St Woolos Cemetery - The Haunted Holy Ground

From the book "The Haunted Holy Ground" by Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame published in 1988.

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RC D 24

Glory at Rorke’s Drift.
Obscurity at Home

By Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame
First published 1988

© Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame 2012

The scythe is a metaphor for the death that will one day claim us all — high or low — when the Grim Reaper has passed.

For three men buried in St Woolos Cemetery the scythe represents death in a more tangible way, for they were men of the 2nd Battalion, the 24th Regiment of Foot — the South Wales Borderers — who 110 years ago faced the wrath of Cetawayo’s Zulu army.

This instrument of death was the crescent of Impis, or Zulu regiments, which would bear down upon an enemy and at the last moment close to enfold him in a wall of assegai spears.

Alfred Saxty, who was buried on July 15, 1936, having died at St Woolos Hospital in Newport at the age of 76 would have been 21 years of age on that fateful January 22, 1879, when the Zulus, fired with bloodlust from the massacre of British troops at Isandhlwana some 15 miles away, closed in for the battle at Rorke’s Drift.

Of the other two present at that tragic and glorious chapter in the history of the British Army was being written we know little.

John Murphy, who lived at 81 Witham Street, Newport, was buried on August 2, 1927, aged seventy and therefore would have been at the most a year older than his comrade when they stood shoulder to shoulder at Rorke’s Drift.

John Lyons was buried on March 12, 1936. There is no record of his age at death nor the address in Newport at which he died.

There is some confusion over the exact name of Saxty in particular. The name is spelled as given in the Regimental roll of officers, non­commissioned officers and men present at the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, but records in Newport have him as otherwise.

We have given the name Saxty since it was written down straight after the battle, at a time when there would have been numerous records of the man, for purposes of pay and rations. Although the name is later given as “Faxety” we are inclined to disregard it as a mis-reading of the original handwritten records.

To a lesser extent, difficulties have been encountered with Murphy, the Christian name of whom is given in regimental records as “Jas” or James. It may well be that Murphy preferred to be known as John, and so he will remain. Over John Lyons’s name there is no confusion whatsoever.

That “Alfred Faxety” is Alfred Saxty is beyond any doubt as is the identity of Murphy — we know their battalion, company and even the last three figures of their army serial numbers.

The 1st battalion of the regiment was sent to South Africa in 1875 to be joined by the 2nd battalion later in the year. It was in fact the first time the two battalions had served together. Two years after the Welsh soldiers set foot in South Africa, Britain annexed the Transvaal from the Boers and, in doing so, inherited a quarrel with Cetawayo, the fearsome warrior king of the Zulus.

After the annexation, a commission was set up to rule on the dispute and found in the Zulus’ favour. But the British High Commissioner, Sir Bartle Frere, was nevertheless determined to sap the power of Cetawayo and ordered that his army be disbanded and heavy fines paid for the atrocities that had been committed by Zulus in the Transvaal.

That he should choose this course of actions seems surprising. Far from being an undisciplined band of tribesmen, the Zulu were organised much as a modern army might be, with Impis, or regiments. Each Impi had distinctive marking on its shields, just as a British regiment had its own insignia, a commanding officer called an Indula, a regimental spirit similar to that inculcated in the finest European troops and advanced tactics.

Furthermore, Cetawayo’s force was 40,000 strong; fit, and fighting on its own ground. Against this array of warriors it was proposed to send a British field force of 16,000 troops out of which only 5,000 were regular infantry. The British hand was not strengthened by bitter internal wrangling as to how this force was to be commanded and deployed.

Nevertheless, on January 11, 1887, it entered Zululand with the intention of taking Cetawayo’s Royal Kraal at Ulundi, some sixty miles from where the British had gathered.

When men of “B” company of the 2nd battalion were detached to watch the ford at Rorke’s Drift — the company in which the three Newport men were serving — they could not have known that the orders which put them there probably saved them from extermination.

With their red serge tunics and blue trousers immaculate, the sun glinting off their bayonets and their white solar topees, the main body of the troops marched off, many of them to their deaths at Isandhlwana.

Once at this killing place, a large part of the troops were almost immediately sent off to reconnoitre an area in which there had been unconfirmed reports of massed Zulu soldiers, leaving 1,800 of all ranks, including 426 of the 24th, at the camp.

Of those who stayed in that terrible place, none remained to tell the tale. The only information we have is from others who once away from the main force, found themselves outflanked by the Zulus and arrived back to where the prim lines of tents had been pitched and the oxen outspanned only to find a grim scene of slaughter.

It was getting dark as, with their bayonets fixed, the soldiers returned to the spot where their comrades had fought and died. An officer among them described it thus: “It was now about 8 p.m. and darkness had fallen. As we approached the camp we stumbled constantly, horror upon horror, over the hacked, gashed and ghastly bodies of our comrades.

“We formed and oblong, guns and horses in the centre, and lay or sat down in the ranks. It was bitterly cold. The mutilated dead were around us and in our midst. No-one slept that night.”

All of the British soldiers had been stabbed or shot and then disembowelled. Even the oxen and horses which had not been driven away had been treated in the same fashion.

The apprehension which the eight officers and 141 British troops, including the Newport men who with some members of the Natal Native Contingent waited at Rorke’s Drift can be imagined.

Out there in the bhundu, the bush, thousands of Cetawayo’s soldiers were moving towards them, their blood up. A small church which had been turned into an ammunition storehouse and a mission building that had been a church were the main points of defence inside the British stockade, and temporary fortifications had been made of mealie sacks and folded tents.

The Zulus were not long in coming. With blood-freezing chants and a thunderous boom made by the banging of spears on thousands of hide-covered shields, the warriors advanced and when within fifty yards of the British defences made their first rush.

Steady disciplined fire from the 24th cut a swathe in the enemy ranks but still they came, as if from some inexhaustible pool. The two flanks of the Zulu scythe closed in around the position and the bravest and boldest of the black soldiers tried to climb the British positions, only to be bayoneted.

By the afternoon of the 22nd the situation was dire indeed. Ammunition was running short and many of the Martini-Henri rifles were jamming, so hot had their barrels become. Scores of Zulu bodies were piling up outside the little British enclave. So great had been the ferocity of the close-quarter fighting many British had buckled their bayonets with the constant use.

As wave after wave of Zulus were thrown into the battle the hospital became cut off from the main defensive positions. Taking as many of the wounded as they could, some soldiers fought their way from room to hospital room, retreating before the forest of spears.

All through that afternoon and well after dark the fighting continued. At approaching midnight, as the early hours of the 23rd came round, it became evident that the assault was slackening, but it was only with the coming of the dawn that the desultory firing stopped and an eerie silence fell over the bloody scene.

When the sun cast its first rays over the bush it dawned on the British that the Zulus had withdrawn. The only Zulu were the 350 or so corpses, their weapons scattered around them. No Zulu wounded were found and so therefore no estimate of their number could be made, but working on the normal ratio of dead to wounded in such engagements, the British judged that there must have been thousands.

Nobody in those early hours thought that this respite would last but, miraculously, it did. Later in the morning when the sun was fully risen a considerable body of Zulus was spotted some distance away from Rorke’s Drift but this formation wheeled away and did not attack.

Incredibly, and in one of the bravest actions the British Army has ever undertaken, 140 men had fought off a foe vastly superior in numbers.

Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded after that battle. Eleven of the highest decorations for valour the country has to make in the space of one 12-hour battle is a record that has never been surpassed, not even in the slaughter of World War One.

Why the soldiers had been left exposed in the way they were was the subject of much acrimony, much of it directed by the prime minister, Disraeli, against Lord Chelmsford, overall architect of the campaign.

But of the men who fought off the Zulu hordes with rifle and bayonet there can be no criticism. So impressed was Queen Victoria with the bravery of the officers and men of the regiment that she personally placed on the Regimental Colour a wreath, known as the Wreath of Immortelles. Two years after Rorke’s Drift the old 24th of Foot became the South Wales Borderers and in 1969 in a parade before His Highness the Prince of Wales at Cardiff Castle the South Wales Borderers were amalgamated with the Welch Regiment, previously the 41st of Foot, to become what is today the Royal Regiment of Wales.

One of the battle honours of the modern regiment, the Rorke’s Drift, does not appear by itself. Since the 24th had been committed at company strength only with headquarters elsewhere, it was deemed suitable that only the battle honour South Africa 1877-1879 appear.

No doubt there is some sense in this: the point of protocol is to preserve standards. In any case, history knows the glorious part played by the 24th of Foot. Rorke’s Drift is enshrined forever in the tradition of the regiment.

But is that history complete? The fact of the matter is that none of Newport’s heroes who survived Rorke’s Drift, that battle in which they showed the supreme bravery, has a marked grave. Indeed, it is only with the greatest difficulty the graves can be located at all.

This year, 1989, is the tercentenary of the founding of the 24th of Foot, now through the South Wales Borderers incorporated into the Royal Regiment of Wales.

Might not now be the time to raise a headstone over each of these three graves?

Three barely discernible humps hardly seem a fitting memorial of such valour.

John Lyons' grave in St Woolos Cemetery Newport. Hero of Rorke's Drift.
Since the book 'The Haunted Holy Ground' was published in 1988 this headstone has been erected on John Lyons' grave. The inscription says:
In memory of John Jeremiah Lyons born 1844 died 1923 aged 78 years who as a corporal in the 2nd/24th Regiment of foot'B' Co. was a defending hero at Rorke's Drift South Africa on the 22nd/23rd January 1879. His dear wife Elizabeth Ann born 1857 died 1944 aged 87 years. Their beloved daughter Kate born 1896 died 1916 aged 19 years.