January 24, 1879.
Captain Essex’s Evidence.
I HAVE the honour to forward for the information of the Lieutenant-General Commanding, an account of an action which took place near the Isandlwana Hills on the 22nd instant.
After the departure of the main body of the column, nothing unusual occurred in camp until about eight A.M., when a report arrived from a picquet stationed at a point about 1,500 yards distant, on a hill to the north of the camp, that a body of the enemy’s troops could be seen approaching from the north-east.
Lieutenant-Colonel Pulleine, 1st Battalion 24th Regiment, commanding in camp, thereupon caused the whole of the troops available to assemble near the eastern side of the camp, facing towards the reported direction of the enemy’s approach.
He also dispatched a mounted man with a report to the column, presumed to be about twelve or fifteen miles distant.
Shortly after nine A.M., a small body of the enemy showed itself just over the crest of the hills, in the direction they were expected, but retired a few minutes afterwards, and disappeared.
Soon afterwards, information arrived from the picquet before alluded to, that the enemy was in three columns, two of which were retiring, but were still in view; the third column had disappeared in a north-westerly direction.
At about ten A.M. a party of about 250 mounted natives, followed by a rocket. battery, arrived with Lieutenant-Colonel Durnford, R.E., who now assumed command of the camp.
The main body of this mounted force, divided into two portions, and the rocket battery were about 10.30 A.M., sent out to ascertain the enemy’s movements, and a company of 1st Battalion 24th Regiment, under command of Lieutenant Cavaye was directed to take up a position as a piquet on the hill to the north of the camp at about 1200 yards distant, the remainder of the troops were ordered to march to their private parades when the men were to be down in readiness, at this time, about eleven A.M., the impression in camp was that the enemy had no intention of advancing during the daytime, but might possibly-be expected to attack during the night. No idea had been formed regarding the probable strength of the enemy’s force.
At about twelve o’clock, hearing firing on the hill where the company 1st Battalion 24th Regiment was stationed, I proceeded in that direction. On my way I passed a company of the 1st Battalion 24th Regiment, under command of Captain Mostyn, who requested me, being mounted, to direct Lieutenant Cavaye
to take special care not to endanger the right of his company, and to inform that officer that he himself was moving up to the left. I also noticed a body of Lieutenant-Colonel Dunford’s mounted natives retiring down the hill, but did not see the enemy.
On arriving at the far side of the crest of the hill, I found the company in charge of Lieutenant Cavaye, a section being detached about 500 yards to the left, in charge of Lieutenant Dyson. The whole were in extended order engaging the enemy, who was moving in similar formation towards our left, keeping at about 800 yards from our line.
Captain Mostyn moved his company into the space between the portions of that already on the hill, and his men then extended and entered into action. This line was then prolonged on our right along the crest of the hill by a body of native infantry. I observed that the enemy made little progress as regards his advance, but appeared to be moving at a rapid pace towards our left. The right extremity of the enemy’s line was very thin, but increased in depth towards and beyond our right as far as I could see, a hill interfering with an extended view.
About five minutes after the arrival of Captain Mostyn’s Company I was informed by Lieutenant Melville, Adjutant, 1st Battalion 24th Regiment, that a fresh body of the enemy was appearing in force in our rear, and he requested me to direct the left of. the line formed, as above described, to fall slowly back, keeping up the fire. This I did; then proceeded towards the centre of the line. I found, however, that it had already retired.
I therefore followed in the same direction, but being mounted had great difficulty in descending the hill, the ground being very rocky and precipitous. On arriving at the foot of the slope I found the two companies of 1st Battalion 24th Regiment drawn up at about 400 yards distant in extended order, and Captain Younghusband’s company in a similar formation in echelon on the left.
The enemy was descending the hill, having rushed forward as soon as our men disappeared below the crest, and beyond (?) the right of the line with which I was present had even arrived near the foot of the hill. The enemy’s fire had hitherto been very wild and ineffective, now, however, a few casualties began to occur in our line.
The companies 1st Battalion 24th Regiment first engaged were now becoming short of ammunition, and at the request of the officer in charge I went to procure a fresh supply with the assistance of Quartermaster 2nd Battalion 24th Regiment and some men of the Royal Artillery. I had some boxes placed on a mule cart and sent it off to the companies engaged, and sent more by hand, employing any men without arms. I then went back to the line, telling the men that plenty of ammunition was coming.
I found that the companies 1st Battalion 24th. Regiment before alluded, to had retired to within 300 yards of that portion of the camp occupied by the Native Contingent. On my way I noticed a number of native infantry retreating in haste towards the camp, their officer endeavouring to prevent them but without effect. On looking round to that portion of the field to our right and rear I saw that the enemy was surrounding us.
I rode up to Lieutenant-Colonel Durnford, who was near the right, and pointed this out to him. He requested me to take men to that part of the field and endeavour to hold the enemy in check; but while he was speaking, those men of the Native Contingent who had remained in action rushed past us in the utmost disorder, thus laying open the right and rear of the companies of 1st Battalion 24th Regiment on the left, and the enemy dashing forward in a most rapid manner poured in at this part of the line.
In a moment all was disorder, and few of the men of 1st Battalion 24th Regiment had time to fix bayonets before the enemy was among them using their assegais with fearful effect. I heard officers calling to their men to be steady; but the retreat became in a few seconds general, and in a direction towards the road to Rorke’s Drift.
Before, however, we gained the neck near the Isandlwana Hill the enemy had arrived on that portion of the field also, and the large circle he had now formed closed in on us. The only space which appeared opened was down a deep gully running to the south of the road into which we plunged in great confusion. The enemy followed us closely and kept, up with us at first on both flanks, then on our right only, firing occasionally, but chiefly making use of the assegais.
It was now about 1.30 P.M.; about this period two guns with which Major Smith and Lieutenant Curling, R.A., were returning with great difficulty, owing to the nature of the ground, and I understood were just a few seconds late. Further on the ground passed over on our retreat would at any other time be looked upon as impracticable for horsemen to descend, and many losses occurred, owing to horses falling and the enemy coming up with the riders; about half a mile from the neck the retreat had to be carried on in nearly single file, and in this manner the Buffalo River was gained at a point about five miles below Rorke’s Drift.
In crossing this river many men and horses were carried away by the stream and lost their lives ; after crossing the fire of the enemy was discontinued, pursuit, however, was still kept up, but with little effect, and apparently with the view of cutting us off from Rorke’s Drift, The number of white men who crossed the river at this point was, as far as Icould see, about 40. In addition to these, there were a great number of natives on foot and on horseback.
White men of about 25 or 30 arrived at Helpmakaar between five and six P.M., when, with the assistance of other men joined there, a laager was formed with wagons round the stores. I estimate the strength of the enemy to have been about 15,000. Their losses must have been considerable towards the end of the engagement.
Captain, 75th Regiment, Sub-Director of Transports.