Even after all the passage of time from that fateful day of 22 January 1879 till the present there are many issues cloaked in mystery and ignorance.
Life in 'civvy street' in Victorian London or any other major city of the time was grim to say the least; infant mortality was extremely high, mothers had, in many cases, ten or more children, and if four or five survived beyond 12 years of age they were doing pretty well in some of the really slum areas, especially in London.
To escape the grinding poverty and rampant illiteracy many a young man turned to the forces to escape this thankless life. Once again to quote my favourite example, Fred Hitch later to win a VC at Rorke's Drift was at the time of his enlistment a farm labourer and illiterate. I often wonder which was worse: to be the wife of a private soldier or suffer the harsh regime of a private soldier in a foot regiment (Infantry). There were no allowances made to wives and children of private soldiers, unlike today, and married quarters were still to come. A man could be sent to India and not see England for 18 years or more. Quite often the only concession to a married man was a blanket drawn across a bed-space at the end of a barrack room. No time for niceties in those days!
In 1879 a man had the choice of enlisting into one of the following: Infantry, General Service, Artillery or finally the Cavalry. Unlike today a man was usually accepted with little or no vetting into the Infantry: life was cheap and no questions asked. You could in certain regiments enlist as a boy and gradually work your way until you reached the age of 18 when you were considered a man - odd when you think that you were considered a youth till the age of 21 and could not get married below this age without consent of pare
nts, a soldier had to ask permission from his commanding officer to get married back in Victorian times.
In one famous case, a certain man got married without his commanding officer's permission but escaped punishment: this was Driver (Royal Engineers) Charles Robson, batman to a certain Lt Chard RE. A driver RE received a little extra pay as opposed to a Sapper. After much research I realised that the crafty recruiting Sgts played a 'fast one'. The optimum age to enlist was, as stated, 18, and this was true for all four elements at the time. However, to enlist in either the Artillery or Cavalry you had to serve a minimum of 12 years. In the Infantry or in the General Service it was 10 years if aged 18 or over at the time. If you were 17, you had to serve the extra year plus the minimum requirement of 10 years if joining the infantry.
Very soon it was realised that if details on the enlistment sheet were 'lost' there was no way of checking if a man was signing up for 10 or 12 years. In many cases an alias was used and a wrong age indicated. In some cases the enlistment sheet survived and this is when this anomaly presented itself to me. As there were different enlisting forms a person could sign up on a Cavalry form for 12 years when in fact it should have been 10 (Infantry). This meant in many cases a man serving 2 extra years plus any shortfall years below the age of 18.
A lot of enlistment sheets are missing but by the same token a lot survived. I even have papers where you can see the 10 years crossed out and 12 inserted and also the reverse! Where papers do survive it is the attestation sheet that survives. You had to enlist first, then usually within 3 days attest (make a definite commitment to service). Men signed for 6 years in the regulars and 6 years in the Reserves in which time, if not already dead in battle or of fever, were liable to be recalled to do further service both in the UK and abroad.
There was no choice at first as to what regiment you served in, which is why men from Eire, London and Bristol served together. If a regiment was under strength the next batch of 40 to 60 men were sent to a particular 'holding brigade' before being allocated to a particular regiment. In the case of the 24th Regt of Foot it was 25 Brigade. Look at the casualty lists for Isandlwana with regard to the 1/24th. Many men have, as an example, 25 B/1234 Pte John Anybody. This meant that an individual was still held in a holding unit but served with the 24th, attached but not actually part of the regiment as yet. So we have the situation where Pte J Anybody enlisted under a false name, lied about his age, was recruited falsely, and it was often found that he changed units. When a man was granted a change of regiment he was given another number, his old number being allocated to another man. We find Pte Anybody wants to return to his old unit, does so and gets yet another different number! Very confusing when it comes to obtaining service records or pension details.
At the termination of this article there will be a list of books to refer to with regard to the casualty lists of the battle at Isandlwana (in the main). It was not until the Cardwell reforms of 1881 that the rules were changed and a man kept his number from enlistment till discharge, and regiments of Foot were given titles, such as the Essex regiment, Lancashire regiment etc. The 24th became, of course, the South Welsh Borderers. Many an author still refers to these men at Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift as being in the South Welsh Borderers but this change of title only occurred after the reforms. A man often took to the army life and re-enlisted after 12 years or even beyond 21 years in many cases.
Frank Bourne of Rorke's Drift found himself a Colour Sgt in the 24th at the tender age of 23. For every two years good conduct a man got an extra one penny a day pay and a good conduct stripe to indicate this. A maximum of six could have been awarded during a man's service. These could be traded in for rank so a Cpl with three Good Conduct stripes could 'cash in' two and go to C/Sgt (Colour Sergeant). In the case of Sgt Windridge of Rorke's Drift he went from Private to Quarter Master, back to Private and finally to Sgt. A fondness for the black bottle was his undoing.
To make my life as a researcher more difficult the service papers of a man killed in action were destroyed: the 1/24th took their service papers into battle and these were all lost after the action was finally over that January day.
To make matters worse a large number of service papers were destroyed in the Second World War due to the action of the Luftwaffe. Despite all these obstacles we have barely touched the surface on research matters and I hope new facts will still emerge.
For the casualty returns mentioned, I advise you to look in the following books in particular.
1. Casualty Roll for the Zulu and Basuto wars, South Africa 1877-79 IT Tavender (JB Hayward & Son ISBN 0-903754 24X)2. They Fell Like Stones: John Young (Greenhill Books ISBN 1- 85367-096-0)3. The Roll Call for Isandhlwana and Rorke's Drift, 1879: Julian Whybra (Roberts Medals Publications ISBN 1-873058-0-1)4. The Silver Wreath, 24th Regt at Isandhlwana and Rorke's Drift, 1879: Norman Holme (ISBN 0-906304-02-4)
Graham Mason, AZW Researcher
A nice blog post. However, your photo of Hitch and his medals are from The Royal Welsh Museum in Brecon and should state it is from their display. Particularly as you have not mentioned the museum within the article.
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