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Monday, February 2, 2015 The Battle of Rorkes Drift January 22/ 23rd 1879 Saving the Queens Colours - Brecon

The Battle of Rorke's Drift was on 22/ 23rd January, 1879.                          

It is not within my sphere of knowledge to make any comments, or statements about what was right, what was wrong, who was in the correct position, who was not on the battlefield.

Others within our ancestors are highly qualified in this field.  136 years ago members of General Edward Durnford's family were highly qualified to make opinions, after studying the relevant information, blue-books, statements, and knowledge of procedures.

His three sons, Anthony, Edward, Arthur were all members of the Royal Engineers, as had been General Edward and his brothers, uncles, grandfather and great uncles, grandsons, and nephews.
I doubt if there is any other family that has had as many serve in the Military, particularly within one branch, as that of the Durnford's.

Modern day military Generals and Colonels would have extensive military knowledge.

As would a Military Historian, the definition of that role of expertise:

Military history is a humanities discipline within the scope of general historical recording of armed conflict in the history of humanity, and its impact on the societies, their cultures, economies and changing intra and international relationships.

Professional historians normally focus on military affairs that had a major impact on the societies involved as well as the aftermath of conflicts, while amateur historians and hobbyists often take a larger interest in the details of battles, equipment and uniforms in use.

As an applied field, military history has been studied at academies and service schools because the military command seeks to not repeat past mistakes, and improve upon its current performance by instilling an ability in commanders to perceive historical parallels during a battle, so as to capitalise on the lessons learned from the past.

I definitely would not qualify in that role, yet so many question the findings of so many suitably qualified people without providing an alternative.

For the last 7 years, my interest and passion has been Family History,  and the definition of that role:

It has been said that genealogy is the study of family history, while family history is the study of genealogy and everything else--including the background, location, and circumstances of people's lives. Writing in The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, Val Greenwood remarks that "if you can understand the forces which shaped men's lives then you can better understand those men."

 He goes on to say: "to successfully research an ancestor is to determine the events in which he may have been involved, to determine whether those events would have been recorded and, if so, to determine where the records are located."

The task of the historian, however, is more complicated than that of simply reporting what the records say. At the very least, the records that survive for most periods of history are both incomplete and often contradictory, and the historian therefore has to try, in some fashion, to address those gaps and contradictions 

The initial hat a historian usually wears is that of a detective - finding out something by locating historical documents. As we have seen, the next role is that of interpreter - saying something about what these things mean. In fact the boundaries of these roles are blurred.

Those statements would aptly describe how I approach my research.

So to understand a family ancestor's role in undoubtedly not only one of Britain's significant historical military disasters in the second half of the 19th Century, but the world's, especially one that he was blamed for, required a great deal of "detective" work, to question why? to seek answers and/or provide an alternative viewpoint/solution/suggestion as to the reasons.

The Worst Disasters include;

  • The Charge of the Light Brigade. Crimean War, 1854. A British officer misinterpreted an order and led a suicidal charge against the Russian guns. ("Not tho' the soldier knew, someone had blunder'd" — Tennyson)

  • The Charge of the Light Brigade was a charge of British light cavalry led by Lord Cardigan against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854 in the Crimean War. Lord Raglan, overall commander of the British forces, had intended to send the Light Brigade to pursue and harry a retreating Russian artillery battery, a task well-suited to light cavalry. Due to miscommunication in the chain of command, the Light Brigade was instead sent on a frontal assault against a different artillery battery, one well-prepared with excellent fields of defensive fire.

  • Battle of the Little Bighorn. June, 1876 - Montana Territory. Lieutenant Colonel George Custer attacks a superior force of armed Native American warriors, gets himself and his entire command killed, the only survivor being a lone horse. 268 U.S. troopers were killed and 55 were wounded.

  • The Battle of the Little Bighorn, known to Lakota as the Battle of the Greasy Grass,[1] and commonly referred to as Custer's Last Stand, was an armed engagement between combined forces of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes, against the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army. 

  • Both the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Battle of Cold Harbour become horrible one-sided battles in which Union advances on entrenched Confederate units result in horrendous casualties during the  American Civil War.     

  • The Battle of Fredericksburg was fought December 11–15, 1862, in and around Fredericksburg, Virginia, between General Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Major General Ambrose Burnside. 

     The Union Army's futile frontal attacks on December 13 against entrenched Confederate defenders on the heights behind the city is remembered as one of the most one-sided battles of the American Civil War, with Union casualties more than twice as heavy as those suffered by the Confederates.


    • Battle of Isandlwana. A Zulu impi armed mostly with spears destroys two British battalions armed with rifles.

    and a  Durnford was to blame, and the reason why our family "didn't talk about him." That is rather sad, but it was how it was in 1890's.  Nearly every family has a "black" sheep.

    My grandfather-in-law, joined the British Forces, also went to South Africa, in the Boer War.  He also was in Natal, at 21 he was a Second Lieutenant, worked in the Army Pay Office, misappropriated over 2000 pounds, charged put in jail in Natal, subject to court martial, stripped of his commission by the King, cashiered out of the Army, had his army records torn up, stole the identity of a fellow officer, fled England, arrived in Queensland, the son of a Lord in England, marries, goes to Western Front, makes so many excuses as to why his malaria reacted to the cold conditions so that he only spent 6 weeks on the Western Front, spent all his time in a Military hospital in UK, until his Australian Major sends him home, eventually deserts his wife and son takes their daughter,  leaves her with some shearers, disappears to New Zealand, bigamously marries, and tells the most outlandish lies about his life.  His ashes would turn to stone if he knew, that family history research, would reveal the truth.  

    The family definitely were not who they thought they were! my father-in-law would have been horrified and his first thought would be to repay the money, luckily he died not knowing the truth.

    One wonders why, the son of a missionary would do what he did, and what was he going to do with that amount of money in Natal in 1901?

    What relevance does that have to Isandhlwana and Rorke's Drift?- nothing at all, except  to demonstrate that the personality and makeup of a person, together with their past actions can form  a pattern of their behaviour.

    Anthony's family did not believe he was to blame, and questioned that fact.  Truth, is what they were also seeking, he often put his life at risk to help others, surely he would not then knowingly contribute to the deaths of so many of his fellow officers.

    It was not in his "DNA".but the circumstances of one particular event.

    His parents and his brothers died not knowing the truth, their son and brother tarnishing the name of the family, something that must have been devastating for a family that had prided itself on strong military traditions, over 120 years.


    The Battle of Rorke's Drift, also known as the Defence of Rorke's Drift, was a battle in the Anglo-Zulu War. The defence of the mission station of Rorke's Drift, under the command of Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers, and Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead immediately followed the British Army's defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879, and continued into the following day, 23 January.

    Just over 150 British and colonial troops successfully defended the garrison against an intense assault by 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu warriors. The massive, but piecemeal, Zulu attacks on Rorke's Drift came very close to defeating the tiny garrison but were ultimately repelled. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders, along with a number of other decorations and honours.

    Contemporary drawing of Rorke's Drift Post, from the history of the Corps of Royal Engineer

    Rorke's Drift, known as kwaJimu ("Jim's Land") in the Zulu language, was a mission station and the former trading post of James Rorke, an Irish merchant. It was located near a drift, or ford, on the Buffalo (Mzinyathi) River, which at the time formed the border between the British colony of Natal and the Zulu Kingdom. On 9 January 1879, the British No. 3 (Centre) Column, under Lord Chelmsford, arrived and encamped at the drift.

    On 20 January, after reconnaissance patrolling and building of a track for its wagons, Chelmsford's column marched to Isandlwana, approximately 6 miles (9.7 km) to the east, leaving behind the small garrison. A large company of the 2nd/3rd Natal Native Contingent (NNC) under Captain William Stevenson was ordered to remain at the post to strengthen the garrison. This company numbered between 100 and 350 men.

    Captain Thomas Rainforth's G Company of the 1st/24th Foot was ordered to move up from its station at Helpmekaar, 10 miles (16 km) to the southeast, after its own relief arrived, to further fortify the drift. Later that evening a portion of the No. 2 Column under Brevet Colonel Anthony Durnford, late of the Royal Engineers, arrived at the drift and camped on the Zulu bank, where it remained through the next day.

    Late on the evening of 21 January, Durnford was ordered to Isandlwana, as was a small detachment of No. 5 Field Company, Royal Engineers, commanded by Lieutenant John Chard, which had arrived on the 19th to repair the pontoons which bridged the Buffalo. Chard rode ahead of his detachment to Isandlwana on the morning of 22 January to clarify his orders, but was sent back to Rorke's Drift with only his wagon and its driver to construct defensive positions for the expected reinforcement company, passing Durnford's column en route in the opposite direction.

    Sometime around noon on the 22nd, Major Spalding left the station for Helpmekaar to ascertain the whereabouts of Rainforth's G Company, which was now overdue. He left Chard in temporary command. Chard rode down to the drift itself where the engineers' camp was located. Soon thereafter, two survivors from Isandlwana – Lieutenant Gert Adendorff of the 1st/3rd NNC and a trooper from the Natal Carbineers – arrived bearing the news of the defeat and that a part of the Zulu impi was approaching the station.

    Upon hearing this news, Chard, Bromhead, and another of the station's officers, Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton (of the Commissariat and Transport Department), held a quick meeting to decide the best course of action – whether to attempt a retreat to Helpmekaar or to defend their current position. Dalton pointed out that a small column, travelling in open country and burdened with carts full of hospital patients, would be easily overtaken and defeated by a numerically superior Zulu force, and so it was soon agreed that the only acceptable course was to remain and fight.

    Defensive preparations

    Once the British officers decided to stay, Chard and Bromhead directed their men to make preparations to defend the station. With the garrison's some 400 men working quickly, a defensive perimeter was constructed out of mealie bags. This perimeter incorporated the storehouse, the hospital, and a stout stone kraal. The buildings were fortified, with loopholes (firing holes) knocked through the external walls and the external doors barricaded with furniture.

    At about 3:30 pm, a mixed troop of about 100 Natal Native Horse (NNH) under Lieutenant Alfred Henderson arrived at the station after having retreated in good order from Isandlwana. They volunteered to picket the far side of the Oscarberg (Shiyane), the large hill that overlooked the station and from behind which the Zulus were expected to approach.

    The force was sufficient, in Chard's estimation, to fend off the Zulus. Chard posted the British soldiers around the perimeter, adding some of the more able patients, the 'casuals' and civilians, and those of the NNC who possessed firearms along the barricade. The rest of the NNC, armed only with spears, were posted outside the mealie bag and biscuit box barricade within the stone-walled cattle kraal.

    The approaching Zulu force was vastly larger; the uDloko, uThulwana, inDlondo amabutho (regiments) of married men in their 30s and 40s and the inDlu-yengwe ibutho of young unmarried men mustered 3,000 to 4,000 warriors, none of them engaged during the battle at Isandlwana.

    This Zulu force was the 'loins' or reserve of the army at Isandlwana and is often referred to as the Undi Corps. It was directed to swing wide of the British left flank and pass west and south of Isandlwana hill itself, in order to position itself across the line of communication and retreat of the British and their colonial allies in order to prevent their escape back into Natal by way of the Buffalo River ford leading to Rorke's Drift.

    By the time the Undi Corps reached Rorke's Drift at 4:30 pm, they had fast-marched some 20 miles (32 km) from the morning encampment they had left at around 8 am, and they would spend almost the next eleven and a half hours continuously storming the British fortifications at Rorke's Drift.

    Most Zulu warriors were armed with an assegai (short spear) and a shield made of cowhide.

    The Zulu army drilled in the personal and tactical use and coordination of this weapons system. Some Zulus also had old muskets and antiquated rifles, though their marksmanship training was poor, and the quality and supply of powder and shot was dreadful.

    At about 4:00 pm, Surgeon James Reynolds, Otto Witt – the Swedish missionary who ran the mission at Rorke's Drift – and army chaplain Reverend George Smith came down from the Oscarberg hillside with the news that a body of Zulus was fording the river to the southeast and was "no more than five minutes away". At this point, Witt decided to depart the station, as his family lived in an isolated farmhouse about 30 kilometres (19 mi) away, and he wanted to be with them. Witt's native servant, Umkwelnantaba, left with him; so too did one of the hospital patients, Lieutenant Thomas Purvis of the 1st/3rd NNC.

    As dawn broke, the British could see that the Zulus were gone; all that remained were the dead and severely wounded. Patrols were dispatched to scout the battlefield, recover rifles, and look for survivors, many of whom were executed when found. At roughly 7:00 am, an Impi of Zulus suddenly appeared, and the British manned their positions again.

    No attack materialised however, as the Zulus had been on the move for six days prior to the battle and had not eaten properly for two. In their ranks were hundreds of wounded, and they were several days' march from any supplies. Soon after their appearance, the Zulus left the way they had come.

    Around 8:00 am, another force appeared, and the redcoats left their breakfast to man their positions again. However, the force turned out to be the vanguard of Lord Chelmsford's relief column.
    Breakdown of British and colonial casualties:

    • 1st/24th Foot: 4 killed or mortally wounded in action; 2 wounded
    • 2nd/24th Foot: 9 killed or mortally wounded in action; 9 wounded
    • Commissariat and Transport Department: 1 killed in action; 1 wounded
    • Natal Mounted Police: 1 killed in action; 1 wounded
    • 1st/3rd NNC: 1 killed in action
    • 2nd/3rd NNC: 2 wounded
    Also, as mentioned, one member of Stevenson's 2nd/3rd NNC, Corporal William Anderson, was killed by British fire while fleeing the station just prior to the arrival of the Zulus.

    351 Zulu bodies were counted after the battle, but it has been estimated that at least 500 wounded and captured Zulus might have been massacred as well.

    Having witnessed the carnage at Isandlwana, the members of Chelmsford's relief force had no mercy for the captured, wounded Zulus they came across.Nor did the station's defenders.

    Trooper William James Clarke of the Natal Mounted Police described in his diary that "altogether we buried 375 Zulus and some wounded were thrown into the grave. Seeing the manner in which our wounded had been mutilated after being dragged from the hospital ... we were very bitter and did not spare wounded Zulus".[41] Laband, in his book The Zulu Response to the British Invasion of 1879, accepts the estimate of 600 that Shepstone had from the Zulus.

    Samuel Pitt, who served as a private in B Company during the battle, told The Western Mail in 1914 that the official enemy death toll was too low: "We reckon we had accounted for 875, but the books will tell you 400 or 500".

     Lieutenant Horace Smith-Dorrien, a member of Chelmsford's staff, wrote that the day after the battle an improvised gallows was used "for hanging Zulus who were supposed to have behaved treacherously".

    Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders of Rorke's Drift, seven of them to soldiers of the 2nd/24th Foot – the most ever received in a single action by one regiment (although not, as commonly thought, the most awarded in a single action or the most in a day: 16 were awarded at the Battle of Inkerman, on 5 November 1854; 28 were awarded during the Second Relief of Lucknow, 14–22 November 1857).

    Four Distinguished Conduct Medals were also awarded. This high number of awards for bravery has been interpreted as a reaction to the earlier defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana – the extolling of the victory at Rorke's Drift drawing the public's attention away from the great defeat at Isandlwana and the fact that Lord Chelmsford and Bartle Frere had instigated the war without the approval of Her Majesty's Government.

    Certainly, Sir Garnet Wolseley, taking over as commander-in-chief from Lord Chelmsford later that year, was unimpressed with the awards made to the defenders of Rorke's Drift, saying "it is monstrous making heroes of those who, shut up in buildings at Rorke's Drift, could not bolt and fought like rats for their lives, which they could not otherwise save".

    Awarded the Victoria Cross:
    • Lieutenant John Rouse Merriott Chard, 5th Field Coy, Royal Engineers
    • Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
    • Corporal William Wilson Allen; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
    • Private Frederick Hitch; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
    • Private Alfred Henry Hook; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
    • Private Robert Jones; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
    • Private William Jones; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
    • Private John Williams; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
    • Surgeon James Henry Reynolds; Army Medical Department
    • Acting Assistant Commissary James Langley Dalton; Commissariat and Transport Department
    • Corporal Christian Ferdinand Schiess; 2nd/3rd Natal Native Contingent

    In 1879 there was no provision for the posthumous granting of the Victoria Cross, and so it could not be awarded to anyone who had died in performing an act of bravery. In light of this, an unofficial 'twelfth VC' may be added to those listed: Private Joseph Williams, B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot, who was killed during the fight in the hospital and for whom it was mentioned in despatches that "had he lived he would have been recommended for the Victoria Cross".


    *Who Rescued the Queens Colours?

    From all reports it was supposed to be Lieut Neville Coghill and Lieut Melvill. Both were awarded the Victoria Cross.

    This report is from the 24th Regiment on Foot, who are discussing a controversial painting showing both men rescuing the colours.  The only one person who rescued them was Lieut Melvill.

    Indeed from the book History of the Zulu War, it mentions Lieut Melvill as carrying the case.

    The officers were leaving the battlefield of Isandhlwana which took place on 22nd Jan 1879. Every soldier who remained on the battlefield was killed by the massive Zulu army which encircled the British camp and wiped out the defenders. 

    The only survivors were the ones who managed to escape on horseback. One of these escapees was Lieutenant Horace Smith-Dorrien of the 95th Regiment who was acting as transport officer to the column. He later achieved fame as a general in World War 1, but he also wrote an account of the battle and the flight to Helpmakaar beyond Buffalo River. 

    As he was riding along he was overtaken by Lieutenant Neville Coghill of the 1st Battalion 24th. He described him as wearing a blue patrol jacket and cord breeches, and riding a red roan horse. 

    Half a mile behind Coghill was Lieutenant Melvill, wearing a red coat and carrying the cased Colour across the front of his saddle. 

    The casing was half off and hanging down. Smith-Dorrien points out that the two officers were not riding together and asks why Coghill was there at all as he was the orderly officer on Colonel Glyn's staff and Glyn was not on the battlefield.

    Coghill's first sight of Melvill was after he had crossed the Buffalo River. He saw Melvill in the river, his horse had been shot, but he still had the Colour.

     Coghill and an officer of the Natal Contingent, Higginson, rescued Melvill and brought him to the opposite bank of the river. They were unmounted and Higginson left them to find horses.

     While he was gone the Zulus caught up with the two officers and killed them. So at no time did Melvill and Coghill fight together on horseback. The Colour shown in this painting, and in the second painting, where the two dead officers are discovered, is the Regimental Colour but it was in fact the Queen's Colour which was a Union Flag with XXIV in the middle.

    Melvill alone had been given the task of saving the Colour, Coghill just happened to be there to assist him across the river. 24th Regiment on foot


    After the engagement at Rouke’s Drift, which signalled the end of the Zulu assault, the lost Colour was found in the river by a search party sent to recover it. The recovered Colour was paraded before Queen Victoria who, in acknowledgement of the gallant action, placed a silver wreath of
    immortelles on the battered Colour’s pike.
    The following year, Queen Victoria received at Windsor Castle a Colour Party of the Regiment, and decorated the Queen's Colour with a silver wreath of immortelles in memory of Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill, for their devotion in trying to save the Colours on the 22 January at Isandhlwana and for the noble defence of Rorke's Drift. 

    So if you ever have the great privilege of seeing the Colours of the South Wales Borderers uncased you will see the wreath.

    The original wreath presented by Her Majesty is now in the Regimental Chapel of Brecon Cathedral.

    And here they are taken May 2014



    24/41st Regiment of Foot The Royal Regiment of Wales at Brecon

    123 years after the Queen's Colour of the 24th Regiment was saved from the raging torrents of the Buffalo River in South Africa during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, the Colours, currently located in Brecon Cathedral, are about to be saved again - this time for posterity.

     On the 22nd January 1879, during the Battle of Isandhlwana, when the British Army suffered one of its heaviest ever defeats at the hands of the mighty Zulu nation, Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill were ordered to save the Queen's Colour of the 1st Battalion of the 24th Regiment from falling into the hands of the enemy.

     They managed to make the banks of the Buffalo River, but there they lost their lives in their heroic attempt and the Colour was washed away down river. Two weeks later it was recovered and returned to the 1st Battalion who proudly carried it in its battered form for another 55 years. Officers Melvill and Coghill were subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for their courage and valour.

    The battle scarred Colours, which were finally laid up in the Regimental Chapel in Brecon Cathedral in 1934, are now beginning to show signs of decay. Such is the unique nature of these precious Colours that the Colonel of the Regiment, Major General Christopher Elliott decided to launch an Appeal to raise funds for their conservation.

     Being a very expensive project, it was thought that this would take some time to achieve, until an anonymous benefactor offered to meet the costs outright. As a result of such outstanding generosity, this work can begin straight away.

    In case you never get to Brecon, some photos of their displays.


    There is a silver wreath of immortelles around the crown which were presented by Queen Victoria.       

    This gentleman obviously had more time to take his photos than the 5 minutes we had before Sunday Service.

    This image may be used on condition you provide a link back to                


    • Colenso, F.E. History of the Zulu War and Its Origin, London, 1880.
    • Military Heritage discussed Rorke's Drift and the politics of the Victoria Cross (Roy Morris Jr., Military Heritage, August 2005, Volume 7, No. 1, p. 8).
    • Greaves, Adrian, Rorke's Drift, Cassell, London, 2002.
    • Laband, John (1992). Kingdom in Crisis: The Zulu Response to the British Invasion of 1879. Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-3582-1.
    • Lock, Ron; Quantrill, Peter. Zulu Victory: The Epic of Isandlwana and the Cover-up. Greenhill Books. 2005, ISBN 1-85367-645-4.
    • Morris, Donald R. The Washing of the Spears: A History of the Rise of the Zulu Nation under Shaka and Its Fall in the Zulu War of 1879 Da Capo Press, 1998, ISBN 0-306-80866-8.
    • Knight, Ian, Rorke's Drift 1879, "Pinned Like Rats in a Hole"; Osprey Campaign Series #41, Osprey Publishing 1996, ISBN 1-85532-506-3.
    • Porter, Whitworth (1889), "South African Wars, 1847–1885", History of the Corps of Royal Engineers II, London: Longmans, Green, and Co, pp. 24–43, retrieved 2008-08-14
    • Snook, Lt Col Mike, Like Wolves on the Fold: The Defence of Rorke's Drift. Greenhill Books, London, 2006. ISBN 1-85367-659-4.
    • Thompson, Paul Singer. Black soldiers of the queen: the Natal native contingent in the Anglo-Zulu War, University of Alabama Press, 2006, ISBN 0-8173-5368-2.
    • Whybra, Julian. England's Sons, Gift Ltd., 2004.

    It was the aftermath of the disaster that provided many opportunities for questions, again not on the battle details, but of the events associated with it.


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