This is the third part of my “Heroes of Rorke’s Drift” series…and today we are learning all about the man who many consider to have been the unsung hero and the brains behind the successful British defence of Rorke’s Drift.
Dalton was part of a three-man team from the Commissariat Department that were looking after the stores of Lord Chelmsford’s Central Column’s for the invasion of Zululand. The boxes and tins were stacked in and around the chapel at Rorke’s Drift. In his mid-forties, sporting a thick manly beard, Dalton had the eyes of a man who knew his business.
As the news of the disaster at Isandlwana reached the mission station, Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead decided to strike the camp and make a dash for the village of Helpmakaar where there were more British troops. Seeing some wagons being loaded, Dalton stepped in and made it clear that if the garrison tried to run they would be quickly caught and butchered in the open by the fast-moving Zulus. This statement of fact seemed to have the desired effect and Chard quickly countermanded his earlier orders and instead focused on strengthening the post’s defences.
So, who was this man? Why would Imperial officers listen to a lowly, locally recruited Acting Assistant Commissary? Well, let’s go back in time a little and find out…
James Langley Dalton was born around 1833 – I say around because the exact date isn’t certain. As a teenager he joined the 85th Regiment of Foot, which would later go on to become the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. In 1855, while serving with the regiment in Mauritius he was promoted to Sergeant and then shortly afterwards he and his unit were posted to South Africa – a place that clearly got under his skin – as it has many of us. In 1862 he transferred from the infantry to Commissariat Corps and was soon promoted to Colour Sergeant. In his new role he served with Sir Garnet Wolseley’s Red River Expedition of 1870 in Canada – a confusing and logistically challenging operation to squash a rebellion in the hard to reach province of Manitoba.
Shortly afterwards, when the Commissariat was reorganized and merged with the Military Train to become the Army Service Corps, Dalton was promoted to Staff Sergeant. But after nearly 22 years’ service he had reached the end of the road and was finally discharged from the army in November 1871. He subsequently emigrated to South Africa – his movements after arriving in the Cape aren’t known but, his experience and military knowledge meant that when the 9th Cape Frontier War kicked off he had no trouble finding work as an acting assistant commissary – working alongside the army organizing their supplies. He did excellent work and was the only civilian to be mentioned in dispatches for his ability in keeping the mobile columns supplied with food and ammunition. At the end of the Frontier war against the Xhosa he kept his position working with the army and moved into Natal ready for the invasion of Zululand.
During the fight for Rorke’s Drift on the 22nd of January 1879 Dalton showed time and time again his leadership quality and bravery. As the battle raged he prowled the perimeter, encouraging the men and offering his help and advice. He was one of a small group including Lieutenant Bromhead who had been battling to hold one of the most vulnerable points in the perimeter – a dangerous gap in the biscuit-box wall. Reverand Smith has left us this description of Dalton’s hard work:
“Mr Dalton, who is a tall man, was continually going about the barricades, fearlessly exposing himself, and cheering the men, and using his own rifle most effectively. A Zulu ran up near the barricade. Mr Dalton called out, ‘Pot that fellow!’ and himself aimed over the parapet at another, when his rifle dropped and he turned round, quite pale, and said that he had been shot. The doctor was by his side at once, and found that a bullet had passed quite through above the right shoulder . . .”
Dalton’s injury was bad but he survived the battle and was afterwards evacuated to Helpmakaar. When the first flurry of VC’s were awarded for the battle Dalton was ignored – as were a number of others who weren’t regular British army soldiers. It was clear that the men of B company 2/24th were being favoured and so a lot of high-level lobbying took place behind the scenes to rectify the situation. Eventually Dalton’s leadership and bravery were formally recognized and in November 1879 his Victoria Cross was announced – the citation read: “For his conspicuous gallantry during the attack on Rorke’s Drift by the Zulus on the night of the 22nd of January 1879, when he actively superintended the works of defence and was foremost of those who received the first attack at the corner of the hospital, when the deadliness of his fire did great execution, and the mad rush of the Zulus met its first check, and whereby his cool courage saved the life of the Army Hospital Corp by shooting the Zulu, who having seized the muzzle of the man’s rifle, was in the act of assegaing him. This officer, to whose energy much of the defence of the place was due, was severely wounded during the contest, but still continued to give the same example of good courage.” He received the medal from General Hugh Clifford VC at Fort Napier in 1880.
After the battle of Rorke’s Drift, Dalton was promoted, but then rather quickly and disappointingly was put on to half-pay. With his career therefore as good as over he briefly returned to the UK – before coming back to South Africa not long afterwards to invest in a gold mine – sadly though he never made his millions and after a short illness he died in January 1887. He is buried at Russel Road Roman Catholic cemetery in Port Elizabeth – I hope to visit his grave next time I am in the Eastern Cape.