Battle of Bembesi (called Egodade by the amaNdebele)
- This battle fought on the 1st November 1893 was the decisive battle of the Matabele War. The attack by Matabele riflemen and 6,000 warriors came as a complete surprise to Major Forbes’ force.
- The Ngubi, Mbezu and Nsukamini regiments fought bravely, but were no match for the crushing firepower of the column’s Maxim machine guns and about 2,500 more Matabele were killed. The Maxim gun had been invented by Sir Hiram Maxim in 1883. It has been called "the weapon most associated with British imperial conquest" and played a vital role at Shangani and Bembesi.
- Very accessible, the major positions on the battlefield are easily seen and the plaque on the Memorial records the result of the battle and also the bravery of the Ndebele.
At the junction of the Bulawayo to Gweru highway (A5) and the Falcon College road 34 kilometres from Bulawayo is the Battle of Bembesi Monument on White's Run Farm.
Note the Monument plaque states the battle was fought 300 yards south; in fact, it is 1.3 kilometres south.
GPS reference for Memorial: 20⁰02′13.39″S 28⁰52′35.23″E
GPS reference for gravesite: 20⁰02′52.20″S 28⁰52′53.17″E
Following the Battle of Shangani River (called Bonko by the amaNdebele) on 25th October, the columns moved in their parallel tracks south west towards Bulawayo and their impending confrontation with Lobengula.
The Salisbury (now Harare) and Victoria (now Masvingo) columns, numbering six hundred and ninety mounted white men with Martini Henry rifles, about four hundred Shona tribesmen on foot, two seven-pounder field guns and eight machine guns, of which five were Maxims, approached on parallel tracks from the east and laagered about 11:30am on the high point 1.3 kilometres south east of the memorial and a few hundred metres west of the Falcon College road; the Salisbury column on the current site of the Terblanche family cemetery and the Victoria column a little south on the site of destroyed farm buildings. Note the Memorial plaque incorrectly states the laager as 275 metres (300 yards) The combined laager area extended about 160 metres, but a small Ndebele kraal of eight huts separated the two columns thus restricting their mutual supporting fire, there was also dead ground and thick thorn bush which enabled the Ingubo and Imbizo Regiments to approach quite closely without being detected. Both columns oxen and most horses were nearly two kilometres away where there were pools of water in the Ncema headstream. The troopers were scattered making lunch as it was midday and the thorn fences to join the two laagers were still not built.
The usual Ndebele tactic was to attack before dawn; but the eight Ndebele Regiments comprising some 5,000 – 6,000 warriors made good use of the thick thorn bush and the centre’s attack at midday came as a complete surprise. Suddenly the young warriors of the Imbeza and Ingubo Regiments burst out of cover and charged the nearest laager, five hundred yards away across open ground firing their guns on the move, but their shooting although heavy was inaccurate and caused few casualties, while the columns raced to get their Maxims into action. The attack on a heavily defended laager was in direct defiance of Lobengula’s orders, which were to attack at river crossings, as happened at Shangani River.
There was a mounted picket of two men (Troopers White and Thompson) a kilometre north of the laager (near the intersection of the A5 and Falcon College Roads) that were taken completely by surprise as they sat under the shade of a thorn tree. Frederick Thompson failed to catch his horse and climbed a tree, but was killed; White caught his horse, then fell off and ran exhausted into the laager, luckily keeping to the line of the Falcon College Road, so the Gardener gun could keep firing. The farm was later named White's Run Farm.
The warriors were charging against machine guns, in the open and in broad daylight with the Salisbury laager on the north taking the brunt of the attack. Major Alan Wilson, the commander of the Fort Victoria column wheeled around three of his Maxims, and a Hotchkiss gun to the eastern side of the Salisbury laager which added considerably to their firepower. A Matabele survivor recalled that when the "sigwagwa", as they called the Maxims, opened fire "they killed such a lot of us that we were taken by surprise, the wounded and the dead lay in heaps."
Nevertheless the warriors rallied and returned to the charge at least three times, advancing to within a hundred and ten yards of the laager. Sir John Willoughby, who was with the column, later said that "I cannot speak too highly of the pluck of the Ingubo and Imbizo Regiments. I believe that no civilised army could have withstood the terrific fire they did for at most half as long." But the only result of their incredible courage and discipline was the loss of some 500 – 600 killed and wounded, before they finally retired.
Major Patrick Forbes, the commander, describes the initial Ndebele fire as quite intense and the Salisbury column had a Maxim, Gardner and Nordenfeldt gun as well as 150 troopers firing back. Disaster was narrowly averted when the column’s 400 horses stampeded towards the Insuga Regiment in the west, but were saved when Capt. Henry Borrow and Sir John Willoughby galloped after them under fire and headed them off. All attempts by the Ndebele Regiments to work their way on the flanks were defeated by the long range fire of the Maxim’s. The fighting lasted about forty minutes before the Ndebele retired, Napier says in a sulky sort of way, not hurrying or taking cover, but walking back quietly until they were out of sight.
These abbreviated notes are from Burnham: King of Scouts:
At 1 o’clock, with the sun shining through cotton-ball clouds, Major Forbes ordered mess call. The troopers were forming in line to eat when the bugler sounded the alarm of an enemy attack. The Cape boys abandoned their scherm-building and sought shelter inside the two laagers. From the onset, this battle was a real corpse-and-cartridge occasion. The air was hot and thick with bullets.
Fred heard the blowing of bugles and shouts of officers yelling orders. White soldiers dashed about, searching for their weapons and running toward battle stations. Burnham took up his post at the rear wheel of a trek wagon. He saw a blaze of flame issue from the regiment’s rifles. His view of the enemy was blocked by the Salisbury column laagered to the north. Major Allan Wilson rode up on his bigger version of Zebra.
“I want volunteers.”
A trek wagon was pulled out of line to make an opening for Wilson’s volunteers. Fred laid down the Martini-Henry issue rifle and picked up his Winchester carbine. Mounting Zebra, he rode out to catch up with Major Wilson. “Forbes won’t get all the credit this time,” Wilson yelled over the din of battle. Burnham could scarcely believe what he was hearing.
Sweating profusely, the commander of the Victoria Column galloped north, leading a small group of men into the thick of the action two hundred yards away. Fred was pondering Wilson’s jealousy when he heard a commotion behind him. He looked over his shoulder and his heart skipped a beat. Horses and oxen from the Victoria laager were escaping from the unfinished cattle scherm. If the Matabele were to perfect a stampede – as the Apaches surely would – the whites would be unhorsed in the heart of Matabeleland. For that mistake, the penalty is death. I’ll never see Blanche or Rod, or the unborn baby. I hope the end will be swift.
Fred spurred zebra to warn Major Wilson. As he drew alongside, the rattle of Maxim fire drowned out his voice. Ahead, he saw a large induna leading an assault. Suddenly, the hairs on Fred’s neck stood out. Running behind their leader, wearing war paint and carrying shields, were more Matabele soldiers than he had ever seen. They were formed into an unwavering line in the deep veld grass, their horn-crescent formation spread over the open meadow for nearly a mile. The blacks screamed “jee” and ran towards the Salisbury laager.
Their charge was answered by a peppering of rifle fire, followed by the heavier, staccato burst of the Maxim guns. Hundreds of blacks fell. Still the horned crescent rolled across the veld like an ocean wave. Seemingly nothing could block it.
“My God” Wilson cried out. “Thousands of them.”
“Major –“ Fred tried to warn his commander about the escaping horses, but an explosion from the Salisbury laager cut him off. It was the Hotchkiss. A moment later, a shrapnel charge from Charlie Lendy’s cannon exploded over the left flank of the horned crescent. A score of Matabele fell, dead or wounded. More Hotchkiss shells exploded. The acrid smell of cordite mingled with the reek of horse manure. The young blacks on the left flank of the horned crescent crumbled, broke ranks and retreated toward the Bembesi River.
The centre of the impi, the older, more experienced warriors, continues a stern assault. A shrapnel charge from the Hotchkiss exploded over the right flank, dismembering a dozen attackers. Like the grape-shot cannons of the American Civil War, each shot from the Hotchkiss gun cleared a swath twenty yards wide of all humanity. Survivors fled to the trees to fashion nooses and hang themselves. Fred could scarcely believe his eyes.
That’s when Captain Lendy turned his attention to the centre of the horned crescent, the symbolic head of the Cape buffalo. In quick succession, the Hotchkiss barked three times. Shrapnel charges exploded over the centre of the black impi, and the regiment began coming apart. Panic stricken, the elder warriors ran in circles while others tried to fire at the incoming artillery shells.
Then the Maxims found the range and swept the Matabele down like blades of grass before a farmer’s sickle. The sun augured mercilessly on this scene of dismemberment and destruction. Unnatural noise filled the air, a sonic horror. Hyenas and vultures awaited joyfully. As dying men evacuated their bladders and bowels, the combined stench of human piss, shit and death was overwhelming.
Three times more the Matabele regrouped to launch attacks and thrice more the Hotchkiss broke up the horns of the crescent and then the head. Finally, the Maxims opened up to mow down the survivors. It was the worst military defeat that Burnham could conceive of and he was sickened at the frightful squander of human life. Then he recalled the escaping horses.
Burnham looked back at the Victoria Column, blood racing. Two men were chasing the fleeing stock. One was Captain Henry Borrow, the adjutant of the old Pioneer Column, the group that had opened up Mashonaland in 1890. Borrow was well mounted and doing a splendid job. It was the other rider who astonished Fred. Digby Willoughby was astride a bay horse and riding as if they were pursued by lions. With pistols in each hand, he drove back a score of running Matabele who tried to capture the galloping horses. He then manoeuvred the animals toward the Bembesi River, a resourceful act because after a good gallop thirsty horses will always stop to drink. Fred relaxed knowing the stampede was ended.
If the Matabele commander planned a fifth assault that day, it never came. The firing died away and in time the troopers rode out to survey the battlefield. Within half an hour, the area had returned so much to normal that a herd of zebra began crossing the Bembesi River.
The number of dead was enormous. At least eight hundred bodies lay in the field, some warriors blown apart by artillery and machine gun fire. The wounded appeared to number equally high. The ultimate count was that fifteen hundred blacks died as a result of the forty-five minute engagement. The officers called roll to assess casualties; four men killed and seven wounded.
The European casualties included Trooper Frederick Thompson, who is buried on the battlefield; Troopers Carey and Siebert who died of their wounds the following day and Trooper Calcraft who died three days later at Bulawayo.
The following is compiled from the note books of Jack Carruthers, a Victoria Scout present at both the Shangani and Bembezi battles:
The Im'Bizo and In'Gubu regiments once more employed their typical Zulu tactic - we had not long to wait. Jack had just come in and was off-saddling his horse when the cadet's firing started, the bugle sounded just after midday. They saw a rider less horse making for laager, promptly followed by Kem White a formidable athlete, who came in running with the Matabele close on his heels from the west, his companion having been stabbed. Thompson, his companion on outpost duty was assegai'd while trying to scale a tree. The Salisbury side of the laager was the first to open fire. Bill Whittaker with his big Nordenfeldt gun saved Kem in his long run for his life. The impi came on in great force from the rear, endeavouring to encircle them.
The laager was carefully selected. The big guns were well placed. Over 1,400 Matabele had no chance of reaching them. The Maxims inflicted heavy losses; many lay dead 400 yards away on the west side. Only two of the enemy ran close in and were killed, a big hefty Matabele and his son. The Column had almost a mishap - the horses stampeded westwards with the firing of the big guns. A plucky Dutchman, Piet Mathuisen, who was on horse-guard, hurried them back into laager. He courageously saved the situation, racing them down and turning them heedless of the Matabele who were determined to scatter the stampeding horses. Short Maxim bursts were strategically fired to narrow the path of the horses. A few willing men rode out to assist in bringing them all in.
Overwhelmed by firepower the Matabele were again utterly routed, the overconfident young impi had been taught a lesson. The youthful elite had made a supreme effort but suffered the greatest sacrifice. The Amaveni in the left horn attempted support but were driven to ground at the edge of the bush protection by the Victoria Column.
The Victoria Column were only minimally engaged while the Salisbury Column took the brunt of the attacks, they had several casualties. Two died of wounds the following day, Troopers Cary and Siebert, as well as another on reaching Bulawayo. Had the Salisbury horses been lost, the column would have been stranded in the middle of Matabele country. Early afternoon the battle was over. Scattered transport animals were collected and a few of the wounded warriors were brought into laager for information. Nothing would persuade them to talk. Jack Nesbitt and the Salisbury black watch took charge of the poor devils in the morning. There were over 500 Matabele killed in this fight that almost finished the war. Jack afterwards found many had later managed to find their way back to their kraals and died of their wounds. Jack’s friend Tom Lynch was slightly wounded. The wounded found on the battlefield were treated mercifully. The Im'Bizo Regiment set fire to their big kraal then retreated quite out of sight and in no particular hurry. They gathered up a number of Martini Henry rifles, part of Rhodes payment to Lobengula for the concession."
The Battle of Bembezi Monument states: “On a hillock 300 yards south of this pillar the Salisbury and Victoria Columns (British South Africa Company’s forces) formed laager about midday on 1st November 1893. During the halt they were heavily attacked by a large force of Matabele (Imbizo, Ingubo, Isiziba and Ihlati Regiments with Avavene, Icobo and Insukamini Regiments in reserve) The battle was hard and the Matabele charged with the greatest courage three times in the face of machine gun fire, but after suffering very many casualties were compelled to withdraw. This was the decisive battle for Rhodesia and the columns marched on to Bulawayo which they occupied on the 4th November 1893.”
Sir John Willoughby. Chapter XIII and XIV in W.A. Wills and L.T. Collingridge. The Downfall of Lobengula. Books of Rhodesia. 1971
R.F.H. Summers and C.W.D. Pagden. Notes on the Battlefields at Shangani and Bembesi. Rhodesiana No.17 Dec 1967
Burnham, King of Scouts. P. Van Wyk. Trafford publishing. 2003
Notes from Sergeant Jack Carruthers. Victoria Scout Shangani and M ‘Bembezi Fights. October - November 1893. Copyright © 2007 by Ian Carruthers.