Battle of Shangani (called Bonko by the amaNdebele)
- This was the first battle for Lobengula’s seasoned warriors who had been urging Lobengula to attack ever since the white settlers had crossed the Shashe River in July 1890 to settle in Mashonaland.
- Great bravery was shown by both sides, but particularly by the amaNdebele Regiments who attacked time and time again in the face of the crushing Maxim gun fire supported by artillery. This was the first time the Maxim gun was used against combatants and played a decisive role in the battle.
- The amaNdebele showed considerable tactical skill attacking when the column was in a vulnerable position shortly after crossing the Shangani River and before dawn. Both Forbes and Wilson would have liked to march on, but the evening was closing in by the time both columns had crossed the Shangani River drifts and although the site was far from perfect; it was well-suited to the use of the Maxim guns with clear fields of fire.
- The amaNdebele planned to attack with a silent dawn charge, but a Shona picket fired an alarm shot as they closed in on Quested’s laager to the east. On their defeat their leader Manonda committed suicide by hanging himself.
From Bulawayo: take the A5 towards Gweru; pass Shangani, 1.3 KM before crossing the Shangani River
reach the Shangani Memorial. The neat stone plinth survives, but the metal plaque has been torn out and the former sign has been removed although the metal uprights remain.
From the Zimbabwe Military museum in Gweru take the A5 towards Bulawayo; 56 KM pass the Shangani River Bridge, 57.3 KM the Shangani Memorial plaque is on the right-hand side of the road.
GPS reference for the Salisbury Column Shangani River drift: 19⁰44′16.95″S 29⁰24′47.30″E
GPS reference for the Victoria Column Shangani River drift: 19⁰44′32.72″S 29⁰24′45.98″E
GPS reference for the laager site: 19⁰44′33.53″S 29⁰19′38.35″E
The Salisbury and Fort Victoria columns joined together at Iron Mine hill on the morning of 16th October 1893 and advanced in parallel columns in the direction of Bulawayo; their combined strength at the Shangani River was about 1,727 men (672 white and 1,055 Shona; mostly men but with some released captive Shona women) with 414 horses. Apart from individual rifles they had three galloping maxims, one seven-pounder Gardiner gun, one seven-pounder screw-gun, a one pounder Hotchkiss gun and a Nordenfeldt gun. The Columns arrived at the Shangani River on the morning of 24th October 1893 about 9am. Major P.W. Forbes in command and Major Alan Wilson found locations just north of the present national road bridge where it would be possible to dig two separate drifts for each column down the banks of the Shangani River. They left the men cutting away the banks and rode ahead to find a suitable spot for the night’s laager of both columns which they found about a 900 metres west from the Shangani.
The columns arrived on the river’s eastern side about 9:00am on the 24 October 1896 and made temporary laagers; by 3:00pm the drifts across the Shangani River had been made and two troops of mounted men were sent together with two Maxim guns and a seven-pounder to the small kopje south west of the crossing point and next to the national road to cover the river crossing. Two other mounted troops crossed the river; one under Captain Borrow to the line of small hills on the northern horizon one and a half kilometres away; the other under Captain Fitzgerald to the south of today’s A5 along a small tributary of the Shangani River to prevent any attack from this side during the river crossing.
The Salisbury columns had twenty-one wagons, the Victoria column eighteen wagons and they both hurried to cross the two drifts; all realised the river crossing made them particularly vulnerable to attack. The more northerly Salisbury Column got across the drift onto the west bank of the Shangani River in just sixteen minutes; the Victoria column took nineteen minutes to cross. The two columns combined as one to save time cutting tracks and to reach the best possible laager site before nightfall. Both Forbes and Wilson would have preferred to have moved on further than the 900-1,000 metres from the Shangani River, but by 4:30pm they needed to form the laagers and build kraals for the cattle before nightfall.
NAZ: The Salisbury Column crossing the Shangani river on 24 October 1893
The columns had captured about 1,000 cattle and 900 sheep and goats and released many captive Shona (Maholi) of the amaNdebele as they made their way towards Bulawayo, so that their numbers had gradually risen to over one thousand. Little grain for the animals had been found and there was not much time to build a cattle kraal before dark; but a makeshift one was sited east of the wagon laager. The Shona built a makeshift kraal for themselves about 550 metres away from the laager site; others slept in the open in the vicinity of the laager.
The Google earth snapshot shows the main features of the battlefield. The Shangani River flows from south to North on the east side of the snapshot; the combined Column laager site is indicated by Purple = Salisbury laager, yellow = the thorn bush kraal for the trek oxen, green = Victoria laager, brown = the kraal for the captured cattle. The blue polygon north of the small hill = Quested’s Shona kraal.
The positions indicated are speculative, as no permanent signs of the laager were left; but are based on Major Forbes stating they were about 300-350 metres from the small rise - the highest point between the laager and the Shangani River – which Major Willoughby’s map shows as due east from the laager site that the columns had skirted around and that they had trekked about 900 metres from the drifts on the Shangani River to their laager site.
The attached diagram shows the layout of the combined laagers on the night of 24th October 1893 with the Salisbury laager to the north. The mounted troops were inside the laager, the dismounted men and artillery formed the outlying pickets on guard duty about 100 metres from the outer edge of the laager. That night there were 10 groups of pickets: 8 of white Troopers comprising an NCO and six Troopers and 2 of Shona, comprising an NCO and 3 guards.
The patrols sent out earlier under Captains Borrow and Fitzgerald came in shortly before nightfall and reported seeing no amaNdebele (Matabele) and only a few Maholi (Shona slaves) brought in by Fitzgerald’s patrol. These had relatives in Mr Quested’s contingent and there was much rejoicing amongst them until late. Shortly after dark Forbes sent up signal rockets on the chance that some of the scouts from the southern column approaching from Fort Tuli were in the neighbourhood.
The amaNdebele had followed the Column from the Somabhula Forest to the east and soon after dark crossed the Shangani River and began to surround the laager and Quested’s Shona kraal. The plan had been to attack about 10:30pm, but the noisy rejoicing amongst the Shona and then the signal rockets which they had never encountered before, resulted in the attack being postponed.
Just before 4am when the laager would customarily wake for the “stand-to” in the pre-dawn darkness, around 5,000 amaNdebele were positioned around the site. Sir John Willoughby’s map shows how close that had moved to the laager without detection. Some Shona from Quested’s camp were walking down to the Shangani River for water and walked straight into warriors of the Insiziba Regiment. They immediately attacked Quested’s kraal and began to kill men, women and children there.
The following is from Major Forbes account of the battle in the book The Downfall of Lobengula by W.A. Wills and L.T. Collingridge: “At five minutes to four the following morning we were suddenly awakened by quick firing and realised the enemy were on us. The wagons were manned immediately and fire opened all around the laager. It was too dark to see the natives at first, but their position was shown by the flashes that came from the grass all around the laager. [The Matabele were equipped with a mixture of Martini-Henry rifles supplied by Rhodes for the Rudd Concession and assorted muskets bought in Kimberley and from Portuguese traders] I jumped up onto the nearest wagon and tried to see into the darkness, but could distinguish nothing but the flashes, which were very close and frequent. The enemy were so close to us that I did not think it safe to stop firing, even if I had been able to do so in the noise that was going on and I was very much afraid that some of the men on picket would be killed either by friends or enemies and I was greatly relieved to hear shortly afterwards that they all got safely in. During the attack Quested (in charge of the native contingent) came into the laager. He had been sleeping with his natives and they had received the brunt of the attack, waking up to find the Matabele right upon them and stabbing them. Quested managed to make a stand for a short time and then retired on the laager with his people; he was wounded in the arm and side and had his thumb shot off. Most of his people managed to get inside the laager, although several were wounded. C Troop was inlying picket and had saddled up their horses at the first alarm. A Troop was on the right and B on the left of the laager. The first attack lasted about half-an-hour and then the enemy’s fire ceased; it was still too dark to see any distance, but objects in the immediate vicinity were visible.
As I was afraid that some of our friendly natives might have failed to get into the laager, I sent Captain Spreckley with twenty mounted men to go round the open ground close to the laager and see if he could find anyone; he brought in several of our natives and a few shots were fired at his party from the bush, but no harm was done.
Shortly after they returned and when it was getting light enough to see some distance, a large number of natives were seen collecting on the top of a small rise about 350 yards [320 metres] to the south-east of the laager. I was standing with Mr Chappe at the Maxim at the left rear of our laager watching them through glasses and from the quiet way they were moving about, took them to be some of our natives who had escaped into the bush at the first alarm and now gone there for safety. There must have been between 200 – 300 of them and I could see no shields among them. After they had collected on top of the rise, they opened out and began to walk quietly towards the laager; I and I think everyone who was watching them except Mr Chappe, who insisted they were Matabele, thought they were friendlies. They advanced down the slope in a most casual way, without hurrying or attempting to take cover and I allowed no firing on them. When they got to the bottom of the slope, they suddenly sat down and commenced to fire at us. A very heavy fire was at once poured on them from two or three Maxims and about 200 rifles and they forced to retire over the hill much faster than they had come down. The way they advanced was most plucky and we found out afterwards they were the Insukameni, the best regiment there. Had the whole of the attacking force come on in the same way, we should have had more trouble than we had. As soon as they advanced, firing recommenced from the bush all round; but very few natives appeared in the open and after they retired, the firing ceased again.
After waiting for some time, during which only a few shots were fired at us at long distances and it was now broad daylight, patrols were sent out to see if the enemy had retired. Each of these parties found the enemy in the bush within half-a-mile of the laager and after a sharp skirmish, in which we lost four horses, had to fall back to the laager towards which the enemy followed them, but were driven back by the Maxims. A large number of Matabele now appeared on a small kopje, 2,000 yards to the west of the laager and they appeared to be reforming there, but three well-directed shells from the Salisbury seven-pounder dispersed them. Meanwhile Captain Lendy was doing great execution with the Hotchkiss gun, firing at small parties crossing the open 1,500 – 2,000 yards to the south and south-west of the laager. It was afterwards found that one of the one-pounder shells had killed twelve men.”
Mounted patrols were then sent out and all encountered the amaNdebele with Captain Heany being attacked so heavily his patrol had to retire to a better position at the gallop before opening fire on them and driving them back into the bush. He had two horses wounded, but no other casualties although there were some close escapes, one trooper having the sole of his boot and another had his belt cut by bullets. The amaNdebele position was then shelled by the seven-pounder.
Major Forbes continues: “we ascertained from a wounded native who was brought in that the force which attacked us consisted of the Insukameni, Ihlati, Amaveni and Siseba Regiments and Jingen, Enxna, Zinyangene and Induba kraals, in all not less than 5,000; that they had been waiting for us in the Somabula Forest, but that we had passed it before they knew where we were and that they had then followed us up, expecting to catch us before we got to the Shangani River; that they had arrived shortly before dark the previous evening and had been in position to attack about 10pm, but the rocket signal and rockets sent up had frightened them and the attack had been postponed until daybreak. They were all to advance as close to the laager as possible under the cover of darkness and then rush in with assegais. It was finding Quested’s natives so far away that caused the first firing and so gave us the alarm.”
It has been estimated that by the time the amaNdebele withdrew, they had suffered around 1,500 fatalities; Trooper Walters of the Victoria column was wounded and died the same night and six others were wounded including Trooper Forbes, the Major’s brother. A Shona wagon driver and around 40 – 50 friendlies were killed, including women and children, mainly from the initial attack. Lobengula's warriors were well-drilled and formidable; but the firepower of the Column’s Maxim guns, which had never before been used in battle, far exceeded expectations. Major Forbes attributes their low casualties to the belief by the amaNdebele that the higher they put up the sights of their rifles, the harder they would shoot and consequently nearly all their shots were too high. Forbes also says: “we had noticed a curious thing that morning, that whenever a shell exploded all the Matabele nearby fired their rifles at it; on enquiry from a prisoner we found that they thought that the shell was full of little white men, who ran out as soon as it burst and killed everybody nearby; we saw this done almost every time a shell was fired during the campaign.”
That same afternoon the two columns moved on about five kilometres into the open plain probably north of where Shangani is now situated and set up a new laager.
The following notes provide a different perspective from that of Major Forbes and are compiled from the note books of Jack Carruthers, a Victoria Scout present at both the Shangani and Bembezi battles.
"October the 24th around 4 p.m. we rode back as the column was preparing a drift. They had called a halt at the river. Captain Charles Lendy, a keen artilleryman, was trying out a Maxim gun. Knowing our combined columns were being shadowed, preparations for safety were promptly made. We laagered just before dark.
The Shangani laager was situated on top of a rise half a mile west of the present Shangani Bridge. The wagons were formed into a large square about 600 yards up from the river on an elevated ridge overlooking the valley to the south. Some granite hills were situated half a mile to the west. The black watch, as our native levies were called, had cleared our front by cutting down all the scrub-bush on the south and west side of the laager for some distance. The scrub was used for brushing in the openings between the wagons. The picketing ropes for the horses were fixed in the centre. The oxen lay on their yokes with chains turned inwards. The columns held their respective positions east and west forming the Shangani laager. Men were told-off to certain wagons in case of alarm. The native guard under T W Quested took up a position at our rear on a small kopje. At dark Brabant and my brother Bob with Nobby Clarke, came in from the east with some captured cattle and a number of Mashona women, known to some of our black watch. Bob and Nobby were placed between the laager and a timber ridge on the north-east side, they schermed themselves in for the night. Dollar and some scouts, slept out near the timber about a hundred yards east of the drawn-up wagons. I preferred sleeping in laager, telling Bob Carruthers to bring in the horses and picket them. I occupied the top of Bradfield's wagon with Jim Stodart and Harry Cumming. My friend Alfred Webb took up a position underneath. Both Parkin and Lynch were out on guard.
It was just after 2:15am, [note most accounts state almost 4am] a peaceful night, clear sky but on the dark side. The bugles gave the alarm, the camp was all excitement in a moment, all noise with the opening of ammunition boxes and shouting of officers, the men were getting into their places. There was a din outside the laager from the on-rushing Matabele impis that had decided to attack in the usual Zulu fashion. It could be distinctly heard above the confusion of our own loyal natives. My friend Quested's encampment was the first attacked, he lost a finger from a gunshot and just got into laager in the nick of time. It was 3 of his boys that had saved the situation by their going down to fetch water at the river. They walked into the Matabele impi who were planning their attack on the laager. Only one of the boys got back - he was badly stabbed. Brabant and my brother Bob were endeavouring to get the loyal natives to come into laager. The natives were confused, making off in all directions. Most of the women ran into the veldt, only to be killed by the on-rush of the Matabele. Sergeant Reed with the big gun was forced to open fire as the ridge to our east was a black mass of the enemy. Their Indunas were persuading the impi to advance further. My brother held a conversation in Matabele with one that later seemed to me rather amusing. Our scouts had no time to loosen their mounts, several were assegai'd. Texas Long was the only one to bring in his old charger and Dollar lost his mount, the scouts had hardly time to save themselves. The outer sentries also had narrow escapes getting back into laager. I called Webb up into the wagon at the onset, strange to say our small bushman boy was found dead, shot in the place which Webb had vacated.
The Insukameni [Regiment] discarded their shields in a trick that almost worked. Seeing the apparently unarmed warriors approaching the laagers from a kopje on the south, Forbes ordered a cease-fire. The Insukameni pressed forward within a few yards of the laagers before opening fire with their concealed rifles. The full weight of the column fell upon them. Forbes dispatched Captain’s Frederick Fitzgerald and Bastard to the south-west of the Victoria laager after the Matebele's repeated attempts to get close. They were finally driven back. Just after 8am the Matabele launched a third concentrated attack from the north, east and south. This attack drove the mounted men toward the laagers, the artillery then opened fire in support. The Maxims brought an end to the final attacks.
I saw one of our levies actually cut off his dangling arm with his own assegai. The Matabele retreated at daylight; several had hung themselves to trees with their girdles rather than return beaten. One in desperation, it seemed, had fallen on his own assegai. The Salisbury laager had several wounded, one badly who died that night. The deceased was Harry Dalton Watson from Breakfast Vlei near Grahamstown. [Major Forbes says it was Trooper Walters] We buried him at our next camp the following day. Unfortunately we had killed about 40 of our loyal natives having to open fire with the Maxim. The only surviving native woman had been badly stabbed. The Matabele had killed her baby; one assegai wound penetrated her breast from behind. She walked along with the other wounded to Bulawayo. We scouts were away soon after the battle following on the retreating warriors. We climbed the big hill two miles south of the Shangani battlefield. [Tisikiso] Here I had a magnificent panoramic view of the retreating Matabele. There were several impis moving in different directions - their coloured shields in the right hand and assegais in the left, glinting in the morning sun - a picture now so engrained in my mind, I shall always remember this.
Jones who was with me made several attempts to shoot a Matabele spy we had disturbed on the hill. Having only six cartridges for my sporting rifle I did not fire. A troop of the Salisbury Horse, under Major Heany, was almost led into a trap just beyond the granite kopjes out west. In the early afternoon after shelling the natives out of the hills, the columns moved forward for safety to an open plain [what is now the Shangani Siding] We halted, fully prepared for further trouble. The small kraal half a mile up to the right was where Ted Burnett had been wounded while sitting on his horse. The next day found us in timber country. The impis had disappeared and the columns continued forward. The wagons moved slowly, cutting the way meant a great deal of work and delay. The noise of the driving wagons could be heard a long way off. I was given the direct front and scouted out into an open glade about 7 to 8 miles ahead. We heard firing and pulled up. We Scouts were quite out of touch with the moving column at this time. Dollar was with most of the Victoria Scouts were away on the south side. The Salisbury Scouts were somewhere to the north. We suddenly heard a galloping horse passing away to our right, flying for his dear life, but could not see who it was until it had broken out into the open, half a mile ahead of us. After shouting we chased after the hatless rider eventually getting him to stop. It turned out to be Swinburne. He was quite concerned. Pulling up breathless he mentioned Captain Owen Williams had been killed and that the Matebele’s were following him. We rode back part of the way and directed him, with Bain accompanying, towards the oncoming column. This finished his scouting, I never saw him out again. After a tedious day of uncertainty we found the laager at dark. The column had been forced to laager among the big trees, owing to Dollar sending back word that the Matabele were in great force, close by to the south. Captain Jack Spreckley and his troop had been chased in from the north."
Another account of the battle quoted by R.C. Knight is given by George Rattray in a letter written soon after to his mother:
Nov. 11th 1893
My dear Mamma
I take this opportunity to write to you as a carrier goes to Tati tomorrow. I would have written before but have had no chance whatever. We crossed the Shashi on the 15th October and have had a fairly lively time ever since. The Salisbury column joined us about six days after and we have laagered side by side ever since. The day before we met our scouts had the first skirmish and captured six hundred head of cattle, the Salisbury scouts capturing 250. Two hundred and fifty of the best were picked out and sent back to Victoria as loot, the remainder we ate in a couple of weeks. Captain Campbell of Salisbury had his leg shattered by a lump of iron the beggars load their guns with, and had to have the limb cut off, he died the same night and was buried with military honours. We had two or three brushes with them later on and shot a good many but nothing serious occurred till we got to the Umshangaan River. We had to outspan in a bad spot as the oxen were knocked up having to trek a long way for water. There was a good bit of bush about and a rise or small Kopje about 400 yards on our flank. About 4 o'clock in the morning the outlying pickets commenced firing. The alarm was sounded and every man was at his post on the wagons. In the excitement our pickets were mistaken in the dark and had a regular volley of bullets sent into them from both laagers, but fortunately none were hit. The maxims were turned on a lot of our Mahalakas, the useless brutes coming rushing towards the laager with assegais and guns and consequently being mistaken for Matabele. Seven or eight were killed and a numerous lot were wounded. When they were shot they had the sense to lie still till the fight was over. The Matabele got on the Kopje and commenced a galling fire on us as they got behind anthills and stones. There were two regiments we afterwards found out about 5,000 men. As soon as it commenced to get light we could see them and then they got it, directly one showed himself about twenty bullets were after him and one always told.
As soon as the sun got up we were ordered to mount and clear them from the valley and flats. As soon as they were seen from the laager trying to surround us, the Maxims and shell guns opened on them. We soon cleared them out though I can tell you the bullets were coming thick. Reins were cut, shoulder straps taken away, hats bored, horses shot underneath their riders yet strange to say not a man was wounded. The one pounder killed twelve in a lump not far from us and the seven pounder shelled the Kopjes all round within 4 miles. The latter gun did tremendous damage, killing them by fifties. They couldn't make it out at first as they saw the smoke miles off and heard the report and presently another report in the middle of them and dead and dying all round. They call it the "by 'n bye" gun and at first it was amusing to see them fire volley after volley at the shell directly it dropped thinking if they hit it they might kill it. We moved from that place the same afternoon and laagered two miles further on in a good position.
The letter then goes on to describe the Battle of Bembesi.
Major I.M. Tomes in an excellent article on the Matabele War favours the Shangani Drift marked (A) on the Google view; whereas I favour the more northern drift marked (B). When you walk the battle site, the small hill marked on Willoughby’s map is actually bigger than first indicated as shown by the modern farm track / 1896 coach road which has to follow the contour of the hill and is indicated in red by the Google view. The route indicated on Willoughby’s map is generally south west as indicated by the purple route from drift B and does not show the curve around the hill following the contour line. The second argument in favour of drift (B) is that it is much wider than drift (A) which as the photo shows is narrow and has to be indicated with upright stones. The two columns crossed on separate drifts which drift (A) would not permit. Drift (B) is quite shallow, especially in late October ,when the Shangani would be low and would permit two drifts even though they may be close. Although Major Forbes knew the columns were vulnerable crossing the drifts, he mitigated the risk by sending two mounted Troops with two Maxims and a seven-pounder gun onto the small hill to the west and the line of kopjes to the northwest. Two more troops were sent: one under Capt. Borrow to the north and the other under Capt. Fitzgerald to the southwest. Their tasks: “to destroy kraals, seize cattle and prevent us (i.e. the Columns) being attacked while crossing.”
R.F.H. Summers and C.W.D. Pagden, assisted by Col. A.S. Hickman. Notes on the Battlefields at Shangani and Bembesi. Rhodesiana No.17 of December 1967
R.L. Moffat. A further note on the Battle of Shangani. Rhodesiana No.18 of July 1968.
Maj. I.M. Tomes. The Matabele War 1893. Heritage of Zimbabwe. No. 17 1998. P18-73
W.A. Wills and L.T. Collingridge. The Downfall of Lobengula. Books of Rhodesia Volume 17. 1971.
R.C. Knight. Letter from George Rattray. The Journal of the Rhodesian Study Circle. 1987
Notebook of Jack Carruthers. Extract kindly provided by Ian Carruthers