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CONTENTS

COVER

ABOUT THE BOOK

TITLE PAGE

FOREWORD

Part One
Ex Africa . . .

I: THE LIEUTENANT-GOVERNOR

II: REGIMENTAL MOURNING

III: IN PARTIBUS INFIDELIUM

IV: PRIMIPARA

V: A HUNT

VI: THE KING’S GERMAN

Part Two
The Gathering Storm

VII: INDEFINITE LEAVE OF ABSENCE

VIII: AMOUR EN GUERRE

IX: A GOOD JUDGE OF HORSEFLESH

X: A MOST AGREEABLE THING

XI: THE CONSEQUENCES OF INACTION

Part Three
U-Shaka!

MAP OF NATAL AND ZULULAND

XII: THE PLACE OF KILLING

XIII: METTLE ENOUGH

XIV: ERROR’S CHAIN

XV: HE WHO IS EQUAL TO A THOUSAND WARRIORS

XVI: THE MOUNTAIN FALLS

XVII: LAMENTATIONS

XVIII: PURSUIT

XIX: DADEWETHU

XX: A SOLITARY DUTY

XXI: THE WATERS THAT COVER THE EARTH

XXII: A HANDFUL OF RIFLEMEN

XXIII: MUCH KILLING

XXIV: THE SERVICE OF THE STATE

HISTORICAL AFTERNOTE

THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON’S CAVALRY: AN EXPLANATORY NOTE

MATTHEW HERVEY – CURRICULUM VITAE

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

ALSO BY ALLAN MALLINSON

COPYRIGHT

About the Book

Matthew Hervey of the 6th Light Dragoons is urgently summoned to the Cape Colony when he learns that the Zulu warrior king Shaka is about to wage war.

Soon Hervey, his old friend Eyre Somervile and their escort of dragoons and mounted rifles are riding north. But when they arrive at Shaka’s kraal it is a horrifying place. The sentinels at the gates are corpses, and it quickly becomes apparent that he has slaughtered thousands of his subjects.

When Shaka is killed, and the region plunged into civil war, Hervey and his men find themselves in terrible danger.

Yet worse is to come. Separated from his troop, Hervey must lead Shaka’s queen across a hostile land where sanctuary has never seemed further away . . .

Also by Allan Mallinson
AND FEATURING MATTHEW HERVEY

A CLOSE RUN THING

1815: introducing Matthew Hervey, fighting for King and country at the Battle of Waterloo.

THE NIZAM’S DAUGHTERS

1816: in India Matthew Hervey fights to prevent bloody civil war.

A REGIMENTAL AFFAIR

1817: Matthew Hervey faces renegades at home and in North America.

A CALL TO ARMS

1819: Matthew Hervey races to confront Burmese rebels massing in the jungle.

THE SABRE’S EDGE

1824: in India Matthew Hervey lays siege to the fortress of Bhurtpore.

RUMOURS OF WAR

1826: while Matthew Hervey prepares for civil war in Portugal, he remembers the Retreat to Corunna twenty years previously.

AN ACT OF COURAGE

1826: a prisoner of the Spanish, Matthew Hervey relives the blood and carnage of the Siege of Badajoz.

COMPANY OF SPEARS

1827: on the plains of South Africa, Matthew Hervey confronts the savage Zulu.

MAN OF WAR

1827: at home and at sea, crises loom.

Warrior

Allan Mallinson

FOREWORD

Lord cardigan, who led the Charge of the Light Brigade, was born six years later than Matthew Hervey. But whereas Hervey joined his regiment, the 6th Light Dragoons, when he was seventeen, seeing service throughout the Peninsular War and at Waterloo, the Honourable Thomas Brudenell, as Cardigan then was, did not join the army until 1824, when he was twenty-seven. Brudenell was not entirely without military experience, however, if it could be called that: five years earlier he had formed his own troop of yeomanry cavalry to guard against Reformist demonstrations in Northamptonshire, his family seat (Deene Park). But the troop’s purpose and organization gave him a ludicrously feudal attitude to soldiering, which, coupled with an intellect that not even three years at Oxford had raised to adequacy, led with exquisite inevitability to that poetic debacle of the Crimean War.

Cardigan’s rise was rapid: cornet in the 8th Hussars in 1824; lieutenant in January 1825; captain in June of the following year; major in August 1830, and lieutenant-colonel, commanding the 15th Hussars, in December that same year. All these promotions were by purchase: using his vast wealth, he literally bribed his way to command in six years. The purchase system was a sort of regulator: it was meant to guarantee that officers had a financial stake in the service of the Crown, after the uncertainties of the Civil War and the Jacobite rebellions and the revolutionary notions which had so disturbed the peace on the other side of the Channel. So the price of a commission was a sort of caution money. And, in truth, the official prices were not so great as to exclude men of talent. The problem lay in the unofficial price: an officer in a smart regiment was more or less able to name his own price when he decided to sell, which was often too high for a junior in his own regiment, and so a rich one from another regiment would buy in. There was, therefore, considerable coming and going. But a smart regiment could become non-smart overnight: all it needed was a posting to India, or some other place considered unconvivial (Beau Brummell resigned from the 10th Hussars when they were posted to Manchester). Fashionable officers would exchange with others in home-stationed regiments, and since an officer could live more comfortably on his pay and a smaller private income in the tropics (and, presumably, Manchester), there was no shortage of willing exchangees. There were actually some officers who positively sought out a posting to India, since that offered the best prospect of active service.

As long as all this buying and selling over-price didn’t frighten the horses, the authorities were generally content. Periodically there were attempts to enforce the regulation prices, but never very vigorously and always without success. Enforcement was scarcely in the interests of anyone above the rank of cornet who had paid a penny more than the regulation, for he, not unreasonably, hoped to recoup his outlay when he ‘sold out’. No one wanted negative equity. Besides, there were always ways for an able but impecunious officer to advance: (free) promotions in the field following the death of his senior, or in reward for some outstanding service; or the system of brevets, and acting and local rank. However, the army was getting smaller, and actual command, as opposed to appointments on the staff, was going to the men with large fortunes – at least in the Guards, the cavalry and some of the better-favoured infantry regiments of the Line; competition for command of the Forty-something Foot on a yellow-fevered island in the West Indies was not so intense. So it all sorted itself out in the end – more or less. But how was the British army to be sure of having capable generals if all that was needed to rise to command of a regiment was deep pockets and aristocratic connections?

Thomas Brudenell, Lord Cardigan, was the most infamous example of the mess into which the army was getting itself during the decades after Waterloo, but there were other contenders for that dubious distinction. Brudenell does not feature in the pages of this latest chronicle of the life of Major (Acting Lieutenant-Colonel) Matthew Hervey, but the man who ordered him to charge at Balaklava, his brother-in-law Lord Bingham, later Earl of Lucan, is remarked on. Bingham had joined the army after Waterloo, straight from school, but before buying command of the 17th Lancers for a record sum, and before he was thirty, he had seen no active service. Indeed, he had spent remarkably little time at actual duty. After command of the Seventeenth, Bingham went on to half-pay – another anomaly of the purchase system, whereby a man could retire from active soldiering, but if he had the right connections could continue to be promoted. Between 1837 and 1854, Bingham went from lieutenant-colonel to lieutenant-general (four ranks higher) without so much as attending a field day.

Today’s National Curriculum, with its stress on ‘empathizing’ in the study of history, would no doubt phrase the exam question thus: ‘How would you feel, as a veteran of real fighting, to have men promoted over you merely because they had money?’ And doubtless there would be an A* for the candidate who wrote of how wretched he would feel, the victim of aristocratic oppression, but that he could do nothing for fear of the lash or whatever it was that officers were punished with. But the sort of student who gained a top grade in the old ‘O’ Levels would write something along the lines of ‘but there again, the Duke of Wellington’s rise had not been so very different from the Earl of Lucan’s . . .’

It is 1828, and Matthew Hervey is thirty-seven. He is major (second in command) of the 6th Light Dragoons, though still nominally in command of a troop on detachment to the Cape Colony; and he has acting lieutenant-colonel’s rank for command of the recently raised Cape Mounted Rifles. He has just made a textbook marriage, and his old friend and mentor, Daniel Coates, has left him a deal of money with which to advance himself. He is at a crossroads, a watershed, a pivot point – whichever is the most appropriate word for that magic number thirty-seven – which even in today’s army is still the age at which a man’s career is best sounded. Matthew Hervey has come a long way since that day in 1808 when the second son of the Horningsham parsonage, straight from Shrewsbury School, joined his regiment. Like Cromwell, he carried with him his Prayer Book on campaign; although unlike Cromwell, his religion was never militant, rather that of the clean young Englishman. Now, in this tenth instalment of the Hervey chronicles, the Prayer Book is altogether less well thumbed, though the sabre is no less bloody.

PART ONE

EX AFRICA . . .

PART TWO

THE GATHERING STORM

PART THREE

U-SHAKA!

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HISTORICAL AFTERNOTE

Sources for the history of the Shakan period are mainly oral. This does not mean they are inherently unreliable, but it does mean, of course, that it is not possible to re-examine them. The white traders at Port Natal (Durban) wrote journals and letters, but since there were no white witnesses to Shaka’s assassination and the immediate aftermath, there is no contemporary written account. The oral history is strong and consistent, however. It appears that Mbopa’s scratch army of Izi-Yendane (‘mop heads’), cattle guards, veterans, and the newly formed ‘Bees’ regiment of youths, was cobbled together remarkably quickly. Somehow Mbopa persuaded them that they were marching to avenge Shaka, who had been murdered at the hands of an ‘evil relative in the north’ – Ngwadi. Ngwadi was indeed the only chief whose clan warriors had not been impressed for the campaign against Soshangane.

Pampata certainly made her epic journey, a hundred miles at least, and alone except for the first half when a youth accompanied her (at some stage he fell out, too weary to go on), for there were separate reports of her progress by village elders whom she encountered. On each occasion Shaka’s toy spear proved her laissez-passer. Ngwadi had no time to muster all his warriors, however. It appears that initially he mounted a strong defence of his kraal, beating off the first assault of Izi-Yendane, but Mbopa brought the ‘Bees’ forward, and, fired with vengeance and youthful courage, these hurled themselves at the stockade. Seeing he was outnumbered, Ngwadi withdrew with all his womenfolk and children to the calf byre in the middle of the cattle enclosure.

Ngwadi’s last stand is recounted as one of the heroic episodes of Zulu history. He personally is said to have killed eight of his attackers before succumbing to the iklwa with all his household. At this point, Pampata may have taken her own life – with Shaka’s toy spear, as one tradition has it. Whether she took her own life or not, the story goes that as she died, her last cry was, indeed, ‘U-Shaka!

Dingane assumed the throne, promptly murdering his half-brother Mhlangana, as well as Mbopa and anyone else whose loyalties were in question. There was a brief period of peace in Zululand (and favourable contacts with the settlement at Port Natal) but Dingane soon became as paranoid and brutal as Shaka, though without his brother’s other qualities. Relations with the settlers at Port Natal deteriorated, not least because of the increasing numbers of Zulu refugees that sought sanctuary there. Three times, the settlers had to evacuate the port whilst Dingane’s warriors sacked the place.

In 1837, the ‘swallows’ of whom Shaka had warned finally appeared in Natal – the Voortrekkers, Cape Dutch farmers and merchants at odds with the Colonial administration. The first party, led by Pieter Uys, tried to negotiate with Dingane to occupy the empty land south of the Thukela (Tugela) River. But they could not cross the flooded river, so a shouted conversation ensued between the trekkers and some warriors on the far bank. As a result, the trekkers came away believing they were free to settle the land. In fact, Dingane had already given the land to a missionary from Port Natal. A few months later, another party under Pieter Retief did see Dingane who requested that, as a sign of good will, some cattle be recovered from a local chief who had stolen them. Retief recovered the cattle, together with some guns and horses which he had no intention of giving Dingane.

In February 1838, Retief and a hundred trekkers paid Dingane a visit to return the cattle and ratify the treaty giving the trekkers the land south of the Tugela. Dingane surprised the party and dragged them off to his hill of execution, kwaMatiwane, where they were put to death. He then sent 10,000 warriors to destroy the Voortrekkers in the Drakensberg foothills. On the night of 16 February 1838, 500 trekkers were killed. Dingane had underestimated the number of wagons that had crossed the Drakensberg mountains, however, and several camps were untouched. Ten months later, the trekkers wreaked revenge at Blood River, where 460 men defeated a force of 10,000 Zulus at almost no cost. The trekkers tried then to seize Dingane but he fled, burning his kraal.

Some months later, Mpande, Dingane’s half-brother (so fat and slothful that Dingane – as others – believed him harmless, and who had thereby escaped the fate of the other half-brothers), defected to the trekkers. His general, Nongalaza, defeated Dingane at the battle of Magongo Hills, forcing him to flee to Swaziland where he was killed by his own warriors. Mpande was installed as king of the Zulus, and reigned with surprising success for more than thirty years.

Long before Mpande’s death, however, a power struggle developed between two of his sons – Cetshwayo and Mbuyazi – which was settled in 1856 when Cetshwayo defeated Mbuyazi at the bloody battle of Ndondakusuka, in which 23,000 warriors perished. After Mpande’s death in 1872, Cetshwayo revived and reconstructed the Zulu army. By this time, however, the encroachment of both the Boers and British in the south meant a series of border disputes which came to a head in 1878 when the discovery of diamonds in South Africa (though further west) forced the British to take a new look at the independent African nations. An ultimatum, which many historians on both sides believe could never have been fulfilled, and was really an excuse for war, was handed to the Zulus in December 1878. A month later, three columns of British troops under Lord Chelmsford marched into Zululand. So began the first Anglo-Zulu War, whose battles of Isandlwana, Rorke’s Drift and Ulundi have passed into legend.

But that is a generation, and more, from Hervey and his comrades at Shaka’s kraal. So where will the new commanding officer of His Majesty’s 6th Light Dragoons find himself in the next instalment of these cavalry tales? We must wait and see. Indeed, we must wait a little longer than usual: twice as long, in fact, for the eleventh book in the series will be published – Deo volente – in two years’ time, not one. Then, I trust, loyal and patient readers will be rewarded with a story of that singular, glorious, never-to-be-repeated thing: taking command of a regiment of the British Army.

THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON’S CAVALRY

AN EXPLANATARY NOTE

Here is a picture – a very incomplete one – of the cavalry in the Duke of Wellington’s day. The picture remained the same, with but minor changes, until after the Crimean War nearly half a century later.

Like the infantry, the cavalry was organized in regiments. Each had a colonel as titular head, usually a very senior officer (in the case of the 10th Light Dragoons, for instance, it was the Prince of Wales; in the case of the fictional 6th Light Dragoons it was first the Earl of Sussex and then Lord George Irvine, both lieutenant generals) who kept a fatherly if distant eye on things, in particular the appointment of officers. The actual command of the regiment was exercised by a lieutenant-colonel. He had a major as his second in command (or ‘senior major’ as he was known in the Sixth and other regiments), an adjutant who was usually commissioned from the ranks, a regimental serjeant-major (RSM) and various other ‘specialist’ staff.

A cavalry regiment comprised a number of troops identified by a letter (A Troop, B Troop, etc.), each of a hundred or so men commanded by a captain, though in practice the troops were usually under strength. The number of troops in a regiment varied depending on where it was stationed; in Spain, for instance, at the height of the war, there were eight.

The captain was assisted by two or three subaltern officers – lieutenants and cornets (second-lieutenants) – and a troop serjeant-major, who before 1811 was known as a quartermaster (QM). After 1811 a regimental quartermaster was established to supervise supply and quartering (accommodation) for the regiment as a whole – men and horses. There was also a riding-master (RM), like the QM usually commissioned from the ranks (‘the ranks’ referred to everyone who was not a commissioned officer, in other words RSM and below). With his staff of rough-riders (a rough was an unbroken remount, a replacement horse) the RM was responsible for training recruits both human and equine.

Troops were sometimes paired in squadrons, numbered First, Second, Third (and occasionally Fourth). On grand reviews in the eighteenth century the colonel would command the first squadron, the lieutenant-colonel the second, and the major the third, each squadron bearing an identifying guidon, a silk banner – similar to the infantry battalion’s colours. By the time of the Peninsular War, however, guidons were no longer carried mounted in the field, and the squadron was commanded by the senior of the two troop leaders (captains).

A troop or squadron leader, as well indeed as the commanding officer, would give his orders in the field by voice and through his trumpeter. His words of command were either carried along the line by the sheer power of his voice, or were repeated by the troop officers, or in the case of the commanding officer were relayed by the adjutant (‘gallopers’ and aides-de-camp performed the same function for general officers). The trumpet was often used for repeating an order and to recall or signal scattered troops. The commanding officer and each captain had his own trumpeter, who was traditionally mounted on a grey, and they were trained by the trumpet-major (who, incidentally, was traditionally responsible for administering floggings).

The lowest rank was private man. In a muster roll, for instance, he was entered as ‘Private John Smith’; he was addressed by all ranks, however, simply as ‘Smith’. In the Sixth and regiments like them he would be referred to as a dragoon. The practice of referring to him as a trooper came much later; the cavalry rank ‘trooper’ only replaced ‘private’ officially after the First World War. In Wellington’s day, a trooper was the man’s horse – troop horse; an officer’s horse was known as a charger (which he had to buy for himself – two of them at least – along with all his uniform and equipment).

A dragoon, a private soldier, would hope in time to be promoted corporal, and he would then be addressed as, say, ‘Corporal Smith’ by all ranks. The rank of lance-corporal, or in some regiments ‘chosen man’, was not yet properly established, though it was used unofficially. In due course a corporal might be promoted sergeant (with a ‘j’ in the Sixth and other regiments) and perhaps serjeant-major. The best of these non-commissioned officers (NCOs – every rank from corporal to RSM, i.e. between private and cornet, since warrant rank was not yet properly established), if he survived long enough, would hope to be promoted RSM, and would then be addressed by the officers as ‘Mr Smith’ (like the subaltern officers), or by subordinates as ‘Sir’. In time the RSM might be commissioned as a lieutenant to be adjutant, QM or RM.

All ranks (i.e. private men, NCOs and officers) were armed with a sword, called in the cavalry a sabre (the lance was not introduced until after Waterloo), and in the early years of the Napoleonic wars with two pistols. Other ranks (all ranks less the officers) also carried a carbine, which was a short musket, handier for mounted work.

And of course there were the horses. The purchase of these was a regimental responsibility, unless on active service, and the quality varied with the depth of the lieutenant-colonel’s pockets. Each troop had a farrier, trained by the farrier-major, responsible to the captain for the shoeing of every horse in the troop, and to the veterinary surgeon for the troop horses’ health. Hard feed (oats, barley, etc.) and forage (hay, or cut grass – ‘green forage’) were the serjeant-major’s responsibility along with other practical details such as the condition of saddlery, allocation of routine duties and, par excellence, discipline.

Although the cavalry often worked independently, sending detachments on escort duty, patrols and pickets, regiments were usually grouped into brigades of three or more, commanded by a brigadier who was a full colonel or major general (brigadier at this time was an appointment not a rank), with a brigade-major as his staff officer. Brigades could in turn be grouped into divisions (most spectacularly in the retreat to Corunna under the command of that quintessential cavalry general Lord Uxbridge, later Marquess of Anglesey) or attached to an infantry division or to a corps of two or more divisions. The cavalry were prized for their flexibility, though Wellington complained that they were too frequently unmanageable in the field, with the habit of ‘galloping at everything’.

The independent-mindedness of cavalry officers had in part to do with the manner of their commissioning. The cavalry (and the infantry) were the responsibility of the commander-in-chief – for most of the period of these cavalry tales the Duke of York, whose headquarters were at the Horse Guards in Whitehall. On the other hand, the artillery, engineers and other technical services were the responsibility of the Master General of the Ordnance, whose ‘explosives authority’ gave him a seat in the Cabinet. To make matters even more complicated, the commissariat and transport were the direct responsibility of the Treasury.

Officers of the MGO’s arms were appointed to their commissions without purchase and promoted on seniority and merit. Those of the cavalry and infantry, with a few exceptions, purchased their commissions and promotion. They actually paid several thousand pounds for the privilege of serving. When it came to their turn on the seniority list, they bought promotion to the next higher rank, which in practice meant selling their present rank through the regimental agents to someone else and paying the difference in price for the higher one. In fact a rich and influential officer did not need to bide his time on the seniority list: he could offer an officer in another regiment more than the going rate for his rank – called paying overprice. The exception was during active service, when the death of an officer meant that the vacancy passed without purchase to the next regimental officer on the seniority list. Hence the officers’ black-humoured toast, ‘To a bloody war and a sickly season!’

The iniquities of the purchase system are obvious, principally in the widespread abuse of the supposedly strict and fair rules. The advantages are less so, but they were nonetheless significant (space precludes a worthwhile discussion of the purchase system here, and I commend instead the essay in the first volume of the Marquess of Anglesey’s History of the British Cavalry). There is no doubt, however, that with so many men under arms, England (which in Wellington’s time was shorthand for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland) was on the whole well served by it.

It did mean, though, that men such as Matthew Hervey, a son of the vicarage, of the minor gentry – the backbone of Wellington’s officer corps – who had little private money, had to watch while others less capable and experienced than they overtook them in the promotion stakes. There were promotions for meritorious service occasionally, but the opportunities were few even in so large an army, and when peace came to Europe in 1815 the opportunities became even rarer.

This, then, is the army in which Matthew Hervey is making his way – a slow, sometimes disheartening progress, but with the advantage of knowing that he serves among friends who face the same odds, and with NCOs with whom he has, so to speak, grown up. The strength of the army was this regimental system, because the regiment was largely self-supporting and self-healing. It remains so today. It is threatened more than ever before, however. For who that has not served in a regiment, directly or indirectly, can truly appreciate its strength? Certainly not the Treasury, and, I begin to doubt, even ‘the War Office’.

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AN INTERVIEW WITH ALLAN MALLINSON

In Warrior, Matthew Hervey finds himself back in South Africa. What drew you to South Africa, and what in particular made you think that this was a place where you could situate two novels?

You have to march towards the sound of the guns, and in the mid 1820s the sound was in South Africa. The trouble was with the Xhosa and other tribes – generally referred to at the time as Kaffirs – who were cattle rustling for the most part, but it worried the authorities because there had been two bitter ‘Kaffir wars’ within recent memory. In Company of Spears the action is set against this background of frontier skirmishing, in which Hervey and his men run up against a marauding Zulu force at the Umtata River. In fact, whether there were Zulus at the battle of Umtata River is disputed: some historians insist that they were an independent renegade group – all of which I explain in the afternote to the story. But the whole point is that no one really knows for sure because Zulu history at that time was not written down: the Zulu simply had no technique of writing. Partly because of this, I felt that there was unusual latitude to insert Hervey and his men into real history. I had known for many years of the murder of Shaka, and always believed that there was a good story to be written about it, but it was not until I began the real research that I discovered just how rich a vein of adventure there was to tap into. The epic of Pampata’s flight and the climactic battle at her father’s kraal seemed to me to be positively Wagnerian.

The other attraction of South Africa was, of course, that it was a place that Hervey had been to before. The Cape, and Natal – Zululand – is a colourful setting in terms of geography, flora and fauna, without being ‘exotic’ in the Indian sense, and readers may perhaps observe that in neither Company of Spears nor Warrior are Hervey and his associates charged by elephants, hunted by lions, savaged by crocodiles or bitten by snakes, for that would be perilously close to cliché – if not an excess of it. And so the only ‘encounter’ is with a leopard, in the night, unseen, over in a flash – and the glimpses of other fauna are more mundane, like the weasel, or of birds. It is much the same in Prester John, the first novel set in Africa that I read (at fourteen).

One of the special features of Warrior is its detailed depiction of Zulu history. Was it an easy subject to research?

As I said, Zulu history is oral, and therefore depends on transcriptions of stories retold over the generations. The first of these were recorded in the late nineteenth century, but over the years there have been exploitative accounts – especially lurid – with an eye to commercial success. In 2001, some time before I began researching for my own Hervey Zulu tales – and before I knew about Google and AbeBooks – while killing a couple of hours before the grounds at Glyndebourne opened to admit pre-opera picknickers, I came across two books in a second-hand bookshop in Lewes by two South African historians (the best things frequently happen by accident). First was an account published in 1964 of the life of Dingane, Shaka’s usurper, by Peter Becker, director of Bantu studies at the Institute of South African Languages. Even more apt was the second, however; a biography of Shaka published in 1955 by E A Ritter, the son of a Natal magistrate, who grew up with the Zulu at the turn of the nineteenth century. It seemed to me that here was as faithful an account of Shaka’s life and the habits of the Zulu at that time as any to be found. And then a little later, while browsing the dusty shelves of my favourite library – the Royal Institute of Defence Studies in Whitehall – I came across a 1973 PhD thesis from the university of Port Elizabeth by John Burridge Scott, entitled The British Soldier on the Eastern Cape Frontier 1800-1850. Such things are gifts from the gods!

And then when I came to write the books after the obvious ‘field work’, I retired to my study in the Highlands of Scotland – like John Buchan – with pen and paper. Once the first draft was complete, I had intended leaving my Highland fastness and taking the sleeper train from Aberdeen to London to discuss the technical details of language and one or two other things with the dons at the School of Oriental and African Studies, but the gods suddenly bore me even more gifts. After the day’s writing I had taken to repairing to the fireside comforts (it was midwinter) of the splendid Castle Hotel, former dower house of the dukes of Gordon, up-river on the edge of nearby Huntly. Here I could enjoy a glass or two of decent claret and the Castle’s excellent venison stew. The owner’s wife, who was South African, liked to employ foreigners, and one evening a tall, slim and strikingly handsome black girl in her late twenties brought me my stew. ‘Where are you from?’ I asked hopefully. ‘East London,’ she replied. I almost held my breath as I asked, ‘Which East London?’ I received the reply I had wanted. ‘So you are Xhosa?’ I asked, clearly with a note of doubt in my voice, for she laughed and said, ‘Yes.’ And thus it was that in the wilds of Banffshire in the depths of winter I had found my Xhosan – and by extension Zulu – interlocutor.

One of the many pleasures of the Hervey novels is re-meeting characters from previous novels. Hervey's friend Fairbrother is particularly interesting in this respect. Is he drawn from history or your imagination?

The master/slave progeny was, of course, always a feature of plantation life, but in the southern states of America, usually within a couple of generations, all trace of the white genes had disappeared. In the Caribbean, however, things were not so cut and dried. When I was a young officer I spent some time in Jamaica training with the Jamaica Regiment, where I met a number of officers with ‘cafe au lait’ complexions – handsome, well-made men who were very much at home in the field. But Fairbrother is an educated man as well as being extraordinarily good in the field. When I was at theological college in the 1960s I met a young curate – Ewen Ratteray – who had trained at Codrington College in Barbados, and I was much taken by his learning and his measured way of speaking (he is now the Right Reverend Ewen Ratteray, Bishop of Bermuda – the first black priest to hold that appointment). Fairbrother is, I suppose, a conflation of the men I met during that formative time. But the important thing is that while he has the attributes of an insider, he is an outsider. So too in many ways is Hervey, and that may account for their mutual attraction. And I think we shall see more of Fairbrother, for close male friendship in the army is tricky: there is always the matter of relative seniority to take into account. Fairbrother’s semi-detachment from the army allows Hervey to speak to him in an entirely different way from that in which he would be obliged to speak to a fellow officer, who by definition would always be either his subordinate or his superior.

You started writing while still serving in the Army. Did this inform your vision for the Matthew Hervey series?

Let me put it this way: I could not have written the series (and so far there are only ten books – a million words!) without having been a soldier for a substantial period. I have been lucky in my service: I have seen a good deal of service ‘in the field’, as they say, and also in Whitehall. At the Staff College you find that if you can write, your card is marked: officers are needed in the MoD who can write policy papers and briefs for senior officers and officials, but when you are told you are going to the MoD you groan, because there is always the fear that you’ll never be let out. Actually, I enjoyed my first tour in the MoD – as a young major – in particular, for I discovered that a well-turned phrase could have a powerful effect, and it was here that I undoubtedly honed my writing skills. In addition, during the forty-five minute railway journey home each evening from Waterloo, I re-read Hornblower, and I think, in retrospect, that ‘it all began here’, but without my knowing it. The other advantage of serving in Whitehall, and later in the diplomatic world, is that you are at the interface of politics, policy and practice, and you see human nature at its best and its worst. In a sense, everything I write about I have experienced – except the historical context, of course.

You are currently taking a break from Hervey, and are writing a non-fiction book. Can you tell us about this, and when we might expect to see it in the shops?

The idea is very simple: what has made the army what it is today? The answer is people and events. My non-fiction is called therefore The Making of the British Army, with the additional tag From the English Civil War to the War on Terror– which indicates the historical range, I hope. It is a narrative and commentary on the people and events that have shaped the modern army, and is aimed at readers who do not perhaps know the extent of the army’s history but are drawn to it by what they see and hear today of the army in Iraq and Afghanistan. Deo volente, it will be published on 10 September (2009).

I

THE LIEUTENANT-GOVERNOR

The eastern frontier, Cape Colony, April 1828

THE SPEARHEAD SLICED through the blue serge of Private Parks’s tunic, driving deep into his chest. The dragoon, wide-eyed at the sudden, silent assault, tumbled from the saddle like a recruit at first riding school, dead before his feet quit the stirrups. He lay with the spear stuck fast, and barely a twitch, at the feet of his troop horse, which stood still throughout as if possessed of the same paralysing shock.

Sir Eyre Somervile, lieutenant-governor of the Cape Colony, fumbled with the cartridge for his cavalry pistol. Serjeant-Major Armstrong’s sabre flashed from its scabbard. The covermen closed to Somervile’s side, swords drawn, to quieten his excited little arab. Serjeant Wainwright unshipped his carbine, cocked and aimed it in a single motion, more machine-like than human, and fired.

The spearman was sent to meet his Maker with the same rude promptness of Parks’s own despatch.

A second assegai winged from the thicket, higher than the first (and thus better seen). Corporal Allott, the coverman on Somervile’s offside, thrust up his sabre – ‘head protect’ – just catching the shaft at the binding to deflect it clear of his charge, who then dropped his cartridge ball and cursed most foully.

But the impact knocked the sabre clean from Allott’s hand to hang by the sword knot from his jarred wrist. Before he could recover it another Xhosa darted from the thicket and between his horse’s legs, thrusting with his spear to hamstring Somervile’s arab. Armstrong spurred to his side and cut savagely at the back of the Xhosa’s neck as he scrambled from beneath. The razor-sharp blade left but a few bloody sinews joining head to torso. The Xhosa staggered, then fell twitching in a gory, faecal sprawl.

Somervile jumped from the saddle to check his mare’s leg.

‘No, sir!’ cried Armstrong. ‘Get back up!’

Two more Xhosa ran in. Armstrong cut down one but the other lunged straight for Somervile. The nearside coverman, Corporal Hardy, urged his trooper forward to get his sabre to the guard, but couldn’t make it. An arm’s reach from his quarry, the Xhosa lofted his spear. Somervile could smell the animal odour of his fury as he raised his ball-less pistol, and fired.

At an arm’s length the blank discharge was enough. Flame and powder grain scored the Xhosa’s face, blinding him so that he jabbed wildly but ineffectually with his spear until Corporal Hardy put him out of his frenzied agony with a cleaving slice from crown to chin.

The little arab hobbled a few steps, her off-foreleg held up pitiably as if begging. Hardy jumped from the saddle. ‘Sir, here!’ He grabbed Somervile by the arm and motioned for him to mount.

Somervile, more exasperated than dazed, made to protest, but Armstrong decided it. ‘Get up, sir! Get astride!’

Hardy heaved Somervile’s paunchy bulk into his trooper’s saddle, as with a deep-throated cry more Xhosa burst from the cover of the bushwillow thicket twenty yards away.

There was no time to front with carbine or pistol; it was for each to do as he could. Serjeant Wainwright, nearest, spurred straight at them, sword and carbine in hand, reins looped over his left arm. He parried the spear on his right a split second before the one on the left thrust through his canvas barrel belt and into his side. He fired the carbine point-blank, taking off the top of the spearman’s head like a badly sliced egg, and then carved deep between the shoulders of the first Xhosa with a backhand cut. His trooper halted a few strides beyond, and Wainwright slid helplessly from the saddle, leaving a broad red stripe down the grey’s flank.

The remaining spearmen pressed home the attack with a courage and determination Armstrong had not seen in Xhosa before. He turned his mare just in time to get the reach with his sword arm, swinging his sabre with all his strength down behind the nearest shield, all but severing the Xhosa’s wrist.

Piet Doorn, burgher-guide, coming back up the trail from checking for spoor, fired his big Hall rifle at fifty yards, felling the tallest Xhosa, but the three others sprang at Somervile and his covermen like leopards on the fold. Corporal Allott, sabre now in left hand, made not even a retaliatory cut, the spear plunging into his gut and pushing him clean from the saddle. Corporal Hardy dived between the little arab’s legs to slash at the nearest bare, black heel. The Xhosa staggered momentarily but just long enough for Somervile to urge his new mount forward, tumbling and trampling him like a corn rig.

The last Xhosa hesitated, as if unsure of his target rather than whether to fight or run, in which time Armstrong had closed with him to drive the point of his blade deep into his side, bowling him over to writhe in a bloody pool which spread with uncommon speed. Now Armstrong could risk turning his back on him to despatch Somervile’s tumbled assailant.

But the Xhosa had no fight left in him. His hands and eyes pleaded.

Armstrong gestured with his sabre. ‘Bind him up, Corp’ Hardy. We’ll take him a prize.’ He turned to Somervile. ‘You all right, sir?’ he asked in an accent so strong as to sound strangely alien.

But Somervile knew that it was action that revealed the man, and if Armstrong reverted to the Tyne in such a moment, then so be it: without his address they would none of them be alive. Could they stay alive? ‘I am well, Serjeant-Major. The others?’

Armstrong was already taking stock. ‘Corp’ Hardy, watch rear, the way we came. Piet, go look ahead, will you? Stand sentry.’

Piet Doorn nodded as he tamped the new charge in his rifle.

Armstrong sprang from the saddle and looked in turn at Corporal Allott and Private Parks, satisfying himself there was no sign of life, before making for where Serjeant Wainwright lay.

‘Jobie, Jobie!’ he said sharply, shaking Wainwright’s shoulder as if it were reveille.

There was no response.

Yet blood was still running from the wound. ‘Come on, Jobie, lad – rouse yerself!’ said Armstrong quietly but insistently, unfastening Wainwright’s barrel-belt, taking off his own neckcloth to staunch the flow of blood.

Somervile was now by his side. ‘Brandy, do you think, Serjeant-Major?’

‘Ay, sir. Anything that’ll bring ’im to,’ replied Armstrong, taking the flask.

It was not easy to guess how much blood Wainwright had lost – in Armstrong’s experience it always looked more than it was – but to lose consciousness . . .

He lifted Wainwright’s head and put the flask to his mouth, tipping it high to let the brandy pour in copiously.

A spasm of choking signalled that Wainwright was at least fighting. ‘That’s it, Jobie, lad!’ He poured in more.

Another fit of choking brought back up the contents of the flask, and Wainwright’s eyes flickered open at last.

Somervile rose, and shook his head. It had been a deuced ill-considered thing, he reckoned. He was not a military man (although he wore the ribbon of the Bath star for his soldierly bearing during the Vellore mutiny), but he knew it to be a sound principle not to divide one’s force unless it were necessary. And it had not been necessary: he was perfectly capable of holding his own with pistol and sword! Captain Brereton, the officer in temporary command of E Troop, 6th Light Dragoons, had had no need of sending him to the rear so – into the very jaws, indeed, of the wretched Xhosa reiving party they were meant to be evading! What manner of tactician was this new-come captain?

Sweat poured down Somervile’s brow, though the day was not hot. His hat was lost, his neckcloth gone, and his coat was fastened with but its single remaining button. But exhilaration, alarm and anger were in him combined to unusual degree: he was at once all for battle and for retreat. For this was no warfare like that he had seen in India. This was more the hunting of savage beasts, the leopard or the tiger. Or rather, the contest with beasts, for he and his escort had been the prey.

Were these men, these Bantu, Kaffirs, Xhosa – whatever their rightful name – were they cognitive, as the natives of the Indies? Or did they act merely from instinction, as the psalmist had it, like the horse, or the mule, ‘which have no understanding, whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle’? What parley could there be with such primitives, who had not even the accomplishment of writing? Parley, though, depended first on surviving. They had beaten off one attack, but another . . .

It had been his, Somervile’s, idea to make this reconnaissance of the frontier. He had wanted to see for himself the country, and the settlers who were often more cause for annoyance to Cape Town than were the native peoples. And of course those very people – Bantu, Kaffirs, Xhosa (it would be so very useful to have these names, at least, unconfused) – about whom he had read much that was contrary, and over whom his friend Colonel Matthew Hervey had lately gained some mastery. But Hervey was not with him. He was on leave, in England, recovering from his wounds and the remittent fever, and about to marry. Somervile had not wanted to undertake the reconnaissance without him, yet he could not wait for ever on his friend’s return to duty: it was autumn, and although the winters here were nothing to those of India, the nights could be bitter chill, and the rains in the mountains of the interior could swell the rivers of the frontier into impassable torrents.

And it had begun well enough, in a quiet way – an official progress through Albany and Graaff Reinet, a pleasant ride beyond the Great Fish River to Fort Willshire, where he had inspected the little garrison of His Majesty’s 55th Foot (which regiment had so distinguished itself at Umtata with Hervey and the Mounted Rifles a few months before). And he had been most attentively escorted the while by a half troop of the 6th Light Dragoons under the command of Captain the Honourable Stafford Brereton, not long joined from the regiment in England.

Hervey had originally asked for an officer to take temporary command because he was himself occupied increasingly with the Rifles, which corps he had raised, but after his wound at Umtata, and the recurrence of the malaria, the request had proved providential, and Brereton’s early arrival a particular boon, allowing him to take home leave with rather more peace of mind. Not that he knew Brereton well, or even much at all. The younger son of the Earl of Brodsworth had joined the Sixth some five or so years earlier, but had not gone out to India, having served first with the depot troop at Maidstone before the general officer commanding the southern district had claimed him as an aide-de-camp.

Brereton had bought his captaincy via another regiment and then exchanged back into the Sixth. There was nothing unusual in such a progression, although it meant that, a dozen years after Waterloo, and with India experience in short supply, there were many regiments whose officers had never, as the saying went, been shot over. Brereton had certainly not been. He had, however (doubtless in consequence), been keen to get to the frontier, and had been especially glad when the lieutenant-governor had not insisted on any larger escort, and therefore one requiring a more senior officer from the garrison.

Somervile had not been expecting trouble, though. Halting the Zulu incursion at the Umtata River had done much to quell the unease among the Xhosa, who had been so fearful of Shaka’s depredations they had been migrating ever closer to the frontier, and frequently across it. But then, when Somervile’s party had been returning, a league or so west of the Great Fish River, which marked the border for the settled population of the Eastern Cape, word had come of the Xhosa raid to the north, a much bigger foray than the frontier had seen in some time. It took even the most hardened burghers by surprise, requiring the immediate reinforcement of Fort Willshire and a doubling of the frontier patrols. By the time Somervile’s party had re-crossed the Fish into the unsettled buffer tract – ‘to see the beggars for myself’ – the reivers were back across the Keiskama River into Xhosa territory proper.

But Xhosa raids were by their nature fissiparous affairs, and the proximity of burgher cattle to the Keiskama (against the rules of the buffer treaty), and the leafy cover which the season afforded, as well as the ease of river crossing, had evidently tempted at least one sub-party to remain in the unsettled tract.

Serjeant Wainwright was supporting himself on an elbow. ‘There were nothing I could do, sir; not with so many spears.’

‘Half a dozen, Jobie; half a dozen,’ replied Armstrong, bemused. ‘But there were two less when you’d done with them!’

‘Noble conduct,’ echoed Somervile. ‘Finest traditions of the cavalry.’

‘Thank you, sir. But what service a shotgun would’ve been!’

‘Indeed.’

Or even one of the double-barrelled Westley-Richards which the Cape Mounted Rifles carried, thought Armstrong; though now was not the time to question why the Rifles were not with them.

‘What do we do, Serjeant-Major?’ asked Somervile, not afraid to confess thereby that he had no certain idea of his own.

Armstrong shook his head, and sighed. ‘I don’t want to leave young Parks and Danny Allott for the vultures, or the Xhosa for that matter. They’ve a nasty way with a blade.’

Somervile was ever of the opinion that a man’s mortal remains meant nothing (nor, for that matter, did he believe there was anything immortal): the Parsees of Bombay put out their dead so that the vultures could pick the body clean. But he thought not to debate the point at this exigent moment. In any case, he recognized in Armstrong’s reluctance the habitual pride of the regiment. A man who bore the numeral ‘VI’ on his shako plate was not abandoned lightly by another who bore the same.

‘Shall we carry them astride then?’

Armstrong nodded. ‘We’ve no chance of making a mile unless we’re mounted. Not if those Xhosa don’t want us to. We can get Parks and Allott across the one horse, and Jobie here fastened into the saddle. You take Danny’s trooper, sir. And I’ll have Corp’ Hardy get up his carbine, and Parks’s.’

‘And the prisoner? I should like very much to interrogate him when there is opportunity.’

A bullet through the head would be the most expedient, reckoned Armstrong, but it would not serve; it had not been the way for years, not even with savages. ‘I don’t see us managing more than a trot, sir: he can keep up on his shanks.’