Thomas Collins: the youngest man at Rorke's Drift?

Monday 23 August 2010, 10:24

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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The story of the defence of Rorke's Drift has gone down in Welsh folklore.

The defenders were mainly - but not totally - from B Company, 24th Regiment of Foot, later known as the South Wales Borderers, and took place on the night of 22-23 January 1879.

Victoria Cross medal

7 Victoria Cross medals went to the South Wales Borderers, the most ever presented to any single Regiment in one day.

Few people will have studied the battle in any great depth but many will have seen the film Zulu with Stanley Baker, Ivor Emmanuel and Michael Caine defying the might of the Zulu nation.

In many respects the battle is typical of the skirmishes and actions fought during Britain's Empire-grabbing at the end of the 19th century.

Tension had been building for years between the British, the Zulus and the Boer farmers of South Africa, and when King Cetshwayo of the Zulu nation failed to agree to a deliberately harsh ultimatum his land was invaded by three British columns of infantry, artillery and cavalry.

On 11 January 1879 the armed column led by Lord Chelmsford crossed the Buffalo River and established a field hospital in the Mission Station of Rorke's Drift.

Chelmsford moved on to camp below a rocky hill called Isandlawana, leaving behind just a small garrison and several sick and wounded men - as well as a few engineers - at Rorke's Drift.

When a huge Zulu army swept down onto the camp at Isandlawana they caught Chelmsford's men totally by surprise and massacred them - one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the British in any of their colonial campaigns. Then one wing of the Zulu army, about 4000 warriors, moved on to finish off the station at Rorke's Drift. Facing them were just over 150 men.

Soldiers engaged in the defence came not just from Wales but also from across the whole of Britain. Many were from London, others from Ireland, large numbers from the border country around Warwick and Leominster.

The man who is credited with being the youngest defender of the isolated Mission Station was, however, most certainly Welsh. He was Thomas Collins and he came from Pelcomb near Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire.

Collins had enlisted in the army on May 22,1877, aged just 15. He lied about his age, however, claiming to be 22 and, standing at five feet six inches tall - most soldiers on enlistment at this time were under nourished and small - this was readily believed.

Collins sailed for South Africa in February 1878 and was just 17 years old when the Zulus attacked Rorke's Drift.

The defence of the Mission Station is too well known to describe here. Suffice to say that, led by Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead - played by Baker and Caine in the film - the Zulus were kept at bay throughout the long and dangerous night. In the morning they simply lost heart and marched away, leaving the Mission Station battered and burned but the defending soldiers largely intact.

The defence of Rorke's Drift was an example of incredible bravery, just 17 defenders being killed while over 500 Zulus were cut down as they - with equal bravery - stormed the hastily erected defences around Rorke's Drift.

Sixteen gallantry medals were awarded to the defenders, 11 of them being the Victoria Cross, the medal instigated by Queen Victoria in 1856. Seven VCs went to men of the Borderers, the most ever presented to any single Regiment in one day. It could so easily have been many more as the idea of a posthumous award was not realised until the early 20th century.

Thomas Collins was awarded the South African Medal (with the 1877-78 -79 clasp) but his future life was not as idyllic or as pleasant as he might have hoped. He served in the army, in places like India, until his discharge in 1891.

Then he returned to his native Wales and settled in Newport where he worked as a labourer.

However, his health, physical and emotional, deteriorated and in 1901 he was admitted to Newport Asylum. He died in the asylum on 17 April 1908 at just 47 years of age.

The defence of Rorke's Drift was an example of selfless courage and devotion to duty, particularly in the face of the overwhelming defeat at Isandlawana. It would have been so easy for Chard and Bromhead to order a retreat and flee the camp. Instead, they stayed and fought. And men like the young Thomas Collins, still a teenager, stayed with them.

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    Comment number 1.

    Phil and I have just spent three weeks in South Africa and went up to Isandlawana and Rorke's Drift. It was an amazing experience, seeing the hundreds of cairns that mark the graves of the British soldiers here. I had never realised that the Rorke's Drift battle took place on the same day as Isandlawana and standing there, alongside the hospital, I could only image what the young Thomas Collins must have felt, waiting as thousands of Zulu warriors poured down the hill towards him. The noise as they beat their spears against their shields, stamped their feet on the earth and screamed their battle cries would have chilled even the bravest of men. Collins must have been terrified. It was over 40 degrees and he and his companions, in their heavy uniforms, had only one hour to prepare a defense of the mission station. The bravery of these young men, on both sides, was awesome.

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    Comment number 2.

    As Trudy said, we've just spent three weeks in South Africa and the experience of those Zulu War battlefields was unbelievable - on a par with the raw emotion you get at Ypres or the Somme. And to think it was all started by the British with that ultimatum that could never have been acceptable to the Zulu nation. Chelmsford and the rest thought it would be a walk over - how wrong they were.
    The thing that stayed with me was how realistic the film Zulu Dawn actually was - and, when you take out the singing, Zulu as well. A bit over-dramatic, possibly, but not too far from the truth.

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    Comment number 3.

    I am seriously jealous of you and Trudy visiting Rorke’s Drift, Phil!

    As a link to our ‘home patch’, as you know, the standard British Military rifle of the time was the Martini Henry. This was a .45 calibre weapon with the cartrdge case ‘necked down’ to .45 which is why it had a fearsome recoil. In the 19th century there was a rifle range on Llanreath beach and the troops would often train here with the Martini Henry. When I was young it was still possible to pick up handfuls of spent smashed up bullets from this range – we used to melt them down to make fishing weights. Occasionally an undamaged bullet would be found and I still have one of these which probably was fired from a Martini Henry. Those bullets must have done terrible damage to anyone they hit.


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