The Rhodesian Soldier

Lt Colonel Plumer’s column into the Matopos on the night of 19 July 1896. Over the next fortnight, as they advanced deeper into the broken terrain of the Matopos, such formations were virtually impossible to maintain. (Thanks to Dudley Wall for this image and the one below of the Matopos Campaign)

Captain D. Tyrie-Laing (Belingwe Field Force), patrolling towards Inugu Mountain, met equally strong resistance that same day from the Imbesu impi, resulting in the deaths of Corporal John Hall and Troopers Peter Bennett and William Bush, all of the MMP. A further twenty five Friendlies were also killed in the three-hour long engagement. Feeling the need to consolidate their position, Carrington ordered the establishment of a series of small forts, with the main site chosen by Baden-Powell and where the hospital wagon was based, called Fort Usher. From here, a reconnaissance of the Umchabaze Valley to the east discovered the bulk of the remaining impis under indunas Sikombo, Inyanda and Umlugulu. Baden-Powell, after a long exhausting day scouting the kopjes with his party of seven, writes,

"…and what a mixture in our little band of eight! Under the similar equipment of cocked up Boer or cowboy hat, with ragged shirt and strong cord pants, with cartridge-bandolier, and belt from which hung knife and pipe, tobacco bag and purse, all grimy and unkempt, and sunburnt to a rich, dark brick colour, each individual was an interesting study in himself. Here is one with a pince-nez – (pince-nez on a trooper!) – a Cambridge man of highest education, who thought he would take to farming in Rhodesia…and while that lasts he takes his place, like others, in the ranks. Beside him rides a late A.B. seaman in the Royal Navy, a fine young fellow, full of pluck, who will press on where devils fear to tread, but he is disappointing as a scout. This other man an architect, and yon a gold-prospector – in fact, there’s a variety enough among them to suit almost any taste.” 

Heading a column of 65 officers and 895 men, Plumer pushed his column further east towards Purser’s farm, where the hospital wagons and pack train were left under a guard made up of ‘D’ Squadron of the MRF, with two Maxims and a 7-pounder gun. Pushing back the enemy with gunfire over a distance of 2500 yards, Plumer continued deeper into the hills, and on 2 August, he deployed the force in readiness to attack the impis of Inyanda and Sekombo. Establishing a new camp close to where the Tuli road enters the Matopos, some 32 miles from Bulawayo, the tireless Baden-Powell reported that he had located a large body of rebels, most likely Sekombo’s men, holding a narrow pass only a few miles from the new camp. 

On the morning of 5 August, Captain The Honourable J Beresford (7th Hussars) took a force of 138 dismounted men in a westerly direction to gain a strategic ridge. Progress was slow and uncertain, but as they neared the summit, their right flank came under attack from fifty yards. Lieutenant Hubert Hervey (MRF), with twenty men, tried to repel the enemy advance, but upon gaining the crest he fell badly wounded. Battery Sgt Major Alexander Ainslie (MMP) replaced him, but was immediately shot and killed. At this time, the rebels also started closing in from the front and the left, with the intention of overrunning the now tenuous position. The two guns were immediately off-loaded and brought into action, Lt McCulloch opening fire with case-shot to the front and right flank, and Lt Fraser the left. Within the first few minutes, both were wounded, but they remained with their guns, desperately fending off the encircling amaNdebele. As soon as the firing began, the Friendlies carrying the Hotchkiss dropped their cargo and, in Plumer’s own words, ran off behind some rocks “in the most cowardly manner.” As a consequence, part of the gun could not be found, so this weapon could not be brought in to action. Off to one side, Captain Llewellyn gallantly and singlehandedly worked his Maxim, even as his weapon and rocks around him were being hit by incoming gunfire. His assistant, 18-year old Tpr Evelyn Holmes (MRF) was badly wounded and unable to assist Llewellyn, now also carrying a face injury from rock splinters. Holmes would succumb to his wounds four days later. Their line of communication and retreat cut off from the rear, Beresford and his party held-out until 10.00 when the rebels retreated 500 yards off. 

When news eventually came through to Plumer informing him that Beresford could not advance without reinforcements, Plumer immediately ordered his whole force forward. With Baden-Powell and his scouts in front, the Colenbrander and Robertson Cape Boys marched out, followed by two Maxims and mounted troops. ‘C’, ‘D’ and ‘E’ Squadrons, respectively led by Major Kershaw, Captain Fraser and Captain Drury, galloped off to the left in support of the Cape Boys, while the MMP under Captain Nicholson, ‘A’ Squadron MRF and the two Maxims were sent off to assist Beresford off to the right. 

Upon reaching the foot of the hills, the squadrons led by Kershaw dismounted and joined the Cape Boys in the assault. Sgt Archibald Innes-Kerr (MRF) was shot and killed as the ascent commenced. The rebels’ line started to yield, especially with the added pressure of heavy cross-fire from Beresford’s position. The climb, however was very difficult, the attackers having to climb over very large boulders. About halfway up and leading his men all the way, Major Frederick Kershaw was killed. As the troops reached the summit, Sergeants William Gibbs (MRF) and Oswald McCloskie (MRF) were both shot and killed. By 14.00 that afternoon, the rebels were in disorganised and rapid retreat. 

Plumer described the actions that day as the “severest we had had.” One officer and four sergeants lay dead; Lt Hervey died of his wounds the following day. Estimates put the amaNdebele force at 3,000, of which 200 were accounted for. General Carrington and Rhodes arrived the next day, for whom a parade was held and the troops congratulated on a successful operation. Baden-Powell reconnoitred the area, taking a hundred men down the Tuli road for some distance. He only saw small groups of rebels, but none fired on his party. 

On 21 August, Cecil Rhodes, accompanied by Johan Colenbrander, held the first peace indaba with rebel indunas. The Matopos stronghold neutralised, the Matabele Rebellion was over. The last words from a soldier who would go on to even better things during the South African War and WWI, Lt Colonel Hubert Charles Onslow Plumer: “Poor Hervey died about 12 noon this day (6 August). His wound we knew was mortal, and he bore all the pain he had with the utmost fortitude and resignation. He had only been with us a short time, but he had many friends and not a single enemy, and his death was sincerely mourned by us all. He and Kershaw and the others who fell that day were all buried near our camp under a big tree. There is a fort there now, and the graves we know will be well looked after.” 

That fort was called Umlugulu. 

Lt Colonel Plumer’s laager during an expedition into the Gwaai district in early June 1896. The column comprised 32 officers, 451 NCOs and men, 474 horses, 4 Maxims, 16 wagons and 192 mules. The men slept outside, behind their saddles which formed the perimeter of the laager. Each squadron had its own ammunition and food wagon. Each picket line would tether around 110 horses, hence the quite substantial width of the laager. (Thanks to Dudley Wall for the image).

On 06 July, a large force of 752 men under Carrington struck at amaNdebele strongholds at Thabas iMambo (today Ntabazaka Mambo), north west of Insiza. Armed with four Maxims and two 2.5” guns, the column included Major Robertson’s Cape Boys and Colenbrander’s Native Contingent. In a series of skirmishes the rebels were dislodged, but at a cost of ten killed. It was reported that the rebels had fought stubbornly throughout, characterised by some good shooting. 

Such was the success deemed, that the Bulawayo Field Force was disbanded upon the return of the expedition to Bulawayo. All that remained was to neutralise the rebel strongholds in the Matopos, a major challenge given the extremely rough, boulder-strewn hills of the spiritual home of the amaNdebele. At the time, the scout Baden-Powell described the terrain as “…a tract of intricate broken country, containing a jumble of granite-boulder mountains and bush-grown gorges…” Plumer was sent ahead to set up a new camp on Mr Usher’s farm, on the northern approaches to the Matopo Hills. With the arrival of Carrington to assume command, the camp was moved into a valley so as to be much closer to the hills. It was here, on 18 July, that Lord Albert Grey, Cecil Rhodes and his brother Frank joined the expedition. 

During this time, Baden-Powell was scouting the hills, establishing where the various indunas and their impis were ensconced. At 10.30 on the night of 19 July, a column of 800 men, 300 friendlies, two 2.5” guns and three Maxims, set off in the moonlight towards the Chilili Valley. Meanwhile, a mounted troop of the Matabeleland Mounted Police (MMP) and scouts went ahead to try a find a route around the kopjes and so cut off any rebel retreat. Their attempts were, however, cut short when, passing through a narrow gorge in single file, they came under heavy fire, in which Sgt Frederick Warringham and four Cape Boys were shot and killed, and Colonel Rhodes had his horse shot under him. Only by early afternoon was the area cleared and the Friendlies, who had fled in the melee, returned to carry out their duties as stretcher bearers for the wounded. 

Umlugulu, Matopos: Matabele Rebellion, August 1896

The stabbing and shooting to death of a native policeman by amaNdebele warriors under induna Umbozo on the night of 20 March 1896, signalled the mass insurrection of the indigenous peoples of Matabeleland, as their dissatisfaction with the presence of the settlers and their arrogant native police erupted into an orgy of violence, which would witness the murder of 145 white men, women and children scattered throughout the remote countryside. 

In sporadic engagements with the amaNdebele over the following months, locally formed ‘military’ units, together with the later arrival of the Matabeleland Relief Force (MRF) under Lt Colonel Herbert Plumer, would eventually force the rebels to put down their weapons and seek peace from Cecil Rhodes in their traditional and spiritual stronghold in the Matopos hills. A miscellany of colonial units loosely amalgamated under the label of the Bulawayo Field Force (BFF) comprising, amongst others, Grey’s Scouts, Gifford’s Horse, the Afrikander Corps, Dawson’s Scouts, Coope’s Scouts, Brand’s Troop and Hurrell’s Troop. Included also were ‘friendlies,’ loyal amaNdebele under the Chief Native Commissioner, Herbert Taylor. The force was commanded by Colonel William Napier, with Colonel John Spreckley as his second. 

Operating out of a laagered Bulawayo and a string of small forts, the colonials held the position, until bolstered by the arrival from Bechuanaland on 14 May of five squadrons of the MRF. At the end of hostilities three months later, a total of 37 troops had been killed in action, of whom, Lance Corporal William Smith of the 7th Hussars, was the only Imperial soldier. A further 14 died of wounds received in battle, and 64 of other causes, mainly accidental and from diseases such as malaria and dysentery. 

Seated in the middle, Frederick C Selous, with men of ‘H’ Troop, Bulawayo Field Force, at Ft Marquand (Mabukutwane), 1896 

Plumer, a Major with the York and Lancaster Regiment, had been given the local rank of Lieutenant Colonel and tasked by the High Commissioner in South Africa, Sir Hercules Robinson, to raise a relief force. Enrolment of a corps of 750 took place simultaneously in Kimberley and Mafeking, with Major Frederick Kershaw also responsible for assembling all the kit and equipment in Mafeking. The corps eventually numbered 850 active men, including some 400 from the Bechuanaland Border Police and the BSACo Police. The balance was mainly made up of miners, engineers, farmers and clerks. Most were English-born colonials, with a contingent of about 200 English and Dutch Afrikanders. 

Pay would range from 7/6d a day for a trooper, to 15/- for a regular officer. Each man was issued with a Martini-Henry rifle and allocated 250 rounds of ammunition, with 50 rounds to be carried on his person at any one time. The corps deployed with 45 mule-drawn wagons and 1150 mounts, leaving Mafeking for Bulawayo in fourteen detachments over a two-week period in April 1896. Seven Maxim guns purchased from Durban were sent up later. 

Elements of the MRF were soon engaged in action with the rebel impis at Gwaai, Umguza, Khami, and the mission station at Hope Fountain where a fort had been erected. On 02 June, the Salisbury Column, which included Cecil Rhodes, having been met by Colonel Napier’s column at the Shangani River Drift, arrived in Bulawayo. Maj General Sir Frederick Carrington arrived on the same day to assume command of the troops. He was accompanied by his Chief Staff Officer, Lt Colonel Robert Baden-Powell. 

The small cemetery at Ft Umlugulu. (Photo thanks Alan Bryant)

The only grave that can be identified today is that of Lt Hervey, prominent with its black stone cross. Metal crosses can be seen, and although it is known who is buried in the cemetery, the name plates have all been stolen. Alan and I are trying to see if there is a plot plan somewhere which will enable us to identify individual graves. The base of the obelisk on the right commemorates those who were killed in action at Sikombo on 5 August 1896.

Documentation, including the London Gazette of 5 April 1898, contemporary accounts and memorials confirm that Umlugulu is the final resting place of the following thirteen men:

• Batt. Sgt Maj A Ainslie (MMP) KIA Sekombo 05 August 1896

• Tpr P Bennett (MMP) KIA Inugu 20 July 1896

• Tpr W Bern (BFF) KIA Inugu 27 July 1896

• Tpr W Bush (MMP) KIA Inugu 20 July 1896

• Tpr L Cheves (BFF) KIA Inugu 27 July 1896

• Sgt W Gibbs (MRF) KIA Sekombo 05 August 1896

• Cpl J Hall (BeFF) KIA Inugu 20 July 1896

• Lt H Hervey (MRF) Died 06 August 1896 of wounds Sekombo 05 August

• Tpr E Holmes (MRF) Died 09 August 1896 of wounds Sekombo 05 August

• Sgt A Innes-Kerr (MRF) KIA Sekombo 05 August 1896

• Maj F Kershaw (MRF) KIA Sekombo 05 August 1896

• Tpr E Little (MRF) Shooting accident Spargo’s 03 August 1896

• Sgt O McCloskie (MRF) KIA Sekombo 05 August 1896

(MRF: Matabeleland Relief Force; MMP: Matabeleland Mounted Police; BFF: Bulawayo Field Force; BeFF: Belingwe Field Force)

Footnote: Words cannot adequately express the gratitude I have for all the incredible time and effort that Alan Bryant in Bulawayo continues to put into our combined research into this very important part of Rhodesia’s history; a history that created the very complexion of our country. Sadly though, decades of weathering, neglect and vandalism are making the task difficult. Once found, and in most cases restored by Alan, he photographs graves and headstones which I in turn research, cross-check against contemporary accounts and publications, such as the London Gazette, and catalogue. This is a daunting task, as in the example of Sgt Francis Perry of the Belingwe Field Force, who died somewhere on the Insiza-Belingwe road. In his personal account of the Rebellion, the force’s Commanding Officer, Capt D. Tyrie-Laing, states that Perry was buried under a Marula tree about 170 yards south of Finger Kop (aka Spitz Kop).

The Roll of Honour I have drawn up for the Matabele Rebellion, has 115 names. The prime objective is to try and find all their final resting places. Just over 50 have been found in the Bulawayo Cemetery, which Alan has painstakingly renovated. More recently, and with no hesitation in responding to my enquiry, Alan headed off for the Matopos where, just south of Esigodini (Essexvale) he found the little cemetery at the Fort Umlugulu site. The large Umzingwane Dam has completely changed the topography that Plumer and Baden-Powell had patrolled across. During his visit, Alan dropped in at the nearby Falcon College where, in discussions with staff about the Umlugulu cemetery, he discovered that one of the College’s houses was in fact named after Lieutenant Hervey who died on 06 August 1896 from gunshot wounds received the day before. Alan received an assurance from the College that they would look after the Umlugulu cemetery.

Two more shots by Alan Bryant of the Umlugulu Cemetery in the arid south Matabeleland

A Matabeleland Relief Force “Ratpack”

The BSA Company made provision for three classes of rations:

A. Whites:

• Meat fresh 1 lb or meat tinned 1 1/4 lb

• Flour 2 lb

• Salt 3oz

• Coffee 2oz

• Tea 1oz

• Veg fresh 3oz or veg tinned 2oz

• Split peas/rice 1oz

• Sugar 3oz

• Lime juice 1/32 quart

• Dop (Cape Brandy) 1/32 quart

• Tobacco and soap when available

B. Cape Boys:

• Meat 1 lb

• Meal 1 lb

• Coffee 2oz

• Sugar 2oz

• Salt 1/2oz

C. Natives:

• Meal 2 lb

• Salt 1/2oz