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Annual Commemoration of the Battle of Isandlwana and the Immortal Defence of Rorke’s Drift

The Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879 was the first major encounter in the Anglo–Zulu War between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom. Eleven days after the British commenced their invasion of Zululand in South Africa, a Zulu force of some 20,000 warriors attacked a portion of the British main column consisting of about 1,800 British, colonial, and native troops and perhaps 400 civilians. The Zulus were equipped mainly with the traditional assegai iron spears and cow-hide shields. The British and colonial troops were armed with the state-of-the-art Martini-Henry breech-loading rifle and two 7-pounder mountain guns deployed as field guns, as well as a rocket battery. Despite a vast disadvantage in weapons technology, the numerically superior Zulus ultimately overwhelmed the poorly led and badly deployed British, killing over 1,300 troops, including all those out on the forward firing line. The Zulu army suffered around a thousand killed.

The Battle of Rorke's Drift was a defence of the mission station of Rorke's Drift, immediately following the British Army's defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879, and continued into the following day, 23 January.

Just over 150 British and colonial troops successfully defended the garrison against an intense assault by 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu warriors. The massive but piecemeal Zulu attacks on Rorke’s Drift came very close to defeating the tiny garrison but were ultimately repelled. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders, along with several other decorations and honours.

A regiment that fought at Rorke’s Drift - B Company, 24th (The 2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot – were based in Brecon, recruited in Wales, and, in 1881 became the South Wales Borderers. After many reorganisations, the regiment is now entailed in the Royal Welsh.

Brecon Cathedral houses the Regimental Chapel of the South Wales Borderers (24th Regiment),and contains the Colours and many memorials to its illustrious soldiers, including those from Rorke’s Drift.

Every year, close to the anniversary of the battle, the Cathedral has an Annual Commemoration of the Battle of Isandlwana and the Immortal Defence of Rorke’s Drift. The service always begins with a Regimental Tribute and, in 2017, this was provided by Colonel TJ Van Rees MBE ED DL. He addressed the capacity congregation:

Next week, on the 22nd of January, we commemorate one of the most significant dates in our proud and noble Regimental history – the 138th anniversary of the Battle of Isandlwana and the Immortal Defence of Rorke’s Drift.   While the origins and causes of the Anglo-Zulu War are, it has to be said, questionable, there is no doubt or question at all about the acts of bravery and heroism of the 24th Regiment of Foot on the 22nd January 1879, to whom all credit is due and to whom we pay tribute today during this annual commemorative Service.

The act of war is never glorious and we can only imagine the horror of the Battle of Isandlwana, when all but six men of the 1st Battalion the 24th Regiment of Foot lost their lives in that unexpected assault by the mighty Zulu army of King Cetshwayo.  Individual bravery however, was seldom in doubt, even when the outcome of Isandlwana was inevitable and the tenacity, resourcefulness and courage displayed by the defenders of Rorke’s Drift later that day, against seemingly impossible odds, epitomised all that was best in our Regimental forebears, of whom we are so proud.  This outstanding courage was recognised by the award of seven VCs, this country’s highest possible accolade for bravery, to B Company of the 2nd Battalion the 24th Regiment of Foot and by the subsequent award of the Victoria Cross posthumously to Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill who gave their lives in their attempt to save the Queens Colour of the 1st Battalion during the Battle of Isandlwana. We pay tribute also, to the 20,000 brave Zulu warriors who took such heavy casualties during the fighting of that day. 

After the war, Her Majesty Queen Victoria asked to see the Colours of the 24th Regiment of Foot at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, on their return to the United Kingdom.  She placed a floral wreath of Immortelles upon the Colours, and decreed that this should be carried for evermore by the Regiment, in honour of all those who had given their lives during the Zulu Wars, and to commemorate the immortal defence of Rorke’s Drift.  This distinction is unique throughout the British army and it is one which we acknowledge with respect and appreciation.

Today, Isandlwana stands quiet and empty, save for the memorials and the cairns of white stones which mark the graves of our Regimental forebears, while Rorke’s Drift has become a small village community.  However, both sites still proudly preserve the memory of that incredible day with great dignity.  In the same way, Brecon Cathedral is custodian of the noble heritage of the 24th Regiment of Foot, witnessed by those Regimental Colours and the Wreath of Immortelles, now laid up here in the Havard Chapel, and the many brass and marble memorial tablets on the Cathedral walls.  The main east window behind the Altar was installed soon after the Zulu wars, as a joint project between the Regiment and the town of Brecon as a tribute to all those who had lost their lives in that conflict.

This heritage continues today and The Royal Welsh is proud of its close links with Brecon, and is honoured to be able to commemorate this unique event each year in this Cathedral, by kind permission of the Dean.  We also appreciate the excellent turnout, not only by Regimental comrades but also by the people of Brecon, represented by the Town Mayor, Councillor Rosemary Evans, which is a most fitting tribute to the memory of our distinguished predecessors, 138 years ago.

Although they suffered greatly after the war of 1879, it is one of the most enduring and redeeming facts that the Zulu nation does not bear any grudge or animosity towards the British people and as a demonstration of that reconciliation, the 121st South African Infantry Battalion, formerly a pre-eminent Zulu manned unit, is affiliated to our Regiment today and it is a link which we cherish and respect.

In the last 138 years, the Regiment has seen much change, but you may be sure that the golden thread of our Regimental history will accompany those who forge ahead on their new journey and that the legacy of the Battle of Isandlwana and the Immortal Defence of Rorke’s Drift will remain in good hands.

Reproduced with permission.