Escape from Isandlwana 22nd January 1879 – Samuel Wassall’s Story.

Portrait of Samuel Wassall, awarded the Victoria Cross: Zululand, 22 January 1879.

On January 22nd 1879 the main encampment belonging to the No. 3 Column was attacked and successfully taken by the Zulus. When all was lost the remaining survivors made a bid to escape and only those on horseback appeared to have any chance of avoiding the oncoming massed black ranks of Zulu warriors with their ritual cries, slashing spears and bludgeoning knobkerries.

Private Samuel Wassall of the 80th Regiment of Foot, who had volunteered as a Mounted Infantryman, was part of the forces encamped at Isandhlwana. Making his escape from the stricken camp and nearing safety, Private Wassall risked his own life to save that of a fellow soldier, who was drowning. To quote in his own words: (Original text)

“The only way to escape was by the Buffalo River, six or seven miles away and we had to get cross it into our own territory, Natal. A main road led to the river but the road was cut off by the Zulus and I had to take a road across the veldt, I knew nothing about. But, I was not in the mood to care which way I went so long as it took me away form the enemy, and so I furiously went on, stumbling over the rough rocky ground, expecting every instant that my horse, a Basuto pony, would fall. In that case I should not have had a chance for the Zulus would have been upon me before I could have got up again. To this day, I cannot understand how a living soul got away from Isandhlwana, because we were seriously harassed by the savages, shots came after us and clouds of spears, but I did escape from the field of the massacre and reached the Zulu bank of the river, and saw on the other side of the Natal territory, where my only hope of safety lay. I knew how dangerous the river was, there was a current running six or seven mile an hour, no ordinary man could swim it. But, the Zulus had a curious ways of using there elbows which made them able to get across. I drove my horse into the torrent, thankful even to be in that part and was urging him to the other side, when I heard a cry for help and I saw a man of my own Regiment, a Private named Westwood was being carried away. He was struggling, desperately and was drowning. The Zulus were sweeping down to the river bank, which I had just left and there was a terrible temptation to go ahead and just save one’s self, but I turned my horse around on the Zulu bank, got him there, dismounted, tied him up to a tree and I never tied him more swiftly. Then I struggled out to Westwood, got hold of him and struggled back to the horse with him. I scrambled up into the saddle, pulled Westwood after me and plunged into the torrent again, and as I did so the Zulus rushed up to the bank and let drive with their firearms and spears, but most mercifully I escaped them all and with a thankful heart urged my gallant horse up the steep bank on the Natal side and then got him to go as hard as he could towards Helpmakaar about fifteen miles from Isandhlwana, where our main camp was. I ought to have gone straight onto Rorke’s Drift after escaping from Isandhlwana but the Zulus were already surging on towards the Drift, which was held by a mere handful of men of the 24th, they expected to wipe out its defenders as they had wiped out the camp at Isandhlwana. At this time I was very lightly cold, I had thrown my helmet aside and my red tunic off, the British soldiers fought in the good old red in those days and not in khaki, so that I was clothed in just my shirt and trousers with my bandolier over my shirt and so I rode on as hard as I could, with a few of the fugitives from Isandhlwana.”

Private Samuel Wassall, unlike so many of his fellow soldiers, lived to tell the tale and his brave rescue of a drowning comrade was an act of bravery which richly deserved an award. For his act of valour in the face of the enemy, Private Samuel Wassall was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Samuel Wassall (No. 427 Private) 1856-1927 Citation for the Victoria Cross

For his gallant conduct in having, at the imminent risk of his own life, saved that of Private Westwood, of the same Regiment. On the 22nd January 1879, when the camp at Isandhlwana was taken by the enemy, Private Wassall retreated towards the Buffalo River, in which he saw a comrade struggling, and apparently drowning. He rode to the bank, dismounted, leaving his horse on the Zulu side, rescued the man from the stream and again mounted his horse, dragging Private Westwood across the river under a heavy shower of bullets.

Award Published in the London Gazette
Dated 17th June 1879

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