Exercise FUGITIVES SCHOLAR - February 2020
I was fortunate enough to be selected to visit Fugitives Drift early this year, an opportunity of a lifetime. Before leaving for South Africa, we reflected during the annual Rorke's Drift day commemoration in Battalion and I stood in church and read accounts of CSgt Bourne from his time on the battlefield. During those readings I didn't really realise how impressive this individual was and how my interest in the Anglo-Zulu war was about to change.
I flew from Heathrow to Johannesburg, spent a short time exploring and finally caught a coach 250 miles across South Africa to Ladysmith, another place the Regiment had fought battles in the years prior. An interesting place, hustle and bustle but not much happening. I was then kindly met by a member of staff from Fugitives Drift. The drive was about 80km to the lodge, during this journey I took in the views and tried to imagine fighting in this harsh terrain.
I arrived at the lodge and was welcomed by the team. I was gob smacked by the views, the hospitality and the historical significance the place held. I was introduced to Nicky and Doug Rattray and their partners Daisy and Micko.
After being shown to my room, I spent the afternoon exploring the museum on the lodge, looking at pictures of my forefathers fighting brave Zulu men and trying to comprehend the loss of life during these battles. That night I was kindly hosted by Doug and Daisy at their home and we spoke about my time in The Royal Welsh and why Rorke's Drift is so important to me and our Company.
The two main reasons I highlighted were to keep the history in the Regiment, and to maintain the long-standing friendship between the Rattray family and the Regiment. Doug made a great point that the guests at the lodge would be really interested and don't usually have the opportunity to meet serving British soldiers - the family thought that was important. He was right, I spent every night hosting guests at dinner and explaining how I ended up serving in B (Rorke's Drift) Company.
Day 2 was my first visit to the battlefields. In the morning we visited Isandlwana. A Zulu man named Brian told us the story of that battle with amazing passion and enthusiasm. We sat in the shade under a small tree at the base of the sphinx shaped mounting listening to the bravery and heroism from both sides. Standing among hundreds of cairns each representing the 10+ British soldiers buried there was one of the most humbling moments of my life.
That afternoon I visited Rorke's Drift with Doug Rattray and listened to the account of that immortal defence. I stood in the rooms that British soldiers had dug through to save their casualties lives as wave after and waves of Zulu warriors attacked throughout the night.
I stood outside the church that was used as an ammunition store during the battle as Doug recited for “the fallen” by Laurence Binyon. I froze and watched guests cry with emotion.
That afternoon we also flew the Company flag at Rorke's Drift next to the South African flag, and all took a moment to try to imagine the scenes here 141 years ago. Trying to imagine the bravery of these young infantrymen defending the injured soldiers against certain death from hundreds of brave and passionate Zulus.
That wouldn't be the only time I visited the battlefields. I went on both tours on numerous occasions trying to understand the battles in more detail.
My time at Fugitives Drift was varied. I attempted to be as helpful as possible and some days I would gravel roads, walk miles with Doug as he pointed out areas of interest on his property, and even went counting giraffes for the upcoming game capture with Ian the animal conservationist. We built a roof on the water tanks and I was kindly gifted a Yamaha enduro bike whilst I was there to explore the property. I spent hours with Doug talking about his passion for the stories as well as my life in The Royal Welsh and his life in Zululand.
My main role at the lodge was to tell the story of Lieutenant's Melville and Coghill - their graves were a short walk from the accommodation and daily at 1500hrs I would walk guests to the ledge overlooking the point the Regiments Colours were washed down stream.
We would walk up to the graves of these young officers and I would explain to the guests what happened and how they tried saving the Colour and how they had raced down the Fugitives Trail to try and save the regiments honour.
I also spent numerous days walking the Fugitives Trail with guests that wanted to walk the trodden path of the Soldiers extracting from Isandlwana - a 6 mile route across Zululand to the Buffalo river. Ending in a well earned river crossing at Horris' pool near coffin rock. I loved this trail and ran it on numerous occasions trying to imagine what it would have been like 141 years ago. I would wake up every morning to the sunlight bouncing off that feature in the distance, Doug even said to me "you've fallen in love with that mountain".
Altogether I spent 3 weeks at Fugitives Drift, meeting hundreds of guests and most importantly a family committed to telling these stories of these brave men, many of whom paid with their lives. A team of teams all working together for one common goal.
Whilst there, I met some of the bravest people I've ever met. Nicky and Doug made me feel part of the family and Micko taught me many life skills. I have been truly humbled by my visit and encourage anyone to go. I was kindly gifted a real Zulu spearhead from 1879 and a Martini Henry case found at Isandlwana. I will treasure these artefacts forever.