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The March to Magdala by G.A. Henty

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In the mean time a much more serious contest was taking place upon our left. The main body of the enemy had taken this direction to attack the baggage, and advanced directly towards the Punjaub Pioneers, who were defending the head of the road.

The March To Magdala

When the enemy were within three hundred yards the steel guns opened with shell, the Punjaubees poured in their fire and speedily stopped the advance of the head of the column. The greater part of the natives then went down the ravine to the left, along which they proceeded to the attack of the baggage, in the main valley of which this ravine was a branch.

The baggage-guard, composed of a detachment of the 4th, scattered along the long line, had already been warned by the guns of the fortress that an attack was impending, and Captain Aberdie, of the transport train, gallopping down, brought them word of the advancing body of the enemy. The various officers upon duty instantly collected their men. Captain Roberts was in command, and was well seconded by Lieutenants Irving, Sweeny, and Durrant of the 4th, and by the officers of the transport train.

As the enemy poured down the ravine they were received by a withering fire from the deadly Snider. From the extreme rapidity of the fire of the Snider, the firing at this time in different parts of the field was as heavy and continuous as that of a general action between two large armies. The Punjaubees behaved with great gallantry and charged with the bayonet, doing great execution. The natives, who had fought with great pluck, now attempted to escape up the opposite side of the ravine, but great numbers were shot down as they did so, their white dresses offering a plain mark to our riflemen; at last, however, the remnant gained the opposite bank, and fled across the country to our left, their retreat to Magdala being cut off.

The action, from the first to the last gun, lasted an hour and a half. It was, as far as our part of the fray was concerned, a mere skirmish. We had not a single man killed, and only about thirty wounded, most of them slightly. Captain Roberts, however, was hit in the elbow-joint with a ball, and will, it is feared, lose his arm. On the other hand, to the enemy this is a decisive and crushing defeat. Three hundred and eighty bodies were counted the next morning, and many were believed to have been carried off in the night. Very many fell on the slope of the hill, and away in the ravines to our right and left, where our burying-parties could not find them.

Certainly five hundred were killed, probably twice as many were wounded, and of these numbers have only crawled away to die. It was a terrible slaughter, and could hardly be called a fight, between disciplined bodies of men splendidly armed, and scattered parties of savages scarcely armed at all. Much as the troops wish for an opportunity of distinguishing themselves, I have heard a general hope expressed that we shall not have to storm the place, for there is but little credit to be gained over these savages, and the butchery would be very great.

The natives are, however, undoubtedly brave, and behaved really very gallantly. Not a single shield, gun, or spear has been picked up except by the side of the dead. The living, even the wounded, retreated; they did not fly. There was no sauve qui peut , no throwing away of arms, as there would have been under similar desperate circumstances by European troops. As the troops returned to the rear we passed many sad spectacles.

In one hollow a dozen bodies lay in various positions. Some had died instantaneously, shot through the head; others had fallen mortally wounded, and several of these had drawn their robes over their faces, and died like Stoics.

Some were only severely wounded, and these had endeavoured to crawl into bushes, and there lay uttering low moans. Their gaudy silk bodices, the white robes with scarlet ends which had flaunted so gaily but two hours since, now lay dabbled with blood, and dank with the heavy rains which had been pitilessly coming down for the last hour. I have omitted to mention that a tremendous thunderstorm had come on while the engagement was at its height, and the deep roar of the thunder had for a time completely drowned the heavy rattle of musketry, the crack of the steel guns, and the boom of the heavy cannon upon Fahla.


Once, when the storm was at its height, the sun had shone brightly out through a rift of the thunder-clouds, and a magnificent rainbow shone over the field upon which the combatants were still fiercely contending. Only twice was the voice of man heard loudly during the fight.

The first was a great cheer from the natives upon the hill, and which we could only conjecture was occasioned by the return unharmed of some favourite chief. The other was the cheer which the whole British force gave as the enemy finally retired up into their strongholds. It will be, moreover, memorable as being the first encounter in which British troops ever used breech-loading rifles. Tremendous as was the fire, and great as was the slaughter, I am of opinion, and in this many of the military men agree with me, that the number of the enemy killed would have been at least as great had the troops been armed with the Enfield.

The fire was a great deal too rapid. Men loaded and fired as if they were making a trial of rapidity of fire, and I saw several instances in which only two or three natives fell among a group, the whole of which would have been mown down had the men taken any aim whatever.

At the end of an hour there was scarcely a cartridge left of the ninety rounds which each man carried into action, and the greater portion of them were fired away in the first quarter of an hour. The baggage-guard used up all their stock, and were supplied with fresh ammunition from the reserve which they guarded. Against close bodies of men the breech-loader will do wonders. In the gorges, where the natives were clustered thickly together, it literally mowed them down.

Upon the open not one shot in a hundred told. In a great battle the ammunition, at this rate of expenditure, would be finished in an hour. From what I saw of the fighting, I am convinced that troops should, if possible, load at the muzzle when acting as skirmishers, and at the breech only when in close conflict against large bodies of cavalry or infantry.

He cannot help it, nor can he carry more than sixty rounds of ammunition, which will not last him twenty minutes.

March to Magdala

The troops retired amidst a heavy rain, and were marched back to the camp they had left to fetch their greatcoats and blankets, which had been left behind when they advanced to the fight. Then they returned to the ground held by the Punjaubees, and took their station for the night, as they here guarded the top of the road, at which the baggage was now arriving, it having been kept back during the fight.

It was perfectly dark before we reached our camping-ground, and as this was in many places covered with thorns and bushes, which in the darkness were quite invisible, very considerable confusion prevailed.

Now that the excitement was over, everyone was again tormented with thirst, but it was felt less than it would otherwise have been, owing to the thorough soaking which every man had got. Of course there was no getting at the baggage, which remained on a flat behind us, and everyone wrapped himself in his wet blanket and lay down to snatch a little sleep if he could, and to forget hunger and thirst for a while. As we had marched before daybreak, and went into action long before any of the baggage-animals came up, no one had taken food for the whole of the long and fatiguing day. Very strong bodies of troops were thrown out as pickets, and the whole were got up and under arms at two in the morning, lest Theodore should renew his attack before daybreak.

There was now news that there was water to be had in a ravine to our left, and the bheesties were sent down with the water-skins, and numbers of the soldiers also went down with their canteens. The water was worse than any I ever drank before, and ever think to drink again.

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The stench was abominable, and the water was nearly as much tainted as the atmosphere. The liquid mud we had drank the day before was, in comparison, a healthy and agreeable fluid. However, there was no help for it, and few, if any, refused the noxious fluid. This climate must certainly be an extraordinarily healthy one; for, in spite of hardship and privation, of wet, exposure, bad water, and want of stimulants, the health of the troops has been unexceptionally good.

Only once, at Gazoo, have we had threatenings of dysentery, and this passed away as soon as we moved forward. I question if we had a single man in hospital upon the day of the fight, which is certainly most providential, considering the extreme paucity of medical comforts, and the very few dhoolies available for the sick and wounded. The 2d brigade arrived soon after daylight, and took up their camp a little in the rear of the position in which we had passed the night.

Our baggage came on with us, and we had now the satisfaction of being in our tents again, and of getting what we greatly needed — food. After breakfast I rode over to the camp of the 2d brigade, and then, leaving my horse, went down into the ravine, where fatigue-parties were engaged in the work of burial. The scene was very shocking. Such is the account given by Dr. Beke; and as Mr. Layard, although openly attacked, has never disproved a single statement alleged against him, but has contented himself with vehement personal attacks upon Dr. Such was the state of things when the Conservative Ministry came into power; and after another fruitless effort to ransom the prisoners, war was determined upon as the only resource remaining.

The announcement of the intention of Government was received with general satisfaction. War once determined upon, the columns of the newspapers were inundated with suggestions from everyone who had ever been in Abyssinia, and from a vast number of persons who had not; and these, although they differed upon almost every point, yet agreed upon piling danger upon difficulty, and horror upon horror, until the very air, earth, and water of Abyssinia seemed to swarm with worms and other creeping things.

In the mean time the preparations went steadily on. Officers were sent from England to Egypt, Spain, and various parts of the Mediterranean to purchase mules; Woolwich was busied with the preparation of mountain guns; transports were taken up, hospital-ships were fitted out, and large quantities of tents and other stores sent out from the Tower. This was nearly all which England was to contribute, for it was determined that the expedition should be entirely an Indian one, and that Bombay should have the honour as well as the responsibility of all the arrangements.

As soon as orders were received from England to fit out an expedition with all speed, Sir Seymour FitzGerald, the Governor of Bombay, and Sir Robert Napier, Commander-in-chief of the Bombay army, set to work in earnest. The greatest credit is undoubtedly due to the former for his untiring zeal and earnestness; he was indefatigable: but at the same time I doubt greatly the wisdom of committing the arrangements connected with a great expedition of this sort to a civilian, who necessarily must be unacquainted with the requirements of an army, and who must be entirely guided by the advice of his council.

The consequence was that Sir Robert Napier was obliged to consult the Governor on every point, and the Governor again had to consult his own military adviser, an officer necessarily of far less standing than Sir Robert Napier, who was thus liable to be overruled, nominally by the Governor, but in reality by a subordinate officer. As the present is merely a narrative of the march of the army to Magdala, I must pass cursorily over the preparations in Bombay. I will, however, give a few extracts from the memoranda issued by Sir Robert Napier, and which will be sufficient to show how accurately he estimated the difficulties of the work to be done, and how thoroughly he thought over every detail.

In his memorandum of August 8th, Sir Robert Napier estimates that he will require 12, men, for that must remain at the port, and at Post No. In minute of August 31st, he farther develops his plans. He there speaks of Post No. It is in a difficult and rugged country, and will be our last main base of supplies from which the operating force will be supported. From Antalo the same process will be repeated until the supplies for men shall have been carried to Post No.

From that point the operative column will act with supplies for one or two months as may be convenient. These extracts are exceedingly interesting, as they show the original plans of the campaign as laid down by Sir Robert Napier. In the course of the narrative, it will be seen how entirely this plan had to be deviated from, owing to the scarcity of food and forage, and the partial break-down of the transport train; how Post No.

On September 12th Sir Robert issued an excellent memorandum on the fitting-up of the ships and the appliances for landing animals, and making many suggestions for the health and comfort of the troops. In regard to the selection of the troops to form the expedition, Sir Robert himself chose the various regiments.