The so-called Shangani Patrol was a legendary encounter in 1893 between colonial forces and the Matabele tribe of Lobengula in what is today Zimbabwe. The entire patrol was annihilated, after having killed more than ten times its own number in an epic fight through the bush. In colonial Rhodesia, it was regarded in the same light as the fall of the Alamo in Texas, or the doomed fight of the three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae.
In this excerpt from his book "Scouting on Two Continents", the world-famous American scout Frederick Russell Burnham, a legend in his own lifetime, describes some of his experiences with the Shangani Patrol. He and two others were detached towards the end to make contact with relief forces (which proved to be fighting a battle of their own, and did not arrive in time to save the patrol). It was thanks to his scouting experience against Indian tribes in America that the three survived.
Captains Judd, Kirton, Fitzgerald, Greenfield, and Brown gathered with us around Wilson. The first three were experienced colonials, and Wilson asked each what he thought to be the best move.
Kirton, with a bitter smile, said, “There is no best move.”
Fitzgerald said, “We are in a hell of a fix. There is only one thing to do — cut our way out.”
Judd said, “This is the end.”
Borrow said, “We came in through a big regiment. Let’s do as Fitzgerald says, though none of us will ever get through.”
When all had spoken, Wilson said, “We are surrounded. Between us and Forbes are the young regiments. Why throw ourselves away by fighting these? The royal Imbezu regiment and most of the indunas will be with the king. Let’s ride on to Lobengula, and if we don’t get him, at least we will try to kill his leaders and save our men in Bulawayo.”
We formed roughly in sections, Wilson leading. I rode beside him until we reached the vley, when he ordered me to lead on to the king’s camp. It was now light. All the distances that had seemed so long in the night dwindled. We rode at a walk along the edge of the forest. In front of the camp fires of the night were lines of natives with shields and guns. They were within range of us, but as we were already inside their circle and riding toward their strongest regiments, they stood still watching us without firing. We rode thus for more than a mile.
The king’s stockade now came in view. It stood in a little cove off the vley, nearly surrounded on three sides by rather heavy mapani timber and a little scrub. Not a sound could be heard or a native seen. Wilson deployed his men. We advanced on the enclosure. With the bravado of the doomed, Wilson shouted to the king to surrender.
The wagons were empty, the enclosure deserted, but from behind a big tree an induna shouted, “We are here to fight!” and fired his rifle. This shot was followed by a scattering volley from all around. I was riding Forbes’s horse, a rather young one and not used to fire. He jumped sidewise with me and brought me up as the extreme right-hand man and very close to the timber. Out of the forest leaped a splendid specimen of a warrior, a Martini rifle in his hands. As he ran toward me he shouted to some spearmen who were following him, “Buya quasi!” (Come and stab!) He had an enormous chest and a voice like a bull.
He fired at me and missed. I headed my horse toward him, holding my rifle with one hand. He was slightly disconcerted and halted to reload. His bandolier was carried across a leopard skin which he wore over his shoulder. I could see that in his haste he was tugging at a cartridge to pull it out instead of lifting it with the tip of the finger. Every second I was coming nearer. The failure of his rifle unnerved him, and quick as a flash the warrior threw it down and with one long sweeping movement drew from the inside of his shield his stabbing spear. We were now only a few yards apart. Having very strong wrists, I can easily poise a Martini rifle in one hand much as I would a revolver. As I saw him draw back his right arm to drive the spear through me, I put a shot directly into his left side, which crumpled him. Instantly, all the spearmen jumped back into the bush, on seeing their leader fall in such a duel with a Martini. If they had but come on, they could have avenged the fall of their induna during the precious three seconds it takes to reload. I afterward learned that my opponent was the son of M’Jaan, the commander of the king’s forces.
I now had time to spare a glance to my left. Our men were being swept back by the fire. Two horses were down. I saw Ingram pick up Fitzgerald, as the captain’s horse was killed. As we fell back, I heard Wilson shout: “Cut those saddle pockets off the horses.” At that, little Dillon, our wonderful helio scout, dashed back and cut off the pockets containing the precious ammunition. I think it was Captain Kirton who held Dillon’s horse.
Wilson gave the order to fall back to the ant heap. When we reached it, we dismounted and used the ant heap as a barrier. As it was twenty feet high, it was quite big enough to screen all our horses. Wilson stood on top of it and directed the fight.
The Matabele now charged out into the open, firing as they ran. Wilson shouted to us, “Don’t waste your shots. Pick your man.” Sometimes when one was about to pull the trigger, the man aimed at would go down under a shot from some other rifle and one had to draw a bead on another farther back. The charge was broken. We killed many of the royal blood that day.
While this was going on, some of the regiments along whose front we had insolently ridden in the gray morning came running up. Had they been patient, they could have come close and poured in a single volley that would have done for all of us then and there. As it was, a thousand rifles and muzzle loaders cut loose at us wildly from the timber on our flank left, making our position untenable. Wilson gave the order to mount. As I obeyed, a bullet knocked my rifle from my hand, and sent it spinning. It dropped at the feet of Captain Judd. He smilingly handed it up to me, saying, “Burnham, I think you lost something.”
Wilson now gave orders to fall back into the timber on the opposite side of the vley, in the direction of our halting place of the night before, where we had waited in vain for the Maxims. This move compelled the natives to come out into the open. Wilson delegated several of us sharpshooters to protect the rear until our men could march across the vley and take position in the timber. Several times, a mild rush was made, but we dropped so many of the savages that they evidently concluded it was needless to take undue risks to rush the end, since they had us in a circle of spear points. When we reached the timber, the firing ceased.
Wilson now re-formed our little column. We had several wounded men, besides dismounted troopers leading wounded horses. These were put in the centre. Captain Judd and I were told to lead slowly toward the Shangani and Forbes’s column. Major Wilson, Captain Borrow, and Ingram brought up the rear. We marched unmolested for about a mile. Then Wilson and Borrow galloped up to me, and Wilson asked me if I would try to get through to Forbes. I told him I did not think it possible, as I knew a big impi lay between, but I was perfectly willing to make a try. Borrow said, “Gooding will ride with you. He is an Australian and a good man.” He was the trooper riding just behind me. He was a stranger to me, but he spurred his horse alongside, and seemed game to ride and fairly well mounted, as mounts went in our emaciated troop. Just as we turned away, the thought came to me to ask for Ingram. We had done many things together, and it seemed fitting that in this last fight we should also be together. Wilson said, “I will send him up at once.”
As Ingram galloped up, I turned to tell Trooper Gooding that he could return to his place in the column, but he seemed still willing to ride. As the end for us all was at hand, it mattered little where we should fire the last shot. The three of us rode away and soon came up against the other wall of guns and spears which I knew hemmed us in. The enemy had seen us first and were waiting, crouched on the ground, until we came within fifty yards of them. On my right was comparatively open forest; on my left a clump of young, tough mapani trees about the thickness of my wrist. It seemed as if no horse could move through this thicket. My natural judgment would have been to turn into the more open ground where we had a bare chance of finding a thin spot in the enemy line. But some inner voice seemed to ring in my ears the sharp command, “Turn left! Turn left! Turn left!”
Setting spur to my horse, I plunged him into the thicket as the heavy fire from the Matabele broke over us. Once he fell to his knees, but rose again and partially cleared a way for Gooding, who was right behind me. Ingram’s mount refused to jump into the heavy bush and turned on him, but Ingram was a skilled rider, and by bringing a free foot along the horse’s jaw with a terrible blow, managed to turn him and plunge thought behind us, in time to avoid being stabbed, as the natives were almost upon him with their spears. After a minute or two of struggling through the bush, the growth thinned and gave us a chance to move our horse more freely. We had actually met the tip of the right horn of Gamba’s impis that had been thrown between Wilson and Forbes and formed part of the circle surrounding Wilson.
The custom of the Matabele is to form a charging regiment into a crescent, putting the strongest warriors in the centre and the young men and fast runners on either tip. Using the figure of a bull, they say the old warriors are the head to crush; the young warriors are the horns to gore. An enemy caught on either horn, if he stops to fight, is doomed.
It so happened that this very patch of bush was the only part of the circle around Wilson not held in force by the enemy. As we broke through it into fairly open forest, we were pursued by about two hundred agile young warriors. Until our exhausted horses could get their breath from the rush through the thicket, we held them to a pace just a trifle faster than the warriors could run. Then we galloped out of sight toward the Shangani and afterward slowed to a walk. Soon we heard shouts behind us and knew they were again on our trail, so we hastened on. Reaching a narrow vley abut three hundred yards wide, it occurred to me to try a trick that would never have worked with Apache Indians, but might work with the African natives, especially with the young and less experienced warriors.
The vley after the heavy rains was soft enough to leave no distinct shoe marks, only a black streak of mud three or four inches deep, as we rode through. On reaching the opposite side, we spread out and rapidly made two or three separate circles, each one trying to put his horse over as much dry ground as possible, to baffle trailers. We then came together again in single file and carefully waded our horses along the back-track across the vley, leaving a very distinct black trail. On hitting the dryer ground, we left the trail singly and cached ourselves in clumps of bush where we could dismount and give our panting horses a breathing spell.
We had not been hidden more than a few minutes before we heard the guns of Wilson’s men and the shots and shouts of hundreds of the enemy in attack. Along our trail came runners followed by about a hundred warriors. We could easily have killed a number of them, but feared to fire lest it bring other hundreds to their aid. The Matabele ran on to the edge of the vley, which we could see through our screen of bush. With the black trail of mud directly in front of them they were misled and overran our return tracks just as we had hoped, and all crossed to the opposite side, where the trailers beat about confusedly with much shouting and cursing. We were glad to see that some of the warriors sat down to rest while the trail was being worked out. Finally, there came an exultant yell, and we saw them all running back on our tracks.
Burnham's book, long out of print, has been republished in a very inexpensive paperback edition, and for mere pennies as an e-book. I recommend it very highly.