The Regiment, 1719 to the present.

 


Episode 11: 24th Foot: The Zulu War, Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, 1879

After seeing action in the 2nd Sikh War in 1848-49 (Chillianwallah), both battalions of the 24th missed out on any action in the Crimean War or the Indian Mutiny. The next serious combat the 24th would experience was in the Zulu War of 1879.

The events in January of 1879 on the borders of Natal and Zululand are well known to a wide range of persons, mainly because of the fame of the movie "Zulu", surely one of the truly great classic war movies. There is also its lesser known but well-done ‘pre-quell’, "Zulu Dawn". These movies have ensured that the 24th is one of the most famous of regiments in the minds of the general public.

The Zulu kingdom had grown from a minor tribe to a great warrior nation, mainly as a result of military innovations introduced by its greatest leader, Shaka, in the early part of the 19th century.

By 1879, the Zulu regiments had conquered and absorbed a large area of southeast Africa. Although the Zulu had never shown any hostility to the abutting British colony of Natal, British officials considered a conflict inevitable. The task of defending vast areas against the large Zulu army seemed likely to result, at least initially, in the overrunning of Natal and perhaps even the rest of South Africa. While eventual British victory was a foregone conclusion, the devastation of these important colonies was the very peril the British sought to avoid.

It was therefore decided to launch a preemptive strike to neutralize the Zulu army on its own ground. An impossible ultimatum was delivered to the Zulu king Cetywayo. Upon its rejection, Lord Chelmsford launched an invasion of the Zulu kingdom. The aim was to draw the highly mobile Zulu impi in to an attack on the invaders so that superior technology would allow the Zulu to be crushed.

It must be said that Chelmsford’s strategy — at least in so far as drawing the Zulu army in to an attack on one of his three invasion columns — certainly worked, although with a result that he did not expect.

On the morning of January 22, 1879, Chelmsford split his main column, which contained most of the 1st and 2nd battalions of the 24th, and took half his force out of camp on a reconnaissance in force. In his absence, the main Zulu force attacked the camp at Isandhlwana. The garrison was spread out over too large of a perimeter, and the ammunition supply failed. The Zulu army, though at horrific cost to itself, overran the defenders and put all to the spear.

When it was realized that all was lost, Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill attempted to save the Colours of the 1st Battalion. They made it as far as the Buffalo River (border of Zululand) before they were both killed. The Queen’s Colour was recovered from the waters of the River a few days later. Both officers were eventually (1907) awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross (in 1879, you had to survive to be eligible).

Four thousand men of the Zulu reserve decided to press the advantage gained at Isandhlwana and continued on over the Buffalo River to attack the small British base camp at the mission station of Rorke’s Drift. The Station was defended mainly by the men of B Company, 2/24th and the garrison consisted of fewer than 150 men, many of whom were in "base" hospital.

The subsequent attacks continued well in to the night. Firing over 30,000 rounds, "B" company held out in truly desperate fighting. Eleven Victoria Crosses resulted. According to most authorities, this is the most awarded for a "single action" in the history of the medal. Seven went to men of "B" Company, along with two Distinguished Conduct Medals. Unfortunately, as only one company was involved, no Battle Honour could be awarded for what is, in many ways, one of the most famous actions ever fought by the British Army.

The survivors of the two battalions saw out the remainder of the war, which ended in the final crushing of the Zulu army at Ulundi in July of 1879.

In 1881, when the 41st and 69th became the Welch Regiment, the 24th, which already had two battalions, simply changed its name to the South Wales Borderers, and various south Welsh volunteer and militia battalions were formerly affiliated to it. During the Zulu War, although the Regiment had been recruiting in South Wales and its Depot was Brecon from 1873, it was technically still officially named the 24th(2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot.

 

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