THIS year marks the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift brought vividly to life on the big screen in the 1964 film Zulu and for one Stratford-upon-Avon man the events of that fateful day in military history have fascinated him.
Military historian, Derrick Smart, who is Stratford born and bred, visited the famous battle site in Zululand in 2007 and took photographs of the mission station at Rorke’s Drift.
It was defended by 104 men from B Company, 2nd Battalion 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot, patients in the mission’s hospital and 100 local recruits from the Natal Native Contingent.
The battle on 22nd and 23rd January 1879 saw the tiny British contingent fightback and eventually force the withdrawal of thousands of Zulu warriors in an iconic scene featured in the 1964 film which starred Michael Caine and Stanley Baker.
Derrick remembers watching the film at Stratford Picturehouse in Greenhill Street, Stratford, and even though he’s half Welsh – and proud of it – he still feels the stirring Men of Harlech was a great scene but the film didn’t mention the fact that it was a Warwickshire Regiment in the thick of the action.
“The film was significant – the first of its kind,” Derrick said. “It was the first film to make you feel you actually there fighting that battle it has such an impact on me.”
Once he bought a book called Discovering English County Regiments, published in 1970, he became completely hooked by the regiment’s involvement in the Anglo-Zulu War.
Derrick’s also established that a local man was enlisted in the British Army just six miles away from Rorke’s Drift at Isandhlwana, the scene of a massacre which saw 1,700 British soldiers by 20,000 Zulu.
Colour Sergeant Henry J. Cuthbert, ‘A’ Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot was not one of those killed but he would have known about Rorke’s Drift the time it took place.
Born in Alveston in 1855, he enlisted in 1875 and was promoted to Colour Sergeant on 23rd January 1879.
He was in the party that the GOC Lord Chelmsford took away from the camp at Isandhlwana on the 22nd January 1879 in search of the Zulu Army, which later proved to be a decoy to split the force at Isandhlwana. Lord Chelmsford forced contained men from the 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot with Artillery and the Engineer support. In the absence of half of the attacking force the Zulu Army took advantage of the weakened numbers left at Isandhlwana
Henry J. Cuthbert died of fever at Ford Melvill, Rorke’s Drift and is buried in the fever cemetery close to the fort.
Hi date of death is 12th March 1879. Age 24, his name appears on the Rorke’s Drift Memorial in South Africa.
As a result of the battle of Rorke’s Drift, 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded for the men’s bravery, seven of which were issued to the officers and other ranks of 2nd Battalion 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot.