21st January 1879 and for the 150 men at a remote border post on the Buffalo River, Natal the day seemed like any other. A single company of the 2nd battalion 24th Regiment of foot guard the outpost and the few dozen recuperating hospital patients. Many feet aggrieved that they were not part of the main invasion column that had entered the Zulu territory a few day before.
Under the command of the affable Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, the men went about their normal duties unaware of the storm that was approaching them. The first inkling of trouble is when gunfire reverberates around the hills surrounding the outpost.
Their worst fears are confirmed when a panicking group of Colonial horseman ride up to the outpost and inform them that the British have suffered a catastrophic defeat at Isandlwana and their parent battalion has been wiped out.
The Horseman refuse to stay at the outpost and inform them that a large Zulu Impi is on its way to wipe out the garrison. At this point a Royal Engineers officer by the name of Lieutenant John Rouse Merriot Chard takes command of the outpost.
Chard narrowly missed out at being at the slaughter of Isandlwana and is determined to hold Rorke’s Drift at all cost. He knows they are the only thing between the Zulu army and the civilian population in Natal.
For Prince Dabulamanzi, Brother of King Cetshwayo, being in reserve during the battle of Isandlwana hadn’t satisfied his burning ambition and with a young regiment desperate to wash their spears with blood, the few defenders at Rorke’s Drift are a tempting target .
Even though he is disobeying his brother’s orders not to attack fortified places and with darkness approaching he sends his Impi up against the defenders of Rorke’s Drift.
What followed next has entered British Military folklore (for anyone not familiar with it I highly recommend ‘Like Wolves on the Fold’ by Mike Snook) and thanks to the film Zulu (1964) a stirring if highly inaccurate film it has also entered mainstream conciseness.
For the British Government at the time the successful defence of Rorke’s Drift by 150 men (some sick) was a useful distraction form the disaster at Isandlwana and as such awarded 11 Victoria Crosses to the defenders, the most awarded for a single action.
To commemorate the 135 anniversary today (and tomorrow) I wanted to track what happened to the eleven VC winners after the battle.
Acting Assistant Commissary James Langley Dalton. Army Commissariat & Transport Department.
James Dalton had been in the military for most of his adult life. He joined the 85th Regiment in 1849 at the age of 17 and then enjoyed a typical career of a soldier in Imperial service. He served in Ireland, Mauritius, where he was promoted to Sergeant and then went to the Cape to take part in the 8th Frontier War.
He then spent a portion of his time in England including a spell at the School of Musketry at Hythe in Kent (we will return there again). His last posting overseas was to Canada where he transffered to the Army Service Corps.
He took his discharge in London in 1871 and was awarded the Long Service Good Conduct Medal.
In 1877 he volunteered for service in South Africa and the invasion of Zululand. He was appointed Acting Assistant Commissary and sent to the outpost at Rorke’s Drift to ensure the smooth transport of supplies from Natal to the invasion force.
For his actions at Rorke’s Drift he was awarded the Victoria Cross and was presented his medal by Major-General Clifford in January 1880.
He was also given a permanent commission and promoted to Assistant Commissary. He served as a volunteer in Egypt before returning to the Cape to gold mine in the Transvaal.
He died suddenly at the Grosvenor Hotel on the night of the 7th January 1887.
His VC is owned by the Royal Corps of Transport who brought his medal for £62,000.
Surgeon James Henry Reynolds Army Medical Department
James Reynolds was born in Dublin 1844 and studied medicine at Trinity College, graduating in 1867. He joined the Medical Staff Corps in 1868 and was posted to the 36th Regiment as Medical Officer in 1869.
He served in India and for his efficient handling of a Cholera outbreak was promoted to Surgeon in 1873. He served thoughout the Zulu War and was in charge of the Hospital at Rorke’s Drift.
For his actions at Rorke’s Drift he was mentioned in Dispatches and awarded the Victoria Cross. He was presented his medal by Lord Wolseley during a special parade and was promoted to Surgeon-Major.
He continued serving in the army and married his wife in 1880. He retired a Brigade-Surgeon Lieutenant-Colonel in 1896 and senior medical officer at the Royal Army Clothing Factory.
Both him and John Williams VC were guests of Honour at the VC’s dinner hosted by the Prince of Wales in 1929. He died in a nursing home on the 4th March 1932 and is buried at Kensal Green RC Cemetery.
Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead B Coy, 2nd Bn, 24th Regt of Foot
Gonville Bromhead was a classic army officer of the 19th Century. He was third son of a Baronet who was a lieutenant at Waterloo and had retired as a major.
He was purchased an ensigns commission in the 24th regiment of foot on the 20th April 1867. A hugely popular officer he excelled at Boxing, wrestling and Singlestick.
He was promoted to lieutenant in 1871 and went with his regiment to South Africa for the 9th Frontier War. He was in command of B Company 2nd Battalion 24th Regiment of Foot at Rorke’s Drift but was superseded by Lieutenant Chard RE for overall command of the Outpost.
For his conduct and coolness during the attack, Bromhead was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Victoria Cross. He received his medal from Lord Wolseley in 1879 and was promoted to Captain.
What followed was again the classic career of a British Officer. He was posted to Gibraltar in 1880 and then posted to the East Indies until 1881. In 1882 he was posted to the Hythe School of Musketry (another one!) and was awarded a First Class certificate.
In 1883 he was promoted to Major and then joined the South Wales Borderers in India. He served with distinction in the Burmese Campaigns 1886-88.
He died of enteric fever in Camp Dabhaura, Allahabad on the 9th February 1891. His VC is in the Regimental museum, Brecon.
A side story is that both Bromhead and Chard were invited to an audience with Queen Victoria, unfortunately Bromhead was fishing in Ireland when his invitation was delivered so missed the audience. While Chard remained a firm favourite with the Queen, Bromhead was never invited again.
Corporal Friedrich Schiess 3rd reg, Natal Native Contingent
Friedrich (real name Ferdnard) Schiess was a Swiss national who served in the Colonial cavalry during the 9th Frontier War. He was born at Berne in Switzerland in 1856 and when only 15 served on the French side during the Franco-Prussian war.
A some point he arrived in South Africa and joined Lonsdale’s Horse, one of the main Colonial militia’s forming for the Invasion of Zululand.
Schiess was in hospital at Rorke’s Drift due to blisters caused by army issue boots. For his actions during the defence of the outpost he was awarded the Victoria Cross (the first man serving with South African Forces under British Command). He was presented with his medal by Lord Wolseley .
After the war he was employed in the Telegraph Office at Durban but for some reason lost his job. Despite desperate appeals for work he soon became destitute and was found on the streets of Durban ill and dishevelled.
The Royal Navy took pity on him and offered free passage to England which Schiess took up. He boarded the troopship Serapis but was too sick to survive the journey and died on the 14th December 1884. He was buried at sea of the coast of Angola.
His VC was forwarded to the War Office where is sat in a drawer for many years before being presented to the National Army Museum.
Private Frederick Hitch B Coy, 2nd Bn, 24th Regt of Foot
Frederick Hitch was born in New Southgate Middlesex on the 2nd November 1856. He was a building Labourer by profession but signed up for the army in 1887 (his records show he couldn’t sign his name)
He was sent to South Africa with the rest of the 24th Regiment of Foot and was in B Company at Rorke’s Drift. During the action Hitch shot in the shoulder and despite the agony he must of been in continued to offer support and ammo to his fellow soldiers.
For his actions at Rorke’s Drift Hitch was awarded the Victoria Cross. Surgeon Reynolds removed over thirty pieces of bone from Hitch’s shoulder and inevitably he was invalided out of the army.
He received his medal from Queen Victoria in Person while recuperating at a Military Hospital in Southampton.
In 1880 he married his wife Emma and went on to have 6 children with her. He worked for many years at the Imperial Institute and the Royal United Services Institute where he famously had his VC cut from his coat.
In later life he became a cab driver in London and was a popular sight on the streets of London. He lived quietly in Chiswick but died of Heart failure on the 6th January 1913.
He was buried with full military honours in Chiswick Old Cemetery, two of his Pall Bearers were John Fielding VC and Frank Bourne DCM and over 1000 cab drivers attended.
A myth of his funeral is that during it you couldn’t get a cab anywhere in London, which is true but only because they were all on strike at the time!
Hitch’s VC was recovered after his son paid £85 at a public auction for it, it now resides at the Regimental Museum Brecon.
Tomorrow I will cover Lieutenant Chard, Privates William Allen, Henry Hook, John William, Robert Jones and William Jones.