An extract from “1939”
“I was a bugle boy with the British Infantry. Twelve years old, I was. I had been recruited into the Army because I was an orphan, living on the streets of Liverpool. The army had taken me in. Cared for me and fed me. I was as proud as a twelve-year-old boy could be. I was soon serving under Lord Chelmsford in Africa. You could not imagine how excited I was to be going on an adventure to a land so far away. When we got there things started to change. I lost some friends to disease. The mercenaries we hired were tough, rough men. Still, for a poor boy from Liverpool, it was amazing–the colors and smells of Africa.
“We camped at a place called Isandlwana. It was a rugged place, Zulu country, with a few trees, long dry grass and rocky outcrops. It was as hot as bugger out there. I had never known anything like it. There were about 1300 of us, about 500 British soldiers and the rest mercenaries and locals. A rough lot they were, not to be trusted. Kill ye for a shilling, they would. We put the wagons in a circle to make a defensive camp but we didn’t dig in because word was that if there were any Zulus in the area they would only be about 500 or so. I guess we were kind of cocky about it. It was going to be a long day. I was up early, to blow the bugle. When I had done that, I had some breakfast. Before my other duties would start, I walked off into the bush to do my ablutions.
“The sun was just rising over the ridge. It was stunning, pouring orange over the crests and ridges, the gold pouring down as the sun rose higher. It lit up the dark blue sky with orange streaks, reflecting off the underside of the high altitude clouds. It was going to be a beautiful day. I just walked and walked. It was so peaceful out there. It was good to get away from the noise and bustle of all those rough adults. It was so good to be on my own. It was serene, and the grassy terrain reminded me of England. I let the tall grass brush against my hands as I walked. I must have been daydreaming, as I walked for a long time, watching the clouds, the exotic birds, and the sunrise over the ridge.
“Then a twig snap woke me from my dreaming. The long grass in front of me had elongated stalks sticking out that had blades on the end. They looked like spears, and weird flowers that looked like muskets. At first, I wasn’t sure, but then I could see a face hiding in the long grass. Slowly the man stood up. It was a Zulu warrior. He was a big man, with sinewy muscles and a fierce painted face. I knew immediately I was in very serious trouble. Then another Zulu warrior stood up, and another. Then a whole wave of warriors appeared out of the grass. Twelve thousand warriors, standing in total silence. I could see that they were wearing war-paint. They looked magnificent and terrifying. Time stood still for a second, but I knew that this was it; my short life was over. I could not be saved; I was too far from the camp. I could never outrun these athletic warriors.
“They were out to make battle with the invading colonial British, and I was an enemy soldier who could give away their position and the precious element of surprise. I knew that they never take prisoners. I just stood there, the water bottle I was holding slipped out my hand and fell to the ground. I looked at them, and for an instant, they all just looked at me. Then an amazing thing happened. The fright I had disappeared and I became very calm, almost serene. I accepted that there was nothing I could do about my predicament; it was just a question of me accepting the coup de grâce – the death blow. There was a silence, nobody moved. The first warrior looked around, then picked up his machete and walked over to me. I just stood there, in peace, ready for the inevitable. He raised the knife to strike, and I closed my eyes, not even hoping that it would be quick, just accepting, unquestioning. I tried to keep still; I didn’t want him to misjudge the blow, to just wound me and then leave me to die a slow death.
“There was a pause. It seemed like a long time and I wondered if I was dead. I opened my eyes. The warrior was still holding his machete up, a silhouette against the morning sun, but he just looked down at me. Maybe it was because I was only a boy, and that I was just standing there with my eyes closed that had confused him. He hesitated. One of his comrades hissed angrily at him; it sounded like ‘kill him’. The warrior turned to the other warrior and whispered angrily back. Then he turned round again and slashed down with all his might.
“But I was gone. Sense had poured back into me and I ran like the wind. He ran after me; in fact, the remaining 12,000 warriors ran after me as well, like a silent swarm of bees, for they knew, that once I was back at the camp the element of surprise was gone. The attack was on. The warriors were close behind. I could hear their feet hitting the sand as they ran. The warrior with the machete gained ground quickly on me. I knew I was too far away from the camp to reach it. His strong, athletic legs brought him closer to me with every stride.
“I knew I was doomed; there was nothing or nobody who could save me now. I was at peace; I knew that this was my time. A serene feeling swept again through me, tranquil, accepting. I was to be the first kill of a day of killing, but I was determined he would have to work for it. I refused to be an easy prey. The warrior behind me swiped at me with his machete and missed then, unbalanced, he fell over, but he was promptly replaced by another warrior. The chase continued, and I managed to reach the corner that would be bringing me in full view of the encampment. I had my bugle with me, so I brought it to my lips. Maybe my last deed would be to warn my friends and save some lives. But I was so out of breath all that came out was a few pathetic belching noises.
“The warriors just behind me seemed to hesitate; they knew that once they were in view of the camp their attack was on, it had not been started on their terms, but the mass of warriors were now in full flight and they continued their chase, colliding into the warriors who had hesitated. I ran and ran, puffing in vain on the bugle, and then to my amazement, the soldiers at the British camp started shooting at me. With Martini-Henry rifles and Gatling guns. Not only were 12,000 Zulu warriors chasing me from behind, I was running toward a 1500-strong firing squad. Bullets parted my hair and clipped my ears. The bugle was shot clean out of my hand. Sand spat into the air as the bullets hit the ground. Zulus around me fell to the ground.
“Then the Zulus, now into full war charge, started to overtake me. After what had been almost complete silence, the Zulus took up a war cry that was practically deafening. Their goals now set on the encampment, instead of running in front of the Zulus I was now running with and among the Zulus. Soon I was not only running but also jumping over the bodies that lay in front of me. We crashed into the camp like a tidal wave, rocking the wagons on their axles, and almost knocking them over. The thick thud of the warriors hitting into wooden wagons filled the air. I squirted underneath a wagon and as I came out the other side a startled British soldier almost bayoneted me, before a Zulu warrior too knocked him to the ground. I picked myself up and ran to the other side of the encampment, under the wagons and out the other side. I ran up over the rocky Isandlwana feature, down the other side, across the plain, across the Buffalo River and halfway to Pietermaritzburg. They found me two days later, hiding up a tree.
“The soldiers and civilians back at the camp were massacred. Only 50 escaped. The bodies of the dead were ripped open in a Zulu ritual to free the spirit of the dead and to stop the body swelling up. The cadavers were stabbed many times in the ‘washing of the spears’, where every warrior was obligated to have stabbed an enemy, even after death.
“I was one of the few survivors. They questioned me afterward, but the shock had been so great I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t say a word. The doctor called it ‘soldier’s heart’ or ‘nostalgia’. I can remember still being in that detachment, that serenity. I was detached; it was as if I stayed in that tree for a year, looking down on life around me. I felt disconnected from the real world.
“There was another reason why I didn’t talk. I blamed myself for the massacre. If I hadn’t gone off for a walk on my own, but stayed at the camp like I was told to, maybe the Zulus would not have attacked. I felt it was me who had started the whole thing. I should be dead like the rest of the soldiers and civilians. They had been my family; they had trusted me. Finally a fellow bugler befriended me, and after he won my confidence, I told him what had happened. He told the sergeant, who took me to one side.
“‘Now listen here, bugler,’ he said. ‘There’s no need to blame ye’self. The Zulus were waiting for the British army to decamp and make their way up country. If they had attacked when the army was on the move then they would have been exposed and nobody would have survived the massacre. Because they could defend themselves in a camp, the Zulus suffered a great loss, so much so they could never again get together such a great force. In addition, the politicians in London could not leave such a defeat unpunished, and so were forced to send more men and munitions to finish the job. Which they should have done in the first place. So if you ask me, bugle boy, it was you who saved the day.’
“It was a nice thing for him to say, and they even gave me a medal, which the sergeant made himself. After that I did not stop talking for a month. But the nightmares never left. It was always the same, always the Zulus.”
Christopher’s grandfather smiled at Christopher, then looked out at the rain for a while. “Never blame yourself Christopher,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do about this accidental life we live.”