"Following the Zulu victory at Isandlwana, the survivors of columns number 2 and 3, fled the battlefield and fell back across the Buffalo river. Many of them headed for safety to the camp at Helpmekaar and despite knowing of the slaughter of most of their comrades, prepared to defend the camp against a possible Zulu attack. How many who actually stayed is virtually impossible to determine, as many survivors left no account of their actions, whilst others concentrated on just the battle of Isandlwana and their immediate escape. This is an attempt to piece all those fragments of information together and obtain an understanding of the 22nd January from the windswept camp on the escarpment. Where there is some doubt about a survivor who did reach Helpmekaar, then the assumption has been made that they probably did stay and assisted with the defence.
Helpmekaar is situated on the border road, about halfway between Newcastle to the north and Pietermaritzburg to the south. A road, recently repaired before the invasion of Zululand, stretched 12 miles downhill to the mission station at Rorke’s Drift and its river crossing. Its position made Helpmekaar a strategically important camp, ideally situated to receive the constant flow of supplies needed for the invasion.
The morning mist on the 22nd January 1879 shrouded the camp and the tents of the soldiers stationed there. These consisted of two companies of the 1st battalion 24th regiment, some drafts of men intended for the 2nd battalion and a few infantrymen from the 13th regiment. “G” company was commanded by Major T. Rainforth and had been repeatedly ordered to move up to Rorke’s Drift as quickly as possible. These orders seemed not to have arrived, although if they had it would have caused a major logistical problem. To have moved up to Rorke’s Drift would have meant leaving the stores virtually unguarded until another company reached Helpmekaar. It was the intention for “G” company when it did arrive, to entrench a position for the defence of the ponts over the river. (1)
“D” Company, commanded by Major R. Upcher, had only arrived at 6 p.m. the night before, on their march from Greytown. They had received orders to continue with their advance that day. Whist the men assembled for breakfast, Colonel F.Hassard and his adjutant, Lieutenant J. Baxter, arrived in time to join in the meal. Colonel Hassard commanded the Royal Engineers in South Africa and was second in command to Lord Chelmsford.
During the morning, stores and ammunition were loaded onto ox drawn wagons and both companies prepared for the march down to the important river crossing at Rorke’s Drift. Lieutenant W. Heaton was second in command of “D” company and recorded that: -
A lot of canteen stores for both Batts came in, made arrangements to forward them to the drift. Rainforth’s coy left at 2.30, ours just after 3 (2)
With the departure of the two companies and drafts, just six Infantrymen of the 13th regiment and Brevet Major H. Huntley (3), a special service officer of the 10th regiment, remained to guard the vital stores.
At Rorke’s Drift, Major H. Spalding D.A.A. and Q.M.G on the Headquarters staff was becoming increasingly impatient. He was in temporary command of the line of communication between Helpmekaar and Rorke’s Drift and could not understand exactly what was delaying Captain Rainforth’s overdue company of troops. Finally at 2pm, he decided to ride to Helpmekaar to find out the reason why.
Shortly after his departure, the first sign that the invading column had suffered a reverse appeared. Two men riding sweating horses came down the road from Isandlwana and crossed the river. They reported to Lieutenant J Chard, acting commanding officer at Rorke’s Drift , that the Zulus had overwhelmed the central column. While Lieutenant G. Adendorff decided to stay at the drift, the other man, a Natal carbineer (4), probably Trooper W. Sibthorpe, said that he would take the news of the defeat to Helpmekaar. These two men were the first of the survivors to appear.
Shortly after that, troopers from the Sikali horse and Hlubi troop of the Natal Native Horse galloped into view, and having crossed the river, quickly disappeared out of sight. Lieutenant A. Henderson and troopers Fletcher, Doig and Shannon were among the last to escape by the road to Rorke’s Drift before the Zulus closed that route of escape.
All the other survivors of the battle now had to cross the raging Buffalo River at a point 5 miles south east of the drift and ride across country before joining the border road again. The troopers of the Edendale contingent Natal Native Horse, under the command of Lieutenant C. Raw, remained to cover the crossing of the early arrivals. They then slowly retired from the river in good order, being unable to do any more. (5)
The first group of survivors to cross the river gathered together for mutual safety. The group included Captains A. Gardner and E. Essex, Lieutenants F. Cochrane and H. Curling, Private J. Bickley, Driver E. Tucker and many of the Colonial Volunteers. Captain Essex took command of this group and they began their withdrawal towards Helpmekaar. All along the Natal bank of the Buffalo River, where they had been swept along by the current, other small groups of wet and exhausted survivors also started to ride in that direction.
Major Spalding meanwhile, had passed a small Dutch farm on the Helpmekaar road called Vermaaks, where he left a spare horse, and then unexpectedly met Major Upcher and his two companies of troops coming from the opposite direction. Major Spalding stated that he then continued his ride into Helpmekaar. Why he did this is unknown, but he must have observed how undefended the base was. He then returned to Major Upcher, who informed him of the disaster that had occurred. He had obtained this information from the increasing number of auxiliaries and native horsemen who had reached the Rorke’s Drift road and had told the stationary troops what had occurred before riding on. This shocking news now meant that a decision had to be taken. Should the troops continue with their intended move to Rorke’s Drift or should the defenseless campsite at Helpmekaar be guarded against possible Zulu incursions?
Major Spalding decided that the men should advance as far as Vermaaks. Here the column was again halted while Major Spalding rode forward to obtain a clearer view of the conditions ahead. As he rode forward he was passed by “Basutos and people in civilian clothes”(6), many of whom told him that the mission station had already fallen to a Zulu attack. He also encountered the first of the Imperial survivors: -
There were one or two mounted infantry. Several of these I ordered to accompany me, but all, except two, slipped away when my back was turned.(7)
Who were those men who slipped away? A local farmer later reported a mounted infantryman from the 3rd regiment being at Umsinga on the 23rd January. This could have been either Private E. Evans or Private J. Gascoigne.
Privates Grant and Johnson certainly did meet Major Spalding at about this time and it is probable that it was these two men that he remembered staying with him. Private S. Wassall of the Imperial Mounted Infantry had bravely saved Private T. Westwood from drowning in the Buffalo river, and it is was probable that these two men were now riding together. Private Wassall did not mention seeing Major Spalding, but stated that: -
I rode as hard as I could, with a few of the fugitives from Isandhlwana (8)
It was understandable that following their escapes, many of the mounted infantrymen preferred to evade the Zulus and not ride back towards them. However, Privates E. Evans and D. Whelan having managed to escape to Sand Spruit, were ordered by Colonel E. Bray of the 2/4th regiment, to return to Rorke’s Drift to warn the garrison. Colonel Bray also managed to eventually stop 25 carts of ammunition, which had left for Helpmekaar with an escort of only 20 soldiers of the 24th. Lieutenant Henderson, of the Natal Native Horse later stumbled across these wagons after dark and stayed with the detachment of men until morning.
The arrival of Evans and Whelan at Rorke’s Drift must have occurred only about 30 minutes before the Zulu attack commenced. This exceptional act of bravery, considering what they had just witnessed, was unfortunately unrecognised.
Private H. Grant claimed that both he and Private W. Johnson had also ridden into Rorke’s Drift to give warning to the garrison before falling back to Helpmekaar.
As Major Spalding rode closer to Rorke’s Drift , the first party of survivors were making a decision about were they should ride to. When Zulus were seen between them and the mission station, Helpmekaar was only one choice left open to them. They knew that Imperial troops were stationed there and that their chances of survival would be much improved upon arrival. It therefore came as a cruel shock to them when, at about 6pm, they approached the camp. Instead of seeing nearly two hundred men bustling about, it now seemed deserted. Driver E. Tucker described the scene: -
We found ourselves in sight of Helpmekaar, and that gave us fresh strength, hoping to find some help there; but when we got there, there were only six men on guard belonging to the 13th regiment. We frightened them out of their lives (9)
Their chances of survival seemed impossible if the Zulus decided to move on from Rorke’s Drift and also attack the stores depot. The colonial volunteers quickly looked about them and could see little reason to continue to stay. They had seen the ferocity of the Zulus only hours before, and they were exhausted and practically out of ammunition. What could a mere handful do against a concerted attack? They urged their weary mounts into a trot and headed towards their various hometowns. Their departure was witnessed by Captain Essex, who described it in very diplomatic terms: -
The garrison consisted of only about 25 Europeans, 10 volunteers and other camp followers having continued their retreat(10)
Without doubt, five Natal Carbineers and four troopers from the Newcastle Mounted Rifles must have left the depot almost immediately *.
Captain Essex’s figure of 25 Europeans must have been taken soon after his arrival and showed that others were continuing to arrive. Sergeant J. Costellow and some others from N Battery 5th Brigade Royal Artillery certainly arrived within minutes of Lieutenant Curling. Some of the Imperial Mounted Infantry who had slipped past Major Spalding had also arrived, together with troopers of the Natal Mounted Police.
The first matter of importance was to fortify the sprawling area of the defenseless campsite. Captain Essex stated that: -
I took command and caused some waggons to be drawn up at a short distance all around the storehouse, a zinc building, quite indefensible. I had sacks of oats placed under the waggons and now had a barrier.(11)
Driver Tucker confirmed these details: -
There is only one store in Helpmekaar, and that was filled with stocks of corn. We got that out and barricaded all the doors. We were afraid they would attack us here…… (12)
The feeble barricade seemed totally inadequate, but that fact was compounded by the knowledge that the defenders could only muster 28 rifles. To stop any further defections, Captain Essex also ordered that all the horses were to be turned loose and any near the camp should be shot. It confirmed the determination of most of the survivors to stay but weakened the resolve of the Buffalo Border Guard. Quartermaster D. MacPhail later wrote: -
Captain Essex who was in command, gave such a foolish order that it cleared a lot of us out and we left him to fight the Zulus himself (13)
As darkness fell, five members of the Buffalo Border Guard mounted their horses and silently slipped away from the garrison.
In the gathering twilight, Major Spalding rode to within three miles of Rorke’s Drift . Suddenly Zulu warriors appeared on the road ahead. Behind them was a ravine capable of concealing many more. As they spread out into their Buffalo horn formation to attack, Major Spalding decided that it was time to depart. He rode back to the waiting troops, who had been joined by this time, by Private J. Trainer. It is possible that Acting Bombardier G.Goff may also have joined up with these troops.
From that position they all observed the flames from the burning hospital rising into the night sky. The signs seemed to confirm the survivor’s statements that Rorke’s Drift had indeed fallen to the enemy. To advance the two companies he had, at night, against an unknown number of Zulus, seemed an open invitation to disaster. Major Spalding decided that there was nothing further to be done but to return to Helpmekaar and try and defend that base against a possible attack.
Survivors still continued to arrive at Helpmekaar – Private E.Wilson of the 1/24th rode in with Sergeant P. Naughton of the Imperial Mounted Infantry at about 7.30 p.m. (14). Lieutenant Raw and troopers M. Barker and W. Tarboton of the Natal Carbineers came in at about 8 p.m (15) and were ordered to assist in the building of the barricades. Acting Control Officer J.Hamer, who had been found exhausted in the Buffalo river by Lieutenant H. Smith-Dorrien, who had then found him a horse and helped him on his way, also came in about this time. Lieutenant Smith-Dorrien had been forced to continue his journey on foot after crossing the Buffalo river. This meant that he had run and walked about 20 miles and by the time he arrived he was close to collapse: -
I got into Helpmekaar at sundown, having done twenty miles on foot from the river, for I almost went to Sandspruit. At Helpmekaar I found Huntley of the 10th, who had been left there with a small garrison, and also Essex, Cochrane, Curling and Gardner, from the field of Isandhlwana, all busy placing the post on a state of defence (16)
He was the last of the Isandlwana survivors to reach Helpmekaar before Major Spalding arrived back that night.
The actual number of defenders of Helpmekaar varied considerably and even the three imperial officers who gave figures disagreed. Lieutenant Smith-Dorrien recorded that he found a few men who had escaped, about 10 or 20, with others who had entrenched in a waggon laager. Even allowing for a few “others” this is still a low total.
Lieutenant Curling wrote that: -
We fortified the stores as well as we could but men sneaked off one by one, that when it was dark, we had but 37 to defend the place (17)
Captain Essex claimed a few more defenders: -
A few others consisting of wagon owners, two or three farmers and their wives and children arrived, which raised the garrison to 48 (18)
All of these totals are just snap shots in time. It is not known at what time the writers are referring to, or if the figures are estimates or muster totals. What is known is that Lieutenant W. Erskine was wounded in the thigh by a Zulu assegai, that Private Westwood had nearly drowned crossing the river, and that Trooper W. Hayes of the Natal Mounted Police was suffering from fever, of which he died two days later. All three of these men could have been considered as ineffective. The farmers and waggon owners may have been considered as civilians by one officer and capable of firing a rifle by another. There is also the possibility that some of the other original defenders may have slipped away unnoticed, under the cover of darkness. The exact total of defenders will now never be known.
One man who certainly did leave after dark was Captain Gardner. He was determined to advise Colonel E. Wood, who commanded a column based in the Utrecht region, of the disaster that had befallen the men at Isandlwana. Despite his utter weariness, he mounted his equally tired horse and headed out into the darkness.
Late in the evening an ominous rumbling was heard in the distance. However it turned out to be the return of the two companies of the 24th regiment and some wagons. Colonel Hassard had now joined the column and assumed command. Their arrival gave fresh hope to the small group of men huddled behind the barricades. The optimism was short lived however, when the returning troops related the stories they had heard about Rorke’s Drift being captured. Lieutenant Curling wrote; -
In the distance we saw the light of the burning hospital at Rorke’s Drift and were told that it had been taken by the enemy. Had they attacked, it would have been all up with us (19)
Despite several false alarms during the night, the camp at Helpmekaar was not attacked. The totally exhausted men tried to snatch some sleep and were heartened at 9am, by the arrival of a messenger from Rorke’s Drift , who told them that despite repeated Zulu attacks, the mission station was still safe. Lieutenant Chard requested their assistance, but Colonel Hassard decided that it would not be prudent to reduce his small garrison any further (20). It was decided that some men should be sent to the drift to ascertain the situation so Captain Essex and Lieutenant Smith-Dorrien rode with Major Spalding and three N.N.C. officers, to report to Lord Chelmsford.
Some of the remaining survivors at Helpmekaar slowly dispersed during the 23rd January. Conductor M.Foley, in the company of Lieutenant H. Davis and Captain W. Stafford, began their journey to Pietermaritzburg, arriving during the evening of the 24th. Troopers Barker and Tarboton, stayed at least until the afternoon, when they were recognised by the newspaper correspondent Charles Norris-Newman: -
The little garrison comprised about 150 men, reliefs for the 24th regiment, and about thirty others, who had been successful in effecting their escape from the massacre at Isandhlwana on the previous day. Among them I recognised several well-known faces of the carbineers, and I learnt that some few of the survivors had gone direct to Pietermaritzburg (21)
The depot at Helpmekaar was eventually garrisoned by the 1st February with a total of 676 men (22), but for one terrifying night, it will always be remembered for having so many of the Isandlwana survivors willing to stay and defend it."
* Evidence to support the departure of various members of the Colonial units.
Natal Carbineers. (5 men)
Published in Thursday’s copy of the “Witness” (23), an article that mentioned troopers Muirhead and Fletcher had arrived in the city (Pietermaritzburg) during that morning. This indicated that they would have travelled throughout the night to achieve this. Trooper Sibthorpe would also have had no reason to stay. He had left Rorke’s Drift quickly and probably did the same at Helpmekaar when his colleagues left. Captain Essex observed 10 volunteers continuing their retreat. As troopers Barker and Tarboton came in later, then troopers Edwards, Granger and Sibthorpe must have left with Muirhead and Fletcher (and 4 troopers from the Newcastle Mounted Rifles, see below) at this time, to nearly reach this figure.
Newcastle Mounted Rifles. (4 men)
Published in a Newcastle newspaper (24)
“ Later in the day (Thursday) Moodie, Walsh, and three others of our own volunteers returned. Moodie and Walsh and two of the other three were in the fight.”
In order to achieve this, they must have been travelling throughout he night and could not have stayed with the defenders. As troopers Berning, Brown and Parsons were later accused of desertion from Helpmekaar on the 23rd January, then they must have remained to defend the garrison on the night of the 22nd. This then leaves troopers Burne and Horne as the two unnamed volunteers who were in the fight.
Buffalo Border Guard. (5 men)
As mentioned in the previous narrative, Quartermaster MacPhail clearly stated that
“It cleared a lot of us out and we left him to fight the Zulus himself”
Evidence regarding the Natal Mounted Police
Very little written evidence exists to confirm the presence of the Natal Mounted Police at Helpmekaar. Trumpeter Stevens did confirm in a letter dated 27th January that he had certainly stayed (25). Trooper Hayes died of fever at Helpmekaar on the 24th January, this indicating that he had also remained. As the Police were a quasi-military body and all were certainly professionals, it must be assumed that their sense of loyalty and duty prevailed and they did indeed stay to assist with the defence.
Evidence regarding the Royal Artillery
Little written evidence except the letters of Lt. Curling and Driver Tucker. Sergeant Costellow was sighted at Helpmekaar, riding Bvt. Major Smith’s horse.
Evidence regarding the Natal Native Contingent officers
When Charles Norris-Newman was at Rorke’s Drift on the morning of the 23rd January, he wrote that: -
Three officers arrived, belonging to the 1st N.N.C…. (having) ridden down from Helpmakaar.
Only four officers belonging to the 1st Regiment N.N.C. escaped from Isandlwana. As Lt. Erskine was injured and unlikely to have been riding a horse at this time, these three men must have been Captains Nourse, Smythe and Stafford - indicating that they had most likely assisted with the defence the night before..
References to quotations and statements: -
1. Report of Major Spalding - held at the National Archives, Kew. WO 32/7738.
2. Lieutenant Heaton’s diary held at the South Wales Borderers Museum, Brecon
3. Horace Smith-Dorrien Memories of forty-eight years Service London 1925.
4. Official report of Lieutenant J. Chard to Colonel Glyn dated 25th January.
5. An article compiled by Paul Raw, descendant of Charles Raw, using his report.
6. Report of Major Spalding.
7. Report of Major Spalding.
8. Report of Private Wassall.
9. Letter of Driver Elias Tucker to his parents dated 28th January.
10. Letter published in The Times April 2nd Page 11.
11. Letter published in The Times April 2nd Page 11.
12. Letter of Elias Tucker to his parents dated 28th January.
13. Newspaper account on the 50th Anniversary – D. MacPhail’s story.
14. Statement of 25B/13 Private E. Wilson.
15. Report of Lieutenant Raw – Held at Royal Engineers Museum, Chatham WO 33/34
16. Horace Smith-Dorrien Memories of forty-eight years Service.
17. Lieutenant Curling’s letter to his mother from Helpmekaar dated 7th February.
18. Letter published in The Times April 2nd Page 11.
19. Lieutenant Curling’s letter to his mother from Helpmekaar dated 7th February.
20. Report of Major Spalding.
21. In Zululand by Charles Norris-Newman Page 70.
22. Return of troops in the field. 3rd Column - Rorke’s Drift and Helpmekaar.
23. The Red Book - Ron Lock and Peter Quantrill Page 63.
24. The Red Book - “ “ “ “ “ Page 57.
25. Letter written from Helpmekaar dated 27th January.