Naval Brigade, Ginghalovo, April 13, 1879
Dear Mother, and all at home,
No doubt you are wondering where we are, and how we are getting on. Well, we are in a very strange place, and not a very nice one, but we are as happy and comfortable as things will permit; but you must remember we are close to the enemy, and not on board ship. We have to sleep in our belts, and 70 rounds of ammunition on us, so you see we are just the same as the soldiers. We have waterproof sheets and blankets, and great coats served out to us. We have had a deal of rain (when rest is taken standing up). We started as the flying relief column to relieve Col. Pearson at Ekowe, which was a hard task. We started from Tugela on the 28th March, and arrived at Ginghalovo on the evening of the 1st April. It was raining hard, so we had to stand up all night. Scouts went out with the General, and came back and reported, “enemy waiting for us two miles in advance.” As morning broke, the enemy could be discerned coming up in beautiful order, which much surprised us, as we thought they were savages; but we had our match. They seem to have no fear at all. They marched right up to us, not seeming to notice the hundreds we were knocking down. But they made a mistake; they thought of catching us as they did the 24th Regiment, but found us at home waiting for them. We stand to arms every morning at 4 o’clock, and wait for daylight. We have 2,000 n____rs with us, whom we use for clearing the bush; they also take outpost duty about a mile out, and a soldier picquet inside, between us and them. We are in what they call a “laager,” with a large trench around us, and bushed in front. It is about 40 miles from Tugela. To finish with our “rub in.” (I have gone quite away from my story). Our fight lasted two hours, and we had it thick. We had about 12 of our chaps wounded. There were, I think, seven soldiers killed, and a lot wounded. I had some very narrow escapes. Two were severely wounded on my left, and a n____r and a horse shot close behind me. The staff doctor of the Tenedos was shot through the left breast. We repulsed them, gave three cheers, and charged on them, which soon dished the lot up. There were supposed to have been 95 companies (60 in a company) of the King’s best troops attacked us (from the information we afterwards received from one of the chiefs who was taken prison). We took 10 prisoners, and we found over 700 killed within a thousand yards of our trenches, and afterwards the scouts found hundreds dead in the bush. The total number, killed and wounded, was between 1,400 and 1,500. They brought in about 600 arms of different descriptions – some of 24th Regiment’s. They were the same people that massacred the 24th, so we avenged their death. A few days before Col. Wood defeated another of his columns, so we think he retreated to the King’s kraal to reorganize his troops. They are going to make a store depot of this place, so we have thrown up earthworks for our defence. Pearson’s column is gone back to Tugela to recruit their health. They have had a good many sick. We shall wait here probably a month for the other two columns to arrive, as they all start here for the King’s kraal. We don’t know how long this affair will last; some say eight months, but I don’t think it will last so long as that.
Easter Sunday. – To-day is Easter Sunday, but it is almost forgotten here, except in the morning prayer, which brings it to mind. We parade every morning at 10 o’clock, and march to bivouac on a hill about 500 yards from out laager so as to preserve health. But we find it excessively hot, as we have no tents, and have to lay on the open ground, and at night there are such heavy dews that we are quite wet. Another convoy has just arrived from Tugela. We (the Naval Brigade of H.M.S. Shah) have surprised the old General and soldiers out here, as we have out-marched all the soldiers by two and some three day’s march up here. The majority of the troops from England seen to be mere boys. Our runners who carry the mail to Tugela were driven back by the Zulus last night, so I cannot vouch for the certainty of this letter reaching you. There are several men here from the Isle of Wight.
Easter Monday – It is just daylight, and I want to finish this letter before the mail goes, which is 9 o’clock. I’ve neither paper, pens, or ink. The draft, consisting of a 150 men and officers has arrived here from England, and we expect the 3rd battalion of Artillery up here today so we may start for the King’s kraal earlier that we expected. I must now conclude with fondest love –
From yours, etc.,
Capt. Main-top. H.M.S. Shah
Naval Brigade, Zululand
P.S. – We are all anxiously waiting for arrival of mail, as we have had no letters for nearly eleven months. This, being written in pencil, is not very plain, but I hope you will make it out all right.
(Source: The Isle of Wight Observer, May 31, 1879)
Petty Officer Tom