Zulu is 50: Relive the story of the British defence of Rorke’s Drift in 1879

  • 22 May, 2014
  • Bravery
  • Medals

Published in the Daily Express on 22 May 2014.


Major Gonville Bromhead
Private Robert Jones
Colonel John Rouse Merriott Chard

Next month sees the star-studded screening of the great military epic that tells the story of one of the most heroic stands in British military history. Scroll down for a chance to win tickets to the Zulu 50th Gala Night…

The desperate defence of Rorke’s Drift, a tiny outpost of Queen Victoria’s empire, by 139 men against more than 4,000 marauding Zulus led to the award of 11 Victoria Crosses (VCs).

That defiance and the raw courage of those defending the garrison in modern-day South Africa on January 22, 1879, was captured brilliantly on screen by the film Zulu, which was first shown publicly in January 1964.

I first watched it half a century ago within weeks of it coming out. I was 17 years old and already fascinated by the concept of bravery and captivated by a sense of admiration for anyone who had been awarded the VC.

I saw the movie at a packed cinema in Maidenhead, Berkshire, where I lived with my family. I was captivated by every moment of the two hour, 13 minute film, even if my then girlfriend (Robyn, in case she is reading this) was rather less enamoured by it.

Despite having read up on the Zulu War prior to seeing the film I was struck by a feeling of awe at how a heroic group of men, outnumbered by about 30 to 1, could fight so bravely to repulse their ferocious attackers.

Now I and many others are in for a real treat: a digitally re-mastered, wide-screen version of Zulu will be screened at The Odeon in Leicester Square on the evening of Tuesday June 10 to mark the 50th anniversary of the film that stars Michael Caine and Stanley Baker.

The red-carpet, star-studded gala evening will also raise money for three leading charities: Walking With The Wounded, The David Rattray Memorial Trust and Sentebale, which is Prince Harry’s African charity that helps vulnerable children in Lesotho. But what of those astonishing and dramatic events of 135 years ago and how did they first capture my imagination?

At 3.15pm on January 22, 1879 the garrison at Rorke’s Drift saw two men “riding hell for leather” towards them.

One of the horsemen came into the camp and informed Lieutenant John Chard about the disaster at Isandlwana, where a force of some 20,000 Zulus had butchered a smaller British force.

At about the same time Chard received another urgent message from fellow officer Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead: Rorke’s Drift had to be held at all costs. I wouldn’t miss the gala night on June 10 for anything

Lord Ashcroft

Shortly afterwards Chard and Bromhead discussed tactics and they agreed the best course of action was to abandon the ford and to concentrate on defending the nearby mission close to Buffalo River.

Chard had command of just 139 men of whom 35 were sick (some estimates put the number of sick soldiers nearer to 80). The battle commenced at around 4.20pm.

As Chard rearranged his defences the heart-stopping shout went up: “Here they come!”

Bromhead sent Private Frederick Hitch on to the roof to observe and when Hitch reported that the enemy was massing Bromhead asked: “How many?”

“Four to six thousand,” came the concerned reply.

“Is that all?

“We can manage that lot very well,” said Bromhead.

Time and again the Zulus launched a series of assaults but each one was repulsed by the British.

As darkness fell the attacks continued but the fact that the thatched roof of the building was on fire enabled the defenders to take very good aim at their newly lit targets.

By 10pm however the flames were dying down and the men of B Company had to use their bayonets to prevent Zulus forcing their way over the ramparts.

By midnight after nearly eight hours of relentless fighting the onslaughts had ceased although occasional rifle fire continued until 4am.

Dawn revealed the extent of the carnage.

When the Zulus began to pull back to Oscarberg Hill the British force thought the fighting was over. Chard began rebuilding defences and the Zulus then appeared on the hills to the south-west.

Yet just as a new onslaught seemed inevitable they melted away without launching a fresh attack. Shortly afterwards Lord Chelmsford and his men, fresh from surveying the scenes at Isandlwana, came across the bloodied and heroic survivors of Rorke’s Drift.

Lying on the ground were 350 dead Zulu warriors with a further 500 wounded (the latter were subsequently killed by the British). The British garrison lost just 17 killed and 10 wounded, two of whom died later of their injuries.

Of 20,000 rounds of ammunition that had been in reserve at the mission only 900 remained.

The 11 VCs were announced in the London Gazette on May 2, 1879, and those to receive Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious decoration for gallantry in the face of the enemy included Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead.

In the film Zulu they are played by Baker and Caine respectively. The film helped to transform my early interest in bravery into a passion for gallantry medals in general and the VC in particular.

However it was not until I was 40, having made a little money as an entrepreneur, that I was in a position to purchase my first VC. Nearly three decades later I now own more than 180 VCs, by some way the largest collection of such decorations in the world.

Two of the VCs have a very special place in my heart. I am delighted to say they were awarded for the defence of Rorke’s Drift.

In 1996 at a London auction I purchased the VC awarded to Private Robert Jones, who had prevented scores of Zulus from attacking wounded patients.

I had never thought a Rorke’s Drift VC would come on the market and was delighted to add it to my collection. Then I was taken aback just five years later when Chard’s VC became available and so in a private sale I acquired his medal group too.

Chard eventually rose to the rank of colonel.

Nearly a decade ago I visited South Africa specifically to see the sites of the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. I chartered a helicopter and David Rattray, the renowned historian, acted as my guide.

David was a wonderful storyteller and a delightful man and so I was heartbroken when seven years ago he was shot dead by armed robbers, aged just 48.

Over the past half century I have watched Zulu at least a dozen times on television and DVD. Historians have rightly queried some of the finer detail but it never fails to thrill and inspire.

I wouldn’t miss the gala night on June 10 for anything. It is a unique opportunity to take an affectionate walk down memory lane, to champion bravery of the highest order and to raise money for three good causes close to my heart.

It will be an evening to remember.

Read this article on Express.co.uk

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