Battle For Intombe River Drift

by Daniel Russ on August 1, 2010

March 12th, 1879. The Zulu Wars are raging inside of Transvaal and Natal Province. British forces are barricading themselves and building up reserves. It was one of those re-supply missions that brought on the Battle of Intombe River. The river itself was an obstacle to eighteen wagons loaded with 90,000 round of rifle ammunition headed for a compound at Luneburg. The compound itself was a source of aggravation to Zulus who were seeing increasingly, white men show up on their tribal lands. That said, rains and swollen rivers and streams were slowing the advance of the ammunition, and Major Charles Tucker in command of the 80th Regiment sent 100 men out to gather up the ammunition and bring it in on their own backs if necessary.

On the 7th March Major Tucker, commanding the post at Luneberg, despatched Captain Moriarty, with 103 men of the 80th, to Derby to escort the convoy for the last 20 to 30 miles into Luneberg. 5 miles out of Luneberg they came to Meyer’s Drift on the iNtombe River, which was in flood and saw 7 of the wagons on the northern side of the river. It had been raining for days, the wagons had got stuck in the mud and the drivers and voorlopers had been forced to split the convoy as they manhandled each wagon along the sodden track.
Moriarty set his force the task of building a raft and by the following day all but 2 platoons of the 80th had crossed to the northern bank, leaving Lieutenant Lindop in command of the two platoons to improve the water-logged track on the southern bank. Moriarty then set off to find and help the other 11 wagons that had fallen behind.

By the time Moriarty returned to Meyer’s Drift he discovered that 2 wagons had made the crossing but the iNtombe River was now impassable, flowing at about 7 knots. There was nothing he could do until the river waters dropped, and he gave orders for the 16 wagons on the northern bank to be laagered in the form of an inverted ‘v’ with the open-legs of the ‘v’ facing towards the river.

The 3 ammunition carts and oxen were secured inside the ‘v’ and the 71 men tented in 4 bell tents along the left leg of the laager. Moriarty’s own tent was at the point of the ‘v’ on the edge of the wagon track. Lindop’s 35 men on the southern bank, unable to create a laager with 2 wagons, pitched their tents along the sides of the wagons.

By the afternoon of the 11th the rains had cleared and Major Tucker, escorted by Lieutenant Harward, arrived at the drift from Luneberg to inspect the work in progress. Tucker immediately noticed that Moriarty’s laager was poor. Large gaps existed between each wagon and the end of the laager legs were too far from the river. Tucker advised Moriarty to improve his laager and rode back to Luneberg with Lieutenants Tucker and Lindop, leaving Lieutenant Harward in command of the 35 men on the southern bank.

As dusk fell it began to drizzle once more. No piquets were posted, a sentry stood guard on either bank as ‘D’ Company turned in for another wet night. At 4.00am the following morning, the sentry on the southern bank heard a shot fired from the northern bank and awoke Harward, who stood his men to and sent a soldier across the river to ensure that Moriart’’s position was secure. A few minutes later the soldier returned, informed Harward that he’d woken Moriarty, telling him of the shot and that Moriarty had then given orders for his force to stand to.

Whether Moriarty was ever advised of the shot one will never know as he, together with his men, was asleep when about 1,000 of Mbelini’s marauding warriors assaulted the laagered position, firing their rifles and thrusting with their assegais as the men stumbled out of their tents. Harward and his force on the southern bank immediately opened fire causing hundreds of Mbelini’s warriors to cross the river and assault Harward’s unfortified position.

In amongst the chaos on the northern bank, Moriarty was seen in his nightshirt, shouting Guards out. Within seconds Moriarty was surrounded by a number of warriors but fought his way down the side of the laager to the river, killing 2 Zulu with his revolver and snatching an assegai from one that he’d shot. Once his revolver was empty he thrust and stabbed with the assegai at those assaulting him, receiving an assegai wound and bullet in his chest, he fell shouting I’m done. Fire away boys. Death or glory, as an assegai ended his life. Moriarty’s men were totally out-numbered and slaughtered in their nightshirts as they tumbled out of their tents.

Just when the re supply train was split in two on both sides of the river the Zulus attacked in mass. 800 to 1000 Zulu warriors under the command of Zulu tribal leader Mbelini overwhelmed the men in short order and pursued the survivors. In all, 82 of the 100 men died and the Zulus were unscathed.

Before the end of the year, however, British expeditionary forces would overwhelm the Zulu armies.

Source: Wiki, Battle, A Journey Through 500 Years Of Combat. GR. G. Grant, 2008.

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