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Auction: 18002 - Orders, Decorations and Medals
Lot: 300

(x) South Africa 1877-79, 1 clasp, 1879 (Lieut: R. D'Ombrain, 1st. Nat: Nat: Contgt.), very fine

Robert D'Ombrain committed suicide on 8 April 1879. His story is the subject of an article by Keith Smith - 'The Lonely Grave at Kranskop' - which appear on the Victorian Wars Forum:

'This paper owes its origin to a visit I made to Natal in 2004, one of whose objectives was to visit Fort Cherry, which stands high on a hillside near Kranskop in KwaZulu-Natal. The farm manager whom I met, and on whose property the fort lies, took me to see the farm's owner, then engaged in tending another property. After a brief chat he took me to see something else of interest nearby. In the midst of waving sugar cane, a small unplanted area conceals a little-known grave. A quite new headstone, erected by the owner to replace one which had been damaged by time and other causes, reads simply:

8TH APRIL 1879

Together with the nearby overgrown outline of an earthen Fort Cherry, this is all that remains of the presence of the 1st Regiment of the Natal Native Contingent (N.N.C.) during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.

From January to September 1879, the area was the centre of great activity and excitement. On the farm of W. H. F. D'Almaine, on the Greytown side of Kranskop village, Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony Durnford, R.E. first set up the headquarters of his Second Column, preparatory to the first invasion of Zululand by the forces of Lord Chelmsford. Kranskop lies close to the Thukela River, then the border between Natal and Zululand. There was a river-crossing at Kranskop known as Middle Drift, hence the presence of the N.N.C. regiment.

Unlike the other two N.N.C. regiments, the 1st Regiment N.N.C. consisted of three battalions. The 1st Battalion was led by Commandant Alexander Nixon Montgomery, a restless man with a quick temper. Born in Ireland, he had been a Captain (by purchase) in the 7th Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) and after resigning his commission had emigrated to Natal some years earlier. The other two battalions were under the command of Major Henry Mortimer Bengough and Captain Charles Edward le Mesurier Cherry, both special service officers of the British Army on assignment to the South African command.

Captain Geoffery Barton, also a special service officer from the 7th Regiment, was appointed as Durnford's Staff Officer. Born in February 1844, Barton joined the regiment in 1862. While Montgomery had been serving as a captain with the regiment Barton was still only a Lieutenant and was Adjutant in 1870. They were thus well known to each other. At the commencement of the Zulu War the three Commandants were of similar ages: Montgomery and Cherry were both 39 and Bengough was 41 years old. At 35, Barton was the youngest of the four men.

In addition to Durnford's 1st Regiment N.N.C., there was also to be found there two squadrons (six troops) of the Natal Native Mounted Contingent led by Captain William Barton and Captain G. Ayliff. There was also a rocket battery commanded by Brevet Major Francis Broadfoot Russell, R.A., the only British unit in the column.

In the first Local General Order of 1879, the appointment of a number of officers to the 1st Regiment N.N.C. was announced. Among those assigned to the 1st Battalion were 'R. D. Ombrain, A. Hornby, from 26 December, 1878.' Robert D'Ombrain had also emigrated from England, arriving in Natal in July 1877. He quickly contacted a friend of his family, Captain Montgomery, who had a property called 'Ismont' in Mid-Illovu, not far from Pietermaritzburg. Montgomery at that time was a Justice of the Peace for the district. With Montgomery as a sponsor, D'Ombrain applied for a position with the Natal government and awaited the result of his application. With the approach of war, it was certainly Montgomery's influence which enabled the young D'Ombrain to be appointed to his N.N.C. battalion instead.

Montgomery had already been the subject of public attention. In 1878 one of his house guests, Robert Huskisson Marr, found himself in impecunious circumstances and, beset by his creditors, attempted to take his life by cutting his own throat. Robert D'Ombrain, also a house guest at the time, was a witness at the subsequent magistrate's enquiry. Marr was not prosecuted for his offence and even managed to outlive his host.

On 10 January Durnford led out the 1st and 2nd Battalions N.N.C., five of the six troops of the N.N.M.C. and Russell's rocket battery. These were left at Sandspruit while Durnford, receiving fresh orders from Lord Chelmsford after riding up to Rorke's Drift, returned to Kranskop with seven companies of the 1st Battalion, leaving the remaining three behind. These were combined into two over-size companies under two Captains, the third Captain having remained at Kranskop as paymaster.

On 17 January, Durnford left Kranskop for the last time, riding to Sandspruit. There he left Bengough's 2nd Battalion and took the remainder of his force on to Rorke's Drift, arriving on the 20th, the same day that Lord Chelmsford and the 3rd Column marched out for Isandhlwana. Captain Geoffery Barton, his Staff Officer, was left at Kranskop in command of the troops remaining there. They were the 1st and 3rd Battalions, under Montgomery and Cherry, and the last troop of the Mounted Contingent, Jantze's Horse under Captain Ayliff.

The remainder of the 1st and the under-manned 3rd Battalions whiled away their time at Kranskop. Montgomery displayed his unpleasant nature by indulging in arguments with both his commanding officer and Captain Cherry:

'Captain Montgomery calls in sometimes - he did … yesterday and told me of a dispute with Captain Cherry. He is always getting into them and was with Barton too, when he was here.'

Montgomery and Barton may have formed a dislike for each other during their service together in England. Perhaps more likely, Montgomery resented the fact that Barton, his junior in both years and, in Montgomery's mind, rank, should now be placed in command of him.

On the other hand, Jonathan Eustace Fannin, Special Border Agent for Umvoti County and based at Kranskop, became very friendly with Cherry, for whom he had an increasing affection:

'I have not told you much about Capt. Cherry. I like him exceedingly-a thorough soldier and gentleman. We get on splendidly - he what you call 'jumps' with me always, does anything I recommend.

The more I see of Capt. C., the more I like him, a perfect Gentleman, a thorough Soldier, has seen a lot of the world - he is not very clever but is capital company.'

After receiving news of the disaster at Isandlwana on 22 January, an added sense of urgency pervaded the N.N.C. camp and Captain Cherry commenced construction of a fort on the summit of a nearby hill which was to bear his name. The extremely wet summer had caused the Thukela river to run in full spate and there was little chance of any Zulu incursion by that route. In February, Captain Geoffrey Barton was given command of the Greytown district, and Cherry, being senior by virtue of his being a serving British officer, assumed the command at Kranskop.

As summer eased into autumn, the urgency waned and boredom set in. The restless and energetic Montgomery arranged a 'sport's day' on 12 February in which the officers and men of the regiment competed in various events. In accordance with the mores of the day, Africans and white men did not compete in the same event. He even arranged for himself and a group of friends to climb the previously inaccessible Kranskop itself, and proved his success by lighting a fire on the summit, to the astonishment of observers.

The most consistent activity of both officers and men to relieve their ennui was the consumption of alcohol. They gained a reputation for drunkenness and the medical officer was so frequently inebriated that he could not attend to his patients and was reported for his excesses. Paul Thompson suggests that so crapulous were the white officers (and presumably the N.C.Os) of the regiment that the officers on occasion drank until their company was obnoxious. The ditch around the fort was filled with broken bottle glass - ostensibly a defensive measure.

In late March and early April 1879, the two battalions engaged in 'demonstrations' along the border in support of Lord Chelmsford's relief of Eshowe, involving several sallies across the Thukela, but, other than this brief diversion, boredom still prevailed. It was in this atmosphere that Lieutenant D'Ombrain took his own life on 8 April. Captain Cherry convened a court of enquiry on the same day. Its findings were so unacceptable that Cherry then convened a second enquiry on 16 April at which a number of officers gave evidence.

Civil Surgeon John R. Ryley stated that he had seen D'Ombrain on the afternoon of the 6th, when he presented with what D'Ombrain referred to as the results of 'a glass too much & that he felt nervous & out of sorts'. Ryley thought it might have been 'incipient delirium tremens' but there were none of its symptoms and he finally treated it as 'drunkard's dyspepsia' by prescribing a laxative. The Lieutenant declined to be admitted to the nearby tented hospital.

On Monday 7 April, D'Ombrain's friend Lieutenant George Hornby, whose brother Arthur had been appointed to the battalion in the same General Order as D'Ombrain, returned from leave and visited his sick friend in his tent. Robert said that he was feeling much better and remembered little of the previous day. Hornby gave him a book before he left.

Later that same day the medical officer visited him again, found that the aperient had not had any effect and that Robert had had a sleepless night. He went away and returned later, requiring a Corporal Wood to give him an injection and a sedative.

Lieutenant Grantham gave evidence that he had visited Robert several times on both the Sunday and Monday (6 and 7 April) and that he had noticed nothing untoward. D'Ombrain's servant, Cherabanya, reported that he had been ordered by his master not to go too far away as he might be wanted at any time; his master had taken nothing but a little toast and some beef tea.

On Tuesday the 8th, Grantham again visited him about 10 a.m., D'Ombrain asking him what the African soldiers nearby were saying about him. Grantham replied that they were not talking about him, to which Robert responded that he 'must be a little light-headed'. Shortly after Grantham had left, Civil Surgeon Ryley and Corporal Wood visited him, and again D'Ombrain reported having slept badly and had taken neither his food or beef tea. Ryley reported that D'Ombrain had looked gloomy and 'had a morbid fear of his brother officers knowing the cause of his illness'. Again, Ryley urged him to go to the hospital, but D'Ombrain declined until evening, lest he be seen by anyone. He also ordered that Corporal Wood and another assistant return to care for him during the afternoon, and for Cherabanya to make more beef tea and not to leave him. Ryley later send Wood back to administer a draft of the sedative chloryl hydrate.

About 11 a.m., George Hornby, Grantham and Hornby's brother Arthur visited and noticed nothing unusual. Grantham and Arthur Hornby left after some thirty minutes but George remained behind smoking. He reported that the conversation was rather curious, saying that D'Ombrain made some odd statements, although he had given little thought to them at the time. On one or two occasions Robert rose from his bed and left the tent for brief periods, and on returning to the tent after one of these excursions, told George that 'they were coming'. When asked who was coming Robert simply repeated his statement. On another occasion Robert said that 'there was only one woman that had ever threatened him', which Hornby dismissed as 'irrelevant to the conversation at the time and I did not think much of it'. He then left, intending to return later in the day.

Some time later, reported as noon by Ryley and 1.30 p.m. by George Hornby, both men were in their tents when they heard a shot. Hornby, whose tent was next to that of D'Ombrain, immediately went to it and found that Robert had shot himself. Hornby then went to report the incident to his superiors. When Ryley, accompanied by Montgomery, who had been with him when the shot was heard, arrived, they found the body on a bed opposite his litter. He had fired his rifle into his mouth, pulling the trigger with his feet by means of a riding crop placed horizontally through the trigger guard. The bullet had broken his jaw, smashed his skull and then ripped through the fabric of the tent.

At the second court of enquiry Hornby deposed that he had 'known the deceased for more than a year, and from my knowledge of him consider him incapable of taking his own life, in his proper senses'. Ryley said that D'Ombrain might have been 'labouring under some delusion' at the time he had fired the shot but he [Ryley] had 'failed to detect any sign of insanity during life.' The board of enquiry did not 'consider that any blame is attached to the Senior Medical officer but regrets that Lieutenants Hornby and Grantham did not report the result of their interviews to him, but think that they showed no culpable negligence in not so doing.'

The incident was duly, if incorrectly, reported by J. Eustace Fannin in one of his many letters to his wife Ethie:

'One of the officers of Native Contingent who had D. Tremens shot himself yesterday in the hospital tent here. He was buried by Capt. Montgomery in the afternoon.'

Whilst Victorian sensibilities precluded the explicit mention of sexual matters or even inclinations, it does seem that Commandant Montgomery had a proclivity for the company of young men. This is amply demonstrated by his relationship with Marr and D'Ombrain, both of whom lived at his house. He also cultivated a friendship with George and Arthur Hornby. The extent to which Montgomery's friendships were innocent, however, merely reflecting the close relationships enjoyed by the men of that time, cannot be known and it may be unjust to attach any darker meaning to them.

If indebtedness was apparently the cause of Marr's failed suicide, we have no real clue as to the reason for D'Ombrain's successful attempt. In a later paper, we will also discover that Montgomery had an even more overt, and aggressive, appetite for young ladies. But that episode must wait for a while.'

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