Exploring the cave on the Southern Slopes of Isandlwana a few weeks ago I scuffed some of the soil away and saw what looked like an old piece of canvas. Carefully digging around it I found it was an old side pack, once white but now discoloured and rotting. Later back at the hotel I carefully opened the cover, surprisingly easily really. Inside I found a collection of bits and pieces of paper. Old ammunition wrappers in the main, an old letter and a copy of some long faded posting order. I sat down to read the faded pencil writing on the backs and in the margins and came across this amazing story. Apt for todays occasion.
The Last Man Alive.
I’m going to die soon, it’s only a matter of time that the Zulu climb up to the cave and spot me. When the lads charged downhill screaming like banshees I thought I would be clever and sneak into this little cave. I didn’t reckon on the heathens below systematically working their way round all my dead comrades and friends gutting and robbing them. There’s a fare number of the lads bodies just outside the cave where we made our stand, so they will be picked clean like the rest and then I will be discovered.
Maybe I will have enough time to set down the day and the events that lead to me being in this predicament.
When we awoke this morning it was to find the 2/24th, except Mr Pope’s lot, all gone out of the camp. Seems like the General got a letter in the early hours of the morning and left to go and help Mr Dartnell. Colonel Pullein was left in charge so after getting a quick splash and a tidy up we started to line up for breakfast but bugger me I had no sooner got to the serving bench when the stand to was sounded and we had to run and grab the boondocks then onto parade, just in front of the 2/24th lines.
There were Zulus spotted on the hills to the left of camp, after a while lots and lots of them. We moved out in companies to the left of the camp to wait and see. Funny they weren’t interested in hiding at all, thousands of them streamed across the ridge right in front of us going from the east.
Nobody seemed worried though, except for my mate next to me, moaned like hell he did cause he had missed breakfast. After a while though we were fallen out and told to go and eat. On the way back I spotted a lot of mounted colored men had arrived and that, Colonel of Engineers with them.
We were told to stand down around the tent area but keep our kit on. Wasn’t to long and we saw the mounted men split up into a few groups, two went up the hill to our left and seemed to move of in different directions. Fine smart bunch of lads they were an all.
The Engineer Colonel with the funny arm and the big pair of moustaches then rode off to the East with the rest of his men. Tagging along behind was a bunch of the Native lads guarding what looked like an artillery company. Funny that cause they had no chance of catching up. But soon we saw them veer of to the left behind the pointy shaped hill in front of us.
We started to hear a popping noise, couldn’t tell where it was from, seemed to bounce around the hills. Then a horseman came galloping into the camp from the hills, and a couple more from the plain. I was close enough to hear so I listened in like. The officer from the plain wanted Colonel Pullein to start packing up the camp, but the other one, think his name was Shepstone or such like, said that the whole Zulu army was coming and we had better look sharp.
The bugle sounded and we formed up. A couple of the companies doubled up onto the ridge in front of us. We took station next to the end of the mountain on the flat. Lower down I saw the Guns with some of our troops around them and just in front the Native lads.
Things started to heat up on the hills with lots of firing and horsemen galloping down the slope. Then brushing past me went that officer of transport dashing up the hill.
Weren’t long before he was coming back down again pell mell with all the troops running for their lives. Captain Younghusband called us to attention and we marched forward to cover the retreat. We marched towards the bottom of the slope, pretty damned quickly, fare puffed I was. We loaded up and waited, calming the trembles, then over the hill came the Zulus. Did we give it to them, they were cut apart in seconds and ran back over the ridge squealing and squawking. The other two companies from the hill now lined up to our right and as the Zulu came streaming back towards us we opened fire in volleys, nothing could have stood up to that fire, there were bits of leg and body flying all over. A lot of the horsemen had got into the big ditch in front and were blasting away wily nilly. No idea of control those lads. Couple of the bandsmen were dishing out ammunition and not before time, I grabbed a couple of packets and stuffed them in my jacket, the bullets tended to bounce out of the ball bag. But by ‘ell, fire as we did, the Zulus just got more and more; we started to retire back towards the tents, through the native areas. I glanced to my right to check on the other companies and was pretty narked to see the Natives legging it away. That’s it I thought now the fight starts.
The bugle sounded the retreat, not before bloody time says I. Mr Hodgson screaming at us to close up; we retreated by line across the bottom of the mountain till we got to the 2nd Battalion supply wagons. A few of us were told of to break open some ammo boxes, I looked around to make sure no Quartermaster was watching me before giving the box the back of my heel, breaking open the slider. The ammo was eagerly pulled from my hands. Then as I stood up I fare messed my trousers, we were surrounded by thousands of black faces, contorted like with ‘ate lots of ‘ate. The Captain was a brave man; he stood tall and had us move back in a sort of square, slowly moving up the slope all the time firing. Half way up we got the order to fix bayonets, me hands were shivering so much I like to dropped it.
Eventually we could get no higher, our backs were to the rocks, the Zulu stayed a few yards in front of us, they didn’t like the bayonet. We taunted them, “Come on then ye bastards, come and get it, what you waiting for”.
They howled and threw spears and rocks at us, but they wouldn’t approach the cold steel. Our fire started to slacken, my pouch was empty. Just the few rounds left tucked in my jacket. I risked a look down the hill, a sea of black with three or four stands like ours. But no sign of the General at all. The Captain strode behind us scorning the attempts of the Zulu to get him. “Men”, he shouted, “do we stay here and die like animals or do we show them how British soldiers can fight.” The men howled their response. I looked down; it was a long way to that group fighting of the flats by the wagons. Bugger all chance of getting there I thought. Couple of my mates looked at me and I could see they had the same thought as I. “CHARGE” was the bellow, every man moved, some backward along the ridge, I towards the small opening behind me. But the rest, ah those magnificent lads, they went down the hill after the Captain and the Lts straight into the heart of the Zulu.
It was epic that fight, bloody epic, the Zulus ran like buggery, hell I thought their going to do it? But then the Zulu closed around those mighty men it was all over in minutes, I could see the stabbing spears going in and one big sod with a stick that add a great ball on the end, that accounted for a few of the lads it did. But the Captain, well, took a lot to bring him down it did. That sword was a thing of beauty flashing and slashing. The Zulu were feared of it till one got him in the back. Then it was done, but you could see the respect they had for ‘im.
I had stood gaping at the action, now a leap up to the opening and over the rock and I was in the cave, small little thing it is about the size of a coffin. “Ah well” beggars can’t be chooses I thought. I settled down to wait, hopefully for rescue.
After a short while the sounds of battle died down and I risked a look over the rocks. The killing was still going on. I saw a young boy, must have been from the band, standing on a wagon waving a club of sorts till a Zulu speared him. He fell off the wagon, catching his legs and just hanging there. A passing Zulu speared him again and then to my horror ripped him from groin to chest. I watched as the intestines bubbled out to land over his face. All the bodies were being stripped then ripped. A big sergeant down in front of me was done like that, and then I saw a Zulu slash at his face to remove his beard. I was scared but determined that I would rather kill myself. I pulled out my spare ammunition. 16 rounds I lined up on the rock. 15 for them one for me.
The smell rose up the mountain gagging, creeping into my flesh, the occasional screams told me that the wounded were being dispatched. The sky dulled, smoke and the smell of black powder covered the ground below me. One man was dragged out of a wagon screaming for mercy, it made no difference at all they still gutted him like a fish and watched him wriggling on the floor desperately trying to hold his insides in place. Werent no good though they got bored quickly and spiked him with his own bayonet through the mouth and into the ground.
The noise has gone; the sun seems to be a bit brighter as the dust and smoke clears. Zulus are everywhere ransacking the wagons and tents or just sitting exhausted. Far away in the distance down the slope towards the river I can still hear a few rounds being fired of and way away on a far hill I can see a couple of horsemen riding for their lives, one is carrying a sort of pole.
The afternoon wears on, then I hear a shout and looking across to the small hill on the other side of the flat, there is a soldier running, he turns and fires and is almost instantly engulfed in howling black bodies. The screams tear through my sole as he is ripped apart. The tears roll down my cheeks and I shout with rage.
They have seen me now and are coming……………..
Dedicated to the Warriors and Soldiers who died together on the field of iSandlwana.
Wednesday the 22nd January 1879
Please note that this is a fictional account weaving together known facts