Medals for the defence of Rorke’s Drift

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Peter Duckers looks at the variety of medals awarded to those who fought against overwhelming odds at the station.

There were around 150 men present in the famous defence of Rorke’s Drift on 22 and 23 January 1879. The majority of the defenders were drawn from B Company of the 2-24th Foot (2nd Warwickshires) under Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead but, since the station had been adapted as a stores and ammunition depot, and as a hospital, there were men from a range of other regiments present in the defence. These other active defenders and men in hospital included men from: 1-24th Foot (11), the Royal Engineers (2), the 90th Light Infantry (1), the 2/3rd Foot (1), the Royal Artillery (4, perhaps associated with the ammunition stores), the Natal Native Contingent (8), the Natal Mounted Police (3), the Commissariat and Transport Corps (3) and medical units (5). One survivor later recorded that the strength of the garrison was ‘two combatant and six departmental officers and 133 non-commissioned officers and men, 36 of whom were sick, leaving about 100 fighting men’. Modern estimates put the entire force at 156 officers and men, of whom 17 were killed and 12 wounded.

All of these men would have been entitled to the South Africa Medal, 1877-79. A medal for South Africa had been instituted in 1853 to reward retrospectively service in one or more of three campaigns on the Cape frontier between 1835 and 1851. The obverse featured the usual young head of the Queen and titles, by William Wyon, while the reverse depicted a protea bush, in front of which is a kneeling or wounded lion. This imagery, supposed to represent Africa in the form of a lion kneeling in submission, caused some adverse comment. There were those who suggested that, since the lion was a familiar symbol of Britain, it might be taken to represent a defeated or subdued Britain.

In the period 1877-79 there were a whole range of frontier wars against a number of African kingdoms and leaders, not just the Zulu. There were active operations, some involving serious fighting, against the Gaika, the Griqua, the Bapedi, the Tambuki, the Basuto and others. Important African leaders against whom military action was taken during this period include Chief Sekukuni (Sekhukhune) and the Baphuthi Chief Morosi. When it was decided to award a medal for the various campaigns between 1877 and 1879, including the Zulu War, the 1853 medal was revived, with a slight alteration: the date 1853 on the reverse was replaced by an African hide shield and crossed spears.

It was originally intended simply to award the medal with clasps ‘Caffraria 1877-9’ (after the old term for the border region) and/or ‘Zululand 1879’ and/or ‘Basutoland 1879’. In the event, the authorities finally opted for what they themselves clearly found to be a confusing number of simple dated clasps – ‘1877’, ‘1877-78’, ‘1878’, ‘1878-79’, ‘1877-79’, ‘1877-8-9’ and ‘1879’. Other than by error, no recipient could receive more than one clasp, though Commissary Dalton, VC of Rorke’s Drift, had two clasps on his medal. The dates reflected actual service in the stated years, e.g. ‘1877-8-9’ on the clasp indicated active service in 1877 and 1878 and 1879. The rarest clasp by far is ‘1877-79’, i.e. service in 1877 and 1879 but not in 1878, a qualification which few men seemed to have filled, since only around 29 were awarded. Those who already had the 1853 medal (earned at least a quarter of a century earlier) were supposed to receive just the appropriate dated clasp for 1877-79 service, but only about 20 recipients are known to have done so.

Although all the defenders of Rorke’s Drift qualified for the South Africa medal, not all would have worn the same clasp. Since many of the defenders (e.g. in both battalions of the 24th) had already seen service in the South African frontier campaigns before 1879, most had the clasp ‘1877-8-9’ and some others had ‘1878-9’. The newer arrivals in South Africa, who had no previous frontier service, received the simple dated clasp ‘1879’. Interestingly, and in error, men of the 2-24th generally received the clasp ‘1877-8-9’, even though they did not land in South Africa until 1878 and therefore could not have seen any service there in 1877.

In medallic terms, the defence of Rorke’s Drift is famous for the number of Victoria Crosses awarded for the action, though it is not, as sometimes stated, the largest number won in one action. There is not space here to go into detail on these awards, though most are well-enough known and written-up. The following defenders received the Victoria Cross:

 

Lieutenant John Rouse Merriott Chard: 5th Field Coy, RE. Commanding the post.

Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead: B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot. Commanding B Coy.

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 & Transport Dept. London Gazette 18 November 1879.

Corporal Christian Ferdinand Schiess: 2nd/3rd Natal Native Contingent. London Gazette 2 December 1879.

 

It will be noted that the majority were gazetted on 2 May. Dalton didn’t receive his until 18 November; the comparatively late award was the result of something of a public campaign to gain recognition for him. He has since been recognised as a leading figure in establishing the defended position. The late award to the Swiss national Christian Schiess, Natal Native Contingent, was the result of some confusion as to whether a Colonial soldier could receive the VC but in the end it was granted and he became the first Colonial forces’ recipient, finally receiving it on 2 December.

Since there was no provision at the time for the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross, it could not be conferred on anyone who had died in performing an act of bravery, though it was recorded in the man’s official record that, ‘Had he lived he would have been recommended for the Victoria Cross’. Such an example is Private Joseph Williams, B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot, who was killed during the fighting in the hospital and for whom the above statement is recorded. But no posthumous award was made in his name and this despite the fact that Edward VII, a monarch with an interest in orders and decorations, allowed some posthumous awards in 1902 and 1907, which established the principle that such awards could be made. As a result, two Zulu War VCs (relating to Lieutenants. Melville and Coghill for gallantry in attempting to save the regimental colours at Isandhlwana) were in fact presented to their next of kin.

The Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), the second highest-ranking award for gallantry in action between its foundation in 1854 during the Crimean War and its abolition in 1993, was only sparingly given for Rorke’s Drift. As is common with Victorian awards of the DCM, for which many actual recommendations have often been weeded out, it is not easy to establish exactly what some of these recipients did to earn the medal. Most citations just repeat the formulaic, ‘for outstanding coolness and courage in the face of the enemy’ or similar. Gunner John Cantwell, below, is an example. The following awards were made for Rorke’s Drift:

 

Gunner John Cantwell, N Batty, 5th Brig Royal Artillery (demoted from Bombardier Wheeler the day before the battle for reasons unknown).

Served from 1868-89 and then returned to live in Natal, where he died. His Army Long Service Medal is known to exist, as reputedly does his campaign medal, but the whereabouts of his DCM, which was presented by the Queen at Windsor in 1880, is unknown.

 

Second Corporal Francis Attwood, Army Service Corps.

Immediately promoted to Sergeant, he received his DCM from General Clifford VC at a special parade at Fort Napier on 16 January 1880. After returning home, he continued to serve with the Army Service Corps at Plymouth but died suddenly in November 1884, aged 38. His medals are in the Royal Logistic Corps Museum, Camberley.

 

Private John William Roy, 1st/24th Foot.

A Scotsman from Angus, Roy was a patient in the hospital and received the DCM for rescuing an injured man from the burning building. He was promoted to Corporal and received the medal from Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on 9 December 1879. He served from 1870-80, when he was discharged due to ill heath and emigrated to Australia, where he died in 1890.

 

Colour Sergeant Frank Edward Bourne, B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot.

Bourne is amongst the most famous of the Rorke’s Drift heroes. A very young Colour Sergeant, aged 22 in 1876 and only 25 at Rorke’s Drift, he was the youngest NCO of this rank in the entire British Army. Bourne was apparently offered a Commission in 1879 but felt obliged to turn it down on the grounds of the expense involved. Nevertheless, he was eventually commissioned via the Quartermaster route in 1890 and rose to be Honorary Lieutenant Colonel and he was appointed OBE for his service as Adjutant of the School of Musketry in Dublin in World War I. He is also believed to be the last survivor of Rorke’s Drift, dying on 8 May 1945, which was VE Day. Remarkably, he made a BBC broadcast about his Army career, and the battle, in December 1936 but sadly the actual recording has not survived, though a transcription exists. His awards and medals are in the regimental museum in Brecon.

 

Collecting the medals

The general South Africa medals for the campaigns of 1877-79 are proving especially popular on the market at the moment and are getting harder to find. Awards specifically for the Zulu War (as opposed to some of the frontier wars) have always been very collected in Britain – certainly since the 1960s when the film Zulu appeared, along with the highly regarded study, The Washing of the Spears by Donald Morris. Since then, there have undoubtedly been more books written on the Zulu War (and on Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift), than on any other colonial campaign. It is, however, very useful for collectors to have such a large and detailed library available to them.

Prices for the average medal for the Anglo-Zulu War nowadays tend to run between £750 and £950 depending on the clasp (e.g. ‘1877-8-9’ being more popular than ‘1879’) and on the regiment and its degree of involvement in the campaign. Medals to small colonial units are often hard to find but don’t have such a following in the UK, while imperial regiments which saw real combat service in Zululand, like the 90th Perthshire Light Infantry, the 13th Somerset Light Infantry and the 80th Regiment, tend to be more expensive. Medals to either battalion of the 24th Regiment tend to have an inflated price simply by association, even though those regiments did not see a great deal of active service after Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift. Medals to men who were killed in action at Isandhlwana on 22 January are fetching from £7,500 at present but it hardly needs stating that medals to men who can be confirmed as Rorke’s Drift defenders are exceedingly expensive. A basic example could cost anything from £40,000 upwards and those to well-known or well-written up recipients can reach levels far beyond that. As simple examples, the medal with clasp ‘1877-8-9’ to Private Michael Minehan, 2-24th Foot, the subject of a testimonial written by Lieutenant Bromhead, recently sold for £70,000 and the single medal with clasp ‘1879’ to Driver Charles Robson, RE, Lieutenant Chard’s batman, recently sold for a remarkable £110,000.

 

Read all about the defence of Rorke's Drift here.

 

Discover the history of the Martini-Henry rifle here.

 

Collect the weapons of the Zulus here.