On January 22, 1879 a garrison of British soldiers successfully defended the outpost at Rorke’s Drift against an army of Zulu warriors.
This heroic stand has been written about extensively and inspired the epic film Zulu. But who were these men who made such a stubborn resistance when all seemed lost? Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Alfred Saxty, one of the defenders, who was born in the village of Minety, just a few miles west of Cricklade.
The 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment, the unit to which Alfred belonged, received orders for active service in South Africa, for a campaign against the highly-disciplined army of Zulu warriors. The Brits crossed the Buffalo River into Zululand at Rorke's Drift on January 11, 1879, leaving behind a company of soldiers to guard the field hospital and storehouse which had been established there. Alfred was among these men. A base camp was set up at Isandlwana, and on January 22 Lord Chelmsford took half of his force further into enemy territory, leaving six companies of the 24th Regiment and various colonial units to defend the ill-prepared camp. During his absence a large Zulu army swarmed down on the camp in a devastating surprise attack, which overwhelmed the British and forced the 24th to stand and fight to the last in hopeless disorder. Over a thousand British soldiers were massacred, and a wing of the enemy – about four thousand strong – advanced to attack the garrison at Rorke’s Drift.
The hundred or so able-bodied men in the garrison had been warned that the Zulus were coming, and with orders to stand and fight, they hastily built a barricade with bags and wooden boxes to form a compound between the two buildings. The first Zulu onslaughts were met by withering British rifle fire, and many warriors fell “as if they had been cut off at the knees”, but they eventually rushed the barricade and the defenders were forced to use their bayonets in fierce hand-to-hand combat. The Brits fought with exceptional bravery and held back the Zulu assaults so stubbornly that the warriors eventually lost heart and moved off. Seventeen defenders were killed and the Zulus had suffered about five hundred casualties.
He was born Albert Saxty at Minety, on March 11, 1859, the third son of Thomas Saxty and his wife Grace (formerly Collett). Brunel's Great Western Railway had reached Minety in the 1840s where his engineers built a station, and after spending some time in London training to be a policeman for the GWR, Tom Saxty had gained employment for the company at Minety. Their fifth and last child was born at Minety in 1863. Albert enlisted in the army on September 12, 1876, giving his name as Alfred Saxty, and his age as 19. He was described as being five feet seven and a half inches tall, with a fresh complexion, blue eyes and light-brown hair. He was posted to the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment at Brecon. Army life suited Alfred and promotion came quick, and by the time the unit received orders for active service in South Africa he had gained the rank of lance-sergeant. Alfred reverted to corporal on 11 July 1878, gaining a second class certificate of education. Alfred was present during the defence of Rorke’s Drift, and fought side-by-side with his comrades throughout the night, being promoted to sergeant on the following day. He subsequently served at Gibraltar, India, and in Burma. He was found drunk on duty in India in 1881, being reduced to private and sentenced to 56 days imprisonment with hard labour. However, his good conduct pay was restored soon after his release, and he had returned to the rank of sergeant by 1885. He re-engaged with the Bedfordshire Regiment in 1887, and transferred to the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in 1891, taking his final discharge in Burma on February 28, 1895, having served 18 years.
He had married 17-year-old Maria Copeland at Rangoon in 1885, but she died just three weeks before their first anniversary. His service records state that he married Mary Cole in Burma in 1888. He had six children. On his discharge Alfred began work on the Burma railway and Mary worked as a midwife. However, he went out to work as usual one morning and never returned. Even his medals were left behind. He was officially declared dead in 1907 and his wife re-married. However, Alfred Saxty reappeared in 1930 and was admitted to the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, not far from where his wife lived in Kensington. There was nothing to indicate what he had been doing or where he had been for the intervening 30 years. He left the Royal Hospital at his own request in 1933 and went to live with his sister in Wales.
As one of the last few survivors left alive in 1934 Alfred received an invitation from the regiment to attend the ceremony for the Laying up of the Colours in Brecon Cathedral, and he was one of five defenders who attended the Northern Command Tattoo in Gateshead, where the regiment re-enacted the events at Rorke’s Drift. Alfred suffered a heart attack on July 11, 1936, at the home of a friend in Newport. He was taken to Woolaston House infirmary but was dead on arrival. He was buried with full military honours in Saint Woollos Cemetery, Newport.
Detailed accounts of the lives of Rorke’s Drift defenders appear in the series of booklets entitled Legacy: Heroes of Rorke’s Drift by Kris Wheatley, who is a direct descendant of one of the defenders and donates all her royalties to the regimental museum in Brecon. Copies are £10 each by cheque or PO, which includes postage, and are available from James Bancroft, 280 Liverpool Road, Eccles M30 0RZ. They are also available from the regimental museum bookshop
Source: James W Bancroft