Welsh military history takes in many of the most significant conflicts of the last several hundred years, but perhaps the most famous is the battle of Rorke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.
The 24th Regiment which is one of the antecedent units of today’s The Royal Welsh played a major role in the war, winning numerous victories. So legendary were the unit’s exploits that Queen Victoria referred to the regiment as ‘The Noble 24’, however it is the battle of Rorke’s Drift which has continued to capture the imagination, thanks in part to the 1964 film Zulu, which famously starred Michael Caine and Stanley Baker.
The Zulus arrived at Rorke's Drift mid afternoon on January 22nd 1879 heartened by their victory over British forces at Isandhlwana earlier that same day. The British immediately set about building improvised barricades from 'mealie' (maize) bags, biscuit boxes and crates of tinned meat. The Zulus started continuously storming the British defences but struggled to reach the men behind the barricades and the defenders forced back any who did manage to climb over. British soldiers who were too badly wounded to shoot, were tasked with reloading guns and distributing ammunition to those who could still fire. As the battle raged on, the Zulus targeted the hospital setting fire to the building. The Zulus then broke in and began killing the patients with their spears but the defenders managed to push them back with bayonets. The surviving patients were rescued after soldiers hacked holes in the walls separating the rooms and dragged them through and into the barricaded yard.
As night fell, the British withdrew to the centre of the station, where a final defence had been hastily built. After 12 hours of battle, the camp was destroyed, the hospital had been burned to the ground, seventeen British lay dead and ten were wounded. However, the Zulus had been repulsed and over 400 of their men killed. Nine men were awarded Distinguished Conduct Medals and eleven, the most ever given for a single battle, recived the highest honour of all, the Victoria Cross.
The Royal Welsh regimental museum in Brecon holds an extensive collection of objects and documents from the conflict. On display are uniforms, medals, documents, weapons and models relating to the Battle of Isandlwana – where British forces were defeated shortly before the heroic defence of Rorke’s Drift. Highlights include an ammunition box recovered from Isandlwana, the flag that flew over Rorke’s Drift and a headdress worn by the Zulu king, Cetswayo.
Visitors can also see the first account of the defence of Rorke’s Drift (written just hours after the battle had ended) and an archive of letters and documents relating to Private Henry Hook, who was awarded the Victoria Cross in recognition of his heroism. There are more reminders of this chapter of military history to be found at Brecon Cathedral, where the main east window is dedicated to the men who lost their lives in the conflict.
There’s also the 14th-century Havard Chapel, which in 1922 became the South Wales Borderers and Monmouthshire Regiment War Memorial Chapel and still displays the Colours carried in the Anglo-Zulu war on its south wall.