Video Script: Rorke’s Drift – one of the most famous battles ever fought by the British army. In a recent video I looked at the life and career of Lieutenant John Chard VC, who commanded the post – today we meet his right hand man…Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (pronounced Brumhead) – The man played by Michael Cain in the film Zulu. But who was Bromhead? What had he done in his career before the battle and what happened to him afterwards?
Bromhead was born in Versaille, France in August 1845. His was a military family and he had big boots to fill. His great grandfather had served under Wolfe at Quebec and his dad had fought at the battle of Waterloo. Bromhead grew up in Lincolnshire and in April 1867 he purchased a commission into the 2nd battalion 24th Regiment of Foot.
In the army he was soon nicknamed “Gunny” by his fellow officers and excelled at sport – representing the regiment at boxing, wrestling and cricket. Popular with the men, he was soon promoted to Lieutenant – a rank he still held when the battalion was sent to South Africa in 1878. One issue worth noting was that Bromhead’s hearing was steadily deteriorating by this time – although it seems he was still perfectly capable of doing his duty, it may have undermined his confidence.
He and his unit served in the Ninth Cape Frontier war against the Xhosa and It was during a skirmish with the enemy that the commander of B Company – Captain Godwin Austen – was accidentally shot and wounded by one of his own men…He was sent back to England to recover and the command of the company passed to Gonny.
At the start of the invasion of Zululand in January 1879 B company were tasked with defending the small mission station on the border which was now a store and a hospital. They were also to defend the nearby ponts across the Buffalo river. If you want to hear the full story of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift – where around 140 British soldiers fought off an assault by 4,000 Zulus then please listen to my podcast episode about the battle – linked in the notes below. It is an epic tale. You may only know the story of the battle from the classic film Zulu – while that is an extraordinary piece of cinema it certainly doesn’t stick to the facts. But anyway, I digress – I think that might be a subject for a future video.
For his leadership and courage in the ensuing fight – Bromhead was awarded the Victoria Cross – Britain’s most prestigious medal. While in my opinion his award was well-deserved, “Gonny” did have his detractors. One of his contemporaries – Major Francis Clery, wrote of him “[Bromhead is a] capital fellow at everything except soldiering” while Lieutenant Henry Curling said in a letter home, “It is very amusing to read the accounts of Chard and Bromhead… Bromhead is a stupid old fellow, as deaf as a post. Is it not curious how some men are forced into notoriety?” I suspect there may be a touch of jealousy in these comments, but like Lieutenant Chard, I think it’s fair to say that Bromhead wouldn’t have been destined for fame or a glorious career without the luck of being at the battle of Rorke’s Drift.
After the battle Bromhead and B company remained at the mission station – helping to reinforce the defences in case of another Zulu attack. It was a miserable place – packed with demoralized soldiers who soon began to fall ill. As the history of the 24th Regiment says: “The privations to which the officers and men were subject were at first very great. The battalion had nothing but what it stood in. There were no tents, no covering of any sort ; all they had to shelter them from the cold sleet and rain that fell nightly, converting the enclosed space into a slough of mud, was their thin kersey frocks…to make matters worse, the medicines having been burnt with the hospital, all that remained at the disposal of the medical officers, then and for some time afterwards, was contained in the small field companions they carried with them.”
Bromhead was quickly promoted to Captain and soon afterwards he became a Brevet Major. Then, on the 2nd May his Victoria Cross award was announced – his citation said: “The Lieutenant-General commanding the troops reports that, had it not been for the fine example and excellent behaviour of these two Officers (it means Chard and Bromhead) under the most trying circumstances, the defence of Rorke’s Drift post would not have been conducted with that intelligence and tenacity which so essentially characterised it. The Lieutenant-General adds, that its success must, in a great degree, be attributable to the two young Officers who exercised the Chief Command on the occasion in question.”
Fame didn’t suit Bromhead, he wasn’t a man who wished to share his story. As Major Clery said: “I was about a month with him at Rorke’s Drift after Isandhlwana, and the height of his enjoyment seemed to be to sit all day on a stone on the ground smoking a most uninviting-looking pipe. The only thing that seemed equal to moving him in any way was any allusion to the defence of Rorke’s Drift. This had a sort of electrical effect on him, for he would jump up and off he would go, and not a word could be got out of him.”
Bromhead and the rest of B company didn’t fight again during the war. Bromhead did though later command Sir Garnet Wolseley’s special escort when he took over command of the British forces from Lord Chelmsford near the end of the war.
At the close of hostilities Bromhead returned to England. Alongside Chard, he was invited to dinner with the Queen at Balmoral but was busy fishing in Ireland and received the invitation too late to attend…I think that kind of encapsulates his luck in later life. In 1880 he rejoined his regiment in Gibralter and set sail with them to India. Shortly afterwards though he returned to England to attend the school of musketry.
He had time to fight in one more conflict when in 1886 the 2nd battalion of the 24th – now known as the South Wales Borderers, embarked for Rangoon and took part in the Third Anglo-Burmese war. I haven’t been able to find any reference to Major Bromhead’s service in this conflict which is a shame as I think it would be interesting to know how he performed. Interestingly, his brother Colonel Charles Bromhead of the same regiment though does get a few mentions in the history books for his part in the war.
Anyway, Shortly afterwards, On 7th February, 1891, at Allahabad in northern India, Major Gonville Bromhead, V.C. succumbed to an attack of typhoid fever. The following message was received from the Commander-in-Chief to the regiment: “Please let all ranks of the South Wales Borderers know how much the Chief sympathizes with them in the loss of Major Bromhead, V.C, who behaved with such conspicuous gallantry at Rorke’s Drift, and so well supported the reputation of his distinguished regiment.”
He is buried at New Cantonment Cemetery in Allahabad. I really hope to get their one day to pay my respects. If I do I will be sure to make a video and post pictures.
It was a sad end for Bromhead who never seemed able to build on his moment in the spotlight. When he died he left his valuables including his VC to his brother Charles. His Victoria cross is now held at the museum of the Royal Welsh at Brecon.