Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Driver at the Drift: Zulu War 1879

If you recall the film "Zulu" (who can forget it!) cast your mind back to the scene where Stanley Baker as Chard is in his shirtsleeves in the water. After a hunting trip Michael Caine (Bromhead) converses with Baker and offers him the use of his batman to clean his kit; Baxter declines. This was another piece of poetic licence, of which there are a number in the film. It was Chard who had a batman while Bromhead did not. There was a small number of Royal Engineers at the drift to repair and maintain the ponts used to ferry supplies across the Buffalo River, not a bridge-building team.

At that time of Victorian soldiers there was a distinction between a SAPPER RE and a DRIVER RE: the driver was not versed in fieldcrafts and got a little more pay than a Sapper. Including Chard there were 6 Royal Engineers at the Mission station, there was a Cpl Gamble with three Sappers, Chard and the subject of this piece, his batman, Driver Charles Robson, too often called SAPPER ROBSON in various accounts.

An order from the Column at Isandlwana was issued on the 21st Jan 1879 for all the Sappers to return to Isandlwana. Cpl Gamble and his three Sappers (Cuthbert, McClaren and Wheatley) packed their gear and went the few miles up the road and to eventual doom. Robson was with Chard and so missed the order to return to his mates up the road. It is not recorded if Robson was an excitable man or otherwise. When the little garrison constructed its defence Robson was close by the RE wagon "to keep an eye on things".

Charles Robson was born on the 7th Jan 1855 at No 7 Ebury Mews, Chester Sq near Victoria coach station. (Interestingly, Ebury Mews is very close to Cumberland St where Pte Alfred HOOK VC lived in London at about the time he gained a job as a duster in the British Museum.) To give him his full name CHARLES JOHN ROBSON was the son of George Robson and Ann Draper. Charles had two known sisters but no brothers. On the 30th April 1873 Charles enlisted into the Army at Bow St Magistrates Court.

Many men enlisted into the army via a Magistrates Court into the army; some authors imply that the reason for this was that the person involved had committed some crime and were 'offered' escape from prosecution if they joined the army. For example, it has been suggested that Fred HITCH VC had committed an offence and was persuaded to join the army to avoid prosecution; I have no evidence to support this line of thought.

Prior to joining the army Charles had been a groom to his father who was at that time a Coachman. Charles declared his attestation on the 1st May 1873. He was 5 feet 5 inches tall with brown hair and grey eyes. Charles was sent to Aldershot in Hampshire. On the 18th of April 1878 he was appointed as batman to Chard.

On the 2nd December 1878 Robson found himself on the SS Walmer Castle leaving Gravesend for Durban, arriving on the 4th January 1879. Chard and his men arrived at their final destination on the 19th January 1879 and set to repairing the ponts which were needed to ferry the supplies back and forth. Cpl GAMBLE and his three Sappers received orders on Jan 21st to return to Isandlwana as soon as possible; CHARD had received his own orders earlier and was on his way back to Rorkes Drift and so missed the soon-to-be massacre at Isandlwana later on that day . It has been a point of debate as to which set of orders Chard and, of course, Robson were to follow.

Chard had little time to digest his dinner prepared by Robson: the battle of Rorke's Drift was at hand. To keep an eye on the RE wagon which was part of the defences, Robson found himself in front of the storehouse near the well-built cattle kraal which gave him a good view of his precious wagon and its contents. After the battle of the 22nd Robson stayed with Chard at Rorke's Drift when the position was made more secure and was later with Chard at Ulundi.

Upon their return to England Chard and Robson went to Scotland where on 10th October 1879 they were introduced to Queen Victoria at Balmoral. It was Chard that the Queen really wanted to see - I believe Robson was along for the ride, so to speak. Chard and Robson parted company in November 1879 when Chard went to Somerset , Chard gave Robson a brief testimonial written on 17th November 1879. By 20th June 1881, Robson had left the army having served 8 years and 47 days, leaving with a deferred pay of Ł15 7 6d. Robson got a job as groom and servant to Capt C H Gordon RE. Having completed his reserve service Robson was recalled to the Colours on the 2nd August 1882 having served a further 1 year and 42 days in the reserve and became yet again a batman, this time to Lt FN Maude RE. Robson, and served with Maude until November 1884.

Robson although never promoted was well looked upon by those he served, a reason perhaps for not promoting him during his service. He had but two minor blemishes on his record having 4 days imprisonment for an minor offence and not seeking permission when on the 13th May 1883 he was married to Jane Elizabeth Farrand. Normally a punishment would have been handed out but he received none. In 1891 his only child Annie Lillian Robson was born and she later married and had a son. Robson was at the marriage of Chard's sister as seen in one of the few pictures taken of him.

On the 30th April 1894 the army career of Robson came to an end. He left with four good conduct stripes and would have received the Long Service Good Conduct Medal had he not spent time in the reserve and 4 days in prison. He received a princely pension of 13d per day. Charles was employed as a groom to a local doctor in Dorking, living at that time with his sister Laura. Charles and his little family moved shortly afterwards to Plumstead (Swingate Lane). During World War I Charles and his wife worked in nearby Woolwich Arsenal. Charles eventually retired in 1919.  

Charles John Robson, Driver RE, defender of Rorke's Drift, left this world on the 19th July 1933 having died due to a cerebral embolism. He was buried in Old Woolwich Cemetery in an unmarked grave: I am glad to say there is now a stone at his grave, a fitting tribute to my fellow Royal Engineer who, alongside Lt Chard RE, won the day on 22nd January 1879 at Rorke's Drift.

Graham Mason
AZW Researcher

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