Wales

Memorial service for Rorke's Drift war hero John Williams VC

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Media captionThe new memorial has been made of granite

A new gravestone has been dedicated to a soldier who won the Victoria Cross in the legendary defence of Rorke's Drift in the Anglo-Zulu wars.

A memorial service and parade was held in Cwmbran for John Williams VC, one of 11 decorated for bravery after the battle in 1879.

A new memorial has been unveiled after the original one eroded.

The events at Rorke's Drift were immortalised in the 1964 film Zulu starring Michael Caine.

Some 150 British soldiers defended the mission station against 4,000 Zulus on 23 January 1879.

The 12-hour defence saw 11 Victoria Crosses awarded, more than for any single battle before or since.

The Anglo-Zulu war saw Britain fight against the Zulu kingdom in South Africa and brought an end to Zulu independence.

Abergavenny-born John Fielding - using an alias John Williams - had joined the 24th Regiment of Foot two years before at the age of 20.

At Rorke's Drift, Private Williams defended two patients in a field hospital for over an hour before running out of ammunition.

Image caption Pte John Williams on the left, with Pte Alfred H Hook - both were awarded Victoria Crosses for their defence of a hospital at Rorke's Drift

With the Zulus breaking down the door to get in, he knocked a hole through the wall into an adjacent ward, where he met up with a Private Alfred Hook.

Between them, Williams and Hook held the Zulu advance at bay for a further hour, while smashing holes through another three walls to evacuate eight patients to the protection of the garrison's inner defensive ring.

He died in Cwmbran in 1932.

Money was raised to replace Mr Fielding's old sandstone grave memorial after it started to crumble away.

'Unassuming man'

Local veterans, The Royal Welsh and Royal Engineers were among the attendees at the service.

"He wouldn't have wanted a fuss", said Mr Fielding's great-grandson Bob Couzens who said his ancestor was a "quiet and unassuming man" who "didn't seek attention".

"He liked his pipe and a cup of Bovril. He used to come to my mother's house most days to smoke his pipe," he said.

"My mother remembers him being very generous. He would notice little things, like if the girls' shoes were scuffed or worn. He would make sure they had new pairs.

"It's a good thing for the local community that his memory has been brought to prominence, people are interested in the history now."

Mr Couzens said that locals told him that "it was nice to know that they had someone to call a hero".

Speaking about the film, Mr Couzens said: "I must have seen the film Zulu over 100 times. My mother about the same. My son is 18 and he's seen it too. It's nice to remember the history".

'New grave'

A recently installed grave memorial, which was commissioned by The John Williams (Fielding) VC Memorial Trust, was dedicated on Saturday.

The previous memorial was replaced due to damage from natural ageing and acid rain.

Image caption The old memorial suffered badly from erosion

"The deteriorating condition of the memorial had been monitored over the several years," said trust secretary Stuart Cameron.

"A consensus was reached to replace the memorial using granite of similar colour, design and style as this was the only long term solution."

Mr Couzens added: "My mother is 95-years old now and is thrilled about the new stone.

"She used to keep up the maintenance by weeding and cleaning but it had got to a point beyond repair. The original headstone was made out of sandstone and was gradually disintegrating."

Tony Burnett of the Cwmbran and District Ex-Service Association said that its members were increasingly alarmed that their local hero's memorial had fallen into such a bad state of repair.

"We're delighted that the trust, backed by Cwmbran's Regeneration Partnership, was able to renew the memorial to its rightful stature and prominence."

The church service was followed by a parade headed by the Regimental Band and Corps of Drums of the Royal Welsh.

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