Defenders of Rorke’s Drift Part One
As dawn broke on the morning of the 23rd January 1879 the defenders of the British outpost at Rorke’s Drift surveyed a scene of devastation. The ground in front of them was scattered with the broken bodies of their Zulu attackers, the charred remains of the hospital smouldered, sending drifting clouds of smoke across the battlefield.
The men were mortally tired and thirsty, they had stood to all night, the last frontal assault had occurred at 9.30pm but sporadic gun fire had carried on until 4.00am. As light broke across the surrounding hills, sending strange shadows across the outpost, Lieutenant Bromhead lead a team of men across Enemy Territory to rescue the water barrel.
As fears of another assault receded, Chard and Bromhead kept the men busy by rebuilding the defences, collecting the British dead and collecting the weapons of their fallen enemy. It is said that they collected 100 rifles and 400 assegais from in front of the barricades.
The men were bone tired and bruised from the constant firing of their Henri-Martini rifles. They had fired almost 25,000 rounds in 5 hours of fighting, at 42 rounds a minute that was going to leave some sore shoulders in the morning.
As it became more and more likely that they had survived their ordeal the atmosphere within the outpost become almost joyous, although as hospital cook, Henry Hook just got on with making tea for the patients.
At 7.00am the mood in the camp slumped drastically as a column of Zulus were seen in the hills above the outpost. The stand to was called and the patrols and work parties came rushing back but the Zulu column had no stomach for a fight, it was only interested in making it back to Zululand.
At just after 8.00am joyous shouts broke out on one side of the camp as the advance scouts of Lords Chelmsford’s column came into view, unbelievably and against all odds, Rorke’s Drift had been held.
Lieutenant John Rouse Merriot Chard No. 5 Coy. Royal Engineers
Chard was born in Boxhill on the 21st December 1847 and he joined the Royal Engineers after passing out of the Royal Military Academy Woolwich in 1868.
He served in numerous postings including Chatham, Bermuda and Malta but had never seen action. In January 1879 he arrived in the Cape for the beginning of the 9th Frontier War.
He was attached to Lord Chelmsford’s invasion column and was left at the River crossing below the outpost at Rorke’s Drift to supervise the ponts there.
On the morning of the 22nd January, Chard travelled up to the main British camp at Isandlwana for orders but was sent back to the river as he wasn’t needed thus missing the slaughter there by about half an hour.
On account of him being the senior lieutenant at Rorke’s Drift, Chard is in command when the Zulus attacked and for outstanding leadership during the battle he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
After the battle, Chard contracted a fever so was sent back to Ladysmith to recover, he was promoted to Major and was present in South Africa for the rest of the war and was present at the Battle of Ulundi.
His VC was presented to him by Lord Wolseley and he arrived back in England in October 1879. As mentioned yesterday he received an invitation to Balmoral to meet Queen Victoria and he became a firm favourite of hers.
He served in the Royal Engineers for the rest of his life but never saw action again. He was promoted to Colonel but while in Scotland he was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the tongue. He suffered terribly in the last months of his life, enduring numerous operation to remove his tongue and finally died in Taunton on the 1st November 1897.
He was buried with full military honours and the Queen sent a wreath bearing the inscription “A mark of admiration and regard for a brave soldier, from his sovereign” This was placed on his coffin and buried with him. The Duke of Connaught and Lord Chelmsford both sent letters of sympathy and a fine marble cross was erected above his grave.
His whereabouts of his VC are not know but his family have a replica.
Private Henry Hook. B Coy, 2nd Bn, 24th Regt
Henry Hook was born in Alney near Gloucester on the 6th August 1850. He had served in the local militia for 5 years before enlisting in the regular army in 1877.
He travelled to South Africa with the rest of his battalion and took part in the 9th Frontier War. He was present at Rorke’s Drift and was posted in the hospital during the battle.
For his actions in the hospital, including saving many patients when it fell, Hook was awarded the Victoria Cross. Hook served at Rorke’s Drift for the entire war and is one of the few men to receive their medal at the sight of winning it when Lord Wolseley presented it him there.
In 1880 Hook decided to buy himself out of the army at a cost of £18 but when he returned home he found that his wife had believed he had been killed so had sold his home and had remarried.
Hook moved to London and with the help of references from Lord Chelmsford and Major Bromhead VC secured a job as cloakroom attendant at the British Museum. He remarried and served part-time in the 1st (Volunteer) Battalion of Royal Fusiliers.
In later life he was plagued by ill-health so retired to his native Gloucestershire where he received a heroes welcome.
He died of Tuberculosis on the 12th March 1905. His funeral was a lavish affair with 24 different regiments represented. His pall Bearers were provided by the South Wales Borderers (including Corporal Hitch, Son of his old colleague Fred Hitch VC). 18 months after his funeral a marble memorial was erected above his grave.
His VC is in the regimental museum in Brecon.
Henry Hook’s life was much maligned by the film Zulu which cast him as a drunk and a malinger. This was about as far from the truth as you could get. Hook was a teetotaler and a respected soldier who left the army with numerous good conduct medals. His daughter was so disgusted by his portrayal in the film that was walked out of the premiere in 1964.
Private William Jones. B Coy, 2nd Bn, 24th Regt
William Jones was born in Bristol in 1839. Originally he worked in the footwear business but enlisted in 1858. He served in Mauritius and Burma (where he was promoted to Corporal and then reduced in Rank) He sailed to South Africa with the rest of his regiment and his pregnant wife.
While serving in the Frontier war his wife became ill during childbirth and he was giving leave to look after her but unfortunately she died not long after and after burying her he returned to his regiment.
For his conduct at Rorke’s Drift he was awarded the Victoria Cross but almost immediately was found to be suffering Chronic rheumatism and was sent homey in September 1879.
He was presented his VC by Queen Victoria herself in January 1880 but was medically discharged from the Army in February 1880.
It is believed that he toured with Buffalo’ Bill’s Wild West show and appeared on stage to recount his story. He soon fell on hard times and was forced to Pawn his VC for £5 and then sold the pawn ticket.
In later life he started to become senile and would become distressed by the thought of Zulus attacking him and would sometimes become so terrified that he would flee the house carrying his infant Grand-daughter in his arms. On one occasion he disappeared completely and was found in the local workhouse unable to remember his name.
He died on the 15th April 1913 and this most tragic of heroes was buried in a public grave with no mention of his deeds or VC.
In 1983 a VC engraving was added to common head stone but repeated attempts to erect a suitable memorial have failed.
His VC turned up in the 1930’s and is now in the Regimental museum Brecon.
Private Robert Jones. B Coy, 2 Bn, 24th Regt
Robert Jones was born in Monmouthshire on the 19th March 1857. He was a farm labourer like his father and defied his father’s wishes by enlisting in January 1876.
For his actions at Rorke’s Drift he was awarded the Victoria Cross and he was presented his medal by Lord Wolseley. He served throughout the Zulu war and ended the war with one bullet and four assegai wounds.
He then served in Gibraltar and Secunderabad in India for ending his service as a reservist at Brecon. He finally left the army in 1888 and with his wife moved to Hereford.
He found work as a labourer but one of his wounds had been close to his eyes and in later life this caused him to suffer painful headaches. In August 1898 he collapsed at work and his wife remarked he was never the same again. In September 1898 she noticed him acting strangely before he headed of to work.
While at work he borrowed his employers shotgun and two cartridges, went into the garden and put the gun into his mouth and pulled the trigger.
The jury at his inquest decided that he had been temporarily insane and returned a verdict of Suicide while of unsound mind.
His VC is the only one of B’ Company that is still in the hands of a private collector.
Private John Williams (AKA John Fielding) B Coy, 2nd Bn, 24th Regt.
John Fielding was born in Abergavenny on the 24th May 1857 and was a worker at the Nut and Bolt Factory. After enjoying his time in the Militia he decided to join the Regulars in May 1877.
His Father strongly disapproved so he used the name Williams so he couldn’t be traced. He went to South Africa with his battalion and for his conduct during the battle of Rorke’s Drift was awarded the Victoria Cross. (The battle is said to have turned his hair white overnight)
He received his VC from General Anderson in March 1880 and was then posted to India. He returned home in 1883 and was transferred to the Reserve soon after. He was discharged from service in 1893 but served as a civilian at Brecon until he retired in 1920 (His eldest son was killed in the Great War whilst serving with the South Wales Borderers).
In 1920 he attended a Garden party for holders of the VC and hosted by King George V and Queen Mary.
He died of heart failure on the 24th November 1932 and was buried with full military honours at the local RC church.
His VC is in the Regimental museum Brecon.
Corporal William Wilson Allen. B Coy, 2nd Bn, 24th Regiment of Foot
William Allen was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in February 1844. He enlisted in 1859 and was posted to the 24th Regiment of Foot.
He served in Mauritius and seems to have been a poor soldier as he was confined to cells on numerous occasions but re-engaged in 1873 and was posted to the regimental deport in 1874. He seems to have enjoyed his time their as he is promoted to Corporal and was appointed assistant schoolmaster..
He sailed to South Africa with his regiment in 1878 and was promoted to Lance-Corporal in May 1878 but by October 1878 his back to Corporal.
He was a prized shot and won a Good Shooting and Distance Prize. For his actions at Rorke’s Drift his was awarded to Victoria Cross.
During the battle he was badly wounded in his arm and he was invalided back to Britain in 1879. He received his VC from Queen Victoria at Windsor and was back serving in 1880.
He was posted to Colchester and in June 1880 was promoted to Sergeant and in 1886 was posted to the School of Musketry in Monmouth.
In all he had eight children and became a popular and well liked man in the town. In 1890 an influenza epidemic hit the town and Sergeant Allen became a victim on the 12th March 1890.
He was buried with full Military honours and a stone cross was placed over his grave.
His VC is in the Regimental museum Brecon.
This post has been about the eleven winners of the Victoria Cross won during the action at Rorke’s Drift 22/23rd January 1879 and while we should celebrate them we should also remember the brave men of the Zulu Impis who died defending their homeland from the largest and richest empire in History.
For how can man die better,
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of this fathers
And the temple of his gods.