Edgar Oliphant Anstey, a member of the Bampton Ansteys, was born in 1851 in Highercombe, South Australia, to parents George Alexander Anstey and Harriet Kingham Ruffy. He was the younger brother of Thomas Henry Anstey and Harry Anstey. Edgar was educated at Rugby in England and then in 1873 he graduated from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and he was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot.
In May 1874 Edgar and his regiment left for Gibraltar and later that year proceeded to the Cape, where he was involved in the suppression of the Gcaleka outbreak, and mentioned in dispatches.
On 13th January 1878 during the Ninth Xhosa War (1877-1879), we have the following description of an operation in the Transkei in which Edgar played a major role:
“After marching about six miles, halted two hours for breakfast, and then proceeded past the Centain mountain, and had halted and commenced pitching camp and cooking men’s dinners, when a messenger from Major Owen, giving information concerning the movements of the enemy, arrived. Tents were at once struck, and column hurried forward. The detachment of 24th Regiment and Marines were ordered by Colonel Glyn to be kept in hand, and strike in when required. Soon after hearing the musketry fire, running up from right to left, Captain Nixon, R.E., brought orders from Colonel Glyn to move those troops towards the left flank. On coming over a sharp rise we could see the enemy in considerable numbers in a strong position. The detachment extended from its right, and by a rapid advance, firing, succeeded in driving back the enemy in confusion. Inspector Bourne, Frontier Armed Mounted Police, on our left, asking for reinforcements, Lieutenant Ansty with one company, 1st battalion, 24th, Regiment was ordered to strengthen him. Owing to the formation of the ground, we were able to flank the enemy immediately in front of the 88th, and by our cross fire drive the Kaffirs from their position. The men of the 24th Regiment and Royal Marines behaved splendidly; in spite of their long march, they came on for the last quarter of a mile at a steady double, and when hotly engaged did not fire except when ordered. The total number of rounds fired by the detachment was 1,700. Lieutenants Dowding, Royal Marines, and Ansty, 1st battalion, 24th Regiment, commanded their companies with the greatest coolness and judgment, and both non-commissioned officers and men did their duty right well.
Signed: RUSSELL UPCHER, Captain 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment, Commanding 1st and
Then in November 1878, Edgar proceeded to Natal to join the British forces amassing for the invasion of Zululand and the commencement of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.
On January 22 1879, Edgar, attached to Captain William Mostyn’s ‘F’ Company, was killed in action, making a ‘last stand’ near the banks of the Manzimnyana stream behind Isandlwana during the disastrous Battle of Isandlwana, in which over a thousand British imperial, colonial, and native forces were massacred after being vastly outnumbered by over twenty thousand Zulu warriors. It remains the single greatest defeat for a British Army at the hands of a native army to this day.
According to reports of the battle: “The Zulu chiefs took this opportunity to encourage the warriors of the ‘chest’, until now pinned down by the 24th Foot Regiment’s fire, to renew their attack. This they did, causing the British troops to fall back on the encampment. A Zulu regiment rushed between the withdrawing British centre and the camp and the ‘horns’ broke in on each flank. The British line quickly collapsed. As the line broke up, groups formed and fought the Zulus, until their ammunition gave out and they were overwhelmed. The ‘horns’ of the Zulu attack did not quite close around the British camp, some soldiers managing to make their way towards Rorke’s Drift. But the Zulus cut the road and the escaping soldiers from the 24th Foot Regiment were forced into the hills, where they were hunted down and killed. Only mounted men managed to make it to the river by the more direct route to the south-west. A group of some sixty soldiers of the 24th Foot Regiment under Lieutenant Edgar Anstey were cornered on the banks of a tributary of the Buffalo and wiped out.”
Edgar’s body was found by his brother, Captain Thomas Henry Anstey of the Royal Engineers. The event was well covered in newspapers at the time, though with contradictory reports as to exactly what had transpired. For example the ‘Hampshire Independent‘ 17 April 1880 reported “A REMARKABLE INTERMENT— The remains of Lieut. Edgar Oliphant Anstey, late of the 1st 24th Regt, who was killed with so many of his brave comrades on the fatal field of Isandhlwana, in January, 1879, were interred on Saturday last in Woking Churchyard, the funeral arrangements being in charge of Messrs. Porkins and Sons, of this town. The body of the deceased, who was only 28 years of age, remained unburied on the scene of the action from the day he fell until the following September, when it was identified by Capt. Anstey, R.E, one of his brothers, who at the request of an aged and affectionate father, had undertaken the duty, and went from England for the purpose the remains, which were only a skeleton, being recognised by the teeth, a part of the clothing, and the one boot the poor fellow was wearing. They were brought to England some months since, and have been carefully taken charge of awaiting the return from abroad of Mr. Wilfrid Anstey, of the 71st Highlanders, who wished to attend the funeral, and came to Southampton to superintend the transference of the remains. A handsome oak coffin with appropriate furniture was provided by Messrs, Perkins, whose arrangements both here and at Woking gave every satisfaction to the relatives of the deceased officer. It may be interesting to mention that the body of Lieut. Anstey is the only one that has been recovered and identified for interment in England or anywhere also but the fatal field whereon so many brave Englishmen shed their blood in a contest against overwhelming numbers.”
Presumably the most accurate account comes from his father, George Alexander Anstey, who wrote the following in The Times newspaper, also in April 1880:
“Lieutenant Anstey was killed at the slaughter of Isandlana on the 22 of January 1879. His remains, together with those who fell around him, received hasty interment some months later at the hands of their comrades of the 2nd Battalion 24th Regiment, who were then quartered at Rorke’s Drift. His brother [Captain Thomas Henry Anstey], aided by Lieutenant Armitage, 2nd Battalion 24th Regiment, who had on the occasion of the first interment identified the remains of my son, subsequently removed them from the spot where he fell. After being brought home they were buried on the 10th inst. in the family vault in the little churchyard of St John’s near Woking Station. The ceremony was purposely strictly private, members of my family including myself and two daughters, alone being present.”
He has a memorial grave at the Church of Emmanuel St John’s Churchyard, Woking, Surrey, with an inscription stating:
“Here lies the body of Lieutenant Edgar Oliphant Anstey 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot. Born 18 March 1851 at Highercombe, South Australia. Killed in Action 22 January 1879 during the final stand of the 1st Battalion 24th Regiment in the Battle of Isandlwana, Zululand, South Africa. Aged 27. Faithful unto death, he was one of the last to fall. The only casualty of Isandlwana buried in Britain. Thought to have been the first South Australian to die in an overseas battle.“
He is also commemorated on the ‘South Africa 1879-80-81’ memorial in the Sandhurst Chapel.
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