ONE of the most serious conflicts in which the Natal Police have taken part was the defence, during this war, of the magistracy at Mahlabatini, on the 28th April 1901.
About a score of the police under Sergeant Locke had been brigaded with the Natal Volunteers for some months at Dundee, when they received orders to entrain for Zululand. From the Tugela they rode up to Melmoth, where a standing camp was pitched for some weeks until orders were received for them to leave their kits and go on a four days' patrol to Mahlabatini, to which place they rode, establishing a camp outside the court-house. Every morning before dawn a patrol of four men was sent along the road towards Emtonjeneni, and this patrol went out as usual on the day the attack was made. As the men were riding past a mealie patch, about two miles from the camp, a shot was fired, and one of the patrol galloped back to camp reporting the incident. The whole force was quickly saddled up, and rode out under Sergeant Locke, with Mr. Wheelwright, the magistrate, and Colonel Bottomley, who happened to be there. They rode quickly down the road, and made a thorough search of the mealie patch, but discovered nobody, so they went along the veldt towards the Emtonjeneni store, about three miles away, until they came to a place where the road divides, the main track passing to the left, and a path going straight on through some wattle trees. The magistrate, with four men, went along the road to the left, galloping to the top of a ridge, where they came under a hail of bullets. The sun was just rising, showing the troopers up very clearly on the skyline, and providing an excellent target for the Boers, who were concealed in the trees.
On hearing shots, the advance party of the men who had gone along the path got into skirmishing order, and entered the trees, where they were ambushed. They were shot down to a man, every one of them receiving two or more wounds.
The remainder of the troop hastily opened out, and arrived on the scene at a gallop, just as a Boer named Van Neikerk, more courageous than the others, came out of the trees to demand the surrender of the whole troop. This was refused, so he instantly fired, hitting one of the horses ; but he in return received a bullet fired by Trooper J. Smith.
The police dismounted and took cover, spreading well out. They fired whenever they saw the slightest movement in the direction of the enemy, and after the fighting had lasted some hours the Boers were driven off.
The dead and wounded troopers were placed in a police wagon. Sergeant Locke had been very badly injured within an hour of the opening of hostilities. He was found lying on the ground with his head on his saddle, Van Neikerk, also badly wounded, being near him. Most of the men had gone back to camp, and there were few left to attend to those who had fallen. Sergeant Locke was with difficulty lifted on to the wagon, which went slowly towards the camp, but as the jolting was so bad a stretcher was improvised. No natives had been seen about all day, but fortunately at this moment a party of thirty of them in full war paint appeared. They were told to carry the stretcher in which Sergeant Locke was lying, but they were in a violent frame of mind.
" We cannot do it : we want to fight," they replied emphatically. It was only when the muzzle of a revolver was held close to the Induna's head that he ordered eight of his men to act as bearers, and this they did with reluctance.
The list of casualties was :
Killed : Sergeant Collett (who in one leg alone received seven wounds), Trooper D. Cameron, Trooper Salmond, and Trooper Nelson.
Mortally wounded : Sergeant Locke and Trooper Aldwinkle.
Wounded : Trooper Smith.
Sergeant Locke died the same evening, and Trooper Aldwinkle expired about a month afterwards. Trooper Smith recovered, and is now a warder at the central gaol at Pietermaritzburg.
On the morning following the attack the survivors dug graves for their dead comrades, this being a difficult task, as the ground all round consisted of shale. As nothing better could be found to mark the spot where the bodies lay, rough crosses made from biscuit boxes were erected over the graves .
The defence had been maintained by 3 non-commissioned officers and 19 troopers of the Natal Police ; it was afterwards discovered that the enemy had numbered about 150, and the little British force killed n of them. The rest went back, and, thinking they had been opposed by a regiment, shot their native spies, who had told them that there were only a few men of the police there. When they discovered how many troopers there really were at Mahlabatini they sent along a disconcerting message to the effect that they would pay a visit to the camp on the first moonlight night and wipe out every man there.
Two distinguished conduct medals were won by members of the Natal Police during this skirmish. One was awarded to Sergeant Smith, who was promoted to be a first-class sergeant, and the other went to Sergeant Evans, who was promoted to sub-inspector.
The following telegram was sent by Lord Kitchener on the day following the fight :
" Please express to the chief magistrate and Civil Commissioner, Zululand, and to Natal Police, my appreciation of the gallant defence of the Mahlabatini magistracy, by the magistrate and staff and field force of the Natal Police. I greatly regret their heavy loss, but in such a brilliant action losses are inevitable. Please send names of any men who have distinguished themselves."
The following official message was sent by the Prime Minister :
" The Government has learnt with deep regret of the loss of so many brave lives in the attack on the Mahlabatini magistracy yesterday morning. It desires, however, to express its admiration of the brilliant manner in which the Natal Police field force acquitted itself on that occasion, when attacked with overwhelming strength, with the result that the attack was repulsed and the enemy were defeated. I beg of you to be good enough to convey this expression of appreciation to the remaining members of the field force who took part in this engagement. "