V.C. Magazine, April 30*, 1903




The history of the Empire is studded with defeats of which we are as proud as we are of our victories. They are episodes in the campaign. The final result is barely affected by them. But it is the recollection of these episodes which nerves the Briton when big things begin to happen. Such an episode was the great fight of the Revenge. Another was the last stand of Major Wilson and his men in the Matabele war. The last instance to be added to the roll of fame is the gallant end of Colonel Plunkett and the 181 men—nine Englishmen and 172 natives—who died with him.

It is impossible to read the bald, official account of the engagement without a thrill of pride. The enemy were ten thousand strong. They gave no quarter. Colonel Plunkett’s men maintained a desperate resistance till the ammunition was gone. Then, forming a square, they attempted to move towards Colonel Cobbe’s zareba, but were all killed except about thirty-seven men of the King’s African Rifles.

They must have known that the situation was hopeless long before the ammunition gave out. Each man had a hundred rounds. It was not enough. Every bullet does not find its billet in actual warfare. Soon the firing began to slacken. The order came to fix bayonets. They fixed bayonets, formed a square, and charged. And there they died, in the heart of the enemy, fighting to the end, as they should who follow the flag.

They say—but whether this is so or not has yet to be proved—that but for a misunderstanding this massacre could have been prevented, for the main column were within earshot from beginning to end of the battle. It happened apparently thus. Early in the morning news came from Captain Olivey that he was in difficulties. Captain Olivey with a small force was engaged with a large body of the enemy a few miles from the camp. Colonel Plunkett was sent to his assistance. All the morning sounds of firing were heard, and it seemed to those in the main column that all was going well with the rescue party. Suddenly the firing ceased. Shortly afterwards—the exact time was a quarter to twelve—a fugitive arrived with the news that the force had been annihilated. How the little band, outnumbered by fifty to one, were able to keep their assailants at bay as long as they did will always be a matter for wonder. Nothing short of the most undaunted courage could have done it. The least sign of wavering, and the spell would have been broken; the enemy would have rushed in and poured over them like a tide.

The fact that all but thirty-seven of the native troops died where they stood is an excellent example of what natives will do when a white man leads them. It is also a silent tribute to the splendid qualities of Colonel Plunkett and his officers. A native will not die for a man whom he does not respect; and he does not respect a man concerning whose manhood there is any question. No greater honour could be paid to the colonel’s memory than the thought that these men did not hesitate to die by his side.

It was a fitting place for a gallant soldier to die in, that small square driving straight for the yelling masses that stood between it and safety, a fine place in which to end a fine career. The British flag has seen few things finer than it saw when the order was given to fix bayonets on that tropical morning in Somaliland.



Printed unsigned in magazine; entered by Wodehouse in Money Received for Literary Work for April 1903 as “The Somaliland Disaster”; the day of publication was not entered.
* Reports of Plunkett’s death were released by the War Office at noon on Thursday, April 23, according to evening papers of that date. The V.C. magazine was published on Thursdays, so the inference is that this item must have appeared in the April 30 issue.




A commemoration of the bravery of Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur William Valentine Plunkett of the 2nd King’s African Rifles, killed in action at Gumburru on April 15, 1903 in the Second Boer War. V.C. was not an outlet for humor or fiction, and P.G. evidently wrote this (and several other pieces) on a ‘helping-hand’ assignment from Begbie. (There were three Victoria Crosses awarded for battles in Somaliland, but Plunkett was not among the recipients.)


John Dawson