Wednesday, 22 January 2014

"Looks bad in the newspapers and upsets civilians at their breakfast."

I was so busy yesterday that I almost missed the fact that today (22nd January) is the 135th anniversary of the Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift ... although the attack on kwaJimu (Jim's Land) also carried over into 23rd January.

The 'story' of the fighting at Rorke's Drift is re-told in one of my all-time favourite films, ZULU, and although the film has many inaccuracies I doubt if I will ever tire of watching it ... and with luck I might manage to watch it again later today!

The battle is famous for the number of Victoria Crosses awarded to the defenders. There were eleven VCs awarded and they were given to:
  • Lieutenant John Rouse Merriott Chard, 5th Field Company, Royal Engineers
  • Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead; B Company, 2nd/24th Foot
  • Corporal William Wilson Allen; B Company, 2nd/24th Foot
  • Private Frederick Hitch; B Company, 2nd/24th Foot
  • Private Alfred Henry Hook; B Company, 2nd/24th Foot
  • Private Robert Jones; B Company, 2nd/24th Foot
  • Private William Jones; B Company, 2nd/24th Foot
  • Private John Williams; B Company, 2nd/24th Foot
  • Surgeon James Henry Reynolds; Army Medical Department
  • Acting Assistant Commissary James Langley Dalton; Commissariat and Transport Department
  • Corporal Christian Ferdinand Schiess; 2nd/3rd Natal Native Contingent)
It is often forgotten that four DCMs (Distinguished Conduct Medals) that were also awarded for the battle at Rorke's Drift, and they were given to:
  • Gunner John Cantwell; N Battery, 5th Brigade, Royal Horse Artillery
  • Private John William Roy; 1st/24th Foot
  • Colour Sergeant Frank Edward Bourne; B Company, 2nd/24th Foot
  • Second Corporal Francis Attwood; Army Service Corps
Frank Bourne is an ancestor of someone that I know very well, and I have seen some of the mementos and documents that relate to his life. He was not the grizzled veteran portrayed so well in the film by Nigel Green; the truth is that he was a young man at the time of the Battle (he was only 24 years old), and was referred to as 'The Boy' by his older comrades. Frank Bourne had a distinguished career in the British Army, and ended up as a Lieutenant Colonel. He died on VE Day (8th May 1945), aged 91.

The film is famous for some wonderful quotes, including the one I have chosen for the title for this particular blog entry.

Lieutenant John Chard: "The army doesn't like more than one disaster in a day."
Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead: "Looks bad in the newspapers and upsets civilians at their breakfast."

Other quotes include:

Private Thomas Cole: "Why is it us? Why us?"
Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne: "Because we're here, lad. Nobody else. Just us."

Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne: "It's a miracle."
Lieutenant John Chard: "If it's a miracle, Colour Sergeant, it's a short chamber Boxer Henry .45 calibre miracle."
Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne: "And a bayonet, sir, with some guts behind."

Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne: "Hitch... Hitch, I saw you. You're alive."
Private Fred Hitch: "I am? Oh, thanks very much."

Reverend Otto Witt: "He breaketh the bow and snappeth the spear in sunder!"
Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne: "I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord of Hosts is with us."
Corporal William Allen: "I hope so. As I live and die, I hope so."


  1. You've probably seen the bit on Lt Chard in the RE Museum in Chatham but there is also a memorial to him in Rochester cathedral to look out for.

    I think it's Nigel Greene's performance in Zulu that I remember most.

  2. Nigel Drury,

    I hope to see the Chard exhibit when I next visit the RE Museum, and I will certainly look for the memorial in Rochester Cathedral when I go there.

    Nigel Green was an excellent actor, and was perfect for the role of Colour Sergeant Bourne.

    All the best,


  3. Did you spot this re the anniversary

    "Zulu war artefacts go under hammer in Lewes"

  4. Nigel Drury,

    Thanks for bringing it to my notice as I had completely missed the item in my daily trawl through the BBC website.

    All the best,


  5. "Bromhead: Fire at will!

    Pte. Owen: That's very nice of him."

    The dry humour of the film was really unexpected when I watched it first, but it really did add to the whole thing. Great movie.

  6. One of my favorites is also from the Color Sgt: "Button up your tunic--where do you think you are?!"

    Thank god Stanley Baker was able to fight off the studio's suggestion that the movie end with Henrietta running up the road and throwing herself in Chard's arms after the battle!

    Best regards,


  7. Arquinsiel,

    I suspect that you are right and that the humour is part of the film's attraction. Without it the whole thing would be worthy but much less entertaining.

    All the best,


  8. Chris,

    The memorable dialogue makes the film ... and NCOs from more recent combats have said similar things to their troops.

    I once read that just before the Paras attacked at Goose Green in 1982 an NCO was heard to say to his platoon 'Mark your targets. Targets fall when hit'. This is exactly what he would have said on the firing range, and was done to help his men get into the right frame of mind for firing at the enemy.

    It would be typical of a film company to add that sort of ending to a film. Luckily they did not do so in this case ... and the role-call VC winners is a far better ending.

    All the best,


  9. Also the 50th Anniversary of the UK release of the film - so you're bang on the money... :o)

  10. It was a magnificent film about the rank and file, not ministers and generals – so bravo about that! The only downside to the 1964 Zulu film was that Martini-Henry (Mk 2) rifles became scarce and expensive and oddly enough Webley revolvers. Sniders were not affected, oh well.

    Compare the results of Isandlwana (1879) with the British broken (read nonexistent) defensive perimeter with an earlier action by Voortrecker Boers vs. Zulus, The Battle of Blood River (1838) who held a hilltop wagon fortification and defeated a much larger Zulu force. Mind you the Boers had muzzle loading muskets and rifles not breech loading cartridge rifles. The bottom line is that if you lose your ability to defend effectively, you lose everything. Just ask the Roman legions who lost their standards in the similar situation of not fortifying in the evening such as at the Sparticus Rebellion. The defense of Roark’s Drift just underlines a good defense.

    Most of the Roark’s Drift casualties were due to gun fire from the hill behind and above Roark’s Drift in the hands of inexperienced snipers. Since most of the troopers were exposed from behind, the rain of lead struck a number of defenders. BTW the Zulu guns were not from the recent battle at Isandlwana, but were weapons that were acquired previously and a motley mix of old trade guns, hunting rifles and the like.

    Keep in mind that the Zulu warriors were some of the finest light infantry of the time. In fact with their high movement factor, you could actually treat them as mounted infantry in simulation. A comparison between Isandlwana and Blood River (as well as Roark’s Drift) really underscores how important defense can be to a camping army. Of course an artillery section was not a presence in either battle on either side, which is a huge battlefield factor (see Battle of Omdurman, 1898). But that is another story for another time.

    These are distinctly difficult battles to satisfactorily simulate as a game and still make it interesting due to lack of movement and options.

  11. Bob,

    This is off the subject (sorry!), but if you haven't already, you might want to check Warwell's blog
    Very nice stuff!

    Best regards,


  12. CoastConFan,

    I think that the reason why the Battle of Isandlwana was such a disaster was due to the British using tactics that had worked well in their recent wars with the Xhosa but which did not reflect the experiences of the Boers when they fought the Zulus. If the British has formed a laager and defended it, the outcome would probably have been somewhat different ... and Rorke's Drift would have just remained a rather insignificant dot on the map.

    I understand that one weapon that the Zulus feared was the bayonet. When fixed to the end of a Martini-Henry rifle, the long sword bayonet gave the British infantryman the ability to fend off the short Zulu stabbing spear with ease ... and then to stab the Zulu without the Zulu getting close enough to use their weapon.

    One 'what if' I would be interested to see would be a Gatling Gun (or two) deployed at Rorke's Drift. With decent (i.e. US-made) ammunition it might well have caused considerable casualties to the Zulus.

    All the best,


  13. Chris,

    Thanks for the link. I am now following that blog with interest!

    All the best,


  14. Steve-the-Wargamer,

    I try to stay topical ... if I can!

    All the best,