Even after 141 years and two World Wars, it remains one of the most celebrated actions in British military history.
Thanks in no small part to the 1964 classic film, Zulu — starring Stanley Baker and a young, plummy-toned Michael Caine — the Battle of Rorke’s Drift has become a byword for standing firm in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
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 sick and bedridden — came under attack from 4,000 Zulu warriors.
Just hours before, King Cetshwayo’s regiments, or impis, had wiped out an entire British column of 1,500 men at nearby Isandlwana. Now, with dusk approaching, the Zulus were heading for Rorke’s Drift.
Symbol of courage: Michael Caine and Stanley Baker (left) who played Major John Chard in the film Zulu
This tiny garrison was surely destined for the same fate: death by disembowelling at the sharp end of a Zulu assegai.
Yet a combination of quick thinking, bloody-mindedness and umpteen acts of individual bravery would ensure their survival. The humiliation of the British Empire at Isandlwana was swiftly eclipsed by the award of the Victoria Cross to no less than 11 defenders at Rorke’s Drift.
The film version is certainly a paragon of accuracy compared to, say, the claptrap in Netflix’s fictional royal soap, The Crown. Zulu’s storyline is faithful to the sequence of events and it has gone on to be voted one of Britain’s all-time favourite films.
Yet it still takes liberties with incidents and characters. For the real story of what happened, we need to study the tatty but fabulously evocative bundle of papers which I have before me — and which is coming up for auction in London this week.
For this is the handwritten account, complete with sketch, jottings and notes, by the commanding officer 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 precious manuscript for the Royal Engineers Museum at Gillingham, Kent.
You need only look through these 40 yellowing pages to understand why. Here is Chard’s meticulous chronicle of everything: the tactics, the gallantry (plus the cowardice), the grisly details (a head ‘split open exactly as if done by an axe’) and the trivia, such as his delight on discovering a long-lost bottle of beer in the aftermath.
It is the ultimate eyewitness account.
The 1964 historical war film Zulu is faithful to the sequence of events and it has gone on to be voted one of Britain’s all-time favourite films. Yet it still takes liberties with incidents and characters
The museum is preparing for Thursday’s sale at Bonhams auction house with Chard-like determination. A fighting fund is underway, a generous grant is in place from the Friends of the National Libraries, and Mark Smith of the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow is lined up to do the bidding.
The Sappers are also pursuing a few other items, such as Chard’s photograph album. They are all part of a collection which has come down through the family (who won’t discuss the sale) and is expected to fetch at least £50,000.
Other lots include a hefty Zulu club, or ‘knobkerrie’, which Chard retrieved from the battlefield (starting price: £300) and Chard’s own copy of a famous print of the battle (£500). There is also a book presented to him by one of his greatest fans. Expected to fetch 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 was plain Lieutenant Chard on January 22, 1879, an unexceptional 31-year-old Royal Engineer with the job of repairing a floating bridge across the Buffalo River. This was the boundary 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 enforce it. Having set up camp at Isandlwana, Chelmsford and a large part of his force were lured away by a Zulu diversion, leaving around 1,500 troops and ‘native levies’ to await further orders.
Woefully complacent, they had neglected to set up defensive positions. Whereupon a Zulu force of around 20,000, who had been lying in wait, wiped them out.
A couple of survivors alerted the garrison at Rorke’s Drift and John Chard by his bridge. Chard (played in the film by Stanley Baker) immediately took command of the garrison, since he outranked his fellow Lieutenant, Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine), by three years’ service. They swiftly set about fortifying this modest farmstead with whatever they could find, including sacks of mealie.
The 135-men strong British garrison defied all odds to successfully defend the Rorke’s Drift mission 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)
‘Several fugitives from the camp [at Isandlwana] arrived and tried to impress upon us the madness of an attempt to defend the place,’ wrote Chard. It was the final straw for some of the Natal militia and ‘native levies’ who made a run for it.
‘We seemed very few now all these people had gone,’ wrote Chard. ‘I saw that our line of defence was too extended and at once commenced a retrenchment of biscuit boxes, so as to get a place to fall back on.’ The biscuit boxes proved to be a strategic masterstroke.
What happened next has entered military — and cinematic — folklore. The Zulus attacked in wave upon wave all through the night, repelled first by a salvo of bullets and then by fixed bayonets.
They fought their way into the hospital block, massacring those too sick to move, then set it on fire.
Chard captured the mayhem: ‘Trooper Hunter, Natal Mounted Police, escaping from the hospital, stood still for a moment, hesitating which way to go, dazed by the glare of the burning hospital and the firing that was going on all around. He was assegaeid before our eyes.’ Gunner Howard was luckier. Having fled the burning hospital, he managed to hide 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 captured guns and ammunition earlier in the day, the Zulus were using British weaponry against the British. One sharpshooter nearly bagged the commanding officer.
In Chard’s words: ‘While I was intently watching to get a fair shot at a Zulu who appeared to be firing rather well, Private Jenkins 24th, saying “Look out, Sir,” gave my head a duck down just as a bullet whizzed over it. For all the man could have known, the shot might have been directed at himself.’
In the film, the exhausted Brits are down to their last rounds as the battle turns into a singsong — with a Zulu war chant versus Men Of Harlech — before a final charge. At
which point, the Zulus salute their foes and withdraw.
In reality, there was no singing. When a British relief column appeared in the distance, the Zulus withdrew; or at least most of them did.
‘One Zulu had remained in the kraal and fired a shot among us (without doing any damage) as we stood on the walls, and ran off in the direction of the river,’ wrote Chard. ‘Many shots were fired at him as he ran. I am glad to say the plucky fellow got off.’
While Zulu corpses lay all around, there were just 15 dead within (two more defenders would die of their wounds). On his return to Britain, Chard was a national hero, feted with honours, including a fine ceremonial sword (included in the sale) from his home town of Plymouth.
Though Chard’s edited final version is in the Royal Collection, his handwritten draft is expected to fetch at least £15,000 at auction
Queen Victoria had 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 full story of the battle for her, and that is what is on sale this week. Though Chard’s edited final version is in the Royal Collection, his handwritten draft is expected to fetch at least £15,000.
‘It is very important to us because John Chard really is, hands down, one of our great 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 first and foremost, as well as an engineer. It sums up the pride of being a Sapper.’
For while it was Chard’s technical know-how that was crucial to the preparation of Rorke’s Drift, it was his grit and leadership which saved the day. Chard’s VC was bought by the Tory peer Lord Ashcroft, whose unrivalled collection of VCs is on display in London’s Imperial War Museum.
At least the RE Museum, which owns many other ‘Sapper’ VCs, now has a chance to acquire Chard’s own words in his own hand, if it can see off the big collectors. ‘There is an element of David and Goliath in this, but our regimental and military museums are part of the DNA of our national 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 truly belongs.’
Rorke’s Drift remains a reminder of an eternal military truth: never give up. Let us hope that works for the Royal Engineers at Bonhams on Thursday.
If you would like to support the museum’s bid, go to www.justgiving.com/campaign/JohnChardVC