< Myer's Drift >

After the catastrophe of Isandhlwana, the British army in Zululand and Natal shifted to a defensive posture and waited for reinforcements. During this time, five companies of the 80th regiment were stationed at Luneberg, just outside the extreme northwest corner of Zululand in the Transvaal. Their orders were to keep an eye on the Transvaalers and the Swazi to the north.

Supplies for Luneberg had to be brought by wagon from the town of Derby, which was even further north. Part of the supply route cut across Zululand. In early March a supply convoy got trapped on the wrong side of the rain-swollen Intombi River. Captain David Moriarity was dispatched from Luneberg with H Co. of the 80th to find out why the supplies were delayed. He found that only seven of the eighteen wagons had reached the river and Myer's Drift was an unusable wallow. He ferried his men across to the north bank on a raft, left a detachment behind to repair the drift, and went off in search of the missing wagons. He found them stranded several miles further north. Local Zulus had run off much of the oxen, meaning the remaining wagons had to be hauled to the drift in relays.

By the time everything was re-concentrated at the drift, the river was in full flood. Only two wagons had been moved to the south bank, and there was no possibility of moving the others until the water receded.

Here's where the story turns tragic. Morarity apparently had learned very little from current events. He formed his sixteen wagons on the north bank into a large inverted V but it was hardly a laager. Groups of men could easily pass between the wagons, and the wagon line ended so short of the riverbank that several tents were pitched in the gaps. Morarity split his men, keeping 70 with him on the north bank and placing 30 with the two wagons on the south bank under Lt. Henry Hollingworth Harward. Harward had come out with Major Tucker, commanding at Luneberg, to visit the camp and review Moriarity's arrangements. Tucker pointed out all the position's weaknesses before returning to the garrison. But Moriarity did not expect an attack and thought he would be able to ferry the wagons across the river in the morning, so he took no action. Two sentries were posted just outside the camps on each bank and the company went to sleep.

The night of the 11th was foggy and rainy. A sentry on the south bank heard a shot about 4 a.m. and word was sent across the river to Moriarity, who told the messenger he would have the men turn out. The messenger returned to Harward, the captain returned to sleep, and no order was sent through the camp.

At about 5 a.m. the rain stopped and the fog began lifting. Suddenly the dawn was broken by a ragged volley fired from perhaps 70 yards upstream of the wagons. The volley was followed by as many as a thousand Zulus rising from the grass and rushing into the camp.

Finally Moriarity sounded the alarm, but it was much too late. The sleeping soldiers of H Co. were speared in their bunks or as they stumbled from their tents.

On the south bank, Harward opened fire into the charging Zulus but succeeded only in giving away his own presence. Several hundred broke away from the main body and plunged into the river. In moments they were stabbing and clubbing their way through Harward's camp as well.

Harward's men at least were awake and accoutered, but they were 30 against hundreds. Lt. Harward watched his tiny command being carved and shot away. Realising that the camp was completely lost, Harward ordered Color Sergeant Anthony Booth to gather whatever men he could and fight his way to an abandoned farm about two miles south of the river. Harward caught his horse (the only one in the camp) and galloped for Luneberg, the closest help.

Color Sgt. Booth retreated from the camp with Lance Corporal Burgess and ten other soldiers, all armed and carrying full ammo pouches. They withdrew in good order for two miles with groups of Zulus harrying them the whole distance. Other survivors joined them along the way, including a civilian teamster who had escaped from the north bank by diving into the river, shedding all his clothes, and then fighting his way through the shattered south camp completely naked.

By early morning, Major Tucker arrived at the drift from Luneberg with every man he could put on a horse. He found Color Sgt. Booth and his small command ensconced in the farm and holding off the surrounding Zulus. The impi slipped away as the relief column galloped into view.

Tucker found the camps demolished, the stores looted. Captain Moriarity, Surgeon Cobbins, 60 NCOs and men of Co. H., and 17 white and native teamsters were dead and disemboweled.

For their actions on the 12th of March, 1879, Color Sergeant Booth (at left) was awarded the Victoria Cross, and Lt. Harward was brought before a court-martial. Harward was accused of failing to take proper defensive precautions with the camp and with abandoning his men while they were under attack. His defense argued that he had taken every precaution possible, considering that he had arrived only the previous afternoon and he could not laager only two wagons. On the second count, it was pointed out that he rode away only after his camp was wiped out, that he rode to get help, and that under the circumstances he could not have done any more than Color Sergeant Booth was already doing. In the end, Harward was acquitted of both charges, but neither Chelmsford nor Wolseley ever accepted the verdict. Wolseley called it "a monstrous theory . . . that a regimental officer who is the only officer present with a party of soldiers actually and seriously engaged with the enemy, can, under any pretext whatever, be justified in deserting them, and by so doing, abandoning them to their fate." Harward was simultaneously vindicated and shamed before the entire army.

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