The Umgusa Fight on 6 June 1896 - a Robert Baden-Powell account

Robert Baden-Powell, better known as the founder of the international Scout movement, left England on 2 May 1896, with orders from Zulu War veteran and Quartermaster General to the Forces, Lt-General Evelyn Wood, VC, GCB, GCMG, to report to General Sir Frederick Carrington, the commander of the troops in Matabeleland fighting the rebels. 


After an exhausting ten-day coach trip from Mafeking, Baden-Powell arrived in the laagered Bulawayo at 1am on 3 June 1896, taking up lodgings next door to the club buildings, these now occupied by Grey’s Scouts. In his diary, Baden-Powell takes stock, relating that the white population had increased to nearly four thousand, guarded by an armed police force distributed throughout the country. He does point out, however, that the greater part of this police force was taken from Rhodesia by Doctor Leander Starr Jameson for his ill-conceived and disastrous assault on the Transvaal Republic of Paul Kruger. 


At the same time, the bovine scourge of rinderpest devastated cattle throughout much of Africa, and in efforts to control the spread of the disease, the authorities determined that healthy amaNdebele cattle had to be destroyed, a major blow to a tribe that measured its wealth in cattle. This, together with the drought, European management and the unbearable arrogance of policemen of their own blood, led to the uprising in March of that year, eventually also spreading to Mashonaland. With added impetus from their spiritual leader, the Umlimo, the amaNdebele impis, many armed with Martini Henry rifles, slaughtered any white they could find, man, woman or child. 


As the rebellion spread, troops and patrols of irregulars conducted sorties into the countryside to rescue stranded settlers form outlying farms, mines and stores. Baden-Powell describes some of the leaders of these troops, now also including those from Fort Salisbury and Belingwe: 


“…Micky MacFarlane, erstwhile the dandy dancer, now a bearded buccaneer and good soldier all the time; Selous, the famous hunter-pioneer of Matabeleland; Napier and Spreckley, the light-hearted blade, who is nevertheless possessed of profound and business-like capacity; Beal, Laing, and Robertson, cool level-headed Scotsmen with a military training; George Grey, ‘Charlie’ White, and Maurice Gifford, for whom rough miners and impetuous cowboys work like well-broken hounds. Indeed, the Volunteer troops seem to have thoroughly adapted themselves to the routine of soldiering, as well as to the more exiting demands of the field of action.” 


On 5 June, Colonel Herbert Plumer took a 460-strong column towards the Gwaai River, north west of Bulawayo, while Captain MacFarlane led 400 troops to the north. Colonel Jack Spreckley and his men were preparing to leave the following morning, but at ten o’clock that night, Sir Charles Metcalfe and the American scout Fred Burnham, “dishevelled and torn”, arrived back in Bulawayo. That evening they had ridden out to Colonel Beal’s Salisbury column, camped three miles outside Bulawayo. As they approached campfires that appeared to be those of the Salisbury troops, they stumbled into a large amaNdebele impi. Beating a hasty retreat, they were lucky to escape with their lives, taking a wide detour through the bush. 

The Umgusa fight of 6 June, a sketch by Baden-Powell



Then, as we came up close, the niggers let us have an irregular, rackety volley, and in another moment we were among them. They did not wait, but one and all they turned to fly, dodging in among the bushes, loading as they ran. And we were close upon their heels, zigzagging through the thorns, jumping off now and then, or pulling up-, to fire a shot (we had not a sword among us, worse luck!), and on again. The men I was with – the Grey’s Scouts – never seemed to miss a shot. 


Several of our horses got some wounds, and one man got a horrid stab straight into his stomach. I saw another of our men fling himself on to a Kafir who was stabbing at him; together they rolled on the ground, and in a twinkling the white man had twisted the spear from its owner’s hand, and after a short, sharp tussle, he drove it through the other’s heart. In one place one of the men got somewhat detached from the rest, and came on a bunch of eight of the enemy. These fired on him and killed his horse, but he himself got up in a trice, and, using magazine fire, he let them have it with such effect that before they could close on him with their clubs and assegais, he had floored half their number, and the rest just turned and fled. 


And farther on a horse was shot, and in the fall, his rider stunned. The niggers came louping up, grinning at the anticipated bloodshed, but Sergeant Farley, of Grey’s Scouts, was there before them, and hoisting up his comrade on to his horse, got him safe away. 

The Umgusa fight of 6 June, a sketch by Baden-Powell



Then, as we came up close, the niggers let us have an irregular, rackety volley, and in another moment we were among them. They did not wait, but one and all they turned to fly, dodging in among the bushes, loading as they ran. And we were close upon their heels, zigzagging through the thorns, jumping off now and then, or pulling up-, to fire a shot (we had not a sword among us, worse luck!), and on again. The men I was with – the Grey’s Scouts – never seemed to miss a shot. 


Several of our horses got some wounds, and one man got a horrid stab straight into his stomach. I saw another of our men fling himself on to a Kafir who was stabbing at him; together they rolled on the ground, and in a twinkling the white man had twisted the spear from its owner’s hand, and after a short, sharp tussle, he drove it through the other’s heart. In one place one of the men got somewhat detached from the rest, and came on a bunch of eight of the enemy. These fired on him and killed his horse, but he himself got up in a trice, and, using magazine fire, he let them have it with such effect that before they could close on him with their clubs and assegais, he had floored half their number, and the rest just turned and fled. 


And farther on a horse was shot, and in the fall, his rider stunned. The niggers came louping up, grinning at the anticipated bloodshed, but Sergeant Farley, of Grey’s Scouts, was there before them, and hoisting up his comrade on to his horse, got him safe away. 

Colonel Robert Baden-Powell during the Matabele Rebellion. Photo National Archives of Rhodesia 


One against eight,’ a sketch by Baden-Powell



Everywhere one found Kafirs creeping into bushes, where they lay low till some of us came by, and then they loosed off their guns at us after we had passed. I had my Colt repeater with me – with only six cartridges in the magazine, and soon I found I had finished these – so, throwing it under a peculiar tree, where I might find it again, I went on with my revolver. Presently I came on an open stretch of ground, and about eighty yards before me was a Kafir with a Martini Henry. He saw me and dropped on one knee and drew a steady bead on me. I felt so indignant at this that I rode as hard as I could go, calling him every name under the sun; he aimed – for an hour, it seemed to me – and it was quite a relief when at last he fired, at about ten yards distance, and still more of a relief when I realised he had clean missed me. Then he jumped up and turned to run, but he had not gone two paces when he cringed as if someone had slapped him hard on the back, then his head dropped and his heels flew up, and he fell smack on his face, shot by one of our men behind me.


At last I called a halt. Our horses were done, the niggers were all scattered, and there were almost as many left behind us hiding in bushes as there were running on in front. At length we mustered again at our starting point, where the guns and the ambulance had been left. We found that, apart from small scratches and contusions, we had only four men badly wounded. One poor fellow had his thigh smashed by a ball from an elephant gun, from which he afterwards died. Another had two bullets in his back. Four horses had been killed. We learned some months afterwards from refugees and surrendered rebels, that no less than fifteen headmen had been killed, as well as more than two hundred of their men.”


The Rhodesian Soldier

American Scout Fred Burnham, a sketch by Baden-Powell


Baden-Powell, accompanied by Spreckley, immediately set off for the piquet post at Government House, but found nothing untoward so returned to Bulawayo. As the day was starting to dawn, they again left the laager, this time heading for the Umgusa River, where they found an estimated 1,200 amaNdebele camped on the opposite bank. Baden-Powell despatched a trooper to Bulawayo to fetch Spreckley with reinforcements and, while waiting, ordered his men to have breakfast. The arrival of the support brought Baden-Powell’s strength to 250 men, with two guns and an ambulance. Included were “…a few volunteers in carts who wanted to join in the fun.” 


Baden-Powell takes up the story of what ensued: 


“As we advanced, we formed into line, with both flanks thrown well forward – especially the right flank under Beal, which was to work round in rear of the enemy on to their line of retreat – a duty which was most successfully carried out. The central part of the line then advanced at a trot straight for the enemy’s position. 


The enemy did not seem very excited at our advance, but all stood looking as we crossed the Umgusa stream, but as we began to breast the slope on their side of it, and on which their camp lay, they became exceedingly lively, and were soon running like ants to take post in good positions at the edge of a long belt of thicker bush. We afterwards found that their apathy at first was due to a message from the M’limo, who had instructed them to approach Bulawayo and to draw out the garrison, and to get us across the Umgusa, because he (the M’limo) would then cause the stream to open up and swallow up every man of us. After which the impi would have nothing to do but walk into Bulawayo and cut up the women and children at their leisure. But something had gone wrong with the M’limo’s machinery, and we crossed the stream without any contretemps. 


So as we got nearer to the swarm of black heads among the grass and bushes, their rifles began to pop and their bullets flit past with a weird little ‘phit,’ ‘phit,’ or a jet of dust and a shrill ‘wh-e-e-e-w’ where they ricocheted off the ground. Some of our men, accustomed to mounted infantry work, were now jumping off to return the fire, but the order was given: ‘No; make a cavalry fight of it. Forward! Gallop!