Sunday 4 February 2018

The Rifles Of The Empire

The little-known story of how Liverpool men were ready with their guns and bayonets when the Zulus charged at Rorke's Drift can now be told. From the safety of their lounge chairs, millions of TV viewers have heard the thunder of Zulus beating their hide shields with assegais in the 1964 film "Zulu" starring Stanley Baker, Michael Caine and Jack Hawkins.

But even now there is a sense of wonder at how soldiers besieged in the mission house, reply to the native war chant with their own song, Men of Harlech. It is enough to bring tears to the eyes of any seasoned patriot of Wales.

But shouldn't those brave red-coated soldiers have been singing "Maggie May" or some shanty from the Liverpool docks? A book details the part played by men from Merseyside and other parts of the North West in the epic defence of Rorke's Drift.

Our troops stood alone on January 22, 1879, hours after a British force of at least 800 soldiers, supported by hundreds of native levies, had been destroyed by Zulu warriors drawn from the army of some 8,000 assembled by King Cetawayo.

Liverpool's Daily Post was among those reporting events from the Transvaal with mounting concern. The Afrikaners in the area had requested British help to check the Zulus and their fearless impis (regiments).

But Cetawayo imperiously dismissed the British demand that he should disband his army and accept our sovereignty over his kingdom. Instead, he attacked the slumbering British army of Lord Chelmsford at Isandlwana.

Communications took much longer then, even in the mighty British Empire. But on February 12 came the despatch that chilled the nation. "A British Column Annihilated," ran the Post's headline. It would have been read by with foreboding by the families and friends of Liverpudlians serving with the 24th Regiment in the region.

Twenty one of those who had enrolled in the city were killed. Nine men from Manchester were killed, four from Ashton-under-Lyme, four from Burnley, three from Preston and one from Wigan.

Queen Victoria and her Government, under Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, and ordinary men and women were shocked to learn that a modern, well-equipped army could be routed by what had regarded as a primitive people. But the Zulus had been badly under-estimated. A victory was needed and needed quickly to redress the balance, so the "spin doctors" of the day could turn disaster into triumph.

It came about eight miles away at Rorke's Drift. Flushed with success, having washed their spears in blood, the Zulu's felt they could quickly rub out this missionary outpost, where there was also a supply base and a hospital. It was being defended that day and night by 155 men, of whom 36 were sick or wounded.

All were under the command of Lt John Rouse Merriott Chard of the Royal Engineers, who had been sent there to work on the Buffalo River, and Lt Gonville Bromhead i/c a detachment of men of the 24th Regiment of Foot. Crucially, these men at Rorke's Drift had Martini Henry rifles which could fire 20 rounds a minute in ideal conditions, accurately up to 400 yards. The assegai, a terrible weapon in hand-to-hand combat, couldn't match that.

Among the marksmen were men from Liverpool: James Ashton; Thomas Buckley, Thomas Burke, Patrick Kears, Augustus Morris, Frederick Morris, Robert Norris and Peter Sawyer. All were to receive the South Africa Medal 1877-78 and the 1879 clasps. Most also received an address from the Mayor of Durban, expressing "admiration and gratitude".

Eleven members of the garrison were awarded VCs, leading some modern historians to wonder whether the battle had been glorified to deflect attention from the defeat at Isandlwana. Whatever the truth of that, there is no doubt that most defenders conducted themselves with bravery.

Seventeen died and many more were wounded. But our loss was tiny compared to that of the Zulus, whose bodies piled up in hundreds behind the walls and mealie bags. In a letter to his wife, Sergeant George Smith, refers to a Mr James Dalton, who was parading the scene urging, the troops to "pot the fellows".

In the film emphasis is laid on the Welshness of the defenders. The list of those awarded the VC was read by Richard Burton from Pontrhydfen. Confusion might have arisen from the fact that the 24th Regiment had moved its headquarters from Birmingham to Brecon in 1873, but the 2nd battalion, the Warwickshire's (the men at Rorke's Drift), did not take the name the South Wales Borderers until 1881.

Private Burke was typical of the tough, unyielding men, who built and protected a great empire. At Rorke's Drift, he did his duty, no more and no less. After that, bouts of venereal disease and dyspepsia suggested that he enjoyed the company of the bottle and women in about equal measure. Although he later reached the rank of sergeant with the Liverpool King's Regiment, he was demoted at least once for drunken behaviour.

On leaving the Army in 1897, Burke married Honora Lambert. They had three children and moved to Wellesley Road, Toxteth. He was appointed landlord of the Crown Vaults pub in Park Road. He died in 1925, aged 64, leaving more than £14,000, a goodly fortune then. A rededication service was held at his graveside at Ford Cemetery, Litherland, on July 7 2002, by the 1879 Group set up to commemorate Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift.

Some fared less well. Thomas Buckley was living in a hostel in Liverpool at the time of his death, having either lost of sold his medals. However, shortly before his death, replacements were issued for him to wear at a veterans' reunion in Gateshead. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Anfield Cemetery in 1934.

Jim Bancroft has always been fascinated by military history and has written a series of illustrated books called "Local Heroes", covering the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny and the Boer War. Now he has added Rorke's Drift.

"Most of the rank and file soldiers were rough and ready lads from the coal-mining, docks and cotton-manufacturing community in an around the tough city slums," he says. "Their only alternative to the highly-disciplined life in the British Army was a precarious environment and drudgery.

This combination, and their staunch loyalty to their unit, made them equally formidable fighters and a rifle in their hands gave them the advantage."

Thirty five years later their successors stopped The German Kaiser in Belgium. The picture above is of John Williams, whose real name was Fielding and Henry Hook on the right, whose depiction in the film is a travesty. In a previous post his later career as a senior attendant at the British Museum library is mentioned.

How much help, I wonder, rather later, did he give to the Russian, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin?


  1. Perhaps you are mixing up your films? Michael Caine and Sean Connery wore the red coat in "The Man Who Would Be King", set in roughly the same period, but Sean wasn't in "Zulu", Stanley Baker, a Welshman, was.