THE LASTING HERITAGE AND LEGACY OF THE BATTLE ISANDLWANA AND THE DEFENCE OF RORKE’S DRIFT
By Anna La Grange, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History
Introduction and contextualisation
The events of the Anglo-Zulu War (11 January – 4 July 1879), especially those that included Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, still captivate both the British and South Africans alike. The Battle of Isandlwana and the Defence of Rorke’s Drift resulted in countless history articles, historical books, novels, paintings, poems, films, and more recently, even a video game. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Battle of Isandlwana was commemorated each year with a historical re-enactment of that faithful day in 1879. The examples illustrate that these historical events still resonate with individuals many years after the last blood was shed.
The sites where the Battle of Isandlwana and the Defence of Rorke’s Drift took place, are considered significant locations in the South African tourism industry, especially in the Kwazulu-Natal region. Prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, these heritage sites were visited by numerous tourists, primarily international, each year. The sites are of special interest to Welsh travellers as many of those involved in these battles formed part of the 24th (Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot – which would later become the South Wales Borderers and is now the Royal Regiment of Wales. Some film enthusiasts also find the sites interesting, as they have been the subject of at least two major films, the most famous being American director Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964) with actor Michael Caine. Incidentally, this was the start of Caine’s rise into the British acting fraternity.
The Battle of Isandlwana and the Defence of Rorke’s Drift also captured the imagination of various artists over the years, and thus a large number of artistic interpretations have been produced, the most famous arguably being Elizabeth Thompson’s The Defence of Rorke’s Drift (1880) and Charles Edwin Fripp’s Last Stand of the 24th Regiment of Foot (c. 1885).
Figure 1: Elizabeth Thompson’s The Defence of Rorke’s Drift (1880), Oil on canvas.
Figure 2: Charles Edwin Fripp’s Last Stand of the 24th Regiment of Foot (c. 1885), Oil on canvas.
Apart from creative representations like films and paintings of these events, there are also physical heritage structures. In 1999, for the 120th anniversary of the Battle of Isandlwana, a monument dedicated to the Zulu dead was erected at Isandlwana. The memorial is a large representation of an isiQu, a traditional Zulu warrior’s necklace that can be compared to a type of campaign medal. These warrior necklaces usually consist of blocks of wood or animal teeth (mostly predatory animals such as lions, jackals, leopards, and so forth).
Figure 3: The isiQu monument at Isandlwana with Isandlwana mountain in the background.
The monument seems somewhat controversial, especially to locals, as statues and monuments are, by implication, a Western tradition rather than an African tradition. This represents yet another dilemma in our modern view of past events and the commemoration of complex historical events, especially past events where intricacies like colonialism, imperialism, and large-scale bloodshed are at play. Should Western ways of commemoration be used in African contexts? Nevertheless, tourists interested in the Anglo-Zulu War, especially Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, enjoy visiting the isiQu monument.
Apart from heritage sites like monuments, the Battle of Isandlwana and the Defence of Rorke’s Drift continue to captivate the imagination of Britain and South Africa alike. Numerous beers have been named in honour of these events. Hurns Brewery in Wales launched a unique lager dedicated to the British soldiers who defended Rorke’s Drift for the 103th anniversary of the conflict, in 2009. In 2016 a new game called Zulu Response made its way onto the very popular gaming platform Steam. Zulu Response is a multi-player video game based on the events that took place both at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. Most importantly, Zulu Response is a prime illustration of the public’s ongoing interest in these historical events.
Tourism relating to the Battle of Isandlwana and the Defence of Rorke’s Drift spans several countries. The Queen’s Colour of the 24th Regiment of Foot, heroically protected by Lieutenants Teignmouth Melvill and Nevill Josiah Aylmer Coghill, can be seen in Brecon Cathedral in the South of Wales. Some of the Victoria Crosses (VCs) won for Rorke’s Drift’s Defence are kept in the National Army Museum in London, England. As illustrated above, these two military events have also captured the imagination of various artists over the years. Many of the paintings relating to Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, including Fripp’s Last Stand of the 24th Regiment of Foot, are displayed in the National Army Museum in London. South Africa alone is home to the two physical sites where the military events took place (adding two fascinating stops on the battlefield tourism itinerary), the monument of the isiQu near the Isandlwana mountain, and numerous gravesites.
Tourists eager to learn more about the Anglo-Zulu War, especially the Battle of Isandlwana and the Defence of Rorke’s Drift, can add one more stop to their itinerary, namely the DITSONG: National Museum of Military History (DNMMH) in Johannesburg. The Museum has two items on display that are quite interesting. Firstly, a pair of shoe soles excavated from the gravesite of Lieutenant Melvill and Lieutenant Coghill; secondly, the John Chard Medal, which takes its name from one of the Rorke’s Drift VC heroes.
The Battle of Isandlwana’s two VC heroes: Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill
The Regimental Colour of the 24th (Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot was left behind at the reserve base at Helpmekaar. On 22 January 1879, the day of the Battle of Isandlwana, the regiment only had the Queen’s Colour with them. In the final stages of the battle, the Queen’s Colour was entrusted to Lieutenant and Adjutant, Teignmouth Melvill, with the orders of getting the Colour to a place of safety. Lieutenant Melvill set out on horseback with the Colour and successfully made his way through the closing horns of the Zulu army towards the Buffalo River (also known as the uMzinyathi), joining other fleeing horsemen. With the Queen’s Colour in hand, Lieutenant Melvill plunged with his horse into the Buffalo and was almost immediately separated from his horse. By this time, Zulu warriors had gathered on the Zululand side of the Buffalo and began throwing spears and shooting with muskets at those who tried to cross the river.
In the meantime, Lieutenant Nevill Josiah Aylmer Coghill had successfully crossed the river and was already on the Natal side, only slightly downstream from where Lieutenant Melvill was trying to cross. Lieutenant Coghill turned around to see Lieutenant Melvill clinging to a rock with the Queen’s Colour still in hand and proceeded to put his horse back into the river to save both Lieutenant Melvill and the Colour. Coghill’s horse was shot from the Zulu side of the river, throwing him helplessly into the stream where he swam on to reach the rock that Lieutenant Melvill was still clinging onto. With enemy spears and fire still raging on, the officers decided to try and swim to the Natal bank, and in the process, the Colour was swept from their grasp and carried downstream.
They eventually reached the other side but were so exhausted that they were almost entirely immobile. Both Lieutenant Melvill and Lieutenant Coghill eventually escaped the gorge. They ran through an opening in the valley and were suddenly and unexpectedly surrounded by Zulu warriors. Once again, they were met with enemy fire and spears, but both officers lost their lives this time. Both Lieutenant Melvill and Lieutenant Coghill would later be recommended for a VC, and on 15 January 1907, they formed part of the first group of men to earn posthumous VCs.
On the morning of 3 February 1879, an expedition was led to Fugitive’s Drift (a drift in the Buffalo River that was so named because many British soldiers tried to cross the drift after escaping from Isandlwana) to find the Queen’s Colour. The patrol found the bodies of both Lieutenant Melvill and Lieutenant Coghill, and the two officers were buried where they fell under a large pile of stones. A pair of shoe soles excavated from their graves are currently displayed at the DNMMH in the F.B. Adler Hall.
The Queen’s Colour was eventually retrieved from the river where it had stuck around some rocks. With the Colour safely recovered, the regiment’s honour was restored, and the regiment proudly carried it in its battered form for another 54 years. The Colour now hangs in Brecon Cathedral in South Wales.
Figure 4: A pair of shoe soles excavated from the graves of Lieutenant Coghill and Lieutenant Melvill, on display at the DNMMH.
John Chard Medal and Decoration
Another exciting aspect of the heritage and lasting legacy of the Anglo-Zulu War, specifically the Defence of Rorke’s Drift, is the John Chard Medal and Decoration. The John Chard Medal was instituted on 6 April 1952 to replace the South African Union Defence Force’s Efficiency Medal and the Air Efficiency Medal. The John Chard Medal is a service medal awarded for long service in all four South African military formations (Army, Navy, Air Force, and Medical Services). The medal was initially awarded to all ranks of the Citizen Force after 12 years of service. After a further eight years, the recipient would qualify for the John Chard Decoration. In 1986 the criteria were revised to allow members of the Citizen Force to earn the John Chard Medal after ten years of service and the John Chard Decoration after 20 years of service.
Figure 5: The John Chard Decoration (left) and the John Chard Medal (right) currently on display at the DNMMH.
The John Chard Medal and Decoration is named after Lieutenant John Rouse Merriot Chard (later Colonel), who commanded the Rorke’s Drift supply depot and field hospital during the Anglo-Zulu War, when it was attacked on 22 January 1879. Lieutenant Chard was one of the 11 recipients who won a VC for their actions during Rorke’s Drift’s Defense. The 11 VCs awarded for bravery at Rorke’s Drift remain the highest number of VCs awarded for a single military action.
Out of the 11 VC victors, John Chard was singled out to carry the name of the John Chard Medal and Decoration. The reasoning behind this is quite clear: Lieutenant Chard took up overall command of Rorke’s Drift and played a significant part in the fortification of the outpost before the Zulu attack occurred. Using mainly biscuit tins and bags of grain, a defensive wall was built around the field hospital. These actions aided greatly in protecting both the sick and wounded in the field hospital, as well as the small force of soldiers guarding Rorke’s Drift against complete annihilation.
The John Chard Medal and Decoration was instituted in 1952 by the reigning British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, and continued to be issued until 2003. Most interestingly, the John Chard medal set remained in use throughout the National Party’s regime despite the party’s staunch anti-British sentiments and attempts to rid the Defence Force of anything remotely British. The John Chard medal set even remained in use in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) after the 1994 democratic elections, until 2003 when it was replaced by the new long service medals instituted by the SANDF.
The John Chard medal set is only one example of the lasting legacy and heritage impact of the Anglo-Zulu War, especially the Battle of Isandlwana and the Defence of Rorke’s Drift, which continues to resonate with South Africans and Britons alike even today.
The Battle of Isandlwana and the Defence of Rorke’s Drift have captivated the British and South African general public for more than 140 years. Creative expressions inspired by these events date back to Elizabeth Thompson’s 1880 painting, exhibited only one year after the event, and continue to more modern creative expressions like the video game Zulu Response launched in 2016. These events also play an important role in tourism, heritage, and culture – especially as it relates to how we deal with the physical remnants of these events more than a century after they occurred. Items relating to these two historical events keep reaching high numbers at auctions. This demonstrates that interest in the events of the Anglo-Zulu War, including the Battle of Isandlwana and the Defence of Rorke’s Drift, is not declining but instead increasing. Perhaps Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift present a most suitable case study of how heritage can become quite complex and possible ways to navigate how we deal with memory, history, artefacts, commemorations, and tradition years after the events occurred.
The shoe soles excavated from the graves of Lieutenants Coghill, and Melvill and examples of the John Chard Medal and Decoration can be viewed at DNMMH daily between 9h00 and 15h30.
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