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Trooper Brown - an Isandlwana Survivor 1 month 1 week ago #92658

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Thomas Brown

Trooper, Newcastle Mounted Rifles – Anglo Zulu War

An Isandlwana Survivor

- South African General Service Medal with 1879 clasp TR BROWN NEWCASTLE MD RIFLES

The origins of Thomas Brown are shrouded in mystery, not helped by the commonality of his surname. The closest I was able to arrive at is that he is potentially Thomas Henry Brown, born in England in 1855. A farmer from Ladybrand, over the Natal border in the Orange Free State, he spent many years in the Vryheid area of Natal, not very far from Newcastle and its surrounds. A builder and contractor by trade he is the most likely candidate for the Trooper of the same name that served with the Newcastle Mounted Rifles.

The story of Isandlwana has been told many times and it is not my intention to rehash what is already known. My focus is on the few survivors of the Newcastle Mounted Rifles who made it to safety where so many others perished.

The unit, never destined to be a large one on account of the sparsity of white inhabitants in the far north of the Colony Natal, was formed in October 1875. Their primary function being the protection of the Natal border against hostile incursions from neighboring Zululand. As mentioned, the recruiting area was the small town of Newcastle and the little settlements around it.

In early 1878 the strength of the corps stood at forty, officers and other ranks, all uniformed and equipped at their own expense. Four officers and twenty six other ranks answered the call to arms in late 1878, assembling at Helpmakaar where the list of members present for duty 16 December 1878 (according to the Natal Mercury of 21 December 1878) included Trooper Brown among the 29 names under the command of Captain Robert Bradstreet, a man who doubled as the Resident Magistrate of the town of Newcastle. The others were Lt. Charles Jones (one of the famous Jones brothers of Ladysmith and Dundee); 2nd Lieutenant R.F. Dixon; Quartermaster Hitchcock; Quartermaster Sergeant Parsons; Sergeant Major Andrew Swan; Sergeant John Arrowsmith Walsh; Corporal Bierbaum and Troopers Barns; Bentley; Brown; Carey; Cunningham; Dinkleman; Frankish; J. Grant; Grundy; Hall; Horn; Samuel Jones (Charles Jones’ brother); McAllister; Donald Moodie; Napier; W. Napier; Parsons; Hendrik Parsons; J.O. Player; Short; H. Simpson and Van Rooyen.

Fourteen of the men above would be at Isandlwana on that fateful day and only seven would live to tell the tale.

The Newcastle Mounted Rifles were attached to No. 3 Column of the invasion force, under the command of Colonel R.T. Glyn of the 24th Foot. They had taken part in the action at kwaSokhexe on Sunday, 12 January 1879 without sustaining any casualties although Trooper Dixon tragically drowned whilst bathing in the Buffalo River on that day.

Map of Isandlwana showing dispositions - the Newcastle Mounted Rifles were at "35"

Ten days later, in the now-famous Isandlwana debacle, there were 14 NMR members present – of this number seven perished – their Officer Commanding, Bradstreet, another officer and five other ranks. Seven members survived the horrific battle – two of them Sergeant Walsh and Trooper Berning, who were apparently on vedette duty and rode on to warn the small garrison at Rorke’s Drift. The others who survived were Brown, Burne, Moodie, Parsons and Horne. The Natal Mercury ran an article on 31 January 1879 under the banner “News from Newcastle” which encapsulated how the locals were exposed to the news of the resounding defeat by the Zulus of the Imperial and Colonial force there. It read: -

“The following is an extract from a letter written by a gentleman in Newcastle to a correspondent in this town: -

‘Since I wrote on Wednesday night, bad news arrived from Column No.3 under Colonel Glynn. An officer from the transport service was the first to arrive (on Thursday afternoon) and announce that a sad disaster had befallen our men under Colonel Glynn. He was far away from the scene, at Dundee, seeking cattle for the service; he could therefore not give reliable particulars of what had happened. Later in the day Moodie, Walsh and three others of our own volunteers returned. The main body, under Colonel Glyn and the General were, it is said, seven to ten miles in advance of the camp which was protected only by such volunteers who had weak horses and could not go forward with the main body, and some 250 of the 1/24th.

The camp was attacked by a large force, estimated at 10 000 – a force distinct from that which the main body was engaged with. Indifferent to the firing of the two big guns that played on them, and the rifles, on they came, steady as English troops and did their work. The number of killed on our side is not known with accuracy. Not many of the Volunteers there, engaged on our side, escaped. Bradstreet, Hitchcock, Swan, Dinkelman, Burns and McAlister are known to have fallen. The news created here something like a panic. All families were advised to come into the laager, and patrols were sent out for the night, and have been continued since. All families that could find transport left yesterday for the Orange Free State.”

As to the action itself – it is not my intention to go into detail but Lock and Quantrill on page 204 of Victory, The Epic of Isandlwana and the Cover Up, said this in respect of the NMR in advance of the battle proper: -

“Gardner, at Pulleine’s request, gathered all the mounted men he could find about the camp, and under the command of Captain Robert Bradstreet of the Newcastle Mounted Rifles, took them to a small donga about a quarter of a mile in front of the camp, ordering them to hold the position until further orders.” Here they were, in the words of The Graphic of 17 May 1879, “For a short time able to check the enemy, but that at length, being overpowered by numbers, they were forced to retire on the camp. The Colonial papers state that when last seen poor Bradstreet was fighting vigorously with his sword, surrounded by Zulus, his ammunition being expended.”

We know that Brown and some of his comrades survived, probably by fleeing via Fugitive’s Drift which appears to have been the only way out, albeit a perilous one with Zulus swarming all around, baying for blood. No interview was ever conducted with Brown and we are thus unable to determine quite how he made it out alive. Graham Alexander, in an excellent article entitled The Defence of Helpmakaar provides the confirmation that he made it to Helpmakaar.

“Following the Zulu victory at Isandlwana, the survivors of columns number 2 and 3, fled the battlefield and fell back across the Buffalo River. Many of them headed for safety to the camp at Helpmakaar and despite knowing of the slaughter of most of their comrades, prepared to defend the camp against a possible Zulu attack. How many who actually stayed is virtually impossible to determine, as many survivors left no account of their actions, whilst others concentrated on just the battle of Isandlwana and their immediate escape. Helpmakaar is situated on the border road, about halfway between Newcastle to the north and Pietermaritzburg to the south. A road, recently repaired before the invasion of Zululand, stretched 12 miles downhill to the mission station at Rorke’s Drift and its river crossing. Its position made Helpmakaar a strategically important camp, ideally situated to receive the constant flow of supplies needed for the invasion. The morning mist on the 22nd January 1879 shrouded the camp and the tents of the soldiers stationed there. These consisted of two companies of the 1st battalion 24th regiment, some drafts of men intended for the 2nd battalion and a few infantrymen from the 13th regiment.

(Shortly after the battle) two men riding sweating horses came down the road from Isandlwana and crossed the river. They reported to Lieutenant J Chard, acting commanding officer at Rorke’s Drift, that the Zulus had overwhelmed the central column. While Lieutenant G. Adendorff decided to stay at the drift, the other man, a Natal carbineer, probably Trooper W. Sibthorpe, said that he would take the news of the defeat to Helpmakaar. These two men were the first of the survivors to appear.

All the other survivors of the battle now had to cross the raging Buffalo River at a point 5 miles south east of the drift and ride across country before joining the border road again. The first group of survivors to cross the river gathered together for mutual safety. The group included Captains A. Gardner and E. Essex, Lieutenants F. Cochrane and H. Curling, Private J. Bickley, Driver E. Tucker and many of the Colonial Volunteers. Captain Essex took command of this group and they began their withdrawal towards Helpmakaar. All along the Natal bank of the Buffalo River, where they had been swept along by the current, other small groups of wet and exhausted survivors also started to ride in that direction.

Map showing Helpmakaar relative to Isandlwana and Buffalo River which was forged

When Zulus were seen between them and the mission station, Helpmakaar was only one choice left open to them. They knew that Imperial troops were stationed there and that their chances of survival would be much improved upon arrival. It therefore came as a cruel shock to them when, at about 6pm, they approached the camp. Instead of seeing nearly two hundred men bustling about, it now seemed deserted. Their chances of survival seemed impossible if the Zulus decided to move on from Rorke’s Drift and also attack the stores depot.

The colonial volunteers quickly looked about them and could see little reason to continue to stay. They had seen the ferocity of the Zulus only hours before, and they were exhausted and practically out of ammunition. What could a mere handful do against a concerted attack? They urged their weary mounts into a trot and headed towards their various hometowns. Their departure was witnessed by Captain Essex, who described it in very diplomatic terms: - The garrison consisted of only about 25 Europeans, 10 volunteers and other camp followers having continued their retreat.

Without doubt, five Natal Carbineers and four troopers from the Newcastle Mounted Rifles must have left the depot almost immediately.”

Alexander goes on to tabulate the names of those Isandlwana survivors who reached Helpmakaar between 6-8pm on the 22nd January 1879 – this list included Trooper Thomas Brown. Additionally, he states that: -

“Evidence to support the departure of various members of the Colonial units indicating that they would have travelled throughout the night to achieve this appeared in local newspapers in the days following the battle. A Newcastle newspaper article stated that “Later in the day (Thursday) Moodie, Walsh, and three others of our own volunteers returned. Moodie and Walsh and two of the other three were in the fight.” In order to achieve this, they must have been travelling throughout the night and could not have stayed with the defenders. As Troopers Berning, Brown and Parsons were later accused of desertion from Helpmakaar on the 23rd January, then they must have remained to defend the garrison on the night of the 22nd.” Alexander does not reveal the source for his allegation that Brown was accused of desertion.

Whatever the case may be we know that Thomas Brown fought alongside Bradstreet and his comrades at Isandlwana before being overwhelmed and falling back on the camp. He, somehow, made it to the comparative safety of Helpmakaar, being present there, although drained and exhausted, the night of the 22nd. Thereafter he departed the scene (accused of desertion?) and made his way back to Newcastle.

Newcastle Mounted Rifles (not including Brown) at Fort Pine, May 1879

On December 17th 1881, at the presentation of medals to the members of the Natal Carbineers on the Market Square, Pietermaritzburg, Sir Evelyn Wood said: -

“We have learnt much from the war, but in my opinion nothing so remarkable as the devotion to duty shown by the Natal Carbineers and the Newcastle Mounted Rifles. When these corps left Isandlwana on January 21st for Mtayana’s District, there remained in camp 25 men who were mostly employed on outpost duty. Seven of these, separated from their troops next day, managed to escape and with one exception, reached Helpmakaar together and unshaken. What I learnt from Mr Offy Shepstone increased my admiration for those Natal Carbineers and Newcastle Mounted Rifles who stood and fell around Colonel Durnford. No greater proof of devotion was given by a body of soldiers.”

Thomas Brown was awarded the Zulu Medal with 1879 clasp. Nothing of his movements thereafter are known.


- A History of Newcastle by B.C. Baylis J.P. 1951
- The Natal Mercury, 31 January 1879
- Victory, The Epic of Isandlwana and the Cover Up by Ron Lock and Peter Quantrill (page 204)
- The Defence of Helpmakaar by Graham Alexander

The following user(s) said Thank You: David Grant, capepolice, RobCT, azyeoman, Moranthorse1, Sturgy

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