How Wilson And His Men Perished

Letter XIV - How Wilson and His Men Perished
by Stefanns Jacobus Du Toit

Stefanns Jacobus Du Toit interviews Frederick Russell Burnham in Zimbabwe, October 2, 1894. Originally published in: Rhodesia, Past and Present. (1897). Burnham, one of only three survivors of the Shangani Patrol, describes the tragic events of December 3-4, 1893.

Burnham: We followed the tracks of Lobengula's two wagons to the Shangani, about forty or fifty miles below its confluence with the Gwelo. For a few miles the tracks went down along the river, and there, at a suitable place, they crossed the river, at a sandy ford. We reached the river at about 4 p.m. Judging from the freshness of the tracks and the ashes of their camp- fires, which were still warm, we knew that they could not be far in advance. We were all very anxious to bring the war to a close by capturing Lobengula, because our provisions were running very short, our horses were worn out, and it was already late in the season for these unhealthy parts. After a short council of war, Major Wilson was ordered to cross the river immediately and follow up the wagon tracks, to reconnoitre the country and either to return that same night, or, if the occasion seemed favourable, to capture Lobengula, send report to that effect, so that the whole column could cross that night, in order to attack Lobengula on the following morning. Forbes asked me to accompany the expedition as scout. I told him my horse was knocked up. He gave me his horse and I went.

Du Toit: Did you not know that there was a great force of Matabeles with Lobengula?

Burnham: Yes, we knew that the Kaffirs had said that they would not allow one European to cross the Shangani, and that consequently the last decisive battle would have to be fought there. This is explained later on by the fact that Lobengula had sent £1,000, with messages of peace; two of our men received this money and hid it without communicating the message, so that the Kaffirs could not but think that the object of the expedition was to kill Lobengula; that is the reason why they fought so desperately here. I myself proved to Major Forbes, from the great number of cattle that had been slaughtered at Lobengula's camping-places, that he must be accompanied by a great number of Kaffirs. Some thought that he had at the outside a few hundreds with him, and others thought a still smaller number. I thought that he might have 1,000 or 1,500; but I had no idea that his force was so strong.

We followed the tracks for about five or six miles. Before reaching his camp, however (it was already dark), we noticed a koppie full of Kaffirs. We rode up close to them and called out in Kaffir: 'We have not come to kill you, we only wish to see the king and to take him with us to Bulawayo, to see and speak with our induna.'

One of the Kaffirs then came to us, and upon our asking, how many men Lobengula had with him, he answered: 'Only a few.' He offered to guide us to the waggons. I at once suspected him as a traitor, who wanted to lead us into an ambush, and rode alongside of him, as he advanced quickly, determined to shoot him, as soon as he tried to run away.

Following the Kaffir guide, we noticed that the hills and woods were full of Kaffirs; in fact, the whole Matabele nation, with their women and children, and that there were 7000 or 8000 warriors. The Kaffirs did not fire upon us. They were amazed and could not understand how such a handful of men dared venture amongst them. We saw Kaffirs and fires all around us, but we rode on till we were so close to the waggons that we could hear them speak. We repeated the same words we had used at the first koppie, viz.: 'that we did not wish to kill any one, only to see the king and take him with us to treat with our induna at Bulawayo.'

We got no answer; but we noticed that the Kaffirs closed their ranks behind us, in order to cut off our retreat. We did not shoot, because we wished to avoid a fight, but retreated as quickly and silently as we could.

When we were clear of the Kaffirs, we turned aside into a wood and held a consultation. We immediately decided to send a report to Major Forbes by Messrs. Bain, Robertson, and Captain Napier. Wilson's order was 'that Major Forbes should cross with the whole force, so that the whole force could attack Lobengula in the morning and capture him.'

Du Toit: Do you think there was any chance of a good result, if Forbes had done this?

Burnham: Decidedly, as the Kaffirs so greatly feared the Maxims.

Du Toit: Do you think that Wilson's force could have kept their position or forced a retreat if Forbes had sent one Maxim with the reinforcements ?

Burnham: I have not the least doubt, though this might have been less in accordance with military tactics.

Du Toit: What had Forbes to do, according to the general opinion of Wilson and his men?

Burnham: We were all of opinion that, if he did not wish to cross the river in the night with his whole force, he should have sent word to us to return at once.

Du Toit: But go on.

Burnham: As soon as these three men had left for Forbes we discovered that three of our men had strayed during our hasty retreat from Lobengula's waggon. Wilson asked me whether I could follow the footprints of our horses in the dark back to Lobengula's waggon, to seek these three men. (It was a dark, rainy night.) I said I would try, but he must send some one with me. Thereupon he answered that he himself would go with me. In order to follow the 'spoors' of the horses I crept on my knees, as I usually do, every time feeling with my fingers for the following 'spoor,' whilst I kept my feet on the last one. The three strayed men were Hofmeyer, Cahoun, and Bradbourne.

Thus we crept back on our horses' 'spoors,' stealing through the Kaffirs unnoticed, till about forty yards from Lobengula's waggons, so that we could hear them speak in the waggons. We went back about 200 yards and called out loudly to the three men. Thereupon the Kaffirs began to yell frightfully. The young warriors wanted to flee, thinking we were now going to attack them; but the older warriors restrained them, saying : it was only the howling of wolves. The three lost men answered our call; we sought them and brought them back to the tree where we had left the other men.

Then Wilson again sent me to find out what the Kaffirs were about. I went and heard great numbers of Kaffirs going towards the river in the direction of Forbes's camp. Apparently they were looking for our troop, but could not find us, and came to the conclusion that we had also gone back.

I came back and reported to Wilson what I had seen. He then ordered me to go back on the tracks with which we had come from Forbes, and there to await the arrival of Forbes with the main force, lest he should not find us in the dark. I did so, and towards dawn I heard them advancing, and went back immediately to inform Wilson of this. I found him sleeping with his head in the mud. I touched him and said : 'Major, the column is advancing.'

He at once jumped up and speedily, with his brave troops, stood awaiting the arrival of Forbes with the main force. We were very much disappointed when we found that Captain Burrows with only twenty men had arrived, guided by my companion and fellow-scout Ingram ; they had brought no Maxim, and informed us that Forbes would advance with the main force at the break of day. (Two of his men had also strayed in the darkness.) We at once perceived that this meant certain death to us, as our position was now hopeless; for the day dawned, the Kaffirs were in dense masses between us and the main force, and we had not sufficient ammunition to defend our position till the arrival of Forbes.

The officers held a council in our vicinity, so that we could hear most of what was spoken. I heard Captain Burrows say : 'I did not know that affairs were in such a state,' proving plainly that Forbes had not informed him of the true state of affairs before sending him with his twenty men to certain death. I also heard Captain Jutt say : 'It is all up with us.' All were agreed that our position was hopeless, and the only question was how we could most dearly sell our lives.

Some (and at first I also) were of opinion that we should try and force our way through the dense masses of Kaffirs which intervened between us and the main force, and so try to effect co-operation with Forbes. Wilson, however, held another opinion, and after he had spoken we all acknowledged that he was right.

According to his opinion, the main force of the Kaffirs was not with Lobengula, but between us and Forbes, and that it consequently was impossible for us to force our way through them, as we should all perish. But as the chief impis of the Kaffirs were in the direction of the Shangani and our headquarters, there would not be a strong force with Lobengula. We must make a desperate attack and try to capture Lobengula and his chief councillors, were it only to keep them as hostages, in order to save our lives. And if we fell we at least would sell our lives dearly by also killing the king and his chief indunas.

All agreed with this opinion, and we advanced straight on Lobengula's waggons. When we reached the waggons we found them empty, at least we could see through one waggon and could see no one in it, and there was no screen in which Lobengula could have hid himself. We thought that Lobengula, with the indunas and Kaffirs that were with him, were hiding in the forest. We called out again as on the preceding evening: 'We did not come to fight or kill any one, we only came to see the king and to take him with us to treat with our induna at Bulawayo.'

But the Kaffirs called back from the forest: 'If you do not come here to fight, we do/ and they immediately began charging us and firing upon us.'

Wilson called out to us : 'Shoot carefully and do not waste your ammunition.'

We did so, took only the best chances and aimed well. We let the Kaffirs come to within sixty yards and aimed well, so that almost every shot told, Fighting thus we retreated; first to an open space, and then further back in the direction of Forbes, as we saw that we were too greatly outnumbered.

The Kaffirs, however, continued following us, and were continually reinforced. We at last took our position behind a big ant-heap, and Wilson called out: 'Let every man choose his Kaffir.' A great many Kaffirs fell. I had sometimes three times to choose another Kaffir, for as soon as I aimed at one he fell before I could shoot.

By this good firing we drove the Kaffirs back. The shooting ceased for a while. But the Kaffirs, being reinforced, again attacked us. Thereupon we decided to retreat further in the direction of Forbes. Five of our horses were killed and three men seriously wounded at that ant-heap. My own rifle was knocked out of my hand by a bullet, and a splinter of the bullet struck my eye.

We retreated with closed ranks, with the wounded and infantry in the middle; Wilson, Ingram, and Burrows in the rear, whilst Captain Jutt, Gooding and myself formed the vanguard. We knew that Forbes would march at dawn, and that left us a faint hope that we might break through the Kaffirs and effect a joint action with Forbes. The Kaffirs let us march for about three-quarters of a mile in this way. We as yet heard no shooting at Forbes; though he might have then already have been attacked.

The Kaffirs kept massing more densely in front of us. Wilson asked whether I saw no chance of forcing my way through their ranks in order to inform Forbes of our situation and to urge him to prompt action and co-operation. I said I did not think so, for before I had advanced five hundred yards the Kaffirs would attack me; but if he would send another man with me, I would try. Captain Borrows hearing this, rode up to Major Wilson and said : 'Let Gooding go with him, he has a good horse.' Wilson agreed, and ordered Gooding to accompany me. But I asked to have my mate Ingram with me. Wilson consented, and we three left, riding through a densely wooded strip of country, where we saw no Kaffirs. We had hardly gone five hundred yards before the Kaffirs opened fire upon us; happily they aimed too high, and the bullets whistled through the branches over our heads. We rode on as fast as we could, and the Kaffirs chased us with their assegais. Our way lay through a thick mopani bush, so the Kaffirs remained close on our heels, beating their assegais and shouting; they sometimes were as close as twenty yards. Afterwards they began to drop in the rear and commenced firing upon us. But we rode on, without returning their fire, or allowing ourselves to be detained.

As soon as we were well away from them, we heard that the Kaffirs were again attacking Wilson. We rode for two hours before we reached Forbes; we misled the Kaffirs who were pursuing us by riding in winding ways. This gave us a quarter of an hour's time, of which we made good use. We now approached the river and could hear Forbes and his men fighting; more especially we could distinguish the firing of the Maxims, and from that we could make out that the attacks of the Kaffirs were made at intervals, and were not very desperate. Probably they had then already noticed that Wilson's party was attacked, and their object was only to prevent Forbes from sending help.

We found the river full when we reached it, and having sought a suitable place, made our horses swim through in a slanting direction down the stream. When we reached the opposite bank, we saw the Kaffirs still fighting with Forbes; we rode right through their ranks into the camp, where we came with the last breath of our horses. Shortly afterwards the Kaffirs retreated.

At the time of our arrival there was great dissatisfaction among the troops, because Forbes would not allow them to use trees and ant-heaps as a natural shelter, and the result was that five men had been wounded and sixteen horses killed. The men openly refused to obey the commands of Forbes any longer, upon which Raaf assumed the orders. He led us back; had Forbes continued in command, probably not a single man would have escaped.

Du Toit: What was the last you heard about Wilson with his thirty-two men?

Burnham: We could hear them fighting all the time; but just before we reached the river there was perfect silence for a time, then a tremendous volley, and then all was quiet.

Du Toit: The rest of course we must learn from the Kaffirs. But as you know they have so many different stories. Out of all these what do suggest up as most probable?

Burnham: According to the information obtained from the Kaffirs, Wilson fought for three or four hours, shooting carefully all through, so that every shot should tell. The first cessation in the shooting was when they sent for Gambo's impi as a reinforcement. During that pause they saw Wilson's men tearing up their shirts to bandage the wounds of their companions.

Thereupon they began singing. Some Kaffirs say it was like the singing of the whites which they heard at the church in Victoria. After the singing of that song the fighting was resumed with the reinforcements the Kaffirs had received.

They give a thrilling description of Wilson's bravery up to the last. They say: The tall induna with broad-brimmed hat and the large moustache stood straight up fighting after all his men had been killed, or were lying down wounded. One of the wounded kept handing him the guns which he had loaded. He had many bullet-wounds, but he remained standing and shooting till he could no longer raise his arms, then a young Matabele rushed up to him and pierced him with an assegai. Wilson reeled. The young Kaffir withdrew his assegai and pierced him a second time, whereupon Wilson fell down dead.

After they had returned, thinking all were now dead, one of the wounded rose and walked away, with a revolver in each hand. They repeatedly shot at him, without being able to hit him, and they consequently took him for a magician. But a shot from far away in the valley struck him through the hips, whereupon he sank down. In this sitting position he kept on firing over his shoulder, for he could not turn himself. He was a man with a grey beard (probably Robertson).

But we have also heard the Kaffirs say that they found only one wounded man, whom they brought to Lobengula and wished to keep alive, but that he died of his wounds; also that, after singing of the hymn by Wilson's men, they heard only one volley and then all was still; from that and the fact that almost all had been shot through the head, they drew the conclusion that Wilson, after the ammunition had been exhausted, gave orders to load the guns with the last cartridge, and that after singing the hymn, every one shot himself through the head rather than fall into the hands of the Kaffirs.

I cannot believe this; for when the corpses were fetched, they were found lying in a circle, with one man at a little distance, and that the last shooting was of such short duration was, I think, because the Kaffirs charged and killed the men with assegais; hence that last volley and the succeeding quietness.