Who were the 11 men who won the Victoria Cross during the epic battle for Rorke’s Drift? What was their background and what happened to them after the battle? This is the first in a series of films where I will be answering those questions. Today we talk about the man who commanded the defence of the mission station – John Chard of the Royal Engineers.
Here is the transcript of this video that I recently posted to my YouTube channel.
Rorke’s Drift mission station, 140 British defenders, 4000 Zulus coming towards them, no help able to get through.
It was one of the epics of British military history…A stubborn, brilliant defence against a determined and aggressive foe. A few hours later 11 men had done enough to be singled out for Britain’s most prestigious medal – the Victoria Cross.
We’ve all seen the film Zulu and have a vague idea of the story. But the film portrayed many of the real heroes incorrectly – for example Hooky – the hard-drinking malingerer in the film was actually a tea-totaller who had just been awarded a pay bonus for his excellent performance.
But I digress – I am not making a series of films to dive into all of the mistakes made by our friends in Hollywood, but instead to shine a light on the real heroes of Rorke’s Drift. Who were those 11 men who won the VC? Where did they come from and what happened to them after the battle?
This is part one of a (probably) five-part series and today we are learning about the officer commanding at Rorke’s Drift – Lieutenant John Rouse Merriot Chard of the Royal Engineers.
You may be forgiven for thinking that Chard must have been a thruster, a man of action who had always impressed his superiors and was clearly marked for greatness. No, nothing of the sort. He actually seems to have been a bit of a plodder. In 1879 he was 31 years old. He had trained at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich and received his commission 11 years earlier. Since then he had served in Bermuda and Malta but hadn’t seen any action. In 1876 he had been posted to the 5th Company Royal Engineers and had subsequently deployed with them to South Africa at the end of 1878. It was at the head of a small group of sappers that he had found himself sent to Rorke’s Drift to help fix the ponts across the Buffalo River.
He’d only been there three days when he received orders for his men to advance to Isandlwana to join Lord Chelmsford’s column. He went with them but was told he wasn’t needed, and on the morning of the battle he and his batman Sapper Robson returned to their tents by the river…At this point it seemed they would be missing out on the all action. – BTW If you want the full detailed story of the subsequent battle for Rorke’s Drift then I’ll link my films about it below, in the description for this episode…It was an epic fight. But for now for the main point to note is that after returning to Rorke’s Drift Chard reported to Major Spalding, the commander of the mission station which was now a supply depot and hospital, and told him that he had seen a large number of Zulus close to Isandlwana and that the drift could potentially be attacked.
Spalding decided to head off to a village called Helpmakaar a few miles to try and rustle up a company of reinforcements that he had been promised for some time. Before Spalding left he consulted his copy of the Army list and discovered that Chard was senior to Lieutenant Bromhead, the other officer at the mission station. Spalding then left with the famous words to Chard, ‘You will be in charge, though of course nothing will happen.’
As we all know, something did happen, and it was a pretty big something. When the Zulu attack started Chard found himself commanding the entire defence, luckily for him he was supported by immense military talents such as Colour Sergeant Bourne of B Company 2nd Battalion 24th Foot and James Langley Dalton of the Commisariat Corp – but we’ll get to them in another film.
The fight for the mission station was a brutal one, often fought at close quarters. Chard, alongside Bromhead, lead a spirited defence. His VC citation reads: “For gallant conduct at the Defence of Rorke’s Drift, 22nd and 23rd January 1879. The Lieutenant-General reports that had it not been for the example and excellent behaviour of Lieutenants Chard, Royal Engineers, and Bromhead, 24th Regiment, the defence of Rorke’s Drift would not have been conducted with the intelligence and tenacity which so eminently characterised it. The Lieutenant-General adds, that the success must in a great measure be attributable to the two young officers who exercised the chief command on the occasion in question.”
There is no doubt in my mind that Chard and Bromhead deserved the VC, they were brave officers who when called upon did their duty brilliantly. Not everyone agreed though…Colonel Evelyn Wood said Chard was a “useless officer” while Sir Garnet Wolseley who was later to take command of the army in South Africa described Chard as “a stupid looking fellow.”
So, what happened to Chard after the battle? Well, once the battered remains of Lord Chelmsford’s Central Column returned to the mission station all of the survivors were forced to huddle inside the tiny compound. Chard was involved in building new, stronger defences but the place was cramped and uncomfortable. There were no roofs left and most of the men had to sleep in the open. Soon sickness began to spread. Chard himself fell ill and nearly died from fever – in fact there were newspaper reports that he had died. Eventually though he did recover and was able to rejoin his unit in time for the 2nd invasion of Zululand in June and July 1879. It was then he was nearly killed again when sentries outside Fort Newdigate – later nicknamed Fort Funk – panicked and opened fire on an imaginary zulu attack. They fired blindly into the dark wounding a number of men and nearly hitting newly promoted Brevet-Major Chard who was outside the walls on picquet duty. Chard’s death by friendly fire would have been quite an embarrassing incident for the British army to explain. Chard and his men advanced with the column that eventually crushed the last Zulu resistance at the battle of Ulundi on the 4th of July 1879.
Despite becoming a favourite of Queen Victoria and a hero across the empire, after the end of the Zulu War Chard drifted between dull assignments before eventually winding up as Chief Royal Engineer for Perth in Scotland in 1896. Shortly after arriving he was diagnosed with Cancer of the mouth…His tongue was removed but it wasn’t enough to stop the spread. He died a full Colonel at his brother’s house in Somerset on the 1st of November 1897. His funeral happened the same week with tributes and wreaths from many notables of the day including the Deputy Adjutant General of the Royal Engineers and even Queen Victoria herself – she had even included a card in her own handwriting that said: “A mark of admiration and regard for a brave soldier. From his sovereign.”
And so Chard was laid to rest at the Church of St John the Baptist in Hatch Beauchamp. His grave can still be visited today, though sadly I haven’t been able to visit and pay my respects – yet. One day I’d like to.