The Story of the Wilson Patrol

The Story of the Wilson Patrol. By one of the two survivors.
Frederick Russell Burnham and reporters for the Westinster Gazette and Tuapeka Times

Published in: Tuapeka Times (Newspaper, New Zealand), Volume XXVII, Issue 4186, 13 March 1895, Page 6. Listed as: Interview with the Westinster Gazette (Newspaper, London, UK).


The Westminster Gazette has got hold of the Yankee scout Burnham, who was (writes our London correspondent) one of the two survivors of the ill-fated Wilson Patrol, and is now in London. I give you his account of what happened, commencing from the period the night before the end, when the little party found they had ridden into the midst of the enemy and were well-nigh surrounded. It was then dusk, and they were in the forest with Matabele within earshot. Burnham said :—

Burnham: "When we came to count, on assembling, we found we were three men short. Somewhere or other we had dropped the three detailed to keep back the crowd. Evidently they had lost us. Wilson comes to me and says : 'Burnham, can you follow back along the vei where we've just come?' I was wet and tired, and rather off it at first. But Wilson said : 'Come, I must have those men back. Come along, I'll try with you myself. I want to see how you American fellows work/ He was no bad hand at tracking, Wilson himself, and I was put on my mettle at once. We began, and I was flurried at first, and could not seem to get on to it somehow."

Reporter: "Stop. I want to know how you do this tracking. What's the way of it? You don't boast a dog's scent, I suppose, like the Indians in story books ?’’

Burnham: "The Indians? Well, as much as an Indian can scent, I can. Often when we were creeping forward in bush at night I would stop, sniff, and smell that there were Kaffirs in front. We were always getting into the middle of them — near enough to touch sometimes. But of course it is by sight we go. In daylight, when the ground is too hard to take footsteps, you must go by a leaf turned here, a blade crumpled there, a stick pressed in, and so on, trying on from one bit to another. Always you must carry a map and picture of all you pass in your head. If you think that's easy go and drop your hat in a wood, walk away."

Reporter: "Thanks ; I don't need to waste a hat. I can lose myself, let alone my hat, in ten minutes in a common English hornbeam covert if the drives are alike enough. Does this instinct serve you in a city too ? "

Burnham: " I find my way in London by it."

Reporter: "What else do you go by in the bush besides footsteps?"

Burnham: " Plenty of things. Take horse-droppings. Come upon a horse-dropping, you ought to know very quickly how long before that horse has passed — bearing in mind sun and weather."

Correspondent notes: [And he explained how the wily Indians, aware of this index, carry stale horse-dung with them to plant by the way, the same with intent to deceive. And how, let alone horses, the other debris of a troop will tell you what condition they are in. It may say : " These men are reduced to dead horse, served with boiled grass. Press on, and hit them while they're weak." Over - delicate readers, please skip. But how a little thing brings before one in a flash all the cunning and all the hard, brutal necessity of war !]

Burnham resumes: "So we started off together, Wilson and I, in the dark. It was hard work, for one could see nothing ; one had to feel for the traces with one's hands. Creeping along, at last we stood close to the waggons, where the patrol had first retreated into the bush ; but still no sign of the three men. ' There's nothing for it,' says Wilson, 'we must shout.' Long and low at first, then louder, we stood calling and cooeying for them. Of course there was a great stir along the lines of the Native skerms. They did not know what to make of it. We heard afterwards from Natives that some indunas went along quieting the men, and saying : 'Do you think the white men are on you, you children ? Don't you know a wolf's howl when you hear it?' After calling for a bit, we heard an answering call away down the vlei, and the lost three were soon back with the rest. It had left off raining, but it was a miserable night: we were all wet and tired, and the horses had been under saddle, some of them, twenty hours, and were quite done.

"So we waited for the column.

"During the night we could hear Natives moving across into the bush which lay between us and the column. We heard the branches as they pushed through.

“After some time Wilson says to me: 'Burnham, I wish you'd go and listen out on the track, and see if you can hear them coming.'

"I went. For a long, long time all I heard was just the dropping of the rain off the leaves in the forest, and now and then a dog barking among the skerms.

"But at last, listening close to the ground, I heard a noise of horses' feet. I ran back and said:

" 'The column is here.'

"And then presently rode in — not the column, not the Maxims, but — twenty men! Just twenty men, under Captain Borrow. It was a stunning moment. 'If we were caught there at dawn' — and already now it was getting lighter every moment."

Correspondent notes: [Taking this account in connection with that of Major Forbes, it seems clear that both Wilson and Forbes underrated the difficulty of each other' 3 position. Major Forbes was expecting to be attacked by an impi himself, and did not like to risk crossing the river with the whole column. He explains that he acted on the assumption that if things were as threatening as was hinted Wilson would have brought his whole patrol back when he sent the three messengers. Alas, and alas t]

Burnham resumes: "Wilson at once went aside with Borrow, and there was earnest talk for a few minutes. Presently all the officers' horses' heads were together, and Captain Judd said in my hearing ‘Well, this is the end,' and Kurten said, quite quietly, 'We shall never get out of this.'

Correspondent notes: One remembers Heine's ' Grenadiere ' : Der Andre sprach: Das Lied ist aus.

Burnham resumes: "Then Wilson put it to the officers whether we would try and break through the impis which were now forming up between us and the river, or whether we would go for the King and sell our lives in trying to get hold of him. The final decision was for this latter.

"So we set off, and walked along the vlei back to the King's waggons. It was quite light now, and they saw us from the skerms all the way along, but they just looked at us and we at them, and so we went along. We walked because the horses hadn't a canter in them, and there was no hurry anyway.

"At the waggons we halted, and shouted in again about not wanting to kill anyone. There was a pause, and then came shouts and a volley. Afterwards it was said that somebody answered : 'If you don't want to kill, we do.' My horse jumped away to the right at the volley, and took me almost into the arms of some Natives who came running from that side. A big induna blazed at me, missed me, and then fumbled at his belt for another cartridge. It was not a proper bandolier he had on, and as I got my horse steady and threw my rifle down to cover him he suddenly let the cartridge be, and lifted an assegai. Just as his arm was poised I fired, and hit him in the chest ; he dropped. All happened in a moment. The next thing I knew was retreating, and seeing two horses down, and Wilson shouting to somebody to cut-off the saddle-pockets, which carried extra ammunition. Ingram picked up one of the dismounted men behind him, Captain Fitzgerald the other. The most ammunition anyone had, by the way, was a hundred and ten rounds. There was some very stiff fighting for a few minutes, the Natives having the best of the position. Indeed, they might have wiped us out but for their stupid habit of firing on the run as they charged. Wilson ordered us to retire down the vlei. Some hundreds of yards down we came to an ant-heap, and took our second position on that."

Reporter: "On an ant-heap? How big, and what sort of stuff? Was it soft and crumbly?"

Burnham: "About the size of this room, and quite hard. We held it for some time. Wilson jumped on the top of the ant heap and shouted 'Every man pick his nigger.' There was no random firing. I would be covering a man when he dropped to another rifle, and I had to pick another. "Now we had the best of the position. The Matabele came on furiously down the open. Soon we were firing at 200 yards and less, and the turned up shields began to lie pretty thick over the ground. It got too hot for them ; they broke, and took cover in the bush. We fired about twenty rounds per man at this ant-heap. Then the position was flanked by heavy reinforcements from among the timbers ; several more horses were knocked out ; we had to quit. We retreated in close order into the bush on the opposite side of the vlei — the other side from the skerma. We went slowly on account of disabled horses and men.

"There wag a lull, and Wilson rode up to me and asked if I thought I could rush through to the main column. A scout on a good horse might succeed, of course, where the patrol as a whole could not stand a chance. It was a forlorn hope, but I thought it was only a question of here or there, and I said I'd try, asking for a man to be sent with me."

Reporter: " Wait. I should like to know what that kind of moment feels like. Does the excitement carry one through of itself ?"

Burnham: "It prints every little detail on one's mind just like a photograph. I remember every instant of it. A man called Gooding said he was willing to come. I thought he had a firm kind of face, so I picked him ; and I picked Ingram because we had done several rides together "

Correspondent notes: [see Major Forbes's account, which is full of the pair's scouting adventures],

Burnham resumes: "and I thought we might as well see this last one through together too."

"So we started, and we had not ridden 500 yards, when we came slap upon the horn of an impi closing in from the river. We saw the leading men, and they saw us, and fired. As they did I swerved my horse sharp to the left, and shouted to the others: 'Now for it!' We thrust the horses through the bush at their best pace. A bullet whizzed past my eye, and leaves cut by the firing pattered down on us ; but they fired too high. We rode along them, seeing men And being fired at continually, but outstripping them. The peculiar chant of an advancing impi, like a long monotonous baying or growling, was loud in our ears, together with the noise they make drumming on their hide shields with the assegai — you must hear an army making those noises to realise them. As soon as we got where the bush was thinner we shook off the niggers who were pressing us, and coining to a bit of hard ground we turned back on our tracks, and hid in some thick bush. We did this more than once, and stood quiet, listening to the noises they made beating about for us on all sides. Of course we knew scores of them must have run gradually back upon the river to cut us off, so we doubled and waited, getting so near back to the patrol that once, during the firing which we heard thickening back there, spent bullets pattered round us. Those waiting minutes were bad. We heard firing soon from the other side of the river too, and didn't know but that the column was being wiped out as well as the patrol. At last, after no end of doubling and hiding, we reached the river, and found it a roaring yellow flood 200 yards broad! In the way African rivers have, the stream, tour feet across of last night, had risen from the rain. We did not think our horses could swim it, utterly tired as they now were ; but we were just playing the game through, so we decided to try. With just their heads and ours above the water, swimming and drifting, we got across somehow, crawled, dripping, out on the other side, and, as we topped the bank, there stood several hundred Matabele 590 yds in front, to the right. They stared at us in utter surprise, wondering, I suppose, if we were the advance guard of some entirely new reinforcement ; and we walked our horses quietly along to the left, paying no attention to them. When we had gone some distance like this, and nobody followed behind, at last one man took a shot at us; and with that a lot more of them began to blaze away. Almost at the same moment Ingram caught sight of horses only four or five hundred yards away. So the column still existed — and there it was! Then for the first time, I remember, the idea struck me that we might come through it after all. And with that the desire for life came passionately back upon me. We took the last gallop out of the horses then, and— well, in a few minutes I was falling out of the saddle, and saying to Forbes : ' It's all over'

[here he made an indescribable gesture with his hand],

'we are the last of that party.' Forbes only said: 'Well, tell nobody else till we are through with our own fight' — and next minute we were just firing away along with the others, helping to beat off the attack on the column."

Correspondent notes: The rest of the story of the Wilson Patrol — the story of that grand last rally after the three had been sent off — Burnham and Ingram only know by hearsay, like the rest of us. How the men lay down and fired on from behind the dead horses, fired till the last cartridge was gone. How their cool aim stopped a rush again and again, and then the dwindling little band would raise a hoarse cheer, or sing together. How the wounded tore their shirts to tie up each other's wounds, or loaded for those who were not yet so badly hurt. How, at the very end, one last man left alive defied the marksmen all round him till they shouted that he was an Mtagati, a magician; and how, when he too fell at last, and at length the enemy dared to come out from their trees and creep up to the fatal little ring of dead and dying to make an end, the scene was such as even a Matabele could only tell of afterwards with bated breath — all this we know, and England will not soon forget. Burnham added two last touches.

Those who went afterwards and examined the place noted two things. One, that a large proportion of the Matabele dead who lay heaped round the fatal ring carried their wounds fairly in the head; the other, that the trees all round (each tree had covered a Matabele marksman) were nicked and peeled each side for just a few inches above and below the height of a man's head, and not otherwise. So well, so coolly, as if at the quiet butts, those boys had fired to the end.

F. R. Burnham and P. Ingram are Californian — the former originally of South of England stock, the latter obviously of Scotch. Almost all the dead patrol were English — a few colonial-born, many old public school boys.

Reporter: "Are you going to settle down now to the arts of peace? " was my last question. And the answer was:

Burnham: "We are both going North when the push- is made across the Zambesi."

This work was published before January 1, 1926 and it is anonymous or pseudonymous due to unknown authorship. It is in the public domain in the United States as well as countries and areas where the copyright terms of anonymous or pseudonymous works are 100 years or less since publication.