By H.L. Hall
In 1937, he wrote his autobiography ‘I Have Reaped My Mealies’. The origin of this title is interesting. Not many years before he was driving his car to a cattle sale near Lydenburg, when he was involved in a near-accident, which resulted in his car leaving the rood and plunging down the side of an embankment. Fortunately he was able to regain control of the car, and no one was hurt.
One of his passengers was Jack, a wagon driver who had worked for him for about 33 years, and who jumped for safety when the car went over the edge. When asked why he had jumped out, Jack replied: ‘It’s all vesy well for the old baas - he’s reaped his mealies, we haven’t sown ours yet.’
In his autobiography, H L Hall described his experiences in the Zulu War in a chapter entitled - ‘With Assegai and Rifle’. The story starts in 1878 with some comments about the Sekukuni War.
I was now made a conductor, and my transport days had really begun. My salary was doubled to l0s. per day, and I had six wagons with teams of twelve mules each in my charge. I carted troops’ equipment, the men walking, unless sick or footsore, in which case they rode on top of the goods on the wagons. I took one lot to Lydenburg and another to Marabastad. Then I fetched military supplies from Maritzburg to Pretoria and to the forts in Sekukuni’s country, occasionally under fire from the natives, who were hidden behind rocks in the mountains. I had an escort of mounted volunteers, so they were afraid to charge the convoy. The natives were armed with muzzle-loaders and flint-lock guns of very ancient makes, purchased in Lourenco Marques or from traders who roamed those parts and did very good business. Their bullets were curiosities. They were very short of lead, and to spin it out they would put a stone or a bit of iron pot-leg into the bullet mould and pour the lead in. This accounted for the whizzing noise that we heard after seeing the puff of smoke. You could hear them approaching and wondered who would be hit. They were very poor shots and generally missed us, even at close range. Sometimes they were lucky, however, and that pot-leg ammunition, as we called it, sounded very alarming.
My next orders were to proceed to Maritzburg with my transport to bring up supplies. On arriving there, I found that the Government was preparing for war with Cetewayo. I pulled up my teams opposite the Military Offices in Maritzburg for orders. There I saw Colonel Buller,(1) I had met him in Sekukuniland, where he had been with a mounted corps. The roads and drifts were very bad there, and his mule transport was doing very badly. His teams from the Cape were not accustomed to such roads - they often stuck fast, and I pulled his wagons out with my teams.
He asked me where I was going, and I told him I had come for loads from Pretoria. He said: “I doubt if the Government will let you go back with your teams; they are wanted here. I am applying for two of your teams, so you can let me have the two best.” This was news to me, but the next morning he appeared with his conductor and an order for me to hand over two teams and wagons, complete with drivers and leaders. He again asked for the best, but I was too upset even to be civil. I showed him all the teams and told him to take his pick. I saddled my horse, rode to the office and complained very bitterly. I told them my teams belonged to the Pretoria transport and that they wanted them there. This had no effect; they commandeered the lot, saying they were urgently wanted for military purposes.(2) I was so wrath I gave notice and wanted to leave at once. I had got very attached to my teams, for the drivers were good, the mules pulled well and were in first-class condition, and I was very proud of them. There was not another lot of transport teams of mules in the whole Government service to compare with mine. That was why they all wanted them. Other conductors were not interested in their animals - in fact, the contractors who supplied the rations on the roads and in the towns would bribe them to take less than they were entitled to. This was so bad that I insisted on seeing my full supply weighed out. Naturally I was not popular with the contractors.
The military authorities in Maritzburg did not want me to leave, so offered me £1 per day to stay on in charge of the mule camp in Maritzburg, where they had over two hundred mules, with harness and wagons, and no responsible head. There was an old soldier who was in charge of the stores. The boys threw oat hay down in the kraals for the mules, two-thirds got trampled into the mud, and the mules and horses were falling off in condition every day. I set to work to get things in order. I picked out teams of mules and made the drivers responsible for them. They had to harness them and parade them each morning, and feed them every night and morning in their canvas mangers. Their condition soon improved.
Orders for wagons and teams poured in each day, and soon there were very few of the original two hundred left, but more were constantly arriving.
One day I got an order to find transport for General Lord Chelmsford, and I was told I was to go in charge of it with his column. I was delighted, for I wanted to go to the Front. I soon had his lot picked out, ten dark chestnuts for the wagon, six light chestnuts for the light spring wagonette, and four for his spring cart - a fine lot, and all driven by the best boys we had. Again I was to be disappointed, however. The day before I was to leave a lieutenant arrived with a letter from the office instructing me to hand over the General’s transport to the bearer. I was to remain on in charge of the mule transport yard. A case of influence, no doubt! However, as things turned out, Providence was protecting me. The lieutenant went off, quite proud of his teams, but, poor chap, he was killed at Isandlwana.
Troops were now moving towards the Zulu boundary, and my stock of mules was reduced to about seventy-five head, including sick and lame animals.
I got orders to find sixty mules, and was told that light trolleys, harness, drivers and leaders would be supplied, that I was to proceed with them to Durban to load the paraphernalia of a detachment of Royal Engineers and go with them into Zululand, via the coast route.(3) What a job I had! The boys, when they arrived, could not, and did not want to, harness and drive mules; they were bullock drivers, and stated they had been engaged as such and knew nothing about mules. I had to make the best of a bad job, so we got off for Durban in a couple of days after I had inspanned almost all the teams myself. When we outspanned, I did not dare loosen the mules, as these boys would never have been able to catch and sort them out again, so they were all coupled together in their spans, and one boy had to hang on to each of them while they grazed and drank at the spruits. We reached Durban, loaded, and started off, but the rains had set in, the roads were very wet and the rivers very full. The wagons stuck fast in bad places, the rivers were swollen, and we got wet through every day, struggling into camp close on midnight and off again first thing in the morning.
As is usual when travelling with troops, the first wagon was loaded with the officers’ tents, their kit, and the cooking utensils of their batmen - quite a light load - drawn by my best team and with the only mule driver I had. This enabled him to push on and the officers to get under cover and have their food, but the poor soldiers, whose baggage I was bringing on, had to stand in the rain half the night. All this discomfort could have been avoided if the O.C. had supplied a sergeant and twenty soldiers to help the wagons out of the drifts and bog holes.
The officer in charge of these Royal Engineers had never been out of England before.(4) He gave me no help at all, just marched off in the mornings to a fixed spot each day, and I had to get there. Once he sent his lieutenant back to see where I was. I was in a river, which they had crossed in boats, up to my waist in water driving the mules through with a sjambok. The lieutenant expressed his surprise at this, but soon saw the necessity of my helping to drive the wagons if we were ever to get through. I told him I had travelled hundreds of miles with troops, but never with a commanding officer like his. I had always been given about twenty men with ropes, hauling and helping with the wheels. On this journey we had to double span instead, which takes a long time. I suggested that he should ask his O.C. to give me such assistance and we would soon beat the end of our day’s journey, but all to no effect. I generally got into the camp late at night and wet through, the soldiers also being wet through, as I had all their tents and baggage on the wagons. I was so tired that, if I sat down, in spite of the rain, I dropped off to sleep.
The regiment arrived at Tugela camp(5) at midday, and I did not get there with the wagons till midnight, in pouring rain. The captain complained that the transport had delayed him very much and blamed me For it. The chief transport officer came to see me about it. I told him he could find another conductor for the job; I had had enough of this captain who gave his transport no help. He replied that he was very much afraid he could get no one to take over my job.
Colonel Pearson was in charge of the troops here. He had, I think, three regiments, a naval brigade with quick-firing guns, a batch of artillery, a rocket squad, and about one hundred Natal Carbineers. There were a few mounted infantry and about one hundred native contingent. The latter had such a dread of the Zulus that they were not much use - except to go over the battlefield and kill the wounded Zulus, as happened at Kambula.
One day a squad from an Irish Regiment(6) was on fatigue duty rolling large barrels of rum from the pont up to the store. The sergeant in charge was surprised at the number of his men who asked for a few minutes off and did not return, and at the number of men passing down to the river. On going to see what was up, he found a lot of his regiment sampling the rum. They had rolled some barrels down the bank and were quenching their Irish thirst. The sergeant sent word to his O.C., and the Colonel turned out with his officers and all the sober men in camp and started out to collect his troopers. All that were able, however, fancying a change of liquor, took possession of the pont and crossed over to interview the hotel proprietor in his bar. In the meantime, the Colonel had advised Colonel Pearson of the state of affairs, and asked him to get all the other troops into camp and leave him to fix up his own regiment. If the other troops interfered, he said, there was sure to be a devil of a fight. Colonel Pearson complied and ordered all the troops into camp.
The Colonel of the Irish Regiment was an Irishman and popular with his men.(7) The drinking squad, who were still active sampling the hotel liquor, on seeing their chief approach, rushed through the hotel to escape, but were captured and taken to camp under arrest. Then a fatigue party was sent to bring in the incapables, and so ended this little spree. Their punishment was guarding the lines of communication for the duration of the war - a severe lesson, as they were keen fighters.
All the troops, and their transport, of our Coast column now being safely across the Tugela River, arrangements were made to march. My drivers had learned to handle and drive their teams, and I looked forward to an easier time, but my luck was out. The transport officer told me that all the hospital transport would come under me. It consisted of two ox wagons loaded with hospital marquees, tents, provisions, everything pertaining to a hospital, four ambulances each drawn by six mules, and four water carts each drawn by four oxen. The trouble with this lot was that they had to travel in different parts of the column, ambulances and water carts in the lead, then the troops ammunition wagons, then kit wagons, then my engineers’ outfit, and, last, the hospital wagons, so I had to look after a mixed lot in a column two miles long or more.
Our first day’s march was a short one, as we had to cross a very muddy spruit with a very bad drift. Here the soldiers did help the transport; but, even so, all the heavy wagons had to be double spanned before the oxen or mules could pull them through. This meant great delay, and darkness found half the column on one side of the spruit and all the troops on the other with tents pitched, and there they slept. The other wagons were drawn up anyhow, without arrangement or order.(9) The commanding and other officers, except a few colonials, so despised the enemy that no precautions were taken to defend the wagons on the south side of the stream beyond placing the native troops round them to guard them all night, but they were of very little use. We conductors, who all slept in our half-tent wagons, were not at all satisfied that we should ever see the sun rise again. It was a dark night, and if one left his wagon he would have the greatest difficulty in getting back to it.
In the middle of the night, one of our native sentries fired his rifle and two or three others followed suit. I sat up with my rifle ready, but nothing more happened. Word was passed on that it was a false alarm, but we were all pleased to see daylight appear.
One thing that I did not then know was that the Zulus never attacked in the night; they preferred daylight, and, usually, just at sunrise.
The Zulus once raided Swaziland and carried all before them. The Swazis retreated into their mountains and the Zulus started back with the looted cattle and captured girls. The Swazis followed them on the mountains and one stormy night they attacked them and cut them up. Very few Zulus escaped to tell the tale and the Swazis got their cattle and girls back. The Zulus never attacked the Swazis again, and from that day they called the Swazis “wolves,” because they fought in the dark.
In the morning early, we started getting the wagons through. This took some time, so we outspanned on the other side and had breakfast there. The British officers asked us when these Zulus were going to attack and why they had not opposed our crossing the Tugela. We told them they need not worry, they would have all the fighting they wanted, but they did not believe us. Had the Zulus stormed us in the night, they would have made a clean sweep of this column. No precautions were taken, no trenches dug, and the wagons were not drawn up in a circle, the pole or disselboom of one under the other, with thorn tree branches under them - if they were to be had. The Boers always made a laager of this kind and all the animals were put inside the enclosure. Of course, such a defence takes time to make, and only one trek a day of probably six miles would have been possible.
The next night the wagons were parked in better order, but no laager was made. The following morning, the Zulus, under their chief Dabulamanzi, attacked us on the line of march about 9a.m. Their main body came down a thickly wooded ravine. We saw them entering at the top where there was no bush cover, running into the ravine where they could not be seen, and advancing down it, to strike us on our right flank in the centre of our transport wagons. The Naval Brigade entered the ravine at its lower end, fired up it with their quick-firing guns(10) into the thick undergrowth and trees, and advanced in short rushes. The cannon and rocket divisions(11) shelled the ravine and the rockets would rush into the bush and disappear, to reappear the next moment and another place, often at a right angle, dodging about until they exploded. Many natives were burnt by the rocket flames. This firing went on for some hours, then we saw the Zulus reappear at the top of the ravine running away, with the Natal Carbineers after them. Thus ended the battle of Gingindlovu.(12)
To the Naval Brigade must be given the credit of this victory, as far as I could see it. Advancing up the ravine with their quick-firing guns, they did great execution. The grass and undergrowth was cut off about three feet from the ground by their bullets and behind this dense cover the Zulus lay dead or wounded in great numbers. They evidently thought that, as they could not be seen, they could not be hit, but our bullets penetrated the scrub and found them. There may have been other fighting at the same time, but I did not see it.
One tragic mistake cost the lives of the white officers of the native contingent. They were to attack a lot of bush in which the Zulus were hidden. They were marched up as near as possible and drawn up in close formation. Then the officer in command, with his other officers leading, drew his sword, swung it into the air, and shouted “Baleka” (“run”) - which they did! The Zulus rushed from their cover and the officers were killed. The officer could not speak Kaffir. When he shouted “Baleka,” he meant “charge,” but “run” suited the Kaffirs and they were not slow in obeying. The natives were court-martialled next day, but their defense was, “We did what we were told to do,” and so the case fell through. I never could understand why Imperial officers were given charge of the natives when they could not speak their language.
After this fight we trekked on. I received a message from the captain of the Engineers that one of his wagons had broken down. His is wagon maker had examined it, and had reported that nothing could be done and that the wagon would have to be left. This I was very loath to do. Each wagon had a full load, and would be overloaded by taking more on. I rode back and found that the scammel bolt of the wagon had broken. I soon had the load on the ground and half of it divided among the others. I got a pick handle, shaped it to fit the hole, put the half load on to the wagon and sent it on. I told the officer I did not think much of his wagon maker, and asked him to have the iron bolt mended at the next halt so that the wagon could take its full load. This he did next day and we trekked on as usual.
Another wagon of the column broke and was left behind with its full load. It had provisions on it, and the next day we saw it being burnt by the Zulus. I heard that the Zulus did not take the provisions, which consisted of tinned meat and biscuits, but burnt the lot because they thought it was a trap and that the food was poisoned. Later on, when short on rations, we used to wish we had those provisions.
Next night we got to Eshowe, which was a Mission station, but the missionaries had all left. The following morning we heard of the disaster which had befallen General Lord Chelmsford’s army at Isandlwana. This cast a gloom over everyone and made the soldiers jumpy. We had many false night alarms, and soldiers were choked off and punished for them. On one occasion a pair of trousers was left hanging outside to dry and the breeze blew them out. The sentry, seeing what he thought was a human figure, fired and the bullet went through a leg of the trousers. It was a good shot and the sentry got off.
All mounted men and mules were sent back to Natal, as it was expected the Zulus would raid that part. Why they did not, I never knew - Providence must have protected Natal.
We Colonials were all very surprised when informed that the rest of the forces were to remain at Eshowe, as we thought that every trooper would be wanted in Natal. A big moat was dug round the Mission station large enough to encircle sufficient ground for all our troops, a few horses, all our wagons, and the hospital. The trench was deep and was crossed by a large drawbridge. There were tunnels leading down into it and small dug-outs for troops to fire up and down the trench, and cannon on the walls - all very like the old castle in England , but there was no castle! (13) Here we remained for some time until relieved by a column of troops, just when our food supplies were almost exhausted - we had got down to quarter rations per day. We conductors all volunteered to do scouting work and cattle guard, and this we did on horseback. It was a nice change from loitering about the fort. We worked in pairs: one would remain on a hill or kopje on the lookout for the Zulus, the other would raid their lands and come back with a shirt full of green mealies and sometimes a pumpkin or two. If the one on guard saw natives coming, he fired at them, even if out of range, and we got back with our loot. Occasionally, we raided a kraal and got fowls, but then we had to go in small parties.
Sometimes, a fair number of soldiers accompanied us in the night for a raid on the enemy. We would make for a big kafFir kraal just as day was breaking. On seeing us the kaffirs would run off under our fire and we then looted their huts, burnt them, and got all the fowls and other food we could find. Once we got a nice fat pig.
While the natives were spreading the alarm and collecting what men they could, we set off back to the fort. The natives would chase us and try to cut us off. All this helped to relieve the monotony of the place.
Post runners used to get through to us from Natal with dispatches and letters occasionally, tempted by the reward. They travelled at night, hiding in the daytime. They also took letters back.
I got to know the Roman Catholic priest who was with us in the fort, and told him I would very much like to send a letter to my father, but the rules forbade it. He said , “Give it to me, and, on the next occasion, I will send it with mine - they never open mine. I wrote my dad a long letter, and, as I had nothing much to do, I made a drawing of the whole place. Thanks to my drawing lessonS in the railway draftsmans office at Capetown, I was able to do this very correctly, measurements and all, and showing my home in my tent wagon. This was sent off by the priest and duly reached my father at Port Elizabeth. He was very pleased with it. One night, when he was alone in the Port Elizabethan Club, he nailed it to the wall, and wrote in big letters “Fort Eshowe.” This caused some excitement, especially when some officers came to see it and declared it was a correct drawing, though how they knew I do not know. No one but my father knew who had sent it, and he, knowing that I should get into trouble if found out, told no one.
On fine sunny days we used the heliograph to a station in Natal. I used to go up to ours on top of a big hill. The sergeant in charge could read by sight the messages coming through, and some were rather amusing, sent to some officer by his best girl.
One day, shortly after we had got settled in the fort, two Zulus walked up to our outpost with the post bags. They had killed the postboy, we found out afterwards. They explained that they wanted to be taken with their post bags into the fort. The sergeant thought that they looked suspicious, so before they got to the drawbridge he blindfolded them, and tied their hands behind their backs. This they put up with without a murmur, no doubt thinking it was the usual procedure for the postboy, but, when they put their feet on to the wooden planks of the drawbridge, they drew back and stood firm. They told the sergeant and guard that they were not afraid of death, but wanted to look death in the face, and not be killed by some means they knew nothing of; they were plucky fellows. The guards had to push them over the bridge and they were kept prisoners. Just then a Zulu prisoner with a shattered leg was brought in. The doctor decided that his leg should be amputated or he would die. They gave him an anaesthetic and took the leg off, and in due time he regained consciousness. The two prisoners watched all this with great astonishment, and the wounded man too was very surprised when he found that his leg was gone.
A little later the O.C. had a message which he wanted sent to Cetewayo. He released the two prisoners, gave them the message, and sent them off. We heard later that, as they travelled, they told the Zulus at the kraals they passed how the English witch doctor had caused a Zulu prisoner to die, had cut off his leg, and afterwards brought him to life again. They argued that we were bringing all the soldiers whom they had killed back to life, so it was useless killing them. The white men were great magicians, and fighting them was hopeless, they said.
At last a relief column from Tugela appeared and camped for the night below the mountain. In the morning early the camp was attacked by the Zulus.(14) I was on top of our hill with others looking down at the camp. The Zulus used their old plan, advancing new moon shape, surrounding the camp and then charging it. But we had learnt a thing or two by now. The wagons were all drawn close together and a trench dug round them, the soldiers were in the trenches and quick-firing guns at the four corners. The Zulus charged, but were mowed down like grass. The nearest they got to the trenches was eight yards.
One Zulu got to the cook’s fire, picked up a bucket kettle and made off with it. He fell, poor chap, with eight bullets in him.
In the distance we saw a large body of natives and thought that they were a reserve force. We heliographed to our relief column to beware of them, but they proved to be women and big girls carrying food for the army, and they never came any nearer. Next day, the relief column reached us and we were able to get full rations again.
Following the relief of Eshowe, we fell back on the Tugela to refit. I was given a month’s leave and went to Durban.
My holiday came to an end and I returned to Tugela. I was given the hospital transport and ten ox wagons to look after, and was to proceed with the next column advancing, this time along the coast road of Zululand.(15) By this time reinforcements had arrived. General Lord Chelmsford crossed into Zululand again and camped at Ulundi, making use of his wagons for defence and digging a good trench round them. He was well armed and had many quick-firing guns. The Zulu army attacked at sunrise and charged his camp, but they were shot down in hundreds by the quick-firing guns and the infantry. Later on they were routed and pursued by the mounted men.
This was such a decisive victory that the war was virtually over and Cetewayo was captured. I was rather amused when reading the English newspapers’ reports of these two battles. At Isandlwana, we were massacred by the Zulus; but at Ulundi, where we had literally mowed them down with our up-to-date firearms and they had not been able to get near enough to us to use their assegais, it was a glorious victory. But such is war.
Our column saw no fighting, but I got an attack of malarial fever and was sent to the doctor. He was prescribing for some soldiers and was kept pretty busy, so I lay down on the grass and waited. When I told him that my transport officer had sent me to him he said that he had nothing to do with the transport. I went back and reported. My officer went to the Colonel commanding the column, who gave me a note to the doctor. The doctor did not seem at all pleased when he read it, but he gave me some powdered quinine and some other powder with it. I asked him how I was to take it and he told me to put it on my tongue and wash it down with a drink of water. Quinine in those days was very light feathery stuff, and when I followed his directions it went up my nose and into my eyes, got into my throat and made me cough. So the doctor had his revenge for the choking off he got from the Colonel.
An old conductor of one of the teams came to my rescue with a cigarette paper next time I had to take a dose. He put the powder on it and rolled it up, and I swallowed it with water; quite easy and no taste.
I was soon over the attack and did not go to hospital, but remained in my half-tent wagon with my boy to look after me. The sergeant of the hospital mess used to give me tit-bits and often a tot of brandy, which I appreciated very much.
We arrived at a port where ships could land their cargo in lighters through the surf, which assisted our transport greatly.(16)
Native indunas of that part came to see our officer, Our interpreter was a friend of mine, and from him I heard all they had to say. The indunas insisted on one thing very strongly - that, now we had conquered them, we must rule them; that, as we had taken their king away, we should put a white governor over them; that if we put a native chief over them, there would be a rising against him by some other chief, who would feel that he should have been appointed. The wisdom of this advice became very evident later, when Dinizulu was appointed chief by us.
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