Battling Welsh back at Rorke's Drift

IT IS 120 years since the Welsh soldiers of the 24th Regiment crossed the Buffalo River to destroy the power of the Zulu nation but the picturesque ford known as Rorke's Drift still marks a frontier of sorts.

To the west lie the green hills of Natal and to the east lies Zululand, home to South Africa's proudest and most conservative tribe. These uplands earned their inhabitants the Nguni name amaZulu, or people of the heavens, but apartheid turned the whole region into a compulsory "homeland" for millions of black South Africans who happened to speak the Zulu tongue. Impoverished villages and mud huts sprawl as far as the eye can see.

So there were plenty of people around yesterday when a detachment of the Royal Regiment of Wales, led by the band of the Prince of Wales Division, marched across the new bridge over Rorke's Drift and - literally - into history.

It was their forebears in the 24th Regiment (later the South Wales Borderers) who 120 years ago today fought two of the British Army's most remarkable battles. The first, Isandhlwana, was the worst defeat in the history of Britain's colonial wars - 1,500 British and colonial troops and their African allies lost their lives, including 600 members of the 24th and six companies of the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment.

The subsequent defence of the mission station of Rorke's Drift by 110 outnumbered British troops, most of them from the 24th Regiment, was a sideshow but led to the awarding of 11 Victoria Crosses, the most for a single engagement. It was dramatised in the film Zulu, compulsory viewing for the Royal Regiment of Wales every 22 January.

Yesterday Lieutenant-Colonel Iain Cholerton, who marched his men and women from Rorke's Drift to Isandhlwana, said he was deeply proud to bring his regiment back. "It is one of my aims to teach them something of the history of the battalion," he said, standing under the grave-strewn slopes of Isandhlwana. "We value this 24 hours of our history more than anything else in our 310-year history."

Today's anniversary will include a re-enactment and speeches by the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, and his controversial "prime minister" and Zulu nationalist, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

The Zulus lost 2,500 of their best warriors in the two battles and their king, Cetswayo, bemoaned a pyrrhic victory. The British commander, Lord Chelmsford, blamed himself for exposing the camp at Isandhlwana to the Zulus' surprise attack. The next time he came up against them, at Ulundi, his Maxim guns made sure the Zulus, with their leather shields and spears, would never seriously challenge colonial rule again.

Yesterday morning Rifleman Shadrack Mbatha, a member of South Africa's mainly Zulu 121 Infantry Regiment, stood guard as the unarmed British marched crossed Rorke's Drift. He was happy to see them, he said, because they reminded him of the great Zulu victory at Isandhlwana.

And what if he were called on to defend Zululand again? He smiled. "We aren't here to defend Zululand only but the whole of South Africa. We are all in South Africa together now."

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