Rorke’s Drift – VC Winners
As Easter was quite a damp and miserable weekend, many of you would have been stuck in front of the television watching a good film and the channels didn’t disappoint in putting on some of the old favourites.
One in particular which is shown every bank holiday is Zulu. Be honest, it’s an all time favourite of everyone with a smattering of interest in military history and quite easy to watch over and over again, even if it does drift slightly away from the facts.
The battle started on the 22rd January 1879 and continued throughout the night into the 23rd January. Just over 150 British and colonial troops, some of which scarpered at the beginning of the battle, successfully defended the garrison against several assaults by approximately 4,000 Zulu warriors. These massive, but what can only be described as piecemeal attacks, came close to defeating the much smaller force but were ultimately repelled. For this action 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders. But after the battle what happened to these VC recipients? Did they stay in the army, did they go on to live normal civilian lives or did this awful battle affect them?
I thought I would take a look and let everyone know.
We’ll start by correcting one error and that is the name of the regiment. It is assumed, as stated in the film, that the soldiers who fought at Rorke’s Drift were a company of the South Wales Borderers. They were in fact B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot. This was a regiment formed in 1689 by Sir Edward Dering and were known as Sir Edward Dering’s Regiment of Foot. It was not until 1782 that it became the 24th (The 2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot. The regiment was based at Brecon and recruited from the border counties of Monmouthshire, Herefordshire and Brecknockshire, but was not called the South Wales Borderers until the Childers Reforms of 1881. This is an error that I always correct when I visit Gheluvelt with one of our Ypres Salient Battlefield Tours and show people the regiment’s memorial that is situated there commemorating the great work they did on the 31st October 1914 in holding the chateau.
Corporal William Allen VC – acted by Glyn Edwards who also played Dave in Minder. Corporal Allen teamed up with Frederick Hitch and kept communication with the hospital open, despite them both being severely wounded. When their wounds were dressed they continued to hand out ammunition.
Allen stayed in the army attaining the rank he had of sergeant that he had previously lost for being drunk. He died of influenza on 12th March 1890 at 85 Monnow Street, Monmouth, aged 46. A fund was set up to help the family, his wife, Sarah Ann and his seven children. He is buried at Monmouth Cemetery, Monmouthshire. His Victoria Cross is displayed at the South Wales Borderers Museum, Brecon.
Frederick Hitch VC – Hitch was illiterate when he joined the army and signed his enlistment forms with a cross. He was wounded severely in the shoulder during the battle and Lieutenant Bromhead gave Hitch his pistol so he could keep on shooting with one arm. He then joined Corporal Allen in the defense of the hospital and in handing out ammunition.
After the battle he was discharged from service because his wounds were so bad. He married in 1883 but found it hard to exist on a disability payment of £10 per year. Hitch had eight children, and eventually managed to land a steady job as driver of a smart horse-drawn cab (pulled by his own pair of horses), despite his disability, which he later exchanged for a motor taxi cab. This provided him with a comfortable income for some years. He died in 1913 while living in Chiswick. He was buried in the centre of St Nicholas Church, Chiswick. The grave is difficult to miss since it is more of a monument than a grave, featuring a helmet on top.
Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead VC – played by Michael Caine. Born in Versailles, France, he was the youngest child of Major Sir Edmund de Gonville Bromhead, 3rd Baronet and his wife Judith and was later raised in Thurlby, Lincolnshire.
At the height of the battle, Bromhead took up a position with Private Frederick Hitch at the corner of the barricade most exposed to Zulu sniper fire and used his rifle and revolver with deadly aim while encouraging his men “not to waste one round”. After the battle Bromhead and the other uninjured survivors remained at Rorke’s Drift for several weeks. During this time Bromhead began to suffer from psychological trauma from the battle.
Despite profound deafness and not really being rated as a soldier, Bromhead was given the rank of Captain and made a Brevet Major. In 1883 he was sent to India with his battalion and was promoted to full major on 4th April 1883. From 27th October 1886 to 24th May 1888 he served in Burma taking part in the Third Anglo-Burmese War. The battalion was subsequently then posted to Allahabad, India where Bromhead died of typhoid fever on 9th February 1891 aged 45. He was buried in the New Cantonment Cemetery, Allahabad. His VC is owned by his descendants and is displayed at The Regimental Museum of The Royal Welsh, Brecon.
Lieutenant John Chard VC – played by Stanley Baker in Zulu. Born near Plymouth, Chard attended the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich and was commissioned into the Royal Engineers.
Chard arrived at Rorke’s Drift with some sappers on the 19th from Isandlwana to repair and maintain some points at the Buffalo River crossing. However he was recalled and upon returning was told only his sappers were required and he should return. On his way back he witnesses the Zulu army approaching the camp. When Major Spalding, the officer commanding Rorke’s Drift left the station to obtain more information Chard took command by date of rank. During the battle as well as commanding the men with Bromhead he saw to the building of the defences especially the redoubt.
Chard remained at Rorke’s Drift for several weeks after the battle. He was then present inside the British Square at the battle of Ulundi which ended the Zulu wars. He returned to England and was awarded the VC. He was promoted to Captain and made a Brevet Major. While serving in Singapore in 1892 he was then promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.
Having been a lifelong pipe smoker he developed cancer of the tongue. Despite its removal it proved to be terminal. Chard retired to his brother, Charles’, rectory at Hatch Beauchamp, Somerset. After two weeks of “terrible suffering”, Chard died on 1st November 1897. Chard was buried in the churchyard of the Church of St John the Baptist in Hatch Beauchamp. His VC is on display at the Imperial War Museum, London and is part of the Ashcroft collection.
James Langley Dalton VC – Born in London in 1833, Dalton enlisted in 85th Regiment of Foot in November 1849 at the age of 17. In 1862 he transferred to the Commissariat Corps at the rank of corporal, and was promoted to sergeant in 1863.
He retired from the army in 1868 and by 1877; he was living in South Africa and volunteered for service as Acting Assistant Commissary with the British Force. Dalton was acting as assistant commissary at Rorke’s Drift at the time of the battle and was aged 46. As an experienced soldier Dalton advised Bromhead and Chard not to beat a fighting retreat but to stay and fight at the station. He was severely wounded during the battle, but still continued to give orders and show an extreme amount of courage.
In the film his character is not portrayed correctly probably because he was not one of the first men recommended for a VC. In fact he did not receive his until 1880. Dalton died in Port Elizabeth, South Africa and he is buried in the Russell Road Roman Catholic Cemetery with a memorial. His medal is displayed at the Royal Logistic Corps Museum in Camberley, Surrey.
Henry Hook VC – played by James Booth in the film. Born in Churcham, Gloucestershire, Hook originally served in the Monmouth Militia for five years before enlisting in the regular army in March 1877, aged 26. In the film Hook is played as an insubordinate malingerer placed under arrest in the hospital. He was actually the hospital cook and was far from the miscreant portrayed and was actually a teetotaler and Methodist preacher and considered to be a model soldier. When the film was shown his three elderly daughters walked out of the cinema in disgust.
He received his VC on 3rd August 1879 and after his discharge in 1880 was found the position of Inside Duster at the British Museum thanks to the intervention of Gonville Bromhead, Lord Chelmsford and the Prince of Wales. In this position he would have probably worked with my Great Granddad.
He was subsequently promoted to take charge of readers’ umbrellas at the library, before resigning due to ill health in 1904. He died of pulmonary tuberculosis on 12th March 1905 in Gloucester and is buried in St Andrew’s churchyard, Churcham. His VC is displayed at the South Wales Borderers Museum, Brecon.
Robert Jones VC was 21 years of age at the time of the battle. Stationed in the hospital he and William Jones kept up a rate of fire and took turns in making a hole through the wall into the next room. Their combined efforts helped six of the seven patients in the room to escape. They dressed Sgt Max Field who was delirious and refused to move. When Robert Jones returned for him he found him on his bed being stabbed with an Assegai by a Zulu warrior. During the battle Robert Jones sustained four spear wounds, was struck by a bullet and had a number of minor burns.
After being discharged, Robert Jones settled in Herefordshire and became a farm labourer. He married Elizabeth Hopkins and fathered five children. He died in Peterchurch, Herefordshire, from gunshot wounds in 1898 aged 41 years. He borrowed his employer’s shotgun to go crow shooting and whilst being temporarily insane, as stated on his death certificate, shot himself. The coroner heard how he was plagued with recurring nightmares following his desperate close quarter combat with Zulus in the hospital.
William Jones VC was born on 16th August 1839 in Castle Precincts, Bristol and was 39 years of age at the time of the battle. He defended one of the wards in the hospital with Robert Jones.
Jones was discharged in 1880 after being treated at Netley Hospital for chronic rheumatism, which he claimed he had contracted from the cold and wet nights after Rorke’s . Queen Victoria presented him with his VC at Windsor Castle. In civilian life Jones attempted to establish himself in Birmingham but employment opportunities were few. He turned to the stage and managed to get a number of acting parts, including Hamilton’s Pansterorama and in 1887 he eventually became a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Hard times led William to porn his VC and he was later admitted to work in the Workhouse in Manchester. He was one of the few survivors of the battle to live into his 70’s dying on 15th April 1913. He was buried in a pauper’s grave in Philip’s Park Cemetery, Manchester. After four years of campaigning, on 2 November 2007 a ceremony was held at Philip’s Park Cemetery to celebrate the unveiling of a new headstone for the grave. His VC was eventually found and is now displayed at South Wales Borderers Museum, Brecon.
Surgeon James Henry Reynolds VC was a 34 years old Surgeon in the Army Medical Department (later Royal Army Medical Corps), in the Zulu War. During the battle he exhibited constant attention to the wounded under fire, and brought ammunition from the store to the defenders of the Hospital exposing himself to fire from the enemy. For his conduct in the battle, Reynolds was promoted to Surgeon-Major as well as being awarded the Victoria Cross. After the Battle, Reynolds went on to serve in various wars including the Irish Land War of 1880 until he finally retired in 1896. He died on the 4th March 1932 and is buried in the Kensal Rise Cemetery in London. His VC is displayed at the Army Medical Services Museum Aldershot.
Christian Ferdinand Schiess VC was the only recipient at Rorke’s Drift not to come from a Commonwealth nation. He was a Swiss national who had previously served in the French Army going to South Africa and joining the Natal Native Contingent. At the time of the battle he was 22 years old and in the hospital suffering from injuries to his feet. His soldiering shone through when the Zulus attacked. He bolstered the compound’s last line of defence when warriors came close to breaching it by climbing the wall of mealie bags and knocking off and killing three. It was this action that won him his Victoria Cross.
After the battle, Schiess was unable to find work and became a vagrant and was reduced to begging on the streets of Cape Town. The Royal Navy found him suffering from exposure and malnutrition, and offered him a passage to Britain. He accepted, but unfortunately died on route to Britain and was buried at sea. He was just 28.
John Williams VC. His real name was not Williams but Fielding. No one knows why he signed up under the name of Williams or for that matter why he signed up at all. Some say he was a runaway but alas we will never know. There is no doubting his bravery at the battle. Along with Henry Hook they evacuated many patients from the hospital. He broke through the walls and Hook kept the Zulu warriors at bay with his rifle and bayonet. You may remember the actor who played him in Zulu shouting to Hook “that’s a flogging offence” when Hook steals and drinks the surgeon’s brandy.
After the battle he continued to serve later achieving the rank of Sergeant in the 3rd Volunteer Battalion, South Wales Borderers. In 1914, he volunteered for service and served on the SWB Depot staff at Brecon and as a recruiting agent for them throughout the Great War. In this time he married Elizabeth Murphy and they had three sons and three daughters; one son was killed while serving with 1/SWB during the Retreat from Mons in 1914.
John was the last VC winner from the battle to die aged 75. He suffered heart failure 50 years after the battle took place on 24th November 1932 in Wales. The nursing home directly opposite his burial place in Llantarnam, Cwmbran was later named in his honour, as was a local J.D. Wetherspoon’s pub, the John Fielding, where hangs his picture.
There are two others who should be mentioned in the list of defenders of Rorke’s Drift. They are Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne and Dick the Fox Terrier
Dick “The Fox Terrier” was Surgeon Reynolds’ dog and I think worthy of the Dickens Medal. During the battle Dick never wavered as shots and spears continued falling around them. He only left Surgeon Reynolds’ side once to bite a Zulu who came too close. Dick was specially mentioned in Reynolds’ VC citation for “his constant attention to the wounded under fire where they fell.”
Frank Edward Bourne OBE DCM was at the time of the battle 24 years of age. Born in Balcombe, Sussex in 1854, he enlisted in the Army at Reigate on 18th December 1872, aged 18. Four years later he had been promoted to Colour Sergeant, becoming the youngest NCO of this particular rank in the entire British Army which earnt him the nickname ‘The Kid’.
For his bravery, Bourne received the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for “outstanding coolness and courage” during the battle, with a £10 annuity. The DCM, until 1993, was the second highest military decoration (after the Victoria Cross) awarded to other ranks of the British Army. It is said he was offered the VC but declined it for a commission. However, as the eighth son, and with the family exchequer “empty”, he declined it but this is not the case. In 1890 he was commissioned Quartermaster and in 1893 he was appointed Adjutant of the School of Musketry at Hythe in Kent. He retired from the Army in 1907 but rejoined during the Great War and became Adjutant of the School of Musketry in Dublin. When the war ended he was given the honorary rank of Lieutenant Colonel and appointed OBE. Bourne was the last defender to die on VE Day 1945 aged 91. He is buried in Beckenham Cemetery and Crematorium.
So, next time you watch this classic film you will know a little of what the characters did to earn their VC’s and what fate had in store for them.
Lest we Forget