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The Anglo-Zulu war in 1879 was a conflict fought in South Africa between the British army and the Zulus, a native tribe. The accepted aim was to remove the threat the powerful Zulu kingdom posed to further development of British interests in southern Africa. After a disastrous invasion and first battle at Isandlwana for the British, the Zulus counter-attacked into the British colony of Natal.
After locating the tiny Rorke’s Drift garrison, the Zulus launched a number of attacks, which only the dogged determination of the defenders and the arrival of a British relief column prevented the garrison from being wiped out. This action earnt the defenders an astonishing 11 Victoria Crosses and 4 Distinguished Conduct Medals.
However, there have been a surprisingly large number of misconceptions that have arisen about this battle, mostly from the historical epic ‘Zulu’ of 1964, and I’m going to debunk the big 4 myths in this article.
1. Myth Number 1: Henry Hook VC was an alcoholic malingerer.
In the film, Henry Hook is portrayed as an insubordinate alcoholic confined to barracks who happens to be changed by the action at Rorke’s Drift into a better soldier. This is a long way from the truth. The real Alfred Henry Hook was a Victoria Cross winner, teetotaller and later Sergeant-Instructor of the Volunteer Reserve. The portrayal of her ancestor so shocked Hook’s family that they walked out of the film’s premier!
Born in Gloucestershire in 1850, Hook joined the army in 1877 at 26.
He was rarely, if ever, in trouble with the regimental authorities, and had even started to draw additional Good Conduct Pay in respect of this at the time of Rorke’s Drift. His VC citation records him as part of the section assigned to the defence of the hospital: He helped another private soldier move 8 of his injured comrades inside the main defences by knocking down several interior walls, all whilst being attacked by assegai-wielding Zulus which he kept at bay through the use of his bayonet.
1. Myth Number 2: The regiment defending Rorke’s Drift was Welsh.
Although the 24th Regiment of Foot would be renamed the South Wales Borderers in 1881 following reforms, at the time of Rorke’s Drift the regiment’s official title was the 24th (The 2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot, and as such it was not officially a Welsh regiment. There were however, proportionately a large number of Welshmen present at Rorke’s Drift (34 of the total number of defenders), as the depot for the regiment was in Brecon, very close to the then-Welsh border.
The South Wales Borderers were not formed until 1881, 2 years AFTER the battle had been fought
1. Myth Number 3: Men of Harlech was sung by the defenders in an Anglo-Zulu battlefield ‘sing off’.
As the 24th Foot was not officially a Welsh regiment, ‘Men of Harlech’ was not its regimental march, and as such was not sung by the men present. There is very little evidence, from troops present who spoke about their experiences to the official histories, that there was any form of battlefield singing contest between the Zulus and the British. If there were, the men who were there would have been singing ‘The Warwickshire Lad’, and not ‘Men of Harlech’.
1. Myth number 4: Colour Sergeant Bourne was a middle-aged veteran of many campaigns.
Again, not so. Francis Bourne was actually the youngest Colour Sergeant in the British Army at the time of Rorke’s Drift. Born in 1854, he joined the army in 1872, and rapidly ascended the ranks. At only 24 years of age, he became a Colour Sergeant, a senior NCO in charge. The age of the actor portraying him in ‘Zulu’ is off by about 40 year age wise, but is not in the portrayal of the steadfast coolness and confidence under action that won Bourne his Distinguished Conduct medal. Fred Hitch relays an account of the battle that mentions the steadfast nature of his Colour Sergeant.
Bourne went on to serve in the First World War, and only retired in 1919, a full 40 years after the action at Rorke’s Drift. An interview in the Hartlepool Mail in 1934 shows he still remembered the battle clearly years later.