I retired in 2008. Suddenly, I found I had time on my hands. Friends and family kept asking what I would do with all that spare time. I told them I needed some time to think about it. I do not like gardening, but I go for walks, polish the car and watch a bit of television. Apart from that, I do not have a great deal to do.
One day I was watching the TV. “Who Do You Think You Are?” was on. It made me think about my family background. I did know what my Dad’s occupation had been up to the time of his death at the age of 36 in 1955. Mum had to stay at home and look after me and my brothers and sisters, as we were all still at school. Today I am thinking about my grandfather, Alfred, who died in 1960. And I also remember my Great Grandfather who was about ninety years old when he died. He had a very old fashioned name, from the Bible, I think. His name was Elijah and I was about six when he died. But I still remember him; a very old man with a grey beard, the same shade as his hair. He also smoked a pipe and I will always remember its aroma. It’s odd how you keep memories stored away in the back of your mind.
Then suddenly I recalled that I had an old trunk in the attic that was given to me by my mother. The trunk had belonged to my Great Grandfather, but I had never opened it. Today I thought that it was time to get into the attic and have a look inside that trunk.
What wonders I found there! An army belt wrapped up in tissue paper. It was so clean and shiny, it looked as if it had just been polished. And there was a large white helmet with the regimental badge on the front, and some old newspaper cuttings from the battle of Rorke’s Drift.
I did remember from a history lesson in school something about Rorke’s Drift but, like all my mates, I had taken no notice at the time, but I was astounded to find that my Great Grandfather actually fought in that battle against the Zulu nation in South Africa.
There was also a bayonet which had some rust on it, but which I thought I could clean up. Wow! What a find that was. The water canteen I also found was looking pretty grubby and it had a nick on the edge, as if a bullet had ricocheted off the side of it.
As I continued to pull items out of the trunk and get to the bottom of it, I came across a large parcel wrapped up in brown paper with string. Gingerly pulling it out, I eagerly unwrapped it; it was my Great Grandfather’s red army tunic. It was in a bad state; torn and much the worse for wear, but I could at that moment only think that perhaps this was the tunic he had worn during the battle for Rorke’s Drift in January 1879. With a sense of wonder, I slowly hung it up on a wooden hanger. I stepped back to really look at it and felt so much pride as I let my mind wander into that battle.
Again, I looked further down into the trunk. At the bottom was a small A5 size book. I picked it up; it had my Great Grandfather’s name on it, and the name of his regiment along with his army number: Royal Engineers, Fairhurst 000542.
I pulled a dusty old chair over to the lone light bulb which hung from the rafters, cobwebs hanging from it. I cleared them away, creating a bit of dust as I did so. As I opened the book and flicked through its pages, I found it was a diary of his army career. Flicking through the pages, I came across a cigarette card depicting a soldier in the Royal Engineers Regiment, allegedly from Rorke’s Drift. As I started to follow his words, I was fascinated to feel a sense of his presence, as I read his account of the part he had played in that battle.
He wrote,” I am in South Africa with my regiment, ready to move north to fight the Zulus, whoever they are! My company, 5th Field, Royal Engineers, have been ordered to pack and load our large wagon. It will be pulled by four oxen to a place called Rorke’s Drift. Me and my mate, Archie, have been talking about it, but we just have to keep our heads down and follow orders.
“The army arrived at a place called Isaluwana and 5th Field have been ordered to move with our equipment on to Rorke’s Drift under the command of Lieutenant John Chard. I read his account some years later; he wrote.“I did not know I was marching into history”.
“We arrived with our wagon. Our company had been reduced to just three; the rest had been kept back with the British Army. No sooner had we got to work on the bridge than we got the call to move up to the mission that was Rorke’s Drift. It was decided that Lieutenant Chard would take command over an officer called Bromhead. The word was that the Zulu had wiped out the regiment at Isaluwana and were moving in our direction with thousands of warriors. We had less than 200 men but we set to, upturning wagons, filling sacks with soil to build a defensive wall around the mission, and plugging the gaps with anything we could find from the mission.”
I turned the page to the 22nd January 1879. My Great Grandfather wrote, “ ’B’ company, 2nd Battalion 24th Foot, 2nd Warwickshire, have now taken up their positions of six feet between each soldier on the outer wall. We can, if necessary, fall back to the inner wall we have built, if and when it is needed. Mine and Archie’s job is to open the ammunition cases and keep a constant supply to each soldier. It is hot and dusty work so we need to keep a good supply of water for the soldiers as we all wait for the first wave of attacks from the Zulu. Not only do we have thousands of warriors coming at us from all sides but, even with our superior fire power of up to date rifles, the Martini-Henry, they are still getting right up to the outer wall and falling like lemmings; wave after wave of them, hundreds lying dead, just sacrificed in order for the next wave of warriors to have a chance to overcome our defences. They just keep trying to break us down, on the heights overlooking Rorke’s Drift. The Zulu have warriors with old rifles firing at us. We are trying to keep our heads down, but Archie and I have to keep running from the stores across the open ground to deliver ammunition to the soldiers.
“As Archie and I were carrying a box of ammo, one handle each, a bullet struck my water canteen and ricocheted off, killing my best mate, Archie. I held him in my arms for a moment, then the cry came up “more ammo over here!” and I just had to let him go.
“Our soldiers are picking out the Zulus on the rocky cliff as they dance from crevice to crevice looking for a better position for themselves; it seems very careless to me; we had to retreat back to our inner defence wall. The fighting is furious; even the wounded in the small chapel had rifles. The sound was deafening with the men firing at will, round after round, and Zulu warriors piling up at the foot of the wall. It was carnage. Our backs were to the wall; we were fighting for our lives. ”
Then my Great Grandfather wrote, “The Zulu just stopped fighting and withdrew to the slopes of the hill. A huge cry came up from them as they lifted their shields to the sky and banged their spears on them, all in unison as a salute to our bravery. It was an awesome sight – then they just disappeared over the top of the hill and back into their homeland undefeated.
“The relief column of Lord Chelmsford, British Army Commander, arrived at dawn to everyone’s relief. We lost about sixteen men against hundreds of Zulu. Eleven Victoria Crosses and four DCMs where awarded at Rorke’s Drift; it is the most decorated battle in British military history. We spent two days burying the dead, our comrades and the Zulu warriors.”
My Great Grandfather was awarded the Anglo-Zulu campaign medal and was promoted to Lance Corporal. He wrote, ”The mental stress I felt was awful; I was so scared. I think I carried out my duty in a daze, and if any of the men say the battle did not affect them, then they are lying. I buried my mate Archie, and I have his last letter written to his wife, along with his few personal effects. I will go and see his family when I get home and tell them he died with dignity “doing the job he loved”.
My Great Grandfather wrote four pages altogether in his diary about his exploits at Rorke’s Drift, but without this diary I would never have known anything of his experiences. At the bottom of a page he says how pleased he is to be on his way home to his family, my Great Grandmother, Polly. Great Grandfather was born in 1859 and died in 1949. I do not remember him dying, but I do have a mental picture of this old man in my memory, and I cherish that.
As I turn the page, he writes of further exploits abroad in the British Army, but that is a story for another day.