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 Letter from a Marine Sergeant in Zululand

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Petty Officer Tom

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PostSubject: Letter from a Marine Sergeant in Zululand   Sat Feb 18, 2017 7:32 pm

14th April, 1879, Ginghilovo, Zululand

My Dear Parents,
I now write to tell you of a little of our cruise since I last wrote on the 29th of March.  The General marched from Tugela.  After having bivouacked all night in the rain, we started with only one suit and no change of linen whatever.  We got over our first day’s march very well.  At early evening, we formed laager with our waggons and trenched ourselves in for the night.  The next morning was a beautiful one, and the day was very hot, but we got on very well until evening, when we camped again close to a river.  On the third morning our work was to get our convoy across, which was done in good time, the rear column defending the pass during the work.  It was about three p.m. when we crossed; but we had only a mile to march afterwards, which was very fortunate for us, as we had to wade in water two or three feet deep, and as our clothes got wet so they had to get dry, for we sleep with our rifles alongside of us, and our belts and things on.  The next morning we expected a brush, and the 57th, 60th Rifles, 99th, 91st, and Marines were sent on, and watched the bush until our convoy passed in our rear, when we resumed our proper position.  We had no long been in camp before we had a very heavy fall of rain, completely drenching everything; the ground was all soft mud, and made a very cold bed, and wet clothes to boot, the weather keeping it so until about one o’clock.  The remained of the morning was a little showery.  We were very glad for daylight, as we had orders we had not to march that day.  The sun coming up was beautiful, our cooks had just lighted our fires and were preparing our breakfast when we saw the bold Zulu rise up out of the grass, come out of the bush and down the hills by the thousands, they having been preparing all night to surround us.  The picquets rushed in, but we were ready.  We let the first men get as near as was safe, when we opened fire, a little more than they expected, I think, for they very soon retired with less men than they brought.  When they first got within range they were on all fours, and the grass being as high as a man’s chest, you cannot see them until close to you.  We lost, as far as I can learn, about seven men, one officer included.  When we went out after the engagement to count their wounded and dead, I saw some sickening sights; nine out of every ten were shot through the head, on account of their crouching position in the grass, so they did not suffer long with it.  Every one was naked, and many with three, some with four, and one I saw with six hits.  I am sure no man need wish to view a battlefield a second time.  Our only surprise was there were so few dead left.  We were perfectly aware they would carry away as many as possible, so we only counted between 400 and 500.  They were buried that afternoon.  The next morning the General left to relieve Pearson with a flying column, the marines were included.  We left about 7 a.m., nearly all without any breakfast, expecting every minute another attack, but I think they had had enough of us.  When about eight miles away, we came across one man who struggled there before dying, with three hits in his body.  We marched until about 2 p.m., then rested for about half an hour.  We then struggled on our journey, thinking Pearson was starving, and struggled under the weight of our ammunition, great coats, and belts, until the Marines entered Ekowe with the last rocket cart, it was striking midnight.  We had been on our legs, marching up hills, down hills, and round them, through rivers waist deep, and through deep marshes for 17 hours, with nothing to eat, and nothing but the sky to cover us for bed.  But thanks to the Marines of the Active, they were waiting for us with some good hot coffee.  I tried to dry my socks, but I was too tired and could not wait for them long enough, so they went on again, and I went to sleep without rocking.  On the Saturday morning, having had one day’s rest, we started back, coming a different way both shorter and a better; but the men could not reach our old camp that same night.  We camped about five miles short.  About eight miles from the camp of our engagement we picked up a prisoner crawling on his hands and knees, he having been shot through the foot.  Our troops were very much pressed in coming through the bush, as the weather was scorching hot, and not a drop of water, and the grass as high as ourselves.  They might stow away a whole army within a few yards of each other, and not see them, and under these circumstances we have to fight some of the boldest men ever known, as you may judge, when some of them were killed within a few yards of out trench, and would have come in in spite of numbers had they not have been shot down.  I will give you an instance of one taken prisoner on the morning after the battle.  He was brought in shot under the right breast, the ball passing out at his back.  He broke away on the next morning (or was sent away, I don’t know which.  On the Saturday he was caught again, about eight miles away and brought back.  He had torn off his bandage with disgust, and then started away on the Sunday morning with a message.  As soon as he was clear of the lines he again tore off his bandage.  There are prisoners brought in every day, and nearly all cry one tale, that they don’t want to fight, but they are afraid of the King. I must say, however, they are no way afraid of themselves, or anyone else as I can see; and the women are worse that the men, for if a white man lies wounded on the field, the women come and knock his brains out, and then mutilate him in a brutal manner.  Today our scouts were sent out, and came upon a kraal of men, and women.  The men, with the exception of one, surrendered, who immediately threw down his arms and ran away.  The moment his wife saw this she picked up his rifle and shot down one of our natives, and it was not until she was wounded that she was wounded that she was got under.  It caused the others to strike out, which lost them their lives.  So at the finish there were only four women and three children to bring in, them being the first Zulu women we had seen.  I must not pass over the remainder of our march back, for on our second day’s march back, on nearing the camp, we became aware that we had not counted all the dead on the enemy’s side.  For about two miles the long grass was full of Zulus, and the hot sun was playing on them properly, our noses telling us properly well of their whereabouts.  So now, my dear parents, I must conclude with kind love to all at home, not forgetting my old comrades.

From your affectionate son,
Sergeant T. Whittaker,
R.M. Artillery, Shah’s Royal Naval Brigade,
Zululand, South Africa

(Source:  Burnley Express, 14 June, 1879)

Petty Officer Tom
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PostSubject: Re: Letter from a Marine Sergeant in Zululand   Sat Feb 18, 2017 10:13 pm

A very informative letter here Tom. Thank you.
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