Forgotten hero of the famous Zulu battle was from Lancashire

The Battle of Rorke's Drift has gone done in history as one of the bravest of all military encounters. On the 100th anniversary of his death author Neil Thornton relives the key role of a Preston clergyman in the notorious siege

By The Newsroom
Friday, 23rd November 2018, 2:36 pm
Updated Friday, 23rd November 2018, 3:44 pm
Detail from the painting The defence of Rorkes Drift by Alphonse de Neuville showing Rev George Smith passing ammunition to a soldier

Reverend George Smith died 100 years ago shortly after the armistice of the First World War. As a chaplain to the forces he had arrived at Fulwood Barracks in 1899 with an impressive record of service behind him. His subsequent service would take him to various locations; nevertheless, he would spend around four years at the Preston barracks before his retirement in 1905, at which point, he decided to make the town his home.

Known as ‘Daddy Smith,’ George was a well known man around the town, and it was said that, with his ‘patriarchal beard,’ he was one of the most familiar and popular figures in the social and religious circles; but Smith was more than that. It is his actions while on active service for which Smith is best remembered, more specifically, for his outstanding display of courage performed during the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in January 1879–a display which has ensured Smith will forever hold an important place in the annals of British military history.

Born on January 1845 in Docking, Norfolk, George Smith grew to be a tall and gangly man, who proudly sported an extravagantly long fiery-red beard. He attended college in Canterbury before going to South Africa as a lay missionary in 1870. He was ordained as a deacon the following year and became a priest in 1872, after which he was appointed to the St John’s Parish at the Estcourt Mission Station in Natal.

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The Siege of Rorkes Drift (1879) by W H Dugan

In 1873, a rebellion by the tribal leader and Bantu Chief, Langalibalele, and his amaHlubi followers sparked the formation of a volunteer force which assembled with the aim of quashing it. A number of those who volunteered were members of Smith’s parish, and in turn the enthusiastic clergyman stepped forward to act as their chaplain for the coming troubles, claiming, “Should the worst come to the worst I feel that my duty is to be in attendance upon their spiritual requirements.”

The rebellion was stemmed and Smith returned to his parish where he remained for a number of years, enjoying a reputation as a hardworking and dedicated man. His sense of responsibility for those in danger never left him. The British Army had, for many years, been at war with South African tribes. As one conflict ended, another would break out, and Smith continued to offer his services when he felt he could be of some use, taking part in various military campaigns and actions.

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Remembering hero of Rorke's Drift

One such engagement took place on January 22 and 23, 1879 during the Anglo-Zulu War, following the invasion of Zululand by a British column under Lord Chelmsford. The column advanced across the border from Natal at Rorke’s Drift, with the intention of toppling King Cetshwayo and his Zulu Army. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift preceded the annihilation of a large portion of the British column which had camped at iSandlwana after crossing the border. Here, approximately 1,300 men came under attack by more than 20,000 Zulu warriors. Those in the camp were killed almost to a man.

Rev George Smith, hero of Rorke's Drift

George had in fact been due to move forward to iSandlwana, but fortunately for him he had not yet set out. If he had done so, he would almost certainly have been killed at the camp. With the battle at iSandlwana won, the Zulu reserves - who had not been required to take part in their victory over the British camp - moved on to attack Rorke’s Drift, where George was stationed. Rorke’s Drift was a mission station and the home of a Swedish missionary called Otto Witt. It consisted of a small house that was converted for use as a hospital, and a chapel that was being utilised as a storehouse by the British who were using the location as a staging post for their campaign.

The post was guarded by ‘B’ Company of the 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot, under Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead which numbered approximately 80 men. In addition there were a variety of other men present, including around 35 hospital patients, bringing their total number to 155 all-told. Overall command of the post was held by the Engineer officer, Lieutenant John Chard. From the summit of a nearby hill, Smith was one of three men to observe the Zulus approaching Rorke’s Drift, but, as the Zulus closed in, they had mistakenly assumed them to be friendly members of their Natal Native Contingent, and it wasn’t until the Zulus were almost upon them that their true identity was realised.

A somewhat startled George Smith and his two companions then ran down the hill intent on warning the mission station, but upon arriving they found that word had already reached the station and that preparations to prepare the post for defence was well under way, with men scurrying in and out of the storehouse with mealie bags and biscuit boxes in a hasty attempt to barricade the position.

It is to George’s credit that he remained at Rorke’s Drift for the battle. Others, who, like George, were not under any obligation to remain, including Reverend Otto Witt, quickly mounted their horses and rode away before the Zulus arrived. Smith, however, noticing that both his horse and his native groom had mysteriously vanished, refused to take one of the other available horses.

Grave of Rev George Smith in Preston Cemetery

Instead, he ran to the ammunition supply which was held in the storehouse and began filling a haversack with cartridges in readiness and preparation for the coming battle. The Zulus assault began at 4.30pm, firstly against the south side of the barricades, then around the hospital building. Zulu reinforcements then arrived, and the post was all but surrounded, with the defenders forced to fall back and cede a large portion of their perimeter to the Zulus.

The battle saw much hand-to-hand fighting as the defenders attempted to keep the Zulus from mounting their barricades and overrunning them. Between the hand-to-hand scraps, the opposing forces kept up a heavy exchange of fire–the British with their Martini-Henry rifles and the Zulus with their assortment of out-dated muskets and other firearms they had acquired from traders over the years.

George didn’t fire a single shot for the entire duration of the battle. Nevertheless, he was conspicuous throughout and made himself useful in other ways–dashing round the perimeter, handing out ammunition to the hard-pressed defenders on the wall. He shouted biblical phrases as he went about his task, and, according to one defender, he continuously prayed to God that the Zulus ‘would go away.’ He also took great care of the wounded, and as soon as a man fell, Smith was by his side, providing words of succour and comfort.

Many of the defenders later spoke of Smith’s indomitable presence through the fighting, and his voice was said to have been heard by every man present as he yelled encouraging words to them. It was also said that he chastised any man whose language was not to his taste and is quoted as shouting out, “Don’t swear men, don’t swear, but shoot them, boys, shoot them!”

The original Sumners Hotel, in Watling Street Road, Preston, where Rev Smith resided

His appearance too, would prove to be unforgettable to those on the spot, for his 18st, 6ft 6ins frame, together with his thick orange beard and his old and battered alpaca frock was in stark contrast to the distinct red tunics worn by the soldiers of the 24th Foot. Ultimately, after suffering terrible losses, the Zulus would give up on their attempt to take the post. By the following morning they had gone, leaving hundreds of dead behind.

Although their exact numbers will never be known, it is thought that between 3,000 and 4,000 warriors had been involved in the attack. The defenders suffered 15 dead, with a further two dying of wounds sustained in the fighting. Many others had been wounded. After the battle, once British reinforcements had arrived at the mission station, one of the new-arrivals, Captain Harford of the Natal Native Contingent, observed that the men showed a remarkable degree of admiration for Smith and also another man, James Dalton, who was a member of the Commissariat Corps.

Harford noted that when either man came into view of the defenders, ‘they received an ovation from the men, which was unmistakable.’ In time, Dalton would receive the Victoria Cross for his part in the defence - one 11 VCs awarded, the largest number ever awarded to a regiment for a single action. Smith would receive no decoration, but Harford, and many others, thought George should have been granted the VC for the gallantry he displayed in the defence, despite not being entitled to a medal as a civilian.

George’s exploits in keeping the men supplied with cartridges, earned him the nickname of ‘Ammunition’ Smith’ although he was not featured in the 1964 film Zulu starring Sir Michael Caine. He was present at the Battle of Ulundi on July 4, 1879 when the Zulus suffered an overwhelming defeat that brought the Zulu War to a close.

In recognition of his actions at Rorke’s Drift, Smith was offered and accepted the chance to become a Chaplain to the Forces. In 1880 he returned to England before sailing for Egypt where he served for five years (1882-87), taking part in the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir in 1882. Following his retirement from Fulwood Barracks, Smith - who never married - remained in residence at the Sumners Hotel, in Watling Street Road, where he had been staying during his time in Preston.

The hotel boasted a large print of the Batttle of Rorke’s Drift, no doubt owing to Smith’s connection with the battle, and he was said to have added the names of some of the defenders to it. George Smith died during the night of November 26, 1918 aged 73. He had been suffering from bronchial trouble for six months. On December 2 a full military ceremony was held in his honour at the Garrison Church, Fulwood. The coffin was placed on a gun carriage, covered with a Union flag and taken through the town’s streets to be buried in New Hall Lane Cemetery.* Rorke’s Drift: A New Perspective, by Neil Thornton, is available from Fonthill Media priced £14.