Transcript of the video that is embedded below:
Today I’m talking about Frank Edward Bourne OBE DCM – or Colour Sergeant Bourne as he was during the battle of Rorke’s Drift. He was the senior British NCO present at the battle, but unlike many of his colleagues he was never awarded the Victoria Cross. You probably remember him from the 1964 film Zulu – he was a huge chap with mutton chop sideburns and wrinkled from his many years of service across the Empire – played by the excellent Nigel Green. . .But how realistic was that portrayal? And what rank do you think he finished his career in? You might be surprised by the answer.
OK, so Bourne’s portrayal in the film Zulu was nearly as unrealistic as Private Henry Hook’s…But anyway we’ll get onto that…In the meantime let’s get back to the beginning…Frank Bourne was born in Sussex on the 27th April 1854…let that date sink in for a moment…anyway moving on and as the last of 8 sons born to a farming family it was clear that his options were fairly limited. He was a bright lad who could read and write and wanted a challenge – like many young men before and since, the army offered him a way out and in December 1872 aged 18 he joined up in Brighton. His Dad tried to stop him but couldn’t. As well as being young, Bourne was also a small lad – just 5 foot 5 and skinny. He is listed as having a dark complexion, brown hair and grey eyes.
In January 1873 he found himself posted to the second battalion of the 24th regiment of foot – at that time known as the 2nd Warwickshire’s – not the South Wales borderers as they were to become later on…In fact – side note – despite what the film would have us think there weren’t a lot of Welshmen at Rorke’s Drift. In fact my undestanding is that only around 25 percent of the B company men present at the battle had been born in Wales.
Anyway I digress…Bourne was a natural soldier and quicky began climbing up the ranks. He was promoted to corporal in 1875 and in 1878 became a colour sergeant – the senior sergeant in his company. I am struggling to find my source for this but I think I am right in saying that he was the youngest man in the entire British army to attain that rank and he was quickly nicknamed “the kid” by the men of B company. At the time of the battle of Rorke’s Drift he was just 24 years old.
In 1878 the 2/24th was sent to South Africa and saw some action during the tail end of the 9th Frontier war against elements of the Xhosa speaking tribes. Shortly afterwards the 24th were sent to Natal to take part of the invasion of Zululand – now this isn’t the place to delve deeply into the causes of war – I have made an hour long podcast episode about that which I’ll link below – but suffice it to say B company were left behind at the border to protect the stores. I’m sure a man like Bourne would have been bitterly disappointed at that but he was able to keep busy by helping the men to write letters home and climbing Shiyane mountain everyday to try and see the progress of the redcoats of the central column as it advanced towards Isandlwana.
But then 142 years ago today circumstances changed rapidly – the boom of artillery could be heard in the distance and soon stragglers began passing Rorke’s Drift as they escaped across the Buffalo River from the terrible slaughter of Isandlwana ten miles away. Bourne, as the senior NCO, was at the centre of everything that followed – organising the men, allocating their positions on the perimeter and whispering a word of encouragement here or there. Bourne actually recorded his story for a BBC program in December 1936 but shockingly it was later destroyed by someone at the archives who thought that the interview was no longer of interest to anyone…Unbelievable. Luckily the transcript still exists and Suffice it to say Bourne was at the centre of the fight and did sterling work – at the end of his report, he said: “now just one word for the men who fought that night; I was moving about amongst them all the time, and not for one moment did they flinch, the courage and their bravery cannot be expressed in words: for me they were an example all my soldering days.”
On the morning of the 23rd the battered remains of Lord Chelmsford’s central column limped into Rorke’s Drift. The fight for mission station was now over but bad weather and no cover from the elements soon left the garrison wet, exhausted and sick. It was a tough time for the men, though at least the survivors of B company were given the honour of using the only tarpaulin available to the garrison.
After the battle Bourne was overlooked for the Victoria Cross, but he was awarded the next best thing – the DCM or Distinguished Conduct Medal along with an annuity of £10. He was also offered a commission. I’m not sure what percentage of officers during the Victorian era had come up through the ranks but I suspect the number is low and that it was a great privilege to be honoured in this way…But Bourne was from a farming family and for financial reasons he had to turn the commission down – It was very hard for an officer to survive on his army pay alone – mess bills could be rather extravagant and with the other added costs debts could quickly mount.
Bourne and his company weren’t involved in any more heavy fighting for the rest of the Zulu war and in 1880 they left South Africa for Gibraltar – it was here that he married Eliza Mary and was promoted to Quarter Master Sergeant. He had one more foreign posting to India and Burma where the 2/24th, now known as the South Wales Borderers saw very little action.
But this wasn’t the end of Bourne’s career – unlike many of the heroes of Rorke’s Drift his career was a stellar one – he was clearly excellent at his job and respected across the army. In 1890 he was finally promoted to Honorary Lieutenant and was appointed as the Adjutant of the School of musketry in Hythe – a post he filled for many years – eventually retiring as a Major in 1907…But this still wasn’t the end for Frank, he went on to assist the legendary Lord Roberts with his Society of miniature Rifle clubs around London and then at the outbreak of WW1 he rejoined the army and was posted as adjutant to the school of musketry in Dublin. – Imagine being a soldier in WW1 and actually getting to meet someone who had fought at Rorke’s Drift – the young recruits must have been in absolute awe of him. By the end of the Great War Bourne had been promoted to the lofty heights of Lieutenant Colonel and was awarded an OBE in recognition of his services. What an absolute stud this guy was. In between everything else he also had 5 children. Asked in later life about his service Bourne simply said that he was lucky to have been at Rorke’s Drift. He also hosted a family meal on the anniversary of the battle every year. Hi finally died on 8th May 1945 – just as WW2 was ending. He was 91 years old.
So guys, that’s the last of my series on the heroes of Rorke’s Drift for now. But never fear I will get back to it again soon, once I have a couple of other videos finished. There are still a number of amazing characters that I still haven’t talked about. Please do like and share this link as I think it’s really important to keep these stories alive.
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