Thursday, October 23, 2014

Survivors of Rorke's Drift

What happened after?

As the Autumn mists swirl round the coast of Anglesey, I often think of what it must have been like months and years after the battles of the Zulu war were over. What pressures were felt by the surviving participants as they tried to pick up lives torn apart from the rigours of campaign. What long-term effects did those 9 months have on the men who came back home? Upon further research I have found out, especially in the case of the men who fought at Kwajimu in that intense 12 or 13 hours back in January 1879, that a great deal did happen to those soldiers when they arrived back in the UK .

The British army does not like two disasters in one day and hence the, some would say, unwarranted attention covering the action at Rorke's Drift. As in any battle there are casualties not seen or felt until well after the engagement was over. With the advances in medical practices, I feel the mental strain on the men under CHARD and BROMHEAD would have had the term syndrome (post traumatic stress?) applied to the undoubted after-effects of keeping a determined foe at bay for so many hours. Even today after 125 years many graves of the men who fought at Rorke's Drift are still to be discovered and a public grave with no marker is often the case .

There are groups and organisations who amongst their activities search out these final resting places and hopefully leave a marker behind. In Ruddington in Nottinghamshire TWO headstones were laid in one cemetery as both men came from Ruddington and were mates, these being Pte Caleb WOOD and Pte Robert TONGUE both of B Coy 2 / 24th Foot. The final resting place of one Pte John SMITH is proving a tad difficult to locate, but I try! I do have his birth details, however, and am in the process of obtaining his birth certificate (he was born in Wigan). The other fact which has come to light is that many soldiers who were not in any of the prominent engagements suddenly stated they were at Rorke's Drift on that fateful day when in fact, after careful checking, it was found they were not. One example being Pte COMBERTON 1/24th whose glowing account of his actions on Jan 22/23 is to be found in a publication printed in 1966 and which has been found to be false from the outset. Had he done any of the things mentioned he would have been awarded 2 VCs at the very least! Pte Comberton, by the way, did not arrive in South Africa till April 1879.

Another example was a certain 'Sgt JONES VC' who was at the training camp in Pochefstroom and in contemporary papers of the time is shown quite clearly as being at Rorke's Drift and winning a VC there. Careful research revealed this was not the case. I have avoided mentioning one Lt ADENDORF because that is a whole different set of circumstances to go into. I am intrigued, however, that after his arrest for assault and desertion he vanished and to this day we do not know the full story. Apologies to any of his descendants, but that is one mystery I would love to resolve. Back to the main theme.

Research has proven that nearly all who took part in the campaign on Jan 22/23 1879 were affected in a mental capacity. To a man, any mention of those terrible 12 hours brings out anger or denial if mentioned in later years. 

Pte William COOPER who was over eighty gassed himself in the 1940's because, coupled with his physical condition and memories, his mind could take no more. Pte William JONES VC was seen towards the end of his life wandering the streets of Manchester with his granddaughter in his arms to protect her from the Zulu, quite obviously suffering from the pangs of that terrible day. Another VC winner (Pte Robert JONES VC) allegedly shot himself with a shotgun while the balance of his mind was disturbed. Quite how he managed to shoot himself twice is a fact I find difficult to accept. What is true is that the gun he was carrying was known to have a hair trigger, that the area where the accident took place was uneven and that Robert was not concentrating on his business at the time as it was proven that he was disturbed about events back in 1879 and this fatal combination resulted in him losing his life. To add insult to injury his coffin was taken over the cemetery wall and when buried the headstone faced the other way round! I feel a campaign is in order to investigate the true causes of his death and to reverse the suicide verdict raised against him. 

Fred HITCH VC on the other hand was known to have been quiet and unobtrusive when he lived the remainder of his life out in Chiswick, London and never once boasted that he won this highest honour. There is even a case where a defender was assaulted by fellow soldiers for just being part of that little garrison that day, jealousy I believe was the cause that resulted in that particular assault. One figure I recall sticks out in particular: this was the sad story of Sgt Joseph Lenford WINDRIDGE. First promoted to Sgt in 1862 he suffered various demotions and promotions during his career but at the time of Rorke's Drift was the senior Sgt. Incidentally, the majority of the men promoted shortly after the battle lost that rank for all sorts of reasons and Windrige even went down to a Pte at some stage. Recent research has proved that he married twice and his first marriage ended as he lost his wife, with his second he had no less than 13 children, 6 died within three weeks of each other. It was thought at one time that his wife poisoned them but it was proved not the case. Can you imagine what must have been going through his mind at this stage? Windridge eventually died in 1902 in Birmingham and is buried in this city under an unmarked grave. One day it is hoped that he too will get a marker to show he was at Kwajimu on that day so long ago. 

It was said that Pte DUNBAR dispatched 8 Zulus with 8 shots, quite a remarkable feat considering the pressure and heat on that day. He saw his last days out in South Africa, as did C/ Sgt George William MABIN the Fighting Clerk as he became known, the sad case of Gunner CANTWELL DCM, buried somewhere in Durban, who after winning the Silver Medal, as it was known, became a Prison guard in Durban goal, was assaulted by a lifer (DUBOIS) and eventually left the service, became a toilet cleaner and eventually died in Addington Hospital in August 1900, an oft-forgotten hero of that fateful day on the Buffalo River. Maybe one day his grave location will be found and a marker placed at the site, 'Here lies John Cantwell DCM , hero of Rorke's Drift.'

by Graham Mason, AZW researcher



Anglo-Zulu War Memorial,
 Pietermaritzburg

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