The British Empire and its effect on Plymouth

Lieutenant John Rouse Merriott Chard VC

John Rouse Merriott Chard was the soldier responsible for the remarkable defence of Rorke's Drift in the Anglo-Zulu Wars of the Victorian era. He was born at Boxhill, which was then on the outskirts of Plymouth but is now firmly within the city limits in Pennyrcoss. He was born on 21 December 1847. He went to school at Plymouth new grammar school, he passed through the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, and was commissioned lieutenant in the Royal Engineers on 15 July 1868.

He had a typically cosmopolitan imperial career in Bermuda and Malta before arriving in South Africa as part of the build up for the Anglo-Zulu War. On arrival at Durban, on 4 January 1879, the 5th company was attached to Brigadier-General R. T. Glyn's column and marched to Helpmakaar, Chard being sent on in advance with a few men. When Lord Chelmsford entered Zululand with Glyn's column he crossed the Buffalo River at Rorke's Drift, where Chard was stationed. On 22 January Chard was left in command there by Major H. Spalding, who went to Helpmakaar to hurry forward a company of the 24th regiment.

Rorke's Drift post consisted of a kraal, a commissariat store, and a small hospital building. Chard received orders to protect the ponts or flying bridges on the river, and was watching them at about three o'clock on the afternoon of 22 January when Lieutenant Adendorff and a carabinier galloped up bringing news of the massacre at Isandlwana. They quickly continued their flight across the river. Chard at once consulted Lieutenant G. Bromhead of the 24th foot and J. L. Dalton, acting assistant commissary. Dalton, a regular army veteran, counselled against retreat in favour of defence. Chard agreed, and defensive positions were prepared. The store and hospital buildings were loopholed and barricaded, and connected by walls constructed with mealie bags and a couple of wagons. An hour later, sounds of firing were heard; elements of the Natal native horse, recently arrived from Isandlwana, and Natal native contingent panicked, and went off to Helpmakaar. The garrison was thus reduced to a company of the 24th foot about eighty strong, under Lieutenant Bromhead, and some others--in all eight officers and 131 non-commissioned officers and men, of whom thirty-five were sick in hospital.

Considering his line of defence too extended for the diminished garrison, Chard constructed an inner entrenchment of biscuit tins, and had just completed a wall two boxes high when the enemy were seen advancing at a run. After a short but desperate struggle the Zulu were driven off with heavy loss. However, they mounted a series of further attacks and soon held one whole side of wall, while a series of assaults on the other were repelled with bayonets. They set the thatched roof of the hospital on fire, and Chard was forced to withdraw his men within the entrenchment of biscuit tins. The blaze of the hospital in the darkness of the night enabled the defenders to see the enemy, and also to convert two mealie-bag heaps into a sort of redoubt to give a second line of fire.

The little garrison was eventually forced to retire to the inner wall of the kraal. Until past midnight assaults continued to be made and to be repulsed with vigour, and the desultory fire did not cease until four o'clock in the morning. When day broke the Zulu were passing out of sight. Chard patrolled the ground, collected the arms of the dead Zulu, and strengthened the position as much as possible. About seven o'clock the enemy again advanced from the south-west, but fell back on the appearance of the British 3rd column. The number of Zulu killed was more than 370 out of about 3000--the wounded were carried off. The British force had fifteen killed and twelve wounded.

Chard's dispatch, which was published in a complimentary general order by Chelmsford, is remarkable for its simplicity and modesty: it was observed that he spoke of everyone but himself. The defence of Rorke's Drift did much to allay the despondency caused by the Isandlwana disaster. On the arrival of reinforcements in Natal in April the force was reorganized. Chard's company was placed in the flying column under Brigadier-General Evelyn Wood, and was engaged in all its operations, including the battle of Ulundi (4 July 1879). On the occasion of the inspection of Wood's flying column on 16 July by the new commander of the forces, Sir Garnet Wolseley, Chard was decorated with the Victoria Cross for his defence of Rorke's Drift. He was also promoted captain and brevet major from the date of the defence.

On his return to England, on 2 October, Chard met with a very enthusiastic reception, and visited the queen at Balmoral, who presented him with a gold signet ring. He was the recipient of numerous addresses and presentations from public bodies, including Chatham, Taunton, and Plymouth, where he was also presented with a sword of honour.

Chard was promoted major in July 1886. After serving for two years at Devonport, six at Cyprus, and five in the north-western military district, he sailed for Singapore on 14 December 1892, where he was commanding royal engineer for three years. He was promoted lieutenant-colonel in January 1893. On his return home, in January 1896, he was appointed commanding royal engineer of the Perth sub-district, and was promoted colonel in January 1897. He was attacked by cancer of the tongue, and died unmarried at his brother's rectory of Hatch Beauchamp, near Taunton, on 1 November 1897. He was buried in the churchyard there on 5 November. The queen sent a laurel wreath with the inscription: 'A mark of admiration and regard for a brave soldier from his sovereign'.

The map below shows where John was born. His family then moved to Mount Tamar House. Members of his family are buried in their local parish church at St. Budeaux. There is also a memorial to his fellow soldier brother Colonel William Wheaton Chard inside the church. Below that the image shows General Wolseley awarding the VC to Chard in the field.

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by Stephen Luscombe