This extract taken from a Natal newspaper titled 'The Camp at Helpmakaar' dated the 1st January 1879 has been something that has niggled me for a long time and I was thinking about it this morning whilst having my cup of tea.
The papers Biggersberg correspondent is commenting on the signalling training and techniques of the colonials and regulars.
It begins thus:-
"Vidette duty and signalling were very successfully taught and learnt by all the volunteers before their removal it is said, that by the signals they have learnt to make, communication can be made to the advancing column over a distance of 24 miles in three minutes. The signals are simple. If an advanced guard halts, and wheels right or left, or puts his horse into motion and describes a large figure of eight, or puts his helmet on his carbine and elevates it above his head, or gallops back in the direction of the advancing column, each and all of these manoeuvres have their meaning, and there are others besides. The Police and Military have been taught signalling with hand flags, doubtless for a different purpose than the signals taught the volunteers are intended for. A visitor to the camp might see nearly every morning two men, Police or soldiers, outside the line of tents, with several flags on the ground beside them. Now they pick up a certain flag and wave it about in a particular direction. In the distance, some two hundred yards or more say, you see two other men, who wave a particular flag in reply. Then, maybe, another flag is picked up, and waved differently; the reply comes from the distance in a similar way. At this mode of signalling these men have practiced for an hour or more daily, until they have become quite expert. At night, I believe, signalling will be done by means of lanterns. Some farmers came and asked, "What are they doing, waving those flags in such a manner?" They were told they were talking to each other, and by this means, they could learn what was going on,in an enemy's country, a long way off in advance of the column; this was replied to by the farmer with a very sceptical shake of he head."
My niggles for people to ponder are listed below:-
1/ Bearing in mind the date the report was written, the 1st January and the camp broke up and began moving towards Rorkes Drift on the 5th how much 'official' signalling training did the colonials actually get? It was obviously felt they needed training as they were getting it.
2/ If Dartnell's police were 'very successfully taught' in the British army use of flags why did he not use this system to keep in contact with the camp when he went out on the 21st? Lanterns at night?
3/ Or why did Chelmsford not order this flag signalling procedure to be put in place. They obviously had the equipment?
4/In the stress of the moment could the colonials have dropped back into their old ad hoc unit specific signalling techniques. Not a problem when its from one trooper to another of the same unit but a break down could arise when this was then trying to be interpreted by someone outside that unit.
"Whats that Carbineer signalling Bob?" "I've no idea he seems to have pulled down his trousers down and is rubbing the top of his head with a lettuce." "Well that ones not in the book."
5/ If such 'local' unit specific signalling had been fallen back on when the Zulus first appeared could this lead to a delay in trying to ascertain what was meant. We know from Barker and his colleagues accounts of certain techniques that were used.
However if writing an account in a cool tent after the event you would use the correct text book techniques so it was shown you were doing the 'right thing'. If you had dropped your britches and pulled out an iceberg you wouldn't put that in an official account.
What we will never know is were any signals missed because they were not understood or not apparent which could have given the Zulu valuable time early to get into position.
Anyway they are just my morning musings. We often talk of the videttes signalling but just what techniques were they using?
Time for another brew.