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The Rorke's Drift Men
Heroes of the Zulu War
By James W. Bancroft
The History PressCopyright © 2010 James W. Bancroft
All rights reserved.
Corps of Royal Engineers
John Rouse Merriott Chard was born at Boxhill, Plymouth, on 21 December 1847. He was the second son of William Wheaton Chard (1819–1873) of 'Pathe', in the village of Othery, Somerset, and Mount Tamar, Plymouth, and his wife Jane, daughter of John Hart Brimacombe, of Stoke Climsland, Cornwall. They had married at Launceston in the December quarter of 1839. His older brother, Wheaton, followed family tradition and became a colonel in the 7th Royal Fusiliers, while his younger brother, Charles, became a vicar. There were five sisters, and the family worshipped at St Budeaux Church in Plymouth. His great-nephew, Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Chard, regimental secretary of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in 1979, stated: 'All my family are Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and he was the black sheep because he became a sapper – but he ended up doing rather well.'
He was educated at the Plymouth New Grammar School, and received some private tutorship. He attended the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, where he was remembered for always being late for breakfast. He passed-out in 1868, and was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers on 15 July 1868. After two years at Chatham he sailed to Bermuda in October 1870, being employed in the building of fortifications at the Hamilton Dockyard. His father died at Plympton near Plymouth in 1873, and he returned to England in January 1874. In the following month he was posted to Malta, where he was again employed in the construction of defences. He returned to England in April 1876, and after a short stay at Chatham, was appointed to the Western District at Exeter.
As the situation in South Africa worsened he was ordered to report to Aldershot to join the 5th Company, Corps of Royal Engineers for active service at the Cape. The unit set sail from Gravesend on 2 December 1878, arriving at Durban on 5 January 1879. His vaccination injection had become inflamed and his right shoulder was very sore, but British troops were already assembling on the Natal-Zululand border, so with no time to recover he was ordered to take a small party of engineers to join the 3rd Column at Rorke's Drift. For almost the entire journey the tracks were bad, and by the time he arrived at his destination on 19 January the column had already invaded enemy territory. One of the ponts which was used to ferry the troops across the Buffalo River had broken down, so Chard and his men set up camp on the Natal bank to work on repairing it.
Two days later he received orders to take his party of engineers to the British base camp at Isandlwana, about eight miles away, and he set off with them on the morning of 22 January. While he was there he saw enemy activity on the distant hills, some movement being in the direction of Rorke's Drift, so he set off back to report what he had seen, arriving at the post by midday. The officer commanding the post, Major Spalding, did not seem too concerned about the situation and informed Chard that he was leaving him in charge while he went to Helpmekaar to hurry forward a company of regular infantry which was overdue, uttering the immortal words 'nothing will happen!' as he left.
Lieutenant Chard then returned to the river with a guard of seven regular soldiers and about 50 natives, and just after three o'clock he was in his tent catching up on correspondence when Lieutenant Adendorff rode up and informed him that the camp at Isandlwana had been taken by the Zulus. Shortly afterwards a message arrived from Bromhead urging him to come up to the camp. Some of the men offered to moor the ponts in the middle of the river and defend them from the decks. Chard must have been heartened by the plucky offer, but he decided that they would be better deployed defending the garrison with their comrades. On returning to the post, they found that preparations for the defence were underway. Bromhead informed him that a Zulu force was on its way to attack the mission station, which they were to hold at all costs. He agreed with most of the arrangements made, and added a few suggestions for improvements to the barricade, then saw to it that every man knew his place and was prepared for battle.
About two hours into the battle the Zulus launched a particularly fierce assault. Lieutenant Chard was using his revolver to help to keep the enemy at bay when Private Jenkins suddenly ducked the officer's head down as a Zulu slug just missed him. It was due to Lieutenant Chard's good foresight that two piles of mealie bags were built up into a high redoubt as a second line of fire, and from where he could get an elevated view of the perimeter on all sides. It would also be the place where they would make a last stand.
The citation for the award of Victoria Cross to Lieutenant John Chard published in the London Gazette of 2 May 1879, states:
The Lieutenant-General commanding the troops reports that, had it not been for the fine example and excellent behaviour of these two Officers under the most trying circumstances, the defence of Rorke's Drift post would not have been conducted with that intelligence and tenacity which so essentially characterised it. The Lieutenant-General adds that its success must, in a great degree, be attributable to the two young Officers who exercised the Chief Command on the occasion in question.
A colonial trooper said that 'the men spoke highly of Chard', and his cool leadership proved invaluable that day. He was appointed captain and brevet-major dated from the 23 January 1879, thus becoming the first man in history to move from a lieutenancy to a majority in the army in a single day. He, and his fellow defenders received the thanks of the government.
Major Chard remained at Rorke's Drift to supervise the burial of hundreds of dead Zulus in mass graves, and to work on a more permanent stone perimeter. Suffering the hardships of atrocious conditions, he was struck down with fever, and on 17 February he was taken by ambulance wagon to Ladysmith, where he was looked after by a Doctor Park and his wife. After showing signs of improvement he suffered a relapse, and just after the announcement of his Victoria Cross award it was reported in local newspapers that he had died. However, he was nursed back to health, and was able to report for duty in time for the British re-invasion.
He joined Colonel Wood's column at Khambula to inspect the fortifications, and was involved in all the operations with the flying column. His unit followed up Colonel Buller's scouting activities, building bridges and repairing roads, and he was in the British square formation which advanced on Cetshwayo's capital at Ulundi for the final crushing defeat of the Zulus on 4 July.
He was decorated with the Victoria Cross by General Garnet Wolseley during a parade of the troops at St Paul's Camp in Zululand, on 16 July 1879. For his service at the Cape he also received the South Africa Medal with 1879 clasp.
He arrived at Spithead aboard the Eagle on 2 October 1879, where the Duke of Cambridge welcomed him and delivered a message from Queen Victoria inviting him to an audience with her at Balmoral, where she presented him with a gold signet ring. He was invited to a second audience with the Queen, and on 21 February 1880, he presented the sovereign with a more detailed account of the action at Rorke's Drift. He was received at Plymouth as a local hero, being presented with a gold chronometer and a superb sword of honour which had been specially manufactured and richly carved. He was presented with an illuminated address by freemasons in Exeter, and was guest of honour at dinner receptions in Taunton and at the Wanderers Club in Chatham. He was held in the highest regard in the West Country for the rest of his life. Queen Victoria was appreciative of his unassuming manner and the modest way in which he told of the events at the defence of Rorke's Drift, and it was said at the time when he submitted his official report, which was modest and to the point, that 'He has spoken of everybody but himself.'
However, John Chard may have been too modest for his own good, and seems to have been a man with no particular ambitions. Some senior officers, including General Wolseley, who was not a supporter of the awarding of gallantry medals, and General Buller, a fellow West Countryman, made less than complimentary remarks about his ability in the field, and some unnecessary personal insults, and Captain Walter Jones of the Royal Engineers, who was a friend, said of him,
He is a most amiable fellow ... but as a Company Officer he is so hopelessly slow and slack ... With such a start as he got, he stuck to the company doing nothing. In his place I should have gone up to Lord Chelmsford and asked for an appointment. He must have got it, and if not he could have gone home soon after Rorke's Drift, at the height of his popularity and done splendidly at home. I advised him, but he placidly smokes his pipe and does nothing.
His niece, Dorothy, who remembered him from when she was a child, recalled him as a man who never seemed to come to terms with what he had done and never considered his deed to have been as heroic as people thought. Her story of his arrival back in Somerset sums up the type of man he was. Major Chard was met at Taunton by civic dignitaries, and after some speeches he was driven to North Curry, where he was met by crowds waving admiringly. Told by his sister to take off his hat and wave back to them, he reluctantly did so, muttering sheepishly, 'All I did was my duty.'
John Chard never married, but he is known to have had a relationship with a woman called Emily Rowe, who bore a daughter to him at Exeter, believed to have been on 16 February 1882, who was named Violet Mary. Emily Rowe married a man named Lawson Durant, and had a second daughter, Irene, born on 6 January 1884. Emily Durant died in 1939. Violet's birth would have been kept secret because of the stigma of illegitimacy at the time, and because of Chard's fame and association with the Queen. He left an annuity to Emily and Violet for the duration of her lifetime, and the family have preserved two letters written by Chard and addressed to Emily telling her about his trip to Japan. At his funeral it was recorded that an anonymous wreath bearing the inscription 'that day he did his duty', took pride of place beside a tribute from Queen Victoria on the coffin.
In January 1880 he began service at Devonport, before proceeding to Cyprus in December 1881, where he was appointed regimental major on 17 July 1886, and during which time his mother died in 1885. He returned home in March 1887. He was posted to Fulwood Barracks in Preston in May 1887, remaining there until being posted to Singapore on 14 December 1892, where he was commanding Royal Engineer for three years, and was promoted lieutenant-colonel on 18 January 1893. On his return to Britain in January 1896, he took up his final post as Commanding Royal Engineer at the Perth District. In May that year he presented Queen Victoria with Japanese mementoes he had brought back for her. He was promoted to colonel on 8 January 1897.
While in Scotland he was found to have cancer of the mouth. In November 1896, he was too ill to visit Balmoral at the request of Queen Victoria, and underwent an operation in Edinburgh. In March 1897 surgeons had to remove his tongue. He was still able to converse quite well, but his condition became critical, and in August 1897 doctors diagnosed that the cancer was terminal. He was placed on sick leave from 8 August 1897. He spent the last days of his life with his brother in the rectory at Hatch Beauchamp, where many friends, including Queen Victoria, expressed their concern about his condition. On 11 July 1897 he had received the Diamond Jubilee Medal and a book containing a signed portrait of his sovereign. After suffering terrible distress towards the end, he died peacefully in his sleep at Hatch Beauchamp Rectory on 1 November 1897, aged 50. He was buried in the churchyard at Hatch Beauchamp, where a rose-coloured marble cross headstone marks the spot. Queen Victoria sent a wreath bearing an inscription written in her own hand, 'A mark of admiration and regard for a brave soldier from his sovereign.' There was a wreath from Colonel Bourne, and the officers of the South Wales Borderers, and there were tributes from all over the world. For many years the Queen's wreath lay beneath a memorial window which was placed in Hatch Beauchamp Church. Memorial plaques have been placed in Jesus Chapel at Rochester Cathedral, Kent, and at Othery Church in Somerset. There is a bronze bust of him in Taunton Shire Hall, Somerset and there are items associated with him at the Royal Engineers Museum, Chatham, and the Territorial Army Centre in Swansea has a 'John Chard VC House'.
The location of Chard's Victoria Cross remained a mystery for many years until 1972, when what was described as his South Africa Medal, and a 'cast copy' of his VC were offered for auction in London. Sir Stanley Baker, who had portrayed Chard in the film Zulu!, purchased the set for £2,700. It was offered for auction again in 1996, and one of the most extraordinary stories in the history of the VC began to unfold. Prompted by the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of the original Victoria Cross, the auctioneers decided to send it to the Royal Armouries at Leeds to be examined. The tests revealed it to be identical to all authentic VCs cast from the cascobels of cannon captured by British forces in the East, and therefore proved to be the genuine original medal. It is now in the medal collection owned by Lord Ashcroft.
Charles John Robson was born on 7 January 1855, at 7 Ebury Mews, Belgravia, London, the son of George Robson, a coachman, and his first wife, Ann (formerly Dieper). He had five older sisters. In 1871 they lived at 16 Bloomsbury Street, Westminster, and his father was working as an ostler.
Charles left his job as a groom, and enlisted into the Corps of Royal Engineers at Bow Street Police Court on 30 April 1873, suggesting that he chose a stretch with Her Majesty's army, as opposed to a stretch at Her Majesty's pleasure. He was described as being five feet five inches tall, and weighing 133 pounds. He had a fresh complexion, grey eyes and brown hair. He had several scars on his neck and between his shoulder blades and his muscular development was average. 12046 Driver Robson was sent to Aldershot, being posted to 'B' troop (Equipment) RE Train. He spent three days in jail at Aldershot in January 1874 for some petty misdemeanour which is unrecorded, and would be the only blemish on his army career, and he was in hospital on several occasions suffering with a variety of ailments. In October 1874 his mother had fallen down some stairs which left her paralysed, and she died a month later.
Lieutenant John Chard joined the company on 18 April 1876, and Charles was detailed as his batman and groom. He received good conduct pay of one penny a day from 13 September 1876. On 2 December 1878, he and his officer accompanied the 5th company as they boarded the SS Walmer Castle bound for active service in South Africa. They arrived in Durban on 4 January 1879, where they were greeted by a torrential downpour in which they had to unload hundreds of tons of stores and equipment. Lieutenant Chard and Driver Robson, a corporal and three sappers, were ordered to go up to Rorke's Drift post to repair the pontoon bridge across the Buffalo River. A small mule train was organised on which the men and their equipment were loaded. Chard rode on horseback with Charles on his spare mount.
On the morning of 22 January the engineers rode to Isandlwana, where they saw Zulus on the distant hills. He and his officer rode back to Rorke's Drift, leaving the other men at the base camp. During the defence he placed himself behind the stone kraal at the eastern end of the defences where he could fire at the Zulus who were trying to ransack the Engineers' wagon. He told Chard that during the fighting 'I was protecting our things.'
Excerpted from The Rorke's Drift Men by James W. Bancroft. Copyright © 2010 James W. Bancroft. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
The Defence of Rorke's Drift,
Corps of Royal Engineers,
The Royal Regiment of Artillery,
2nd Battalion, 3rd Regiment (The Buffs),
1st Battalion, 24th Regiment,
B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment,
A Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment,
D Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment,
E Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment,
F Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment,
G Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment,
H Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment,
2nd Battalion, 90th Light Infantry,
Army Medical Department and Hospital Corps,
Commissariat and Army Service Corps,
Army Chaplains Department,
Natal Mounted Police,
1st Battalion, 3rd Regiment, Natal Native Contingent,
2nd Battalion, 3rd Regiment, Natal Native Contingent,