Thanks in no little part to the 1964 classic movie, Zulu– starring Stanley Baker and a young, plummy-toned Michael Caine– the Battle of Rorke’s Drift has actually become a byword for persevering in the face of seemingly insurmountable chances.
Military cadets still study the day, in January 1879, when a small South African mission station turned supply depot, manned by 135 British soldiers– a quarter of them ill and bedridden– came under attack from 4,000 Zulu warriors.
Simply hours before, King Cetshwayo’s routines, or impis, had erased a whole British column of 1,500 men at nearby Isandlwana. Now, with sunset approaching, the Zulus were heading for Rorke’s Drift.
Sign of nerve: Michael Caine and Stanley Baker (left) who played Major John Chard in the film Zulu
This small garrison was certainly predestined for the very same fate: death by disembowelling at the sharp end of a Zulu assegai.
Yet a mix of quick thinking, bloody-mindedness and umpteen acts of specific bravery would guarantee their survival. The humiliation of the British Empire at Isandlwana was promptly eclipsed by the award of the Victoria Cross to no less than 11 defenders at Rorke’s Drift.
The movie variation is definitely a paragon of accuracy compared to, say, the claptrap in Netflix’s imaginary royal soap, The Crown. Zulu’s storyline is faithful to the series of events and it has actually gone on to be voted among Britain’s all-time preferred films.
Yet it still takes liberties with occurrences and characters For the real story of what happened, we require to study the tatty however wonderfully expressive bundle of documents which I have before me– and which is turning up for auction in London this week.
For this is the handwritten account, complete with sketch, jottings and notes, by the commander at Rorke’s Drift, Major John Chard VC of the Royal Engineers. To this day, he is still revered by the Sappers, who are desperate to secure this valuable manuscript for the Royal Engineers Museum at Gillingham, Kent.
You require just look through these 40 yellowing pages to comprehend why. Here is Chard’s careful chronicle of whatever: the techniques, the gallantry (plus the cowardice), the grisly information (a head ‘split open precisely as if done by an axe’) and the trivia, such as his pleasure on discovering a long-lost bottle of beer in the after-effects.
It is the supreme eyewitness account.
The 1964 historic war movie Zulu is loyal to the sequence of occasions and it has gone on to be voted among Britain’s all-time favourite films. Yet it still takes liberties with events and characters.
The museum is preparing for Thursday’s sale at Bonhams auction home with Chard-like determination. A combating fund is underway, a generous grant is in location from the Pals of the National Libraries, and Mark Smith of the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow is lined up to do the bidding.
The Sappers are likewise pursuing a few other items, such as Chard’s photograph album. They are all part of a collection which has actually come down through the household (who won’t go over the sale) and is anticipated to fetch at least ₤ 50,000.
Other lots consist of a hefty Zulu club, or ‘knobkerrie’, which Chard obtained from the battleground (beginning cost: ₤ 300) and Chard’s own copy of a well-known print of the battle (₤ 500). There is also a book provided to him by one of his greatest fans. Expected to bring upwards of ₤ 1,000, it is signed: ‘To Major John Chard RE VC, on his return from Zululand– from Victoria, Balmoral Oct 13 1879.’
He appeared Lieutenant Chard on January 22, 1879, an unexceptional 31-year-old Royal Engineer with the job of fixing a floating bridge across the Buffalo River. This was the border between the province of Natal and the Zulu kingdom, which had just rejected an impossibly one-sided treaty with the Crown.
So the British Army, under Lord Chelmsford, was sent to implement it. Having actually set up camp at Isandlwana, Chelmsford and a large part of his force were drawn away by a Zulu diversion, leaving around 1,500 troops and ‘native levies’ to await additional orders.
Woefully contented, they had actually overlooked to establish protective positions. Whereupon a Zulu force of around 20,000, who had been waiting, cleaned them out.
A couple of survivors notified the garrison at Rorke’s Drift and John Chard by his bridge. Chard (played in the movie by Stanley Baker) immediately took command of the garrison, given that he outranked his fellow Lieutenant, Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine), by three years’ service. They quickly commenced strengthening this modest plantation with whatever they might discover, including sacks of mealie.
The 135-men strong British garrison defied all chances to successfully safeguard the Rorke’s Drift objective station from 4,000 marauding Zulu warriors in 1879. Pictured: A painting of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift
Michael Caine starring as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, an infantry officer, in Zulu (1964 )
‘ Numerous fugitives from the camp [at Isandlwana] gotten here and tried to impress upon us the madness of an attempt to protect the location,’ composed Chard. It was the final straw for a few of the Natal militia and ‘native levies’ who dashed.
‘ We appeared really few now all these people had gone,’ wrote Chard. ‘I saw that our line of defence was too extended and simultaneously began a retrenchment of biscuit boxes, so as to get a location to draw on.’ The biscuit boxes showed to be a tactical masterstroke.
What occurred next has gone into military– and cinematic– folklore. The Zulus attacked in wave upon wave all through the night, repelled first by a salvo of bullets and after that by repaired bayonets.
They battled their method into the healthcare facility block, massacring those too ill to move, then set it on fire.
Chard recorded the chaos: ‘Cannon fodder Hunter, Natal Mounted Cops, leaving from the healthcare facility, stood still for a moment, being reluctant which way to go, dazed by the glare of the burning healthcare facility and the firing that was going on all around. He was assegaeid before our eyes.’ Gunner Howard was luckier. Having actually left the burning healthcare facility, he handled to conceal in a pile of dead horses.
The handwritten account, complete with sketch, jottings and notes, by the commanding officer at Rorke’s Drift, Major John Chard, is up for auction
It was a 360-degree fight for survival behind the wall of mealie and biscuits. Having actually captured weapons and ammo previously in the day, the Zulus were using British weapons versus the British. One sharpshooter nearly bagged the commanding officer.
In Chard’s words: ‘While I was intently watching to get a fair chance at a Zulu who appeared to be firing rather well, Personal Jenkins 24th, stating “Look out, Sir,” offered my head a duck down simply as a bullet zipped over it. For all the guy could have understood, the shot may have been directed at himself.’
In the film, the exhausted Brits are down to their last rounds as the battle develops into a singsong– with a Zulu war chant versus Men Of Harlech– before a final charge. At
which point, the Zulus salute their enemies and withdraw.
In truth, there was no singing. When a British relief column appeared in the range, the Zulus withdrew; or at least the majority of them did.
‘ One Zulu had remained in the kraal and fired a shot among us (without doing any damage) as we based on the walls, and ran off in the instructions of the river,’ composed Chard. ‘Numerous shots were fired at him as he ran. I am thankful to state the plucky fellow left.’
While Zulu corpses lay all around, there were just 15 dead within (2 more protectors would pass away of their injuries). On his go back to Britain, Chard was a national hero, feted with honours, consisting of a fine ceremonial sword (included in the sale) from his home town of Plymouth.
Though Chard’s edited final version remains in the Royal Collection, his handwritten draft is expected to bring at least ₤ 15,000 at auction
Queen Victoria had actually been enthralled by the story of Rorke’s Drift, and Chard was summoned to Balmoral to meet her. She implored him to write up the complete story of the fight for her, which is what is on sale today. Though Chard’s modified last variation is in the Royal Collection, his handwritten draft is expected to bring at least ₤ 15,000.
‘ It is really crucial to us due to the fact that John Chard truly is, by far, one of our excellent heroes,’ says Rebecca Nash, director of the RE Museum.
‘ What makes this so poignant for us is that it shows that Chard was a soldier firstly, in addition to an engineer. It summarizes the pride of being a Sapper.’
For while it was Chard’s technical knowledge that was crucial to the preparation of Rorke’s Drift, it was his grit and management which conserved the day. Chard’s VC was purchased by the Tory peer Lord Ashcroft, whose incomparable collection of VCs is on screen in London’s Imperial War Museum.
A minimum of the RE Museum, which owns numerous other ‘Sapper’ VCs, now has an opportunity to acquire Chard’s own words in his own hand, if it can see off the big collectors. ‘There is a component of David and Goliath in this, however our regimental and military museums become part of the DNA of our nationwide history,’ says Charles Sebag-Montefiore, treasurer of the Friends of the National Libraries who are backing the bid.
‘ That is why it is so important to see Chard’s manuscript end up where it genuinely belongs.’
Rorke’s Drift remains a pointer of an eternal military truth: never give up. Let us hope that works for the Royal Engineers at Bonhams on Thursday.
If you wish to support the museum’s quote, go to www.justgiving.com/campaign/JohnChardVC