The 91st Highlanders were stationed in Aldershot when news of the disaster at iSandlwana reached Britain in February 1879. On 12 February they were placed under orders to embark for Natal and, after being made up to active service strength with the receipt of 400 volunteers from other battalions they embarked at Southampton on the transport SS ‘Praetoria’ and sailed on 20 February. They arrived at Cape Town on 12 March and at Durban on the 16th. They disembarked the following day and were marched up to the Thukela river – the border with Zululand – to join a force being assembled to relieve Col. Pearson’s beleaguered garrison at Eshowe.
On 29th March – scarcely A fortnight after they had arrived in Africa – they crossed the Thukela as the advanced guard of the Eshowe Relief Colum. On 1 April the column camped on a grassy rise near the old Zulu royal homestead of kwaGingindlovu (which the British had destroyed earlier in the war). The camp was protected by a wagon-laager and surrounding trench. Shortly after dawn the following morning – 2 April 1879 – as the mist rose a Zulu army could be seen advancing across the Nyezane river ahead. Some 10,000 strong, it was commanded by the induna Somopho kaZikhala and accompanied by Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande, who had earlier led the attack on Rorke’s Drift, and had been directed to prevent the British reaching Eshowe. The British stood-to in ranks for deep in a square around the laager – the 91st Highlanders held the rear face. The Zulus deployed in their usual ‘chest and horns’ formation and surrounded the laager, and the British infantry opened fire at 450 yards. The Zulus pushed through the curtain of fire to within a few paces of the British line in some places but were unable to close hand-to-hand.
The Zulu right horn, commanded by Prince Dabulamanzi, then advanced in the lee of the shelter of a low hill and made a determined attack upon the rear face of the British square – the 91st met it with a furious fire but nevertheless fixed bayonets in expectation of the charge striking home. In fact the charge collapsed and the Zulus retired – Prince Dabulamanzi himself had been wounded in the thigh during the assault. British mounted troops then pushed out from the laager to drive the Zulus back, and the Zulus lost heavily during the retreat. 450 Zulu bodies were found close to the laager and a further 200 near the Nyezane river – many more crawled away to die in the long grass, and estimates of the Zulu dead number as many as 1200 men. British casualties numbered two officers killed and four wounded, seven white soldiers killed and 26 wounded, and five African soldiers killed and 17 wounded. Among these the 91st suffered one man killed and 9 wounded, evidence of the severity of the attack on their front.
On the day after the battle of Gingindlovu the majority of the 91st accompanied the final march to relieve Eshowe. After the relief the British position there was abandoned, and the 91st were subsequently attached to the 1st Division where it spent the remainder of the war in occupation of the Zulu coastal districts, destroying royal homesteads and garrisoning a series of forts built to protect the route to the beach-head at Port Durnford. Following the defeat of the Zulu army at the battle of Ulundi on 4th July and the capture of King Cetshwayo on 28 August the 94th were withdrawn from Zululand and were subsequently despatched to Mauritius.
Private J. Massie’s entitlement to the medal with bar ‘1879’ is confirmed on Forsyth’s medal roll.