Isandlwana: Fact and Fantasy by Gregor Woods

  • Thursday, 11 January 2018 09:29
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Isandlwana: Fact and Fantasy by Gregor Woods: When the pen is flightier than the sword

The accompanying photo of a Webley Pryse revolver appeared in the June 1980 edition of SA MAN (forerunner of Man-Magnum) illustrating “The Terror of Isandlwana” by Theo F Martins (not the same Theo Martins who was then editor of SA MAN). It tells of a colonial officer of the NNC, Captain Cacroft Nourse, who escaped via Fugitives’ Trail, using this Webley to fell many Zulus. 

Theo Martins wrote that, in 1933, when he was a boy of 16, the 70-year-old Capt Nourse came to live on their farm, and regaled the youthful Theo with the story of his heroic escape from Isandlwana 54 years earlier. Nourse still had the Webley he’d used at Isandlwana, and gave it to young Theo, who kept it, and, in 1980, let SA MAN take this photo.

I’d long forgotten the article, but came across it recently. Intrigued that the author had personally known Capt Nourse, I thought I’d use some of its details in my article series, “Revolvers of the Anglo-Zulu War” (Nov 2017 to Jan 2018). However, much of it didn’t ring true, so I researched Capt Nourse’s role – and my intrigue grew and grew… 

I Googled Theo Martins but found no trace of him – understandably, as he’d be 100 years old if still alive. But I felt obliged to try, before writing this, for his story was largely fiction, and I wanted to determine who had romanticized it – the elderly Nourse in his telling of it, or Theo in his writing of it. My guess is that both were very creative story tellers.

In Theo’s story, young Nourse demonstrates rather too much knowledge which he could only have gleaned from the subsequent reports on the battle, or which Theo had later gleaned from history books. During the official inquiry, one reason given for the loss of the camp was Chelmsford’s having spurned Boer advice to laager his wagons. Theo’s story has Nourse, a young, inexperienced Colonial captain of the Natal Native Contingent, personally questioning General Chelmsford to his face, prior to the attack, as to whether his forces would be forming a laager!

Theo introduces Capt Nourse as the commanding officer of the NNC. Not so: Nourse was in charge of 120 men of D Company, 1/1st NNC, assigned to escort the small rocket battery. Theo gave Nourse’s age as 70 in 1933, making him a 16-year-old captain at the time of Isandlwana, which is unlikely. Next, we find Chelmsford sending Nourse to Rorke’s Drift with a message instructing Durnford to bring his force to the camp (all the historical records have Smith-Dorrien as the man sent). 

Read the full article in the February 2018 issue of Magnum.

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