Port Elizabeth of Yore: Prince Alfred’s Guards Baptism of Fire

The Port Elizabeth Volunteer Rifle Corps was founded in September 1857 in response to Sir George Grey’s request for volunteer regiments to be established. In I860 the Corps provided a guard of honour for Prince Alfred during his visit and with his consent then took the name “Prince Alfred’s Guard”. Twenty years later in 1877, PAG was involved in its first battle at which it would earn its first battle honours.

This blog is based upon excerpts of a booklet entitled “The First Four Months of the Kafir War of 1877 and 1878” by Acting Quarter-Master Sergeant H. Stahlschmidt of the 2nd Detachment Prince Alfred’s Guard. This is his eye-witness account of the action during which he was severely wounded. No biographical details of the author have been found except that he was employed as a clerk from about 1875 to 1885 and lived at 9 Constitution Hill.

Main picture: Umzintzani – Prince Alfred Guard’s baptism of fire

Battle of Umzintzani

On Sunday, the 2nd December, 1877, about 8 o’clock in the  morning, our  little force of 145 men left the camping place of the previous night, and commenced our march towards the spot where Kreli’s and Sicau’s kraals stood not long since. The Mounted Police had left quite two hours before we were ready to follow them, consequently they were far ahead before we started. We had marched about three or four miles, when we saw two of the Police riding hard towards us. The men brought an order from Inspector Bourne for us to press on with all speed, because the Gcalekas were out in force and had fired on them. On hearing this news, the Artillery went forward with all their speed whilst we, the Infantry, pushed on after them. On arriving at a place called “Holand’s Shop,” a name which requires no explanation, the embers and burnt iron marking where the shop once stood, the Police had been fired on and one of their horses was shot in the shoulder.

Prince Alfred’s Guards – The First Grand review in 1875

On the ridges opposite to the place where we halted, we could see the Gcalekas below us, was a deep kloof leading to the Quora (Kaja) River. The Police and the Graham’s Town Artillery went round to the opposite ridge to drive the enemy down through the kloof to us. We marched down the ridge on our side to meet them as they came through. They, however, did not come within rifle range, so the Cape Town Artillery sent three or four shells right among them, the effects of which caused them to retire.


Umzintzani battlefield. This photo is taken from more or less the same spot as the illustration below. None of the trees were there during the battle. The cows are standing near where the tent shown stood.

Where the Police and Graham’s Town Artillery were positioned, they had some very hot work. The enemy retired down the hill as our men advanced, the Police doing what damage they could with their rifles. The Artillery fired one gun with a round of canister into a bush, behind which they were concealing themselves, which shot told with good effect. Another body of Gcalekas, which hitherto had not appeared, advanced on the Police and Artillery, from the way they were there was about 300 in number. Our men immediately opened fire, but unfortunately the gun could not be used, owing to a few of the dismounted Police being in the line of fire. It was fearful odds for our fellows, there being only twenty­ five of the Police and eleven of the Artillery. The Police who were on the line of fire from the gun had lost their horses; had they been able to get clear, the Artillery would have made the enemy smart. The place where they were now on was a little more than forty yards wide, consequently the gun would have mowed them down, and most probably have stopped their advance. As it was, the Police fought well, but the Inspector saw that he was overmatched, so they were forced to retire. The Gcalekas were coming on shouting like demons, no time was to be lost, so the dismounted men tried to make for the fun. Two of them got safely on, but the third attempted to fire again when a bullet struck him in the side, for the next few minutes there was some hard fighting where he had fallen, but eventually the poor fellow was stabbed to death by the Gcalekas with their assegais. Several of the Gcalekas were shot where poor Wesley had fallen, our men retired upon us, upon which we retraced our steps. The enemy did not follow us, so we took up the best position we could. The position we occupied for the Camp was on the right of the road, in front of us was a long sloping hill, on both sides of which was bush, our rear was very open, but on the left half of our left flank was a large kloof. On arriving at this place, we pitched our tents, and I gave out two days’ rations, and with them fifty-five rounds of ball cartridges, to each man. The Captain ordered everyone to fall in. This done, he placed us in the position he wanted us to take if the Gcalekas attacked us. The plan was this – the front was to be held by a portion of the men of the Prince Alfred’s Guard, as also the rear in case of being totally surrounded; the left flank was held by the Cape Rifles, and on the extreme left of front the Cape Artillery gun was placed, the right flank facing the bush was taken up by the Graham’s Town Artillery, and supported on the extreme right by the Port Elizabeth men and Police. We were dismissed and began to cook something to eat as we had not anything since the morning’s breakfast, and then it was a scanty meal. On the distant ridges of the kloof and hills we could see groups of three and four Kafirs, but they were so far away that we suspected nothing from them. At a quarter to 6 o’clock we noticed a long line of cavalry riding over the brow of the hill in a straight line from the Camp. All eyes were turned towards them; we thought at first they were a patrol of Mounted Police, so well did they ride, or the Fingoes under Inspector Maclean. It was neither. The enemy were before us, and we saw that we had a hard fight to undergo. They suddenly made a half turn with their horses and came at full gallop down the hill. In a few minutes we had our rifles and cartridges ready, struck tents, and opened out into half circle. By this time, we could see hundreds of Gcalekas on foot following their horsemen. Nothing could be steadier; they came on in splendid order. It was a marvelous sight, hundreds of Gcalekas moving in one great mass, which, if not broken, would be the death of us all. The Cape Town Artillery fired the first shell, which opened the battle. It was a splendid shot, right into the midst of them. For a moment it staggered them, but only for a moment, for on they came like a huge black wave. We now began to play our part with the rifle; for the first five minutes or so the shooting was excited and wild. but very soon the men settled down to good effective work. I was fighting on the right of the Graham’s Town gun, which was placed opposite a bushy kloof, out of which they swarmed like bees. Every shot told with good effect upon them, and it was marvelous how they could keep up such a tremendous heavy fire. I attribute it to the great number of their men. The Gcalekas are not very good shots, therefore nearly all their bullets went over us, though we had some very narrow escapes. After the third round from the Graham’s Town Artillery gun, in a return volley from   the Gcalekas, Bombardier Hornabrook was wounded in the right leg. Shortly after this Private Barron, of the Port Elizabeth Prince Alfred’s Guard, got shot through the head. The night was now fast approaching, but

Prince Alfred’s Guards – Inspection Parade in Market Square in 1876

the fighting continued as hard as ever. Fresh bodies of Gcalekas attacked us in the rear, so that we were now surrounded. For one hour and a half there was one incessant rattle of musketry, and it is little less than a miracle that any of us escaped. About the same time that Bombardier Hornabrook got wounded, I was shot in the groin of the right leg. Two of my comrades got up and carried me under the  wagon, which was the  place for the wounded and dead. I had been there but a short time when Privates Pullens and Overweg came both having been struck. Privates Pickering and Marshall were the next to follow. It was now quite dark, but the firing did not cease, volley after volley was fired till the officers noticed that unless they used the ammunition a little more sparingly, in a very short time they would be without. Lying wounded, with the blood flowing fast from me, and I unable to stop it, no water available to quench my thirst, every minute the rebels might overcome our brave fellow, and then, one and all would undergo such a death that only a savage can inflect. Oh, it was distracting to think of it. In spite of the odds against our men every now and then they raised a cheer amidst the roar of guns. It was not until 9 o’clock that the heavy firing ceased, and even after this the enemy would come and drag their wounded away, firing upon us before they re-crossed the hill. It was fortunate that the night was fine, there was no moon, but the stars shone brightly. The enemy was repulsed and punished severely, but we knew not how soon he might return, so through the night our men lay rifle in hand ready and with watching eyes. It was a long weary time for us wounded and the other poor fellows.

PE Rifle Corps in 1861 Back row Capr TM du Toit, Lt Aston, Lt J Gordon. Front row-Capt T Griffith, Capt AC Wylde, Capt W Fleming.jpg

Hope was entertained that the guns had been heard at Ibeka (twenty miles distant) so that we might obtain reinforcements. It was nearly eleven o’clock when we heard the steady tramp of horses. Was it the enemy? Not a sound could be heard, but the heavy tramp coming nearer and nearer, and our men opening the breeches of their muskets. It was an exciting moment. On they came. The challenge – “Who goes there? was answered “A Friend,” and in another minute Inspector Hatton, with twenty-four Police and six Volunteers, rode in. Commandant Griffith had heard the guns, which told him that we were having hot work, so he sent all he could to our assistance. I need hardly add that we welcomed the reinforcement with cheers, after which we gave three cheers for the victory of the battle of Umzintzani. Such cheers they were, too. I have heard cheers before, but there is something wonderfully grand in the cheers of victory. With this ends the story of the battle of Umzintzani, the hottest and hardest of this war. I say this without fear of contradiction, because at this fight none but Europeans were engaged on our side. At lbeka and at Gwadana there were large bodies of Fingoes assisting. The enemy were at the lowest computation 2,000, and my real belief is that there were at least 500 more than that. How ever Inspector Bourne could in his report make such a mistake in stating that there were about 1,000? I do not understand.

Prince Alfred’s Guards – Umzintzani veterans

Aftermath

Of the enemy’s loss we have had no opportunity of judging; both guns and Sniders played fearful havoc. It may be accepted that the Gcalekas lost 200 to 250 and 250 to 300 wounded, making a total of about 500. Both guns fired about 33 rounds, and the cartridges used for the Snider rifles were 13,000 rounds. Amongst the Gcalekas who were killed were two chiefs who led them on, viz.: Gwangua and M’Dama, both wearing the ivory decoration and ornaments.

Battle of Unzintzani

The following is a list of our losses:

Killed, – Private Henry Philip Barron, P.A.V. Guard, Port Elizabeth; Private Wesley,

F.A.M. Police.

Wounded, – Acting Quarter-Master Sergeant H. Stahlschmidt, P.A.V. Guard;

Private E. Pickering, P.A.V. Guard; Private A. Marshall, P.A.V. Guard; Private Overweg,

P.A.V. Guard; Private J. Pillans, P.A.V. Guard; Bombardier C. Hornabrook , Graham’s Town Horse Artillery; Private Turner , F.A.M. Police. Pickering and Hornabrook were not dangerously wounded, I was severely, the others were not so bad.

George Dix-Peek circa 1874, my great great grandfather, in his Prince Alfred’s Guards attire

Daylight followed the long night we had passed; shortly after which the fires were lighted, and the men began to cook what they had. The wounded men were still lying under the wagon, and most of us were in great pain. My wound had stopped bleeding, but, owing to the exertion, excitement, and loss of blood, I felt I was growing weaker and weaker every half hour. Not a drop of water had I tasted during the whole time. Nevertheless, we were not now forgotten by our brave comrades. The first kettle of coffee that was made was brought to us, for which we felt very grateful. The mounted men, who had arrived the night before, now saddled up to patrol a short distance round the Camp. They first went over the brow of the hill, the one from which the Gcalekas first attacked us, and afterwards had retreated. With anxious eyes we watched them depart.  In a short time, they returned at full speed. Thinking that the enemy had been reinforced, and were about to attack us again, the bugle was sounded, and every man took up the place he had held during the previous night. On the arrival of the troop, they stated that they had found large numbers of Kafirs sitting down on the top of the hill, and they seemed as if waiting for more men before they attempted to attack us again. This news caused us to be on the watch, for we had only a small supply of ammunition, which would, in case of emergency, have to be used with the greatest care.

Umzintzani -Prince Alfred’s Volunteer Guards Collar Badge c 1878-1901

About 10 o’clock the men pitched a tent and carried the wounded into it. Shortly after this hour Dr. Hartley arrived with an ambulance cart drawn by six mules. Several of the Mounted Police escorted him, bringing more ammunition, which was a great boon. The doctor was a very nice gentleman, small in stature, but had a very pleasing way with him, which went far to gain our confidence. He now began to examine our various wounds; he asked me various questions about my wound, then examined the place. Unfortunately he could not do anything at present for me, not having the proper instruments to extract the ball. The ball had entered the right groin, one-eighth of an inch from the femoral artery; the doctor observed he had never seen a case in which it was so close and had not cut the artery. The next one he attended to was Private Overweg, who was wounded in the right leg, the bullet having gone right through. Private Marshall was struck on the foot just above the ankle; Private John Pillans wounded in the right side; Private Turner slightly wounded in the head, the bullet having struck the higher part of the forehead. The doctor dressed the wounds of these four, after which they felt better. Bombardier Hornabrook; of the Graham’s Town Horse Artillery, was wounded in the right leg. In a short time, the doctor extracted the bullet, after which he did the same for Private E. Pickering who was shot in the arm. The doctor having finished with the wounded men, made arrangements for taking us to lbeka.

About 12 o’clock the body of poor Barron was carried to the spot where he was to be buried. After a short but most solemn service the body was lowered, the hole filled up, and he was “left alone in his glory”. During the service, more than one who had stood, without flinching, when bullets flew thick on the previous evening, saw with moist eyes the body of their comrade committed to the grave. “Poor Barron!”  thus wilt thou be remembered as long as the battle of Umsintzani stands on the annals of South Africa, “For sore hath been their fights as like lies was when two such foes met armed.”

Mrs M Sherman unveiling the memorial stone at Umzintzani on 2nd December 1962

In the afternoon, amidst the cheers from our brave comrades, we left the Umzintzani battle-field for lbeka. Our journey was slow, owing to the fear of shaking and causing pain. It was not before dusk that we arrived at Ibeka, very much fatigued. Here we slept under canvas.

PAG Umzintzani Day parade, December 2005, with Lt. Greg Dix-Peek, my cousin, as parade commander

Sources

The First Four Months of the Kafir War of 1877 and 1878 by Acting Quarter-Master Sergeant H. Stahlschmidt of the 2nd Detachment Prince Alfred’s Guard. (1878, Printed by John Steel, Queen Street, Port Elizabeth)An Eye-Witness Account of the Battle of Umzintzani in Looking Back, March 1975


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