The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 16 No 1 - June 2013

The Lost Patrol of Lieutenant Charles Bailie
A Frontier War episode

By David Saks


By the middle of 1835, the Cape Colony had regained control of its eastern frontier following a devastating mass invasion by over 12 000 Xhosa in late December the previous year. Under the energetic leadership of Lt-Colonel Harry Smith, the insurgents had been driven back across the Great Fish River and the war was now being vigorously pursued deep inside their territory. The main battleground was the area between the Fish and Keiskamma rivers - the so-called 'Neutral' or 'Ceded Territory' - where the Ngqika chiefs Maqoma and Tyali and their allies continued to defy efforts to bring them to heel. The mountainous terrain, much of it covered in dense forest and bush, was well-suited to guerrilla tactics, and here Maqoma was showing himself to be particularly skilled. Victory in the open field was unattainable given the realities of Colonial firepower, but evasive action punctuated by occasional sharp counter-offensives helped prolong Xhosa resistance.

Debe Nek

At the beginning of June, Smith led a 2 000-strong force which, in addition to the regular detachments, included large numbers of coloured troops, burgher volunteers (both Dutch and English) and Gqunuqwebe irregulars, in an ambitious sweep of the Amatola range and its foothills. It was hoped to bring about a decisive engagement with the hostile chiefs and thereby bring the war to an end, but again the main body of the enemy was able to elude its more slow-moving pursuers. Smith then adopted a new tactic, sending out independent patrols of between .thirty and a hundred men on search-and-destroy missions. It was the correct tactic under the circumstances, and would become standard operational practice when wearing down the Xhosa in future Frontier conflicts. The obvious dangers were that smaller units were much more vulnerable to enemy counter-attacks, and thus had to be especially careful about putting themselves in situations where they might be successfully ambushed far from any source of rescue.

Lieutenant Charles Bailie, 1st Battalion, Provisional Colonial Infantry, was just 25 years old when the war broke out, but he was already an experienced Frontier campaigner. As a teenager, he had taken part in a trans-Kei expedition against Ngwane insurgents fleeing the Mfecane upheavals and proven his mettle on that occasion. His father, John Bailie, had headed up one of the main parties of 1820 Settlers, and was a captain in the same battalion. Three months into his service, Charles had already been thrice mentioned in dispatches.

From 18 June, Bailie took part in a series of operations in the wooded areas and heights around the Umdezeni River and Debe Nek area, roughly halfway between King William's Town and modern-day Alice. These were carried out in tandem with similar operations in the vicinity carried out by Lieutenant Thomas Biddulph, of the same battalion. Several dozen of the enemy were killed and considerable numbers of cattle captured. Smith noted approvingly on one such day's campaigning that Bailie and his sixty men had 'marched a greater distance than was ever traversed in the same number of hours by any infantry in the world' (Smith, 1903, p 413). It is worth noting here the enormous distances foot soldiers on both sides covered during the war as they sought to find, pursue, evade and ambush one another in some of the country's most difficult terrain.

Missing in action

On 25 June, a 60-man detachment under Bailie, with Biddulph as second in command, was despatched from King William's Town with the objective of scouring the bush and ravines of Ntaba-Ka-Ndoda, a sprawling series of heights located just north of Debe Nek and west of the Pirie Mission Station. Smith, at least according to his version, had explicitly impressed upon his subordinate the necessity of exercising caution: 'The evening the patrol went out, I proceeded some distance with it, impressing upon Lieut Bailie the necessity there was for vigilance. Above all he must never divide his party, as utility and safety consisted in union' (Smith, 1903, p 421).

Whatever he had been told, Bailie's first move after setting out was to divide his force. Perhaps, as Smith later surmised, he had 'received some information by which he hoped to effect great service'. More likely is that Bailie considered 30 men to be a safe enough number with which to operate in the field. He was by then an accomplished and experienced bush fighter, but this and his previous successes may have fostered in him a dangerous degree of over-confidence.

The plan was that the following day, Biddulph would lead his detachment in sweeping various kloofs bisecting the hillt surrounding the Umdezeni some five kilometres east of Ntaba-Ka-Ndoda while Bailie operated in the bush on and around the mountain itself. The two detachments were then to rendezvous at a given spot near the foot of the mountain the following evening and return to camp.

Biddulph duly departed, bivouacking for the night near the Umdezeni ravines. Early on the evening of 26 June, he arrived at the rendezvous place. There was no sign of Bailie, but while they waited, eleven shots were distinctly heard in the direction of the wooded country skirting the base of Ntaba-Ka-Ndoda. As per prior agreement, Biddulph had his men fire a brief salvo to signal their presence, but Bailie and his patrol never arrived, neither during the night nor the whole of the following day. Distant firing continued to be heard at intervals, however - scattered shots emanating from an ever widening area suggesting a running fight. Finally, there was a crackling of two ragged volleys and, after that, nothing. It was the last anyone on the Colonial side heard of Lieutenant Bailie and the 28 coloured troopers who had set out with him.

Having been out of camp for the period required by his original orders, Biddulph then returnee to King William's Town and reported his proceedings to Headquarters. No particular concern was felt at this stage. It was assumed that Bailie had made contact with the enemy and was following up after them; that he might have become the hunted rather than the hunter apparently occurred to no-one at the time. As June gave way to July without the smallest crumb of information coming to light, a curious sense of denialism seems to have set in, from the rank and file through to the most senior leadership. Unable to credit that an entire unit could have been annihilated without trace, men persisted for an extraordinarily long time in believing - at least outwardly - that the detachment would yet be found and rescued. As late as 14 July, Smith wrote to Cape Governor Sir Benjamin D'Urban that, notwithstanding the complete absence of any report, clue, rumour or conjecture as to what had become of Bailie, ... that the Enemy have not taken him I am confident from the most minute calculation and observation of all reports from every Officer and Soldier that have been out on patrol in search of him' (Theal, 1835, ast outwardly - p260). Smith was sceptical about the theory doing the rounds amongst the men that the detachment was 'besieged in some krantz, stowed with provisions' since want of water would have forced him to surrender. 'Sometimes I fancy that he has got wind of the haunts of Tyalie and Macomo, and that he is lying in ambush, but 20 days is a long time to live on hope', his letter continues. Possibly Smith, as ever bent on depicting events involving himself in the most bullish light, was being disingenuous. In his reply, D'Urban wrote that never before in his own experience or reading had he ever known of a detachment so destroyed as to leave behind no trace of it. The patrol, or at least a surviving remnant of it, might yet turn up, but such a hope was one 'where reason would despair' (Theal, 1835, p 264).

The patrol's last stand

Nearly a full month had passed since the start of the ill-fated expedition when Smith officially acknowledged the disaster that had befallen Bailie and his party. By then, enough information had come to light - including evidence provided by an old Khoi woman brought in by the search party headed by Captain Bailie - that the patrol had been hemmed in, worn down and eventually wiped out in one of the bushy ravines of the Ntaba-Ka-Ndoda heights. Several more months were to pass, by which time the war itself was concluded, before the story of how Bailie and his men met their end could be pieced together with reasonable accuracy. In the main, the relevant information was obtained from Xhosa warriors who had taken part in the engagement, while further details could be ascertained from the locations of the bodies recovered afterwards. Several relatively minor but affecting insights were provided by none other than the late Charles Bailie himself, in the form of a hastily written note on a fly leaf of the bible he always carried with him. The bible was handed over to Maqoma, who returned it to Bailie's widow at the end of the war.

Once on Ntaba-Ka-Ndoda, Bailie had evidently sighted a party of the enemy in the valleys to the east of the mountain and duly set off after them. The remainder of 26 June was spent in pursuit, but the Xhosa, apart from two or three who were wounded, remained just out of reach. Meanwhile, the patrol was being drawn ever deeper into the bush and further away from the original rendezvous point. It was a deliberate strategy on the part of the Xhosa, some of whom would go ahead unobserved so as to leave their footmarks and thereby entice their pursuers to follow the spoor into more difficult, as well as isolated, terrain. Bailie probably belatedly realised towards the end of the day that he was being led into a trap and began retracing his steps, but was soon compelled to bivouac for the night. The men sheltered in the ruins of a dwelling on top of a high ridge; its late owner, a trader named James Kent, had been killed there during the initial Xhosa onslaught on the colony the previous December.

At dawn the following morning, the roles of pursuer and pursued were abruptly reversed when the party came under fierce attack. After beating off his assailants, at the cost of one man killed, Bailie commenced leading his men down the mountainside in the direction of where Biddulph, and safety, awaited. The dense bush and broken ground frequently enabled the Xhosa to come close enough to use their assegaais, resulting in seven further deaths before the 21 survivors remaining reached the bottom and doggedly pressed on. They had reached the Amalinde Valley and had just crossed the Umxesha stream about two kilometres south of the Pirie mission station (approximately ten kilometres north of today's township of Dimbaza and just off the road to Keiskammahoek) when the Xhosa, having been heavily reinforced, sprang up from the long grass on all sides and charged. For a while, Bailie and his twenty remaining troopers, all skilled marksmen, were able to keep their assailants at bay, but the end was clearly approaching.

Lieutenant Bailie's grave

A volley was fired - probably the first of the two distant volleys heard by Biddulph. It must have been at this time that Bailie wrote his final words, recording that the party was surrounded, that ammunition sufficed only for one final volley and that thereafter they would use the butts of their muskets (http://www.findagrave. / com). After that last volley, and while those who still had ammunition were desperately trying to reload, the Xhosa fell upon them from all sides. Said an old Ngqika councillor, interviewed after the war: 'We closed upon them and destroyed them all. They fell in a heap and in a ravine you will find their bones' (Milton, 1983, pp 127-8). It would seem that Bailie was the last to die. While his men were being overrun, he sprang into a thicket and made a final solo stand. Two of his assailants - one of them a chief named Tchalecsay - were killed by a discharge from both barrels of his guns before he was speared to death (Godlonton, 1835, 1965 reprint, p 199).

Bailie's Grave

Shortly after the conclusion of the war, a small search party under Captain John Bailie retraced the route of the patrol's last running fight and recovered the bodies of the 29 men who had fallen. They were buried in two graves at a spot referred to thereafter as Bailie's Grave, which became a well-known landmark for travellers. For a while, there was also an adjoining fort, known as Bailie's Grave Post and later as Fort Stokes. The latter had ceased to function by the mid-1850s, and only a bare outline of the original earthworks remains. The single low granite tombstone, erected more than a century later, simply reads 'Lieut C T Bailie and Party, 27 June 1835'.

The reasons for the 'misfortune of Bailie's detachment' were summed up aptly enough by D'Urban in his response to Smith: 'It is obvious that if a small detachment commits itself in the woods and wanders away from the knowledge of its corresponding bodies and out of its previously ordered course, so that it can neither be reinforced nor supported, the superior numbers even of a less resolute Enemy than the Savages we have to deal with may at length tire it out, exhaust its ammunition, and so in the end overwhelm it' (Theal, 1835, p269: Godlonton to Harry Smith, 24 July 1835). D'Urban had earlier expressed his reservations about dividing a force into too small units, and suggested that the warning in that regard provided by the disaster to Bailie's party should be taken to heart.

D'Urban, having been fully appraised of Bailie's soldierly qualities by Smith, declared him to have been 'as good and gallant an officer as ever served His Majesty; and who, from the commencement of the war had never ceased to merit approbation and thanks' (General Orders, No 29, 7 August 1835, cited in Cory, 1965 reprint, p 175). Privately, Smith, never one to accept a setback with equanimity, let alone take any blame for it, railed against Bailie for flouting his orders: 'What infatuation could induce this young man, in whose obedience I placed so much confidence, thus to transgress his orders, Heaven only knows ... ' (Theal, 1835, p 265).

The Bailie family was destined to suffer another war related bereavement; in the course of the Seventh Frontier War (1846-7), another son, Archibald, was mortally wounded. John Bailie himself died a hero's death, drowning in the course of trying to rescue the crew of the wreck Hector off the Natal coast (Hockly, 1957, p 205). Prior to that, he had carved an additional niche for himself in the annals of South African history for the prominent part he had played in the establishment of East London.

The annihilation of Bailie's detachment was the only real clear-cut military success gained by the Xhosa during the 6th Frontier War. However, it anticipated several further sharp reverses of a similar nature that the colonial and regular British forces would endure at their hands in future frontier conflicts.

Recognition deferred

On 12-14 May 2006, a guided tour of some of the main actions of the Frontier Wars took place under the auspices of the South African Military History Society, Eastern Cape Branch. The tour included a visit to Bailie's Grave, which was of particular interest, as the main lecture at the SAMHSEC's meeting, delivered by Chris McCanlis a few days before, had been the annihilation of the Shangani Patrol under Major Allen Wilson during the Matabeleland War on 4 December 1893. While the circumstances of both incidents self-evidently bore strong similarities, McCanlis commented on how little remembered Lt Bailie and his 28 troopers were compared with the hero status accorded the Wilson party by generations of [some] Zimbabweans (SAMHS Eastern Cape Branch, Newsletter No 21, June 2006).

One-does not, unfortunately, have to look very deep to find the answer to the puzzle. The 34-man Wilson patrol was comprised entirely of white troopers; by contrast, Bailie was the only white member of his detachment. In general, non-whites who lost their lives fighting on the side of the Colony received little or no recognition, either at the time or subsequently. In the case of the Bailie party, however, some minimal effort does seem to have been made. A District Order published at the time announced that a nominal list of those who had died, specifying whether they were married or single, would be immediately furnished in order that provision could be made for their wives and children (Godlonton, 1835, reprint 1965, p200). Bailie himself had been married with a young son.

Presumably, such a list was compiled and a record thereof has been preserved. It would surely be a worthy project to erect a new memorial over the grave, this time recording not just the name of the single white man who fell, but of the 28 mixed-race men who died with him. At the same time, the memorial should record the name of the chief Tchalecsay, the only Xhosa fatality of the action whom the records identify, along with the other anonymous warriors whose sacrifice made possible this small but noteworthy Xhosa success during the 1834-5 war.


Cory, G, The Rise of South Africa, Volume III, 1834-1838 (Struik facsimile reprint 1965).
Godlonton, R A, Narrative of the Irruption of the Kaffir [sic] Hordes, 1834-5 (Grahamstown, 1835, Struik Reprint, 1965).
Hockly, H E, The Story of the British Settlers of 1820 in South Africa (Juta & Co, Johannesburg 1957). =gr&GSln=Bailie&GSiman=1 &GSst=3491 &GR id=36128592&
Milton, J, The Edges of War - A History of the Frontier Wars, 1702-1878 (Juta & Co, 1983).
Smith, Sir Henry (Harry) George Wakelyn (1788-1860), The autobiography of Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Smith, baronet of Aliwal on the Sutlej, GCB, with the addition of some supplementary chapters by George Charles Moore Smith, 1858-1940 (London, J Murray, 1903).
South African Military History Society Eastern Cape Branch, Newsletter No 21, June 2006.
Theal, G M, Records of the Cape Colony: The Kaffir [sic] War of 1835.

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