World Hot Spots
PURSUIT OF LOBENGULA (3)The new provisions were suflficient to provide three-quarter rations for three hundred men for twelve days and to see the disaffected section back to Bulawayo. Forbes composed his new force of Captain Borrow and twenty-two men of the Salisbury Horse, Major Wilson and seventy mounted and a hundred dismounted men of the Victoria Column, Captain Raaff and twenty men of the Rangers and Captain Coventry and seventy-eight men of the Bechuanaland Border Police.
Soon after leaving Shiloh the scouts found Lobengula's wagon tracks and followed them for eight miles through thick bush. There were other signs that they were hot on the trail - camp fires whose ashes were still hot, pots and calabashes hastily abandoned, the charred remains of two of the king's wagons which had broken down and been destroyed. It was evident that Lobengula and his warriors were making for the Shangani river.
The further they went the more difficult conditions became. They were drenched by storm after storm, and the veld became so waterlogged that the oxen pulling the wagons carrying their provisions gave up the struggle and collapsed. Forbes decided that the wagons were a hindrance. Forming a flying column of a hundred and sixty men, he sent the rest with the wagons to a place called Umhlangeni to await their return.
The flying column pushed ahead with greater speed. On the evening of November 30, Johan Colenbrander, who had been scouting, brought in an induna he had known when he had lived at the king's kraal. The induna said the Matabele had become dispirited through defeat, starvation, exposure to the constant rain and the ravages of smallpox and most of them wanted to surrender. But remnants of three of Lobengula's best regiments, the Insukameni, the Ihlati and the Siseba, were still loyal to the king and were covering his retreat.
On December 3 the column reached the bank of the Shangani river. They were very close on the king's heels now. Across the river they could see a number of natives frantically driving the last of their cattle in the wake of an impi. They had evidently only just crossed, for on the column's side was evidence of a Matabele encampment with the fires still smouldering. But had the king himself crossed the river or had he gone further along the bank? It was essential to know. Forbes decided to form a laager on open ground about two hundred yards back from the river while a small patrol went across the river to reconnoitre the further bank. He selected Major Allan Wilson, commander of the Victoria Column, to lead a patrol of twelve men.
When Wilson and his men had disappeared into the bush on the other side, Forbes interrogated a captured native. From him he learnt that Lobengula was ill and that with him were some three thousand warriors from different regiments who were determined that he should not be taken prisoner. If reports that the Matabele morale was low were correct, Forbes planned to make a rush the next day, capture the king and at once turn back for Bulawayo. They had now been out for nine days, their rations were dwindling and if they were to get back to their wagons and food supplies in time they would have to move swiftly.
He expected Wilson and his men to return in a couple of hours, but the afternoon wore on and darkness came without a sign of the missing patrol. In the meantime Forbes had received a report that the bulk of Lobengula's warriors, under his chief induna(General), Mjaan, had turned back and intended to attack the column that night.
It was a dark night and rain fell at intervals. At about nine o'clock an alert picket heard the sound of horses and aroused the laager. Two men rode in who told Forbes that the patrol had followed Lobengula's wagon spoor for some five miles and that Wilson considered the prospects of capturing the king were so good he had decided not to return that night. He wanted Forbes to send more men and a maxim in the morning. Two hours later Captain Napier and two troopers reached the laager and reported that the patrol had got close to the bush enclosure protecting the king and his wagon but had had to retreat to prevent themselves from being surrounded and had taken up a position in the bush to wait for daylight.
On neither occasion did Wilson state exactly what he wanted, although Napier said he thought he expected the rest of the column to cross the river and join him so that they could make a daylight raid on the enclosure at dawn. This Forbes refused to do. He expected a Matabele attack on his position, and he could not endanger his whole force by crossing the river in darkness, cutting off his retreat and presenting his back to the enemy. He did not want to recall Wilson since he was obviously in a good position to capture Lobengula, and if this opportunity were lost it would never recur. He compromised by sending Captain Borrow and twenty men to reinforce the patrol, and thus made his mistake. The patrol was now too large to be merely a reconnoitring force and too small for the dangerous task of trying to capture the king in defiance of the Matabele impis. But it strengthened Wilson's resolve to undertake his suicidal mission.
At daybreak Wilson and his thirty-two men approached Lobengula's enclosure. The wagon was still there, but when Wilson called on the king to surrender there was no answer. In the ominous silence they realized that during the night he had continued his flight. All hope of capturing him had gone.
Then came the development they had all been expecting and dreading. In the half-light they heard the clicking of rifle bolts and from behind a tree stepped a warrior wearing the induna's headring. He fired his rifle. It was the signal for a scattered volley which intensified as more warriors came running through the bush. Most of the shots went over their heads, but two horses went down. A trooper, Dillon, ran to them, cut off the saddle pockets carrying ammunition and regained his horse as Wilson gave the order to retreat to an antheap behind which they had sheltered the previous night.
They reached it without losing a man. As horses were shot down their riders jumped up behind men still mounted or ran alongside holding the stirrup irons. The volume of Matabele fire steadily increased and the exposed position of the antheap became untenable. Wilson ordered a retirement into the trees, and as they went the rearguard, firing with cool accuracy, kept the Matabele at bay. But the Matabele were in no hurry. They had the white men at their mercy and could take their time.
Several men had been wounded and a number of them were dismounted. Wilson grouped these in the centre and started off slowly for the river in the hope that some at least might reach the main Column. For nearly a mile they marched without harm, their progress dogged by warriors keeping pace among the trees. Then they saw that their path was barred by a line of warriors waiting for them to come closer. An attempt to break through that barrier would mean sacrificing the wounded. That was unthinkable. They would face it together.