Monday, January 31, 2011

Prequel: A march through Zululand

In the vein of the Campaigns of General William Augustus Pettygree, it is fitting that the first dispatch chronicle the march of a column under the command of Lieutenant John Thirkill, 88th Foot, through the wilds of South Africa. For those familiar with the General's exploits, the format will be similar. Photos can be clicked once or twice to enlarge them.

Dramatis Personae:
Lieutenant John Thirkill, 88th Foot,
Sergeant Arthur Hollis, Royal Marine Light Infantry

Location:  Natal?
Time: December, 1878

A column of eight men of the 88th Foot and fourteen Marines of HMS Active departed for a Fort deep in Natal. Rumors of war and preparations fill the air. 

The column left camp before dawn. Lt. Thirkill and the Connaught Rangers formed a skirmish screen. The RMLI under Sgt. Hollis formed the main column marching down the dusty track.
Ahead looms a river to ford, and the ruins of an abandoned stone building. The map provided by the Naval Brigade's intelligence officer showed a mission station just across the river, though the missionaries were supposedly long since burned out. With tensions high, might the ruins hold an ambush for LT Thirkill and his party?

Unbeknownst to the gallant lieutenant, the column is being observed from the adjacent rocky heights. Or is it?

The column soon reaches the river. The Connaught Rangers take what little cover there is behind the scrub and trees lining the banks:
Sergeant Hollis is suspicious. A veteran of long experience ashore with Active's Naval Brigade in the Ninth Frontier War, he feels that things are far too quiet. A few commands shake the Actives out of column and into a short line. The most experienced men anchor the flanks. Bayonets are leveled, and the sergeant himself takes up the right flank.

"Watch out for young Chappie, lads! His mum's expecting him home for tea."

As the sun begins to rise behind them, Thirkill pushes his men right up to the creek. Very little water fills its banks, and the men are easily able to cross. Lt. Thirkill also feels that he's being observed.
Is somebody living in the ruins of the mission? Are there Zulus waiting beyond the hills waiting to pounce? Has war been declared?

Thirkill decides that discretion is the better part of valor. He orders the skirmish line to fall back on the Actives. He will avail himself of the greater experience of Sergeant Hollis.

Two of the Connaught Rangers are detailed to inspect the ruins.
They gingerly march up to the structure, as the rest of the column prepares to support them (or avenge them) with fire from their Martini-Henri rifles. Is anyone hiding within?
The detail is relieved to find the mission abandoned.

The column is quickly hurried over the creek. Finding a few tables and chairs in the ruins, Lt. Thirkill confers with Sergeant Hollis and his bugler. The Actives reform into a column and throw out four men as skirmishers under the experienced Pvt. T. Smith (one of three Smiths in Active's Marines). The Connaught Rangers screen the flank facing the rocky heights.
"Reporting as directed, SAH!"

"Yes, Hollis. We do seem to have not found those chaps that were giving us the long eye. I was sure they were here at the Mission. Poor thing what happened to those nuns."

"They be watching us from those rocks up there. The walls only open to the east, and we'd have seen 'em otherwise."

"Rather dashed cunning of them. They're sure to be long gone by now with word of our route to the Fort. There's no time to lose. Push down the road; we'll clear those rocks and rejoin the main column."

"Very good, SAH!"

Private Smith (with the big black beard) bellowed. "You heard the Sergeant! Double quick now! Eyes front, Pepperell!" He's sure to make corporal soon, with Corporal Botwood still under Surgeon Norbury's care.

"Buck up Chappie lad. No Zulus today! Stick close and you'll be writing yer mum from the Fort tonight."

"Yes, Sergeant."

The Connaughts storm the rocks with leveled bayonets as the marines double-time down the road.

"There's no sign of them Zulu buggers, sah."

"Very well. Back to the column lads. On to the Fort!"

Will the column make it to the Fort safely? Are Lt. Thirkill and Sgt. Hollis right? Was there someone on that rocky hill, or had they just had a touch too much sun?

 Stay tuned to find out!

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