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Museum honors desperate battle

In one of the most lopsided struggles of the British Empire, 145 British soldiers resisted attack by thousands of Zulu warriors. The amazing outcome is memorialized in Brecon, Wales.

By RICHARD GRANT

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 3, 2001


BRECON, Wales -- The shopkeeper, perhaps 70 years old, suddenly picked up an umbrella, held it above his head, as he fancied a 19th century Zulu warrior would have held a spear, and dropped into a crouch.

"It was all mathematics, you see," Phil Elliot explained in a soft Welsh accent.

"The Zulus were armed with short assegai stabbing spears, while our boys had Martini-Henry rifles tipped with 18-inch socket bayonets. The rifle and bayonet were 6 feet long -- an arm's length more reach than the Zulu had."

To demonstrate, he thrust the umbrella, presumably now a Martini-Henry rifle tipped with bayonet, at my midsection.

His narrated action would have seemed perplexing if this were any other country market town in South Wales -- about as far from southern Africa as a visitor could imagine. But while this picturesque, gray-stone hamlet has straddled the River Usk for centuries, Brecon's fame was made more than a century ago, far away.

Punctuating with his umbrella thrusts, the shopkeeper was recounting how some 145 young British soldiers held off an estimated 4,000 Zulu warriors in one of the most famous actions in colonial military history.

Called Rorke's Drift, the 12-hour battle took place during the South African Zulu War, on Jan. 22-23, 1879. When it was over, 11 of the defenders were awarded Britain's highest honor for military courage -- the Victoria Cross.

More Victoria Crosses were awarded for Rorke's Drift than any other military engagement in British history.

The battle has been immortalized in Zulu, the tense film starring Sir Stanley Baker and introducing a young actor who would also be knighted for his long career, Michael Caine.

But it is in quiet Brecon that this epic struggle comes to life. For it was here, in a village nestled amid rolling green hills, that the Zulu-fighting B Co. of the 24th Regiment was stationed. (About 18 months after the battle, the unit's name was changed to the South Wales Borderers.) And it is in this village that the treasures and trophies of Rorke's Drift are on display.

Housed in an actual barracks building, the Regimental Museum chronicles the history of this army unit, dating to 1689. The museum has more than 3,000 medals and an excellent weapons collection, but it is the Zulu War Room that draws the most attention.

With dioramas and drums, assegais and shields, uniforms and paintings, the museum relates the remarkable bravery exhibited by both sides in this short but costly war.

In a corner of the room is the actual British flag that flew over Rorke's Drift that January day 122 years ago. It was a beautiful sunny day, and it began with the worst military disaster in British history.

Lt. Gen. Lord Chelmsford, in command of the British Army invasion of what Europeans then called Zululand, had left a third of his army at a base camp near Isandhlwana, while he took the rest in search of the Zulu army.

Instead, an estimated 20,000 Zulu warriors found his base camp and attacked. Of the 1,700 British troops and African allies left behind at Isandhlwana, only 60 escaped death.

It was the worst defeat ever inflicted on a modern army with rifles against troops armed with spears.

Ten miles away, about 145 Welsh and English soldiers of B Co. had been left to guard reserve food and ammunition at a small mission and hospital called Rorke's Drift. Stragglers from the morning battle alerted the mission of the horror at Isandhlwana and left an ominous warning: "There are a whole lot of Zulus coming this way!"

The post commanders, Lts. John Chard and Gonville Bromhead, quickly fashioned bags of corn meal and biscuit boxes into the walls of a small fort. By late afternoon, thousands of Zulu warriors had surrounded Rorke's Drift. For the British troops, it was fight or die.

Although the Martini-Henry rifle could fire 12 rounds a minute, the Zulus were so fast and fearless that they were on the compound before the rifles could have much effect. For the next 12 hours, it was a battle of bayonet against spear, over makeshift walls of "mealie bags."

The Zulus set fire to one of the compound buildings and several times swarmed over the walls, but in the morning, the British flag still waved above the post.

More than 450 dead Zulu warriors littered the ground. It was enough, and they retreated at dawn with the approach of a relief column of British soldiers.

In the film Zulu, one of the most dramatic moments occurs before the last attack, when the British troops sing the stirring Welsh fighting song Men of Harlech. While the museum and historians agree that there is no evidence this actually occurred, the following year Men of Harlech was made the official marching song of the regiment. A copy of the lyrics is on the museum's Web site.

After touring the museum's exhibits, which include six of the Victoria Crosses awarded for Rorke's Drift, it is a short stroll through town, past the Bull's Head Pub, over a small stone bridge and up a steep hill to Brecon Cathedral.

This 13th century Norman church is considered one of the finest in south Wales. In its Trophy Room is perhaps the most poignant memento from the Zulu War:

At Isandhlwana, when it became evident the British squadron was doomed, Lts. Teignmouth Melvill and Nevill Coghill were given the last two horses and ordered to try to save the Queen's Color -- the flag that was the regiment's most revered emblem.

Melvill and Coghill cut their way through the Zulus and drove their horses into the Buffalo River. Coghill made it across, but Melvill was caught in the current and lost the flag in the swirling water. Though safe, Coghill went back to help his comrade; their two bodies were later found side by side.

Remarkably, the Queen's Color was recovered down river, taken back to England and presented to Queen Victoria. Today, it hangs in Brecon Cathedral, a grim reminder that in the Victorian age, the sun may never have set on the British Empire, but it was the blood and sacrifice of the its young men that kept the Union Jack waving.

IF YOU GO

The South Wales Borders Museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day from April to September; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays the rest of the year. Admission is about $3.

The museum's excellent Web site is at www.rrw.org.uk. This site has complete information on the Zulu War and Museum exhibits and has an online gift shop with books and regimental souvenirs. History buffs should check the Zulu Club, which provides periodic bulletins for those interested in the campaign.

Brecon Militaria, just off the High Street in the center of town, sells handpainted metal soldiers from the Zulu War, books and other military antiques; 4b Lion Yard, Brecon, Powys LD3 7BA, Wales; call 00 44 1874 622963. If there's a white-haired man minding the shop, he is an authority on the battle, but watch out if he picks up his umbrella.

For general information on Brecon, visit the Web site www.brecon.co.uk. For more information on Wales, call toll-free 1-888-544-0541.

Denver freelance writer Richard Grant has his own copy of Zulu.

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