George Smith of Docking - Norfolk and the Zulu Warriors

Picture (c) by John Ashley Photography

Do you recall the 1964 film ‘Zulu’ which featured amongst other stars Michael Caine. If you remember, the film was based on the true story of a few British soldiers who in 1879 held the garrison at a place called Rorke’s Drift against an onslaught of four thousand Zulu warriors.  "Now, not everybody knows that"... 
These same four thousand Zulu warriors had just decimated a huge British garrison at Islandlwana. 
So I hear you asking yourself what do four thousand Zulu warriors have to do with the county of Norfolk, well read on. 

The small inland village of Docking can trace its origin back to Roman times. In the past it used to be known as Dry Docking as it had no water supply of its own. In the 1760s a well was sunk some 230 feet down which provided domestic water for the village at a farthing per bucket. The use of this well continued until 1936 when water was eventually piped into the village.

One person to use this well was George Smith, the youngest son of a local shoemaker. Unfortunately I have not been able to find out much about George’s earlier years but it is known that he studied theology in Canterbury. After his studies he became a missionary and went to Natal in South Africa in 1871. When the Zulu wars started in 1878 George was attached to the British army as a temporary chaplain to the Central Column. So it was that on the 22nd January 1879 George Smith from Docking, Norfolk was one of the men present at the infamous Rorke’s Drift.   Some background information. The British invaded Zululand in 1879. In early January five British columns marched up through Natal to a remote mission outpost manned by a Swedish Reverend, Otto Witt.

The outpost was located at a place called Rorke’s Drift. The mission station was adapted for use by the army as a store department for food and equipment and also as a hospital for the sick. The column is said to have consisted of 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 24th foot; a squadron of Mounted Infantry; about 200 Natal volunteers; 150 Natal Police; two battalions of the Native Contingent; some Pioneers and six Royal Artillery guns.

In overall charge of this column was Commander-in-Chief Lieutenant General Lord Chelmsford.After a brief rest Lord Chelmsford crossed the Buffalo River by the ford (or drift), a quarter of a mile away, with the bulk of the company to march into the Zulu Kingdom intending to destroy the Zulu capital. He left behind the men of ‘B’ company, 24th Regiment, together with a company of Natal Native Contingent to look after the stores and the hospital patients. Major Henry Spalding of the 104th Regiment was left behind in overall command at Rorke’s Drift.   

On Wednesday, 22nd January, a young officer rode into Rorke’s Drift with a message from Chelmsford saying that the main column had camped some nine miles away at Islandlwana and that a “big fight” was expected. Reverend Witt and George Smith and Surgeon Reynolds climbed a hill ‘to watch the fun’ through field glasses.  Everyone assumed that Lord Chelmsford would not permit the Zulus to reach the mission, so there was little concern on the part of the people left behind. However, Spalding decided to bring up the company that had been left some ten miles down the road at the fort at Helpmekaar.

 He departed leaving Lt. John Rouse Merriot Chard of the 5th Company Royal Engineers in charge. Chard was just thirty-one and had arrived in Durban on the 5th January and had never actually seen any action. His main responsibility was the ‘ponts’; a South African word for a flat-bottomed ferry worked on cables or ropes.

He was well liked by his fellow officers but was described as being ‘a plodding, dogged sort… and hopelessly slow and slack.”It is said that Spalding left camp with the immortal words to Chard “You will be in charge, although, of course, nothing will happen and I shall be back again early this evening.”   At 3.15pm two men rode into the camp. They advised that Lord Chelmsford had gone out that morning with half his force leaving 1,800 officers at Islandlwana. 

At noon a Zulu force rushed the unprepared the camp and had slaughtered the bulk of the men. This Zulu force was now advancing towards Rorke’s Drift. Hearing this news Acting Assistant Commissary, James Langley Dalton, a veteran of some thirty years, began moving 200 1bs of maize/corn sacks to build a barricade. He also ordered that six men should take up stations in the hospital to defend the patients and the hospital building. This included Surgeon James Reynolds.

When word was received that the Zulus had been sighted Missionary Witt exercised his right to depart, leaving George Smith in charge of spiritual nurture.  
Some of the Islandlwana survivors did reach the outpost but instead of staying to help defend it they rode instead for Helpmekaar. When the Natal Native Contingent saw this they too abandoned their posts and followed their fleeing comrades.  

This now left about only 170 men to defend the depot and about 30 of these were patients. Chard decided in addition to the four-foot barricade of maize and corn sacks to set up a second line of defence by using biscuit boxes. This would mean that if the first barricade fell then the men could retreat behind the second barricade into the small area in front of the store.  

At about 4.30pm the first warriors of the four thousand Zulu warriors swept down from the Hill and began to attack the back of the British position, closest to the hospital. Chard was impressed by the fact that the Zulus’ pace did not slacken even though they were running into a suicidal attack. They braved rockets, artillery and concentrated rifle fire without even breaking their stride.  The Zulu Army was made up of citizen-soldiers who had a reputation for being ferocious warriors. The main tactical unit was the ‘ibutho’ the plural for this being the ‘amabutho’. They were made up of conscripted men in their late teens from throughout the Zulu kingdom.  

These men remained in service to the King until they were given permission to marry, which normally occurred when a man reached the age of thirty. Once married the ‘ibutho’ were passed from active duty to reserve. So when the British invaded the Zulu Land, King Cetshwayo KaMpande was able to muster an army with a total strength of about forty thousand warriors.

The Zulu weapon was the ‘assengai’ a short stabbing spear the blade of which measured from twelve to eighteen inches in length, with the shaft adding another two or three feet. They were also equipped with shields, which were made from cowhide, oval in shape measuring about three and a half feet long by two feet wide. Some lighter throwing spears and clubs and also some carried firearms; however these were obsolete models, antiquated flintlocks left over from the Napoleonic Wars and sold to the Zulus by unscrupulous arms dealers.  

The British in 1879 carried Martini-Henry Mark1 rifles. They measured four feet from butt to muzzle and fired .450 calibre unjacketed lead bullets. Each rifle could sight over a thousand yards but were best at about three hundred to four hundred yards. A soldier could operate this rifle at around twelve aimed rounds or twenty-four un-aimed rounds per minute. The rifle was also sometimes fitted with a bayonet; a blade measuring twenty-two inches long, which was nicknamed ‘the lunger’. 

But back to Rorke’s Drift. Initially the British repulsed the Zulus but there was a weakness in the barricade in front of the hospital. The Zulus that survived the first assault took cover in the bush at the bottom of the hill and began to advance slowly on their tummies towards the weakness in the barricade. They began to throw torches at the hospital roof, which was made of thatch. Inevitably the roof caught fire.  The hospital was made up of lots of little rooms with the rooms at the back of the hospital that faced the hill not having inter-connecting doors which made communication inside very difficult.   

From his position outside Chard could see that the hospital was now on fire and he naturally assumed that the men in the hospital would not survive the blaze. The first barricade had now been breached by the Zulu warriors so he ordered his men to retreat back to the safety of the area in front of the store and the biscuit boxes defence. 
In the hospital things were indeed becoming dire. Strangely no one had counted on the Zulus actually setting fire to the thatch, so no precautions like water buckets had been made. Besieged by Zulus a lone man in one of the small rooms had no option but to break through the mud brick wall into the next room, in order to escape. This then became their form of defence of the British within the hospital. As the Zulus swarmed through into each room; the British soldiers hacked their way through into another room, taking patients wherever possible with them.

Eventually they reached a room with a window that overlooked the yard outside which was in front of the biscuit box barricade. The burning hospital roof was now falling in adding to the confusion so a decision was taken to leave the hospital by the means of this window. But this would still mean that they would have to run the gauntlet of 30 yards to the relative safety of the biscuit box defence.

As they began to exit Chard spotted their predicament and asked for volunteers to help evacuate the men and patients. Unfortunately not all of the men made it and their comrades witnessed the barbarity of the Zulu Warriors at close hand as they repeatedly stabbed and in accordance with Zulu ritual ripped open their enemies stomach.
So what was our George Smith doing during all this? Although refusing to actually fight, Reverend Smith had filled a haversack with bullets and went from post to post encouraging the men. According to Private John Jobbins from ‘B’ company the Reverend Smith, in between handing out ammunition, was praying that the Zulus would go away and leave the garrison in peace.When darkness fell the fire from the smouldering hospital helped the British to see the Zulus whenever they tried to rush the barricades. However, eventually the hospital thatch had burnt itself out and the Zulus were able to use the cloak of darkness to mount attack after attack against the few remaining men. 
After hours and hours of ceaseless fighting, ammunition was low, down to only a box and a half. As the first streak of dawn lightened the African sky the exhausted British soldiers were able to see the full extent of the slaughter.

They attempted to rally themselves for what they assumed would be the final attack by the Zulus, resulting in their total extermination. But, instead of attacking, the Zulus suddenly got up and as one began to retreat. I’m sorry to say but they did not as was shown in the 1964 Zulu film salute the surviving soldiers. What the British could not see from their low vantage point and what the Zulus could see from their high vantage point was Lord Chelmsford and his company moving towards Rorkes Drift.

Lord Chelmsford had marched back into camp at Islandlwana during the night and found the mutilated corpses of his men. In the early hours of Thursday 23rd January he set out for Rorke’s Drift expecting to find a similar scene of carnage but instead he found Chard and his men including our George Smith.  It is said that over 800 British soldiers, 52 officers and some 500 of their African allies had been annihilated by the Zulu force at the Battle of Islandlwana.  

In the film ‘Zulu’ Richard Burton provides the narration and at the end of the film he observes that 11 of the 1344 Victoria Crosses awarded since 1856 were bestowed upon the survivors of Rorke’s Drift. This was the highest number ever awarded for a single engagement in British Military History. Also awarded were five Distinguished Conduct Medals.  Another myth from the 1964 film ‘Zulu’ was that Rorke’s Drift was defended entirely by Welshmen. Perhaps Richard Burton may have had something to do with this! However the British Garrison numbers were made up from Welshmen, Englishmen, Irishmen and Scotsmen. The Natal Native Contingent (NNC) had been raised from local tribes that had a history of enmity with the Zulus.  

The artist, Elizabeth Thompson (1846-1933), was commissioned by Queen Victoria to paint “The Defence of Rorke’s Drift.” Elizabeth Thompson had married General Sir William Butler in 1879, the General had seen much service in Africa. Lady Elizabeth Butler went down to Gosport where the 24th Regiment were billeted and made sketches with the help of the soldiers who even re-enacted the battle in their original uniforms that they had worn throughout the campaign. Lady Butler was complimented on the fact that she only included two to three Zulu warriors in her painting.   Although the Victorian British People were horrified by the annihilation of our forces by the Zulu warriors they also admired them and the Times wrote “We now have ample proof not only of the Zulus’ valour but also of their skill in strategy.” 

The battle has been hallowed as one of the most heroic stands in military history.  The makers of the 1964 film ‘Zulu’ did not chose to show the part that George Smith played in the battle and wrote him completely out of the script. Although unable to receive the Victoria Cross for his part in the fight he was instead given permanent chaplaincy in the Army. After Rorke’s Drift George went on to win medals in Egypt before finishing his army career at Preston. He died in 1918 just after armistice had been declared. George was described by a well-known writer as a big red bearded Norfolk giant.

George Smith is not forgotten, as there is a board game based on the Zulu war in which one of the pieces is called “Chaplain Smith”. The piece is described as “An individual with inspirational skill. Unarmed and will not fight, although he will roll a die as normal to defend himself in a melee.” Such is the immortality that George Smith of Docking now enjoys.

Picture (c) by John Ashley Photography