I, too, have been interested in the source of the story surrounding the death of William Henry Aynsley, Signalman 2nd Class, of H.M.S. Active. After several years of research I have failed to come across any first person accounts, but I have found several accounts that were written shortly afterwards.
Gunner John Carroll, Royal Marine Artillery, who was one of HMS Active’s marines at Fort Eshowe, upon hearing of the loss of Aynsley, wrote in his diary on 1 February 1879 “one of the Actives men named Ainsly, a servant of lieut. Milne who is aide de camp to the general has been killed, six Zulu’s lying around his body with the marks of cutlass wounds.”
An article in the Glasgow Herald newspaper, March 7, 1879 quoting an extract from a private letter sent from Maritzburg, gave the following account from the disaster on January 22. “An old man, owner of some of the waggons, concealed himself amongst the packages in one of his waggons, and saw the fight. He describes the desperate way our men fought back to back until they were assegaied. He says that a sailor drew his cutlass, rushed among the Zulus, and killed five, before a man crept behind him and stabbed him.” I have a few problems with this account. I would think that Aynsley would have to have been killed before the fugitives fled the camp in order for the “old man” to survive the battle. The Zulus went through all the wagons looking for things to loot.
On 28 March 1879 Colonel Stanley, the Secretary of State for War, speaking in the House of Commons during debates on the Zulu War, stated “I will take another case, the facts of which can be vouched for by more than one person. In the fatal disaster at Isandlana two pathetic sights were seen. A blue-jacket, the servant of Lieutenant Milne, of the Navy, who was fighting against any odds, got his back to a waggon and kept off his opponents, laughing the whole time as if he were making a joke of the matter. I am sorry to say that that gallant man met with the common fate.” I would like to know who Colonel Stanley was referring to when he said “vouched for by more than one person.”
While delivering a paper on Naval Brigades to the Royal United Service Institution in 1882 Captain Fletcher Campbell, who commanded the Naval Brigade during the Zulu War made a reference to Signalman Aynsley. “A young signalman of the ‘Active’ defended himself with one (a sword-bayonet), so I have been told, at Isandula, killing four Zulus before being himself assegaied in the back by a savage who crept under the wagon against which he was standing.”
Lt Nathaniel Newman-Davis of the Buffs, who was serving with the Mounted Infantry, came across Aynsley’s body. Newham-Davis took a number of personal items, including photographs, from the body, which he gave to Lieutenant Milne to return to Aynsley’s family. Newman-Davis also took Aynsley's cutlass, which he kept as a souvenir. Newmam-Davis later told the story about the cutlass to a boy's paper, “Chums,” around 1900.