The Last Stand of the Shangani Patrol

THE WHITE MEN SANG

(The last stand of the Shangani Patrol)

This is a true story from the days of an Empire on which the sun never set. It unashamedly extols the bravery of a small band of men, fighting a battle impossible to win, to the last man. Their bravery has never been truly recognised outside their own country – the then little heard of Southern Rhodesia; now Zimbabwe.

In 1889 the British South Africa Company, under the control of Cecil John Rhodes, an English-born entrepreneur and South African Statesman, entered and exercised control over that part of Southern Africa which was to become the separate colonies of Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. At that time the predominant tribes of the Southernmost region were the Ndebele (also known as the Matabele in that part of Southern Africa) – an offshoot of the warlike Zulu tribe), who inhabited the southern part of (Southern) Rhodesia, bordering the Limpopo River which separated it from South Africa. The Northern part of that country was, in the main, the preserve of the Mashona tribe, more agrarian and much less warlike than the Ndebele. The latter tribe frequently entered Mashonaland to slaughter the Shona menfolk, and carry off their women, as well as stealing their cattle. To say that the area was quite unstable until the arrival of the White men would be to understate the matter. However, these intruders were not welcomed by any of the indigenous tribes, especially so by the Ndebele, who had become used to lording it over all other tribes in the region. Rhodes’ B.S.A. Company’s Police (the forerunners of the British South Africa Police of Southern Rhodesia), then began their efforts to stabilise the country and subjugate – or at least, pacify – the Ndebele, who resisted fiercely.

In the skirmishes between the White intruders determined to settle on their land, the Ndebele more often than not came off the worse, despite their usual superiority in numbers. Their shortage of, and unfamiliarity with the handling of, modern weapons, almost always ensured that they would be the losers in any confrontation involving modern weaponry. Undoubted bravery allied mainly with primitive assegais (broad-bladed stabbing spears, effective at close quarters) were no match for modern repeating rifles in the hands of expert shottists. Subterfuge, strategy and sheer weight of numbers were the Ndebeles’ sole allies; however, one must add to these the fact that they did not fear death in battle.

Towards the end of 1893, whilst the B.S.A. Company was conducting initial exploration of what is now Zimbabwe, following its virtual annexation of the territory in the name of Queen Victoria, they encountered renewed fierce resistance from the Ndebele tribe under their Chief, King Lobengula (‘He who drives like the wind’ in Sindebele), who had thousands of belligerent warriors under his command and control, despite the many pursuit and pacification operations conducted by the B.S.A. Company – all hard riders and tough, uncompromising men.

This story is concerned only with one small, but fierce, confrontation between the White intruders and several impis (a Zulu word for Regiment) of Ndebele warriors at the Shangani River, in Matabeleland, in December 1893. The band of White men was led by one Major Allan Wilson.

In December 1893 the First Matabele War was raging and the few White men in that part of the country were formed into armed patrols, effectively militias, under structured military commands. One of these units was the Victoria Volunteers (from Fort Victoria – now Masvingo), placed under the command of its most senior officer, Allan Wilson, in the rank of Major. Wilson was an experienced ex-Army Sergeant who had fought in both the Zulu War and the First Boer War.

The main town in the area was Bulawayo (the ‘Place of Slaughter’ in Sindebele) and harassment from the local Ndebele warriors was so severe that town was temporarily abandoned at one time. Doctor Leander Starr Jameson (later to achieve notoriety as the leader of the ill-fated Jameson Raid against the Boers in South Africa), a close friend and colleague of Cecil Rhodes, and a senior B.S.A. Company member, gave orders for the capture of Lobengula, to force the hand of the Ndebele nation. The Company wanted to conclude an agreement, with Lobengula’s consent – implied or otherwise – giving the White Men the rights, mineral resources included,* to the whole of the country, which was to be named Rhodesia after Cecil John Rhodes. Whilst this annexation may seem grossly unfair and brutal to present generations (and indeed it was), few such qualms were evident ‘back home’ in Britain, where the Empire was expanding steadily. It is unrealistic to even attempt to adapt present-day viewpoints to events which occurred over one hundred years ago. Peoples’ perceptions of events are so far apart that comparisons would be odious

(* there were huge deposits of gold, emeralds, beryl, copper, tin and a range of materials vital to the burgeoning economy of Great Britain, lying under the fertile soil of the Rhodesias.)

Following the issuing of Jameson’s orders, a column of soldiers and B.S.A. Police, under the command of Major Patrick Forbes (including Wilson and his contingent), began its pursuit of Lobengula and, during reconnaissance, arrived at a point near the Shangani River, 130 miles or so North of Bulawayo and about 25 miles from the village of Lupani, in the late afternoon of the 3rd December 1893, where it laagered for the night, in heavy rain, the weather being normal for that time of year. Forbes then dispatched Wilson and a small party of twenty men across the river, to ascertain Lobengula’s exact location. In short order two men (Sgt. Maj.) Judge and (Cpl.) Ebbage, sent by Wilson, returned across the river and reported that they had located Lobengula in conditions which he, Wilson, judged to be ideal for his capture; he therefore intended to remain in situ near Lobengula and requested Forbes to send reinforcements for this purpose. Forbes concurred with this proposition but postponed any movement until the following day. (Possibly, this was to ensure that Wilson did not steal the all the glory.)

Major Allan Wilson (third from left) and some of the men of
his patrol

During the night, heavy rain continued to fall and further messengers arrived, sent by Wilson, These were Captain Napier and two Troopers who informed Forbes that Wilson’s patrol had succeeded in nearing the stockade (a bush enclosure normally constructed to keep out wild animals and ‘unwanted guests’) but their presence had been detected and they had been forced to retreat, to avoid being surrounded. Wilson’s party had then taken up a defensive position and were now waiting for the reinforcements from Forbes’s column. By then however, Forbes plan had changed as he had received a report that most of Lobengula’s warriors were planning to attack his (Forbe’s) column that night. One can already sense an impending catastrophe: Order, Counter-Order, Disorder! Wilson and his men were then left in limbo, anticipating the arrival of sufficient reinforcements to capture Lobengula. However, the only support he received from Forbes was a small party of twenty men under the command of Captain Henry Borrow.+ To be fair to Forbes, his intention was to send more men and some artillery across the river the following morning but this plan was aborted as the column was ambushed by the bulk of Lobengula’s warriors on that day.

(+ There is a street in Bulawayo named after Captain Borrow; the writer lived there for a while in the mid-1950s, whilst serving in the Bulawayo C.I.D.]

That morning, the 4th December, a large force of Ndebele warriors (possibly in excess of fifteen hundred men) attacked Wilson and his small force, now numbering only thirty-four men.++ The band was forced to retreat but this was a limited withdrawal only as the heavy rain had so swollen the Shangani River behind them that crossing to safety and re-joining Forbes’ column was impossible. Whilst in their new defensive position, Wilson asked his scouts, two Americans (Burnham and Ingram#) and an Australian named Gooding to risk their lives, cross the river, now in full spate, and attempt to reach Forbes with a message for help and, of course, reinforcements. After a great and heroic struggle, the three men managed to reach Forbes’ column but, to their dismay, they found the column involved in a pitched battle with hundreds, if not thousands, of Ndebele warriors; the melée as intense as Wilson’s. Burnham remarked to Forbes that he feared that he and his fellow scouts, Ingram and Gooding, would be the only survivors of Wilson’s party.

(++ It has been clearly established that a total of thirty-four men only were involved in this last stand at the Shangani River. The number of men who initially comprised Wilson’s patrol, given as himself and nineteen men, added to the reserve sent forward by Forbes {Captain Borrow and twenty men} give a total of forty-one souls which differs from the number of bodies later found – thirty-four. Nominal rolls exist, one of which lists twenty men including Wilson, on the patrol, but this can be assumed to be an initial, proposed, list of volunteers, and there must have been drop-outs and laggards during the patrol’s onward march; some men were also reported as having lost their way during the patrol. One must also take into account the ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ of messengers between the patrol and the column.)

(# Another Scout, Robert Bain, also an American, is also mentioned as a member of Wilson’s deputed patrol, but he appears not to have been involved as a ‘runner’ between the two groups, Wilson’s and Forbes’.)

Forbes and his men eventually managed to beat off the Ndebele attack but were unable to cross the Shangani to aid Wilson’s men; they would have been too late in any case.

Now, to return to Wilson’s plight and the last stand of the patrol.

Wilson and his men were now beleaguered with no hope of escape. With the flooded river at their backs and a pitiless enemy facing them, they had no choice but to fight and die as the Ndebele would not take prisoners. There are no White eyewitnesses to what transpired, but only the words of their enemy, which later came to light. It is a matter of historical record though that the White men fought until their ammunition was exhausted, the survivors then being slaughtered to the last man, Wilson, apparently, was the last man to die, when, with both arms broken and unable to aim and discharge his rifle, he strode from behind the barricade of dead and dying horses (and men’s bodies) towards the enemy and was quickly stabbed to death with an assegai by a young Ndebele warrior. Tradition amongst the Ndebele tribe (a practice inherited from their Zulu forebears), was for the dead foe to be mutilated by. disembowelment, thus releasing their spirits so they would not return to haunt their foe. This had been done at the Battle of Isandhlwana, in Natal, in January 1879, when the British forces under Lord Chelmsford had been massacred. The induna (Captain) in charge of the Ndebele impi) by name of M’jaan, forbade the practice on this occasion. His reported (perhaps apocryphal) words were . ‘Neither the bodies nor the possessions of these white warriors shall be touched. These were men of men; and their fathers were men before them! I say to you, beside these, the warriors of the Matabele are as timid girls.’ M’jaan then went on to say that the Matabele must do honour to the courage the warriors had witnessed in this place. As these White men had died in silence, so in silence now the Matabele must salute them. And the warriors, obedient as always, did just that, raising their spears to the sky##. M’jaan then dismissed them, to count their dead, of which there were an estimated four to five hundred, against thirty-four White men.

(##: They probably roared the exaltation ‘Bayete’, a traditional Zulu salute.)

Because of the dangers imposed by the presence of the Ndebele warriors in the area and the difficulty of crossing the dangerously flooded Shangani River, it was not possible for the B.S.A. Company troopers to recover the bodies until, the following February. They were initially buried where they had fallen; but later, on the instructions of Cecil Rhodes, were re-interred at World’s View in the Matopo Hills near Bulawayo, a site previously selected by Rhodes himself as his burial place and where both he and Jameson are buried. Also, at the request of Rhodes an impressive granite memorial to the Shangani Patrol was erected at the site of their deaths, with panels on each of the four sides depicting the members of the patrol in bas-relief.


A panel from the Shangani Memorial at World’s View in Zimbabwe, c1905

It was later said that the survivors of the Patrol, still resisting fiercely but awaiting certain and imminent death, were heard to sing what may have been either the National Anthem (God Save the Queen) or a hymn. This is of course apocryphal or mere conjecture, but is entirely appropriate to the spirit of Wilson and his men; hence the title of the novel by Alexander Fullerton, set around the Shangani Patrol – ‘The White Men Sang.’

It was not possible to award posthumous decorations to the men of the patrol as this was not in the B.S.A. Company’s gift; this lay with the Crown. As the B.S.A. Company was not representing the British Government in any formal sense – officially that is, but that is open to debate – it was out of the question that the Crown should involve itself in the Company’ activities. There is much humbug surrounding the matter, as there was in centuries past when the East India Company operated in India.

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Note: This tale has been told by someone who once served in the successors to the men of Major Allan Wilson’s Shangani Patrol – the British South Africa Police of Southern Rhodesia, a famous Police Force whose colours have now, sadly, been permanently laid up. All recruits in this Force were quickly apprised of the Shangani Patrol, its heroic resistance in the face of overwhelming odds, and its tragic outcome. The writer has extensive knowledge of the country and its history.

Perhaps the Ndebele induna (captain) who uttered the following words after the battle at the Shangani River, was only echoing the thoughts of his brave warriors who had met their match in Wilson’s men and had succeeded only by weight of numbers.

‘For they were men of men; and their fathers were men before them.’

There were later mutterings, some of which appeared in print, as to the veracity of the three survivors of the patrol having actually been sent back by Wilson; allegations of desertion were flung around but these were never substantiated and the men were publicly exonerated at later hearings.

One other unpleasant fact emerges from this incident. It later transpired that, Lobebgula, unwilling to embroil his people in a protracted war with the White men, had replied to a letter from Jameson offering terms, by sending an emissary with a bag of gold dust as a token of good faith, seeking peace terms. This emissary had been intercepted by two B.S.A. Company Troopers, Daniel and Wilson, who had confiscated the gold and suppressed the message. The men were later charged and convicted and received long terms of penal servitude, later quashed by a superior court, and reduced to nominal terms, as the Magistrate had exceeded his judicial powers.

It goes without saying that the Shangani Patrol entered Rhodesian history, in recognition of the bravery of Wilson and his comrades.

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NOMINAL ROLLS OF:
(1) MAJOR ALLAN WILSON’S PATROL, AND
(2) REINFORCEMENS SENT FORWARD BY MAJOR PATRICK FORBES

Major Allan Wilson; Chief of Scouts Frederick Russell Burnham (American); Scout Robert Bain (American);Capt. Freddie Fitzgerald; Capt. Harry Greenfield; Capt William Judd; Capt. Argent Blundell Kirton; Capt. Napier; Lt. Arend Hofmeyr; Lt.George Hughes; Sgt.Maj. S.C. Harding; Sgt. Maj. Judge; Sgt G. Bradburn;
Sgt. H.A.Brown; Cpl.F.C.Colquhoun; Cpl. Ebbage; Tpr.M.C. Dillon; Tpr. A. Hay-Robertson; Tpr. H.J.Heller; Tpr. J. Robertson; Tpr. E.E.Welby.
Capt. Henry Borrow; Scout Pearl ‘Pet’ Ingram (American); Sgt.H. Birkley; Sgt. H.D.W.M.Money; Cpl. H.G. Kinloch; Tpr. Abbot; Tpr. W. Bath; Tpr. W.H.Briton; Ptr. E.Brock; Tpr. P.W. de Vos; Tpr.L. Dowis; Tpr. W. Gooding (Australian); Tpr. Landsberg; Tpr. E.G. MacKenzie; Tpr.M. Meiklejohn; Tpr. Nesbit; Tpr. P.C.Nunn;
Tpr. W,A. Thompson; Tpr. H. St.J. Tuck; Tpr. F.L. Vogel; Tpr. H.G. Watson.

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Copyright©BrianParnaby 2010

This article was published with the permission of the writer, Brian Parnaby

Further Reading

Zimbabwean / Rhodesian Military History Books (before 1960):
Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia

Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia

By Frederick Courteney Selous (Author) is a firsthand account of the Second Matabele War (also known as the First Chimurenga). An unabridged reprint of the the 1896 edition.

Originalally published in 1896: Excerpt: CHAPTER III "Now this murder of a native policeman on the night of Friday, 20th March, was the first overt act of rebellion on the part of the Matabele against the Government of the British South Africa Company, and I will therefore relate exactly what occurred. On the evening of the aforementioned day, eight native policemen, acting on instructions of Mr. Jackson, arrived at the town of Umgorshlwini, situated in the hills near the Umzingwani river. Being accompanied by several boys carrying their blankets, etc., they formed quite a little party, and so camped outside the town. They were sitting talking over their fires after the evening meal, when a number of Matabele came up, and ranging themselves in a line in front of them, commenced to dance. These men all carried knob-kerries, and were led by a man named Umzobo, who had held a post of importance at Bulawayo in Lo Bengula’s time."

UK Shoppers Available on Amazon.co.uk

UK Shoppers Available on Amazon.com


No Insignificant Part: The Rhodesia Native Regiment and the East African Campaign of the First World War

No Insignificant Part: The Rhodesia Native Regiment and the East African Campaign of the First World War

The is the first history of the only primarily African military unit from Zimbabwe to fight in the First World War. Recruited from the migrant labour network, most African soldiers in the RNR were originally miners or farm workers from what are now Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, and Malawi. Like others across the world, they joined the army for a variety of reason, chief among them a desire to escape low pay and horrible working conditions.

Written by Timothy J. Stapleton has been a post-doctoral fellow at Rhodes University, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Fort Hare, South Africa, and a research associate at the University of Zimbabwe.

UK Shoppers Available on Amazon.co.uk

UK Shoppers Available on Amazon.com


The Matabele Campaign

The Matabele Campaign: 1896

By Robert Baden-Powell is his account of the Campaign in Suppressing the Matabele Rising in the Matabeleland and Mashonsland in 1896.

UK Shoppers Available on Amazon.co.uk

UK Shoppers Available on Amazon.com


Zulus and Matabele: Warrior Nations

Zulus and Matabele: Warrior Nations

Written by Glen Lyndon Dodds who grew up in Matabeleland and covers the rise and fall of the Zulus and Matabele nations. This account begins with the characters who spurred the people to greatness and nationhood, continues with the wars and battles which afflicted them and ends with an assessment of their role in the history of Southern Africa.

UK Shoppers Available on Amazon.co.uk

UK Shoppers Available on Amazon.com

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  • rod

    Burnham’s book, “Scouting on Two Continents”, makes excellent reading for anyone interested in early Rhodesian history. Not only does Burnham discuss his participation the Shangani Patrol in great detail, he covers other aspects of the First Matabele War and his equally impressive participation in the Second Matabele War, including his time with Baden-Powell.

  • Liam Cronly-Dillon

    The write up of The last stand of Allan Wilson is as acurate as is possible
    since I am a “Rhodesian” now residing in the UK…I can go so far as to say
    that the Cronly-Dillons carried on with soldering (police as well) and indeed
    as solders of fortune as with myself and my father M Cronly-Dillon (now deceased)

  • Merv Hunt

    I have been trying to assenmble information on this family and would be interested in adding any to your site if you require any.
    Was your father Michael John Cronly Dillon?
    I have a bit on the family in WA.

    • liam cronly-dillon

      yes Michael John Cronly-Dillon was my father if you would like to gleen more information pls contact me regards Liam Cronly-Dillon