In My Father’s Words

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In My Father’s Words

B.M

03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018

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Good Day To Bury Bad News

Reynolds straightened.  His back hurt, his head spun and his eyes were gritty and painful.  Worst of all he was filled with a sense of anger, anger at what he had been forced to do for the last nine hours.  He looked at the bloody figure on the crude operating table in front of him.  “Finish the dressing and then see if you have room for him with the others.”  The orderly nodded and took the surgeon’s place at the table.

“Oh, and scrub the table down and try to clean the place up if you can.  God knows when we will have our next lot.”  He glanced around the small room, lit flickeringly by the light from a failing oil lamp.  There was blood everywhere.  It had stained the storeroom table, hastily pressed into service when the hospital had burned down.  It lay in pools on the floor, slippery underfoot or blackly congealing, depending on the length of time it had been there.  There was blood on the white painted mud and brick walls and on his own apron and clothing.  It was on his skin and under his eyelids.  It was all around him.

James Henry Reynolds was not unaccustomed to blood.  He was a Dubliner, ten days short of his 35th birthday and had served the Army sufficiently long to have become a Surgeon Major.  Throughout this long night he had cut and probed, stitched and clamped and reset broken bones, with the thought that not ten miles away over a thousand of his fellow countrymen were even now stiff and cold in death.  The next few hours would determine if he and all the patients he had laboured so tirelessly to save would suffer the same fate.

He nodded to his two medical orderlies and went outside into the compound.  The first silver fingers of dawn were beginning to lift the dark veil of an African night.  Reynolds leaned against the wall and, for the first time, saw the carnage that his night’s work had only permitted him to hear.  Off to his left the hospital still burned, silhouetting the weary soldiers, leaning on the wall of mealy bags and biscuit tins which had protected the little garrison from the wave after wave of Zulu attacks.  The two lieutenants stood together facing south towards the Drift; Chard bandaged in the neck, Bromhead hatless with his dusty red jacket open to the waist.

“How are you, Chard?”

“I think I’ll live.”  He scanned the veldt with his glasses.  “At least for the moment.” 

Lieutenant Bromyard offered the surgeon the tin mug from which he had been drinking.  “How are things in there?”

Reynolds drank deeply.  “I’ve done what I can, but we will lose some of them.”  He went to the improvised wall where a weary soldier started to get to his feet.  “Stay where you are lad.”

Even in the early light of dawn the sea of black bodies shocked the surgeon.  Here too was blood, rivers of it.  Men lay in all kinds of grotesque attitudes, some with gaping chest wounds, others with stomachs ripped apart, entrails spilling out.  “Oh, my God.”  At the wall the bodies were two and three deep, and the black tide rolled as far as he could see.  He glanced back at the two officers.  “Will they be back?”

Chard rubbed at his bloody bandage.  “I don’t know,” he said simply.  “I just don’t know.”

The Zulus did not return.  This place was called Kwa Jimmy, Jimmy’s place, by the Zulus and was known as Rorke’s drift by the British.  Built as a farm by an eccentric Irishman, James Rorke, about half a mile from the Tugela River and the Natal border with Zululand, the little farmstead had been a mission station since Rorke died in 1875.  The date was 23rd January 1879 and Jimmy’s place had just taken its place in history.

In 1879 the Zulus were the most warlike and organised tribal group in Southern Africa.  They had twice invaded the British colony of Natal and Briton and Boer alike went in fear of them

The British picked a war with their troublesome neighbours and the Boers were happy to let them do so.  However things did not go to plan and on the 22nd January the British Army suffered their greatest defeat of the 19th Century at the hands of a non-European force.  At Isandlwana some 1329 British, Colonial and native forces died.  Their victory cost the Zulus the grievous loss of 3000 dead and a similar number wounded.

The right wing of the Zulu Army, not engaged at Isandlwana, and anxious to wash their spears in more British blood, went on to Rorkes Drift, ten miles distant, to attack the small garrison there.  The mission station had been turned into a hospital and had less than 100 fit men available for its defence.  The Zulus numbered between 4000 and 4500 warriors.

The Zulu was fanatically brave, suicidally determined and supremely strong and enduring.  The British soldier was also stubbornly brave, stoically determined and possessed several weapons to make up for his inferiority in fitness and stamina.  He was better trained, hugely disciplined and possessed of massively superior firepower.  The overwhelming number of the Zulus, their advantage at Isandlwana proved a disadvantage at Rorkes Drift.  The British, the 2nd Battalion of the 24th Regiment, the Warwickshires, could not miss with their Martini Henrys.

Between 4.30pm on the 22nd and 4.00am the following morning wave after wave of attacks were launched on the post.  The perimeter was cut to a third of its size and the hospital was burnt down, forcing Reynolds and some of his patients to evacuate to the storehouse, where the surgeon carried on without stop.

In the morning it was estimated that Zulu losses were about 600 dead and as many wounded.  British losses were 15 dead, the majority of whom were in the hospital when it was stormed by the Zulus, and 12 wounded.

King Cetawayo’s losses in the two battles were crippling and even his victory backfired.  British honour required revenge.  The bloodletting at Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift was not the end of it.  Lord Chelmsford’s forces licked their wounds for some weeks, received reinforcements and regrouped.  In March they again invaded the King’s territory.  At Kambula in March they lost 29 while inflicting 4000 casualties and at Ulundi, the Zulu capital, the war ended with the final battle.  Thirteen British soldiers died and 1500 Zulus.

The blood spilled in the earlier battles was just the forerunner of much more as the British conquered Zululand and deposed Cetawayo.  Reynolds was not there to witness it.  He was being feted in London.  The Conservative Government of Benjamin Disraeli had their own version of spin.  The loss at Isandlwana was played down and the success at Rorkes Drift given prominence.  Reynolds, Chard and Bromhead all received the Victoria Cross, as did eight members of the garrison.

Written by my Father B.M

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