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TOPIC: Medals to the men of Rorke's Drift

Medals to the men of Rorke's Drift 7 months 2 weeks ago #66501

  • David Grant
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He is on the roll for the 1879 clasp but not for Rorke's Drift or Isandlwana. I would agree a late draft.
Looking for Salutries, Salootries and Veterinary Duffadars.
I collect primarily QSAs to Indian Recipients.
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Medals to the men of Rorke's Drift 1 month 1 week ago #68983

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Picture courtesy of DNW

SAGS (1) 1877-8-9 (447. Pte. J. Waters. 1/24th Foot.)

Provenance: Wallis & Wallis auction 1971, bought by J. B. Hayward; Peter Minns Collection, from Hayward, February 1972; Norman Rigg Collection, from Minns, and thence to the present vendor in May 2002.

John Waters was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, in January 1840. A Clerk by trade, he enlisted into the 24th Foot at Westminster, London,on 8 March 1858, aged 18 years 2 months. After a spell of duty in the United Kingdom, the 1st Battalion, to which Waters had been posted, moved to Malta where, on 8 September 1867, he re-engaged to serve for a full 21 years.

Waters was promoted to Corporal on 10 January 1871, by which time he was in possession of three good conduct badges. However, on 16 September 1874, he was placed under close arrest and four days later was tried by a court martial for neglect of duty. Found guilty, he was sentenced to be reduced to the ranks, but shortly afterwards this sentence was rescinded and Waters escaped with the loss of just one of his good conduct badges. On 27 February 1875, he was again in trouble, being placed under arrest for another offence of neglect of duty. On 2 March he was court-martialled and reduced to the ranks, also losing another of his good conduct badges. This time the sentence was allowed to stand and Waters remained a private for the remainder of his service.

By March 1875, Waters was with his regiment in South Africa. During 1877 and 1878 he saw service against the Gaikas and other Kaffir tribes who were in armed revolt. During 1878 relations with the Zulu kingdom had deteriorated and early in 1879 war broke out. The 1st Battalion of the 24th Foot formed part of the central column which advanced into Zululand in January 1879. Waters, however, was in some way sick and was left with 9 other men of the 1st Battalion, who were mostly ambulatory like himself, at the hospital of the tiny rearguard base at Rorke’s Drift which was manned by just one company of the 2nd Battalion, 24th Foot.

Of the ten men of the 1/24th present at Rorke’s Drift, five, including Waters, defended the hospital, which was the scene of the most savage fighting and the greatest deeds of heroism during the defence. Four of these 1st Battalion men were killed and two, including Waters, were wounded. The full story of Waters’ part in the defence of the hospital and his miraculous escape can be found in The Washing of the Spears, by Donald R. Morris, from which the following extracts are taken:

‘The next room over [in the hospital]in the centre of the back of the building, was a windowless storage compartment with only a single door to the outside. It held a large cupboard with the Witt’s spare clothing and one patient, Private Waters, had been bedded down here. He was ambulatory, and he barricaded the door, which opened outward, and punched a hole through it, more for air than defence.’

‘It [the storage department] was isolated from the rest of the building, and Private Waters was defending the single door to the outside through the loophole he had made. Williams [later awarded the V.C.] started to pass the patients through, pushing them into the opening while Waters pulled them the rest of the way... There were now 14 men in the centre room, and the Zulus were hammering the door to the outside and firing through the hole by which the men had escaped. Waters stayed by the loophole and Hook [later awarded the V.C.] knelt by the hole in the wall, sending an occasional shot ricocheting off the floor into the room beyond and jabbing with his bayonet at the hands which reached through after him.’

‘Hook yelled at Waters to follow him but Waters refused to leave. The door to the outside had started to sag, but the entire building was now outside the defence perimeter, and Waters preferred the dubious safety of the blazing hospital to the unknown perils of a run in the open. He turned away from his loophole and crawled into the wardrobe at the back of the room, pulling the door shut behind him and burrowing down into the Witt’s winter clothing. Hook sent a last shot into the room and raced for the next opening.’

The Zulus failed to find Waters when they burst into the room but eventually the burning roof of the hospital forces his next move. Morris continues:

‘When the heat in the hospital became oppressive, Waters opened the door of the wardrobe and peered out. The room was empty but the back door had been smashed in. The fire had eaten through the thatch, and the rafters were alight, and Waters decided to chance the Zulus after all. He fumbled through the clothing in the wardrobe and eventually extricated a large black cloak. Pulling it over his head and his red tunic, he burst out of the building. The flickering flames lit up the night, and Waters collided with several Zulus, one of whom stabbed him in the arm but he reached the ditch by the field ovens and flung himself into it, pulling the cloak completely over him. Zulus waiting to attack the rear of the storehouse were sheltering in the ditch on either hand, but no one paid him any attention. Hardly daring to breath, he wondered how long it would take for someone to discover him.’

Miraculously Waters was not discovered, but because of his wound he was discharged on 27 May 1879 at Landsman’s Drift, South Africa. His discharge papers clearly state ‘Severely wounded in the shoulder at the Defence of Rorke’s Drift, South Africa, 22nd January 1879’, while the medical report gives more detail:

‘Gunshot wound (right arm). Wounded at Rorke’s Drift 22/1/79 - bullet entering outer side of arm 6 inches from point of shoulder and lodging. It was cut out behind shoulder 12 hours after - distance traversed through fleshy part of arm 4 inches. The joint not injured and bone uninjured.’ Despite this last comment, ‘He has fair power of motion of the injured arm in all directions but complains of pain in the track of the wound and shoulder when exerting himself.’

Waters’ own brief account of the action was published in the Cambrian News on 13 June 1879:

‘I was special orderly at the hospital at Rorke’s Drift, and at this time have seen twenty-one and a quarter years service. I was in the hospital when Private Evans rode into camp and reported that the Zulus had massacred the whole column at Isandhlwana. We would hardly believe this at first, but very soon had reason to understand it was only too true. Between half past four and five, as near as I can remember, the Zulus came over the hill and I saw about fifty of them form a line in skirmishing order, just as British soldiers would do. Their main body was in their rear over the shoulder of the hill. They came about twenty yards, and then opened fire on the hospital. Some of them came in and set fire to it.

While I was there I took refuge in a cupboard, and Private Beckett, an invalid, came with me. As they were going out I killed many of them, and as I could not stay there long, the place being suffocating, I put on a black cloak which I found in the cupboard, and which must have belonged to Mr. Witt, and ran out in the long grass and lay down. The Zulus must have thought I was one of their dead comrades, as they were all round about me, and some trod on me. Becket had gone out half an hour before me, and he, poor fellow, was assegaied right through the his stomach, and went into laager next morning. Dr. Reynolds did all he could to save him, but did not succeed. I got up at daybreak, having expected every minute my life would be taken, and then saw my comrades on top of the mealie sacks, and I said, “Thank God I have got my life”. I had been shot early in the engagement in the shoulder and knee, and here’s the bullet., which was taken out next morning by Dr. Reynolds. I knew many poor fellows who fell at Isandhlwana. I saw Private Robert Horrigan killed. Poor Becket was buried next morning properly. Round the hospital dead Zulus were piled in heaps.’

One further account of Waters at Rorke’s Drift can be found in the account by Major J. R. M. Chard, V.C., R.E., written at the personal request of Queen Victoria, and submitted to her Majesty at Windsor Castle on 21 February 1880:

‘During the fight there were some very narrow escapes from the burning Hospital. Private Waters, 24th Regiment, told me that he secreted himself in a cupboard in the room he was defending, and from it shot several Zulus inside the Hospital. He was wounded in the arm, and he remained in the cupboard until the heat and smoke were so great that they threatened to suffocate him. Wrapping himself in a cloak, or skirt of a dress he found in the cupboard, he rushed out into the darkness and made his way into the cook-house. The Zulus were occupying this, and firing at us from the wall nearest us. It was too late to retreat, so he crept softly to the fireplace and, standing up in the chimney, blacked his face and hands with soot. He remained there until the Zulus left. He was very nearly shot in coming out, one of our men at the wall raising his rifle to do so at the sight of his black face and strange costume, but Waters cried out just in time to save himself. He produced the bullet that wounded him, with pardonable pride, and was very amusing in his admiring description of Dr. Reynold’s skill in extracting it.’

John Waters settled in London after his discharge, at Courtfield Gardens, South Kensington, and it was there that he received his campaign medal for South Africa, on 15 October 1880. His prospects in civilian life must have been bleak. As his discharge papers note, ‘From length of service and age 39, and wound, his capacity to earn a living will be in a considerable degree impaired - no trade.’
Dr David Biggins
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Medals to the men of Rorke's Drift 2 weeks 1 day ago #69367

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The hammer price for Waters' medal was £44,000 yesterday.
Dr David Biggins

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