zulus, like Afghans, consider that wounds given and received are
love-tokens between brave men, and that they give a claim to help if required
— a true soldier's creed it is too."
The Natal Field Artillery was established in September 1862 when the Artillery Company of the Durban Rifle Guard was reformed under the command of Captain AW Evans, an early Natal settler.
It was equipped with two 2.5-inch rifled breech-loading Armstrong guns – the first such field pieces in more than 600 years of artillery.
The regiment can trace its ancestry, however, to April 1855 when a public subscription was raised to buy a field piece for the Artillery Company of the Durban Volunteer Guard. This company was retained when the Durban Volunteer Guard became the Durban Rifle Guard in 1859, but was disbanded temporarily due to lack of funds.
In 1870, the Artillery Company of the DRG became a separate unit under the command of Capt Harry Escombe and became known as the Durban Volunteer Artillery. The DVA accompanied Sir Theophilus Shepstone to Mlambongwenya ikhanda (barracks) during the official coronation of Prince Cetshwayo kaMpande on September 1, 1873.
After the battle of Isandlwana on January 22, 1879, the DVA joined other Colonial Regiments in a parade on January 24 that was held to restore confidence and two days later it was deployed on the south bank of the uMngeni (previously the Umgeni) River to counter any possible attack on Durban by the Zulus.
On June 11, 1879, the Unit took part in the funeral procession of the Prince Imperial of France after his death on the banks of the Tshotshosi (or Jojosi) River in Zululand on June 1, 1879.
It was also responsible for firing several salutes on ceremonial occasions.
When the Natal Government Railway reached Charlestown on April 4, 1879, president SJP Kruger of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek visited the Colony.
The DVA fired a salute when the presidential party crossed the border.
The Battery was then rushed to Ladysmith where it fired another salute, then on to Pietermaritzburg and finally to Durban. Evidently the president was surprised and impressed by the “large number of artillery Natal possessed”.
In 1892, the name of the regiment was changed to the Natal Field Artillery.
The day I saw the British army being butchered by Zulus: It's the shaming defeat Britain tried to hide. MAX HASTINGS saw it being relived...
- In 1879, the British invaded Zululand lead by Lord Chelmsford
- At the battle of Isandlwana 1,500 British fought 25,000 Zulus
- The red coats were defeated, with just 55 men escaping
- It was the most humiliating defeat ever inflicted on the army, and commanders diverted attention to the Battle of Rourke's Drift
- There 150 British held off 4,000 Zulus for half a day and night
One of the largest painted cairns today stands on the shoulder of the hill behind the camp, where a dwindling band of soldiers sustained volley fire until their ammunition was exhausted.
Most of the black soldiers who escaped were cut down by Zulus, who chased them to the flooded Buffalo river, five miles from Isandlwana where, unable to swim, they became easy prey.
A breathless white bandsman on foot pleaded with interpreter Jim Brickhill for a lift on his pony. Brickhill answered: ‘My dear fellow, it is a case of life and death with me,’ before leaving the bandsman to his fate.
Just 55 British officers and men — all mounted — escaped from Isandlwana, while more than 1,300 perished, including 52 officers.
Late that night, Lord Chelmsford led his column back to the camp, where they were stunned by what they found.
Every redcoat had been eviscerated — not, as the British supposed, as an act of savagery, but to fulfil the Zulus’ belief that they thus released his spirit.
Some of Cetewayo’s men had taken gruesome souvenirs, such as men’s jawbones with beards attached.
The British recoiled at the spectacle of a bandboy, a mere child, suspended upside down from the tail of an ox cart, his throat cut.
The camp had been comprehensively looted, providing the Zulus with 1,000 rifles and 250,000 rounds of ammunition.
Here was one of the most humiliating disasters ever to fall upon a British colonial army.