Memories of Forty-Eight Years Service
Chapter 1a - The Zulu War
I WISH anyone who may chance to read these pages to remember
that they are written so that my sons may have some idea of how I have spent my
life ; and as, previous to the Great War of 1914-18, I had already passed many
years on active service, it follows that the story must deal largely with
happenings on campaigns.
Born in 1858, I was number 11 in a family of fifteen, six
boys and nine girls. One of the boys had died in infancy ; my eldest brother
(for some years in the 10th Hussars, and latterly of Tresco Abbey, Isles of
Scilly) died at seventy-two, and my eldest sister, Mrs. Tyrwhitt-Drake of
Shardeloes, at sixty-four; of my three brothers still alive, two served in the
Navy, and are referred to later, and the third, the Rev. Prebendary Walter M.
Smith-Dorrien, is Vicar of Crediton. He, as a young man, was a distinguished
athlete, and amongst other successes won the three-mile for Oxford against
Cambridge at Lillybridge. He was referred to in the Varsity Nonsense Book of
the day as follows:
" There once was a young man of Magdalen Who could, run for
three miles without dawdling; For three miles or one No person could run In
front of this young man of Magdalen."
My father died in 1879, a few days before I landed in
England on my return from the Zulu War, and my mother at eighty-fivea
wonderful woman of strong personality, full of activity to within a few days of
her death, an inveterate reader of every book of interest, with a facility for
remembering what she read. Her power of letter-writing was inexhaustible, and
this all her sons and daughters can vouch for, though how she always found time
to write to all the absent ones, and never failed, I have been quite unable to
I was not a nice boy, and was always in trouble, earmarked
as mischievous and wild, and credited with all minor catastrophes which
happened to the family.
I went to school at seven and a halfto Egypt House,
Isle of Wight, where the Rev. Arthur Watson endeavoured to mould me, and later
to Harrow. I enjoyed myself at both schools, but distinguished myself at
neither. My contemporaries at Harrow best known to fame were W. H. Grenfell
(Lord Desborough), Walter H. Long (Viscount L.), Lords Freddy and Ernest
Hamilton, the Hon. John Fortescue, Punch Hardinge (Viscount H.) and his brother
C. Hardinge (Lord H. of Penshurst) and the Hon. Robert Milnes (Marquess of
Crewe). The last-named has reason to remember me, for I was his fag, and only
noted for inefficiency.
My father, Colonel R. A. Smith-Dorrien, had served in the
16th Lancers and 3rd Light Dragoons, then for twenty-two years with his county
Militia (the Herts) as Second in Command and Commanding Officer. Nice as he
always was to me, I rather doubt his having entertained hope of my ever
becoming a useful member of society, and I had no idea what he intended to do
with me until the autumn of 1875. He and my mother and some of my family and
myself were on Lake Lucerne, and one day he asked me if I would like to go into
the Army. Overjoyed, and having just failed to drown myself and two sisters
below the Dance of Death Bridge at Lucerne a few days before, I dashed home to
a crammer, went up for the Army examination in December, passed, and joined at
Sandhurst on the 26th February 1876, as a 2nd Lieutenant. My name was down on
H.R.H. the Duke of Cambridge's list for the Rifle Brigade, but, there being no
vacancy, General Sir Alfred Horsford, who was Military Secretary at the time,
posted me to the 95th as a battalion which was very short of subalterns and
likely to lead to early promotion. About eight months later a vacancy in the
Rifle Brigade occurred, and I was offered it, but by then, being thoroughly
happy in the 95th, with excellent prospects of rapid promotion, which could not
have been possible in the Rifle Brigade, I respectfully declined.
I joined the 95th as a Lieutenant in January 1877. In those
days one not only joined Sandhurst as a commissioned officer, but anyone
passing out with a special mention was given a year's antedate, and this I got,
thus being promoted to Lieutenant.
After obtaining my commission, I took an early opportunity
of attending a levee, and had the honour of kissing the hand of the Great White
Queen, the name by which Queen Victoria was known to the natives of South
Cork was a lively station, and the people hospitable and
attractive, but I can think of only one story of sufficient interest to record.
One day an individual, looking somewhat out-at-elbows, appeared in the Mess and
turned out to be rather a remarkable person. He had been an officer in the
regiment and was well known to most of those then present. It seemed he had
been very popular, but that shortage of the wherewithal to enjoy life had
forced him to exchange to another regiment. Gibraltar had become his new
station, and the dangers of the bull-ring soon proved a great attraction to his
Irish nature. When, therefore, the curse of shortage of cash still pursued him,
he left the Army and became a matador, and a very popular one, for to this day
the skill and bravery of the famous " Matador Ingles " O'Hara is talked of in
the south of Spain. I remember O'Hara showing us with pride the matador
pig-tail neatly plaited and curled up on the crown of his head. The next time I
met him was two years later as gymnastic instructor on the Curragh. He was a
man of fine physique, had enlisted in a Dragoon Regiment, and quickly been
promoted Sergeant. After that I lost sight of him.
From Cork we moved to Dublin, which was equally enjoyable
what fun it was, racing, dancing, and hunting,
though not much of the latter until later. The Castle dances
were a thing to dream of. The Duke of Marlborough was Viceroy, and the young
American bride. Lady Randolph Churchill, was certainly the belle amongst many
From Dublin we went to Athlone in the spring of 1878a
different sort of life, but fun nevertheless, boating, shooting, and fishing up
the Shannon and sailing on Lough Ree with brother-officers, especially my great
friend and cousin Charlie Jenkinson. He and I owned two boats, the one a heavy
decked-in cutter which no one could sink or upset, and the other a light open
boat with one enormous sprit-sail which the local fishermen called the "
coffin," predicting it must be the death of someone. Imagine their " I told you
so's " when one day they saw the boat, bottom up, float under the bridge at
Athlone. But they were only partly rightno one was drowned. I had been
sailing with Godley (now a Brigadier-General), when a heavy gust of wind came,
and he leaned forward instead of back, and over we went in the middle of the
river, half a mile wide. We struggled in our thick clothes to a post marking
the channel, and having seen him carefully seated on the top like an old
cormorant, I swam ashore to obtain another boat.
That summer (1878) we were on the verge of a war with
Russia. " Dizzy " brought Indian troops to the Mediterranean, the reserves were
called up, and we soldiers had a busy time, first collecting the men in England
and then bringing them over to Ireland and training them. The 95th were 1,200
strong. I was Acting Adjutant in the absence of Sparkes (now Colonel Sparkes)
away at some course, and thoroughly enjoyed drilling them. Our diplomats staved
off that war, but troubles were brewing in South Africa with the Zulus.
An old 95th Commanding Officer and the full Colonel of the
Regiment, General the Hon. F. A. Thesiger (becoming Lord Chelmsford in October
this year, on the death of his father), was Commanding in Natal, and, seeing
war could not be avoided and wanting to get officers from his old corps, he
cabled to the War Office asking for three, Captain A. Tower, Lieutenants W.
Here and H. L. Smith-Dorrien, to be sent on special service. This was wired on
to the C.O. of the Battalion, and I as Adjutant asked for his orders He merely
said he would allow none of us to go. We had a few words about this, and it
ended in my wiring to the Military Secretary at the War Office from myself,
saying I was ready to start for the Cape at a moment's notice in any capacity
in which H.R.H. the Field-Marshal C.-in-C. might think fit to employ me. It
really was an unwarrantable piece of cheek, and inexcusable, but it paid, for
that same afternoon orders were telegraphed to the C.O. from the War Office
ordering me to proceed forthwith to Dartmouth and embark in the Edinburgh
So, three days later, I was on the sea with several other
special service officers in a 2,000-ton boat, which was not out-of-the-way
small in those days, en route for the Cape. We crossed the line with full
ceremonies, Neptune coming on board with his staff of sea-dogs, doctor, barber,
etc., and we were all initiated. Lieutenant W. F. D. Cochrane of the 82nd was
the life and soul of the ship. Curiously enough, I was given his vacancy, on
his time being up in the Egyptian Army, twenty years later, which enabled me to
take part in Lord Kitchener's overthrow of the Mahdi.
When within two days' steam of Cape Town we were met by an
appalling south-eastern gale, seas mountains high, ship battened down for six
days, which time it took us to get into Cape Town. The smells below, especially
oil-lamps and bilge-water, cannot be forgotten; but no one complained, for such
was the standard in ships in those days.
On reaching Durban I was told off for duty with transport.
This consisted of working stores up to the front at Rorke's Drift, from which
place the expedition against Cetywayo, the Zulu King, was to start. It was a
great experience for a boy. I found myself alone controlling the convoys, along
a great stretch of road, supplying equipment, purchasing oxen, and generally
keeping things going.
The skilful handling of the teams of sixteen oxen made a
great impression on me. The driver who wielded the long whip was usually an
Afrikander ; the oxen were named and, when a pull became very heavy, were urged
forward by name and pistol-like cracks of the whip. Such names as "Dootchmann,"
"Germann," and "Englischmann" were bestowed on them, and when a wretched animal
possessed the last it seemed to me there was more emphasis in shouting it out
and more venom in the lash when applying it.
A less pleasant experience was having my young faith shaken
in the uprightness of certain senior officers. I had heard of some questionable
dealings in regard to military contracts in former wars, and believed such days
were gone forever. I was soon to learn that we had not yet reached a plane of
official integrity in such matters, but shall only relate an incident which
came within my own personal experience.
"There was a certain contractor who was employed in matters
connected with the Commissariat. In the course of the war I found myself in
temporary charge of an important centre and one day received a telegram from
the Base directing me to take a lease of a local farm belonging to this
contractor at a profiteering price.
Now the occupant of the farm had just cleared all cattle off
it, as it was saturated with lung-sickness. This disease was most deadly for
cattle, and it was a recognised rule that no oxen should be allowed near a farm
where it had appeared. I therefore wired back stating these facts, and at once
got a reply directing me to carry out the transaction I again telegraphed,
respectfully objecting to having anything to do with the deal.
The next communication was another wire saying that the
lease had been signed, and I was to take over the farm. I dutifully replied
that I had complied with the order but would allow no Government cattle to
graze there I heard^ no more about it, and the farm was never used-facts which
speak for themselves.
Whilst negotiations were going on the contractor came up
from the Base, and, presenting himself in my tent suggested blandly that he
should keep me supplied with champagne. He seemed immensely surprised when I
rushed at him and kicked him out of my tent. He returned straight to the Base,
his arrival there being heralded by the wire saying the hire of the farm was a
I am bound to say that this incident gave my young mind a
great shock. I have, thank goodness! had no such experience since.
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