January 22nd 1879 was a fateful day in the history of the British Army. It was the day that saw heroic actions at Rorke's Drift where the defence and eventual victory were hailed as a wonderful action that did much for English pride and gave Queen Victoria's subjects something to cheer. What wasn't realised by the vast majority of the English public was that it had been promoted and publicised so as cover up the worst defeat of the British Army in the history of Colonial rule earlier that same day, the Battle of Isandlwana.
For young Joseph Haigh, it was to be where his short life ended.
t all began in 1856 when he was born at BROWNROADS FARM, Walsden, on the 12th of September to Joseph and Sarah Haigh, a member of the Haigh family of Moorcock Inn fame.
Sarah, his mother, was a Pearson, another old established family from Inchfield Pasture, who were coal miners. Sarah's father, Richard Pearson, had met with an untimely end in 1850 when he dropped down and died in the turnpike road at Bridge End.
Sarah had been married for four years by then and had a young family. Joseph, her husband, worked for his Haigh relatives in the mines, mostly labouring as a carter and later as a banksman. The lived variously at Moorcock, Coolham, Brown Roads and later at Clough.
Joseph and Sarah had eleven children, and young Joseph spent his childhood living on Inchfield Pasture at Brown Roads, where his sisters grew up to be employees in the cotton factories and the boys became workers in the coal industry. His brother John, the eldest son of Joseph and Sarah, became a colliery manager and later on got the responsible job of a Pithead Colliery Manager in Rochdale at the age of 48.
As young lads they would join with the other young Haigh boys of an evening after work at the MOORCOCK INN where their high spirits were the talk of the area. They took great delight in causing a bit of a stir with their taunts and jibes at the miners who called for a quiet drink after work, and it sometimes erupted into a few fights. Nothing serious was ever reported to have happened and it was all taken in good part on the whole.
When Joseph was 12, his little brother Frank died. He was only a year old and was buried in March 1868 in St. Peter's, Walsden where a younger brother, Reuben, who had died twenty years earlier in 1848, and lived for just over a year, had also been laid to rest.
Joseph was to attend two more funerals two years later when a double blow hit the family. Fred had been born in September of 1869, but again, at only a year old, he died, and in August of 1870 he was buried with his other two brothers in St. Peter's. In November of the same year, the head of the family, Joseph, died at the age of 50. He was also interred in the grave with his three sons in St. Peter's.
By this time the family had come down to the valley and were living at Clough. Sarah was left a widow with a young family. She made a living as best she could and eventually the children either married or left home, as young Joseph was to do. Sarah lived at Rose Cottage and had opened a shop as a confectioner, so she managed to earn a wage and keep her head above water. She died in 1891 and was buried on a cold February day with her husband and three sons in St. Peter's. Before she died, more heartache was to come her way in a form that must have hit her hard and caused great upset.
By 1877, when he was 21, Joseph decided that he wanted a bit more than the life he had in Walsden and so he joined the army for adventures new. He was 21 when he enlisted in G Company of the 24th Warwickshire Regiment on 20th February 1877, a young and eager lad, ready for anything. Another lad from Walsden, Mark Diggle, was in the same Regiment and maybe he had been home on leave and persuaded Joseph that army life was better than working in the coalmines or the mill. Mark had enlisted in Burnley on the 25th of November 1874 when he was 25, so he already had three years experience of army life.
Joseph made an exemplary soldier and the army life suited him. After only two years he had risen from the ranks to become a Lance Sergeant, a remarkable achievement for one so young.
He found himself setting off for Africa, a land he had only heard of and never envisaged seeing for himself. It was in January 1879, with a force under the command of Lord Chelmsford, that Joseph arrived in Zululand, and after a few skirmishes, the central column had established a base on the 20th of January at the foot of a 300-foot high rocky outcrop known as Isandlwana.
It had been a hard slog to get there as the roads were in a bad condition after heavy rains, and as they were in a rough state to start with, it made the passage of the wagons extremely difficult. When they eventually reached Isandlwana they camped in front of the hill. No attempt was made to "dig in", as Lord Chelmsford had a contempt and disregard for the Zulus and thought that the British Army faced no threat from them. How wrong that was to prove.
A series of movements by the army left the camp at Isandlwana criminally at risk and undermanned. Most of the troops had left to reinforce other columns and no fortifications, or any form of defence were made for the men left behind at Isandlwana. Even the simple drawing up of wagons into a circle would have offered some form of protection. It was as if they had been abandoned to fate, which is what it proved to be.
By eight on the morning of the 22nd of January, the Zulu warriors were gathering in readiness to attack the small garrison still left. Altogether 24,000 of them were in readiness.
Colonel Durnford arrived at Isandlwana about 11am. with reinforcements of 350 mounted men, but to no avail. The redcoats of the 24th formed a line of defence but the Zulus encircled the camp using their famous "horns of the bull" strategy
Frantic efforts were made to use what natural resources that were available like the dry riverbeds or dongas for some form of protection. The infantry held back the onslaught for an hour, some forming groups like islands, others running for their lives and others fighting to the last. Some were seen making for the river pursued by the enemy who speared them as they ran. Hand to hand combat ensued, the Zulus armed with stabbing spears and knobkerries, both used with great effect.
he Zulus fought without fear and with absolute certainty of the outcome. Most of them had been given hallucinogenic doses of "medicine" by the tribal witch doctors, which gave them the awesome ferocity that must have terrified their enemy.
In less than three hours the last British rifle was silenced and the scene was one of utter carnage. The Zulus plundered all the bodies and took the sacks and barrels from the wagons, taking as much as they could carry of the contents of tea, sugar, flour and anything they could find. They killed a few of the oxen and some were eaten there and then, parties of warriors drove off the rest. They set the tents on fire and continued to plunder anything they could find.
The morning after, they began to gather all the stores that lay scattered about and loaded them onto the wagons until all that was left were the scattered, desecrated bodies of the fallen men.
Joseph's body still lies in that place called Isandlwana along with the bodies of all the other men who died that day. A memorial had been erected to the fallen and stone cairns mark where the bodies lay.
News of the terrible slaughter was published in the press in England on the 12th of February, and the British public were aghast when they found out that "savages" had defeated the British Army with all their resources and equipment.
Many people blamed Chelmsford for not being adequately prepared, but he had powerful backing in high places. He went to great lengths to escape blame, creating excuses and anything he could think of to get him off the hook. A perfect cover up was the heroic battle for Rorke's Drift, fought on the same day, and this became the victory that was to cover up the whole episode of Isandlwana. Only the wives, daughters, sons, mothers and grieving relatives knew the full story and the sacrifice of the brave 24th Regiment.
Poor Sarah, she had lost 3 sons as infants, a husband, and then this terrible news of Joseph's death. It is hoped that she never knew any details of the way in which the Zulus fought and dealt with the dead, or any details of the battle. She would have been proud to show his medal to her friends and taken what comfort she could in the knowledge that her son had conducted himself well on the battlefield. There is a memorial to Joseph on the family grave in St. Peter's, Walsden.
Mark Diggle died in the same battle and it would be nice to think that they at least knew each other and perhaps died fighting side by side, their memories of a shared childhood home bringing comfort as they fought for their survival. It would be nice to think so.