A Mission Station on the Buffalo River

When I joined the Monmouthshire Militia

When I joined the Monmouthshire Militia in 1877 the sergeant said, “Well, John Fielding, if you’ve been the eldest of nine brothers and sisters you will find the army a natural home, and if your regiment is sent to Cape Colony of South Africa you will find it a fine country, very like the Brecon hills, good ground for cattle and fair weathered like Gwent on a summer’s day. And if you meet any trouble with the Zulus who live there your new family, the second battalion of the 24th Regiment of Foot, will soon put them in their rightful place, which is under the ground and no cross on top! You will wear the white helmet and the scarlet tunic, you will follow the Queen’s colours to the edge of the empire and beyond if so called, and you will carry the Martini-Henry Mark Two, the finest battlefield rifle in the world, with which to send the Queen’s enemies to the hereafter at a thousand yards.”

And I said, “Yes sergeant, but if my father Michael finds me he will drag me back to Merthyr Road and I will be lucky to see more of the world than Abergavenny.” And the sergeant took up his pen and wrote John Williams for my name. “There you are lad, you’re a Williams now, one of thirty two
 in the regiment. Only you and God will know who you were before. Now, you make Him proud.”

In January 1879 I was under that great blue Natal sky, sweating in the tunic and itching
under the helmet, and after two years I knew the Martini-Henry better than any of my family. I had almost forgotten that I was ever not Private 25B/1395 John Williams.

The Mission Station at Rorke’s Drift

The Mission Station at Rorke’s Drift was never supposed to be more than a supply post and hospital, well out of the way, by a ford on the Buffalo river that formed the border of Natal and the Zululand. But then the whole column of Lord Chelmsford’s men, 1800 of them, was never supposed to be surprised and slaughtered at Isandlwana.

We had news of that and the 3000 Zulus coming to see us that morning. January is summer in South Africa. It was a beautiful day and I thought that if it was the last one I was going to see it was a sweet one, anyway. I had a pang for the way the mist hangs on the Blorenge at Abergavenny but you can’t let yourself dwell like that. In the field, with the enemy on the way, your imagination is not your friend. You lock all those thoughts of home and death and who will make it and who won’t deep inside you, and you give them no time. You want to be busy, and we were. We built a barricade of mealie sacks all that hot morning. When the time came I was relieved to be posted to the hospital, out of the sun, to make loop holes in the walls to shoot through, and barricade the windows.

Any solider will tell you the hours before the fight are strange

Any solider will tell you the hours before the fight are strange. Your eyes seem to take
everything in, every detail and shift in the air and the day is sharp to you. When the fighting
starts time changes, too, everything slows right down, so that you seem to see things just
before they happen.

We made promises; to finish each other off rather than let any be dragged away, and some gave notes for their families or their wives to others. You always wonder who will stop a spear or an old musket ball - the Zulus had some very bad rifles, but still deadly. All that is normal, but that day it did not seem likely that anyone would be left to take the letters home, especially after the detachment which should have stayed with us ran off. That was the Native Natal Horse, about a hundred of them. They had retreated from Isandlwana without a scratch, but after a short skirmish with the Zulus as they came on the Natal Horse were low on ammunition and could do little more. Around a hundred of the Natal Native Contingent under a Captain Stevenson fled the field, and some of our men who were still left fired after them. I had never seen troops flee a battle before the fight had even started. They were only locals, Natal colonials, but it shook us. I looked around, before we barricaded the hospital door, and there were so few of us. No more than 157 men, they said after, 39 of them in the hospital, and a good few of those too ill to hold a rifle. There were three or four thousand Zulu coming. You could hear them and see their dust. Not one of us thought we would be alive for nightfall. You get the collywobbles, I can tell you. Your legs shake. Your hands don’t seem to grip. You’ve got something in your stomach like a knot of elvers, all watery and wriggly. You think if you could shout or scream you could clear it, but you can’t, so you lock your jaw, keep your eyes front, and try not to think. Mind, we had good officers and stout men. There were no dreamers or panickers; we knew our business, and we knew the odds.

So many of them, like a tide they were, with their great white shields in ranks like waves racing in. They came at a flat run. The Zulu spear, the Assegai, isn’t meant to be thrown - they’re short in the shaft and the blade is very wide, like a fat leaf. It’s a slashing and stabbing weapon. Your Zulu’s idea is to strike downwards at the torso, stick it in and pull it out. It takes a strong man to do it and if it’s you on the end it doesn’t matter how strong you are - lungs punctured, guts on the floor, arteries slashed in bundles.

And he’s a brave man, your Zulu

And he’s a brave man, your Zulu. He will come on and keep coming. Our only luck, though we didn’t know it, was that they were led by Prince Dabulamanzi , who fancied a raid after Isandlwana, which he had missed. If it had been King Cetashwayo calling the shots things might have been different. Once Dabulamanzi was committed, even when it didn’t go well, he couldn’t pull back and lose face. So they came and they came again. Eleven hours of it.

I don’t want to say too much about what happened in the hospital. We shot them down until there were piles of them blocking the loop holes and the bullets ran out. We held them with bayonets at the doors. Me and Joe Williams held one room for an hour until they dragged him out. I smashed holes between the rooms, dragging the wounded through as we were overwhelmed. Henry Hook and I took turns fighting and smashing. It’s not something you want to think about much, afterwards, killing men with a bayonet or an assegai at half an arms length. You’re not really human then, with the roof on fire and the floor a flood of blood. We fought like rats, we fought like devils. We had nowhere to go and it was as though God looked the other way while we were at it. Breaking holes, dragging men through and killing Zulus, that’s what I did at Rorke’s Drift. And when it finished, sometime after two in the morning, we had lost the hospital and the barricades, and we had our backs to the storehouse, a small redoubt of mealie bags in front of us and a sea of the dead enemy beyond that like an overspill of Hell.

And afterwards they shipped us to Gibraltar

And afterwards they shipped us to Gibraltar, where the Governor gave me the Victoria Cross, and then home, and I stayed with the army, and I married Elizabeth and was in the depot at Brecon during the Great War, when we lost our boy at the retreat from Mons. And now I’m old and seeing out my days in Cwmbran. I like a pipe, and I love my nieces, who know nothing of any of this, except that uncle John was a soldier, and they gave him a medal for something he did long ago somewhere far away. The medal says ‘For Valour’ and I think that is right. There was valour in every heart that beat at the Mission Station of Rorke’s Drift. How they chose the eleven they gave it to I don’t know. I would have given one to every man, and the Zulus too. But that is why I was only ever a sergeant, and it’s the generals who decide who gets the medals, isn’t it?

Horatio Clare 2016

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