Frederick Hitch and the defence of Rorkes Drift by M Boucher

The story of Rorke’s Drift has often been told and perhaps nowhere so graphically as by Donald R. Morris in his study of the Zulu War, ‘The Washing of the Spears.’ The author was able to reconstruct the events of the night of January 22-23, 1879, from a wide variety of sources. One account, however, was not then available to him; that compiled by Frederick Hitch who, with ten others, received the Victoria Cross for gallantry in action on that occasion. It has not been published before and is reproduced here as a footnote to history and as a tribute to Private Hitch and his comrades who fought so courageously against overwhelming numbers in the fierce struggle to defend the post by the Buffalo River.

But first a word about the writer himself. Frederick Hitch was born in Gloucestershire in 1855 and joined the 2nd Battalion of the 24th Regiment – later the South Wales Borderers – not long before the outbreak of war in South Africa. At Rorke’s Drift, Private Hitch was in “B” Company, under the command of Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, and was severely wounded in the engagement. He nevertheless continued to serve with the 2nd Battalion, returning to this country in the course of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.

He obtained his discharge before the close of hostilities and found employment at the Royal United Services Institution in London. He met with an accident at this period and whilst he was in hospital, his Victoria Cross was stolen from his coat. A replacement was granted by King Edward VII and was presented to him by Lord Roberts.

Shortly afterwards, Frederick Hitch became a cab proprietor and it was reported in ‘The Times’ of London at a later date that Cecil Rhodes – presumably on his last visit to Britain – called to see him at the offices of the Cabdrivers’ Union. Hitch subsequently drove a taxi for the General Motor Cab Company. So unassuming a man was he that few of his colleagues at the Chiswick garage of the firm knew anything about his heroism during the Zulu War.

His death occurred unexpectedly on January 7, 1913, at his home in Cranbrook Road, Chiswick, following an attack of pneumonia. He was buried four days later with full military honours in Chiswick Cemetery, after a service in the parish church of St Nicholas. The mourners included his sons, Frederick Hitch, a police-officer, and Staff-Sergeant Charles Hitch of the 60th Rifles, fellow-employees from the Chiswick garage and a number of past and present members of the Regiment. Among the latter were the officer commanding, Major-General George Paton, Private John Williams, who had also gained the Victoria Cross at Rorke’s Drift, and several other veterans of the Zululand campaign.

The grave was purchased by men of the National Reserve and a fund opened to provide a suitable memorial. A special performance of a film in colour was arranged at a New Oxford Street cinema to raise money for the memorial. The monument was finally erected and repairs to it have recently been carried out by the Royal Regiment of Wales into which the South Wales Borderers have been merged.

The account of the defence of Rorke’s Drift which follows was written by Frederick Hitch in later life. It differs in small details from the composite picture drawn by Donald R. Morris and based upon the recollections of other participants; the skilful reconstruction in ‘The Washing of the Spears’, however, remains a remarkably accurate description of a night of confused fighting. In one respect, Private Hitch does not do himself full justice. It is, perhaps, characteristic of his modesty that he only mentions in passing the part he played with Corporal William Allan in helping patients to escape from the burning hospital.

Frederick Hitch was clearly not a man of great education. Nevertheless, the simplicity and honesty with which his story is told bear eloquent testimony to the bravery of a small band of British soldiers in holding off the might of a confident enemy. Although capitalization and punctuation have been standardized, the narrative is substantially as the author wrote it. A few additions and corrections in parentheses are inserted to assist the reader.

Frederick Hitch, VC, Late 2nd (Ban.), 24th Rgt.
As I have been asked many times to give my illustration of Rorke’s Drift I cannot say it is a pleasure for me to do so and to think back on that treable (terrible) night of 22 Jan., 1879. It was about 3.30 o’clock (in the after) noon that we heard of that fatal disaster of Isandhlwana. I was cooking the tea for the Company. I tryed to get it done before the Zulus attacked the little post, Rorke’s Drift, which I managed, taken (taking) the tea and my rifle and ammunition and four kettles (of) tea. I just got in to the fort when Bromhead asked me to try and get on to the top of the house. I at once mounted it. As soon as I got on the top I could see that Zulus had got as near to us as thay could without us seeing them. I told Bromhead that they wire (were) at the other side of the rise and was extending for attacked (attack). Mr. Bromhead asked me how many I thought there were. I told him that I thought (they) numbard from 4 to 6000. A voice from be low (said): ‘Is that all? We can m(a)nage that lot very well.’ For a few seconds thir (there) were diffrent opinion(s). I staid on the house watching the bl(a)ck mass extending into there fighting line; (at) the same time a number of them (were) creaping along under the rocks and took up cover in the caves and keep trying to dismount me from the top of the house. There direction was good, but there allevation (elevation) bad. A few minutes later one app(e)ared on top of the mountain. From the other side he could see us in the largher (laager) plain enough to count us. I put my-self in a laying position, but my shot fell short of him. He than (then) moved steadely to the right and seigneld (signalled) with his arm. The main body at once begune to advance. I told Mr Bromhead that they would be all round us in a very short time. He at once told the Company to take up thire (their) post(s). The enmey making a right wheel, they attac(k)ed us in (the) shap(e) of a bullock’s horns and in a few minut(e)s was all round us. I found as they got close to the largur (laager) I was out of the fighting, so I slid down the thatch roof, drop(p)ing into the largur, fixting (fixing) my bainiet (bayonet) as I run across the largur (and) taking up my possition on a open space which we had not time to compleat. The deadly work now commenced.

The Zulus pushing right up to the point, it was not untill the bainet (bayonet) was freely used that they flinched the least bit. Had the Zulus taken the bainet as freely as they took the bullets we could not have stood more than fifteen minut(e)s. They pushed on right up to us and not only got up to the largur, but got in with us, but they seemed to have a great dread of the bainet which stood to us from beg(inn)ing to end.

During that strug(g)le there was a fine big Zulu see me shoot his mait (mate) down. He sprang forward, drop(p)ing his rifel and asegies (assa- gais), ceesing (seizing) hold of the muz(z)le of my rifel with his left hand and (with) he (his) right hand (getting) hold of the bainet, thinking to disarme me. He pulled and tryed hard to get the rifel from me, but I had a ferm hold of the small of the butt of my rifel with my left hand.

My cartridges (were) on the top of the meely bag(s), which inabled me to load my rifel and sho(o)t the poor reatch wilest (whilst) holding on to his grasp. For some few moments they drop(p)ed back into the garden which served (as) a great pro(te)ction for them. Had it not been for the garden and dead wall they could not haved (have) prolonged the engagement for thirteen houres as they did. There next object was to get possition (possession) of the hospittal which they did by setting fire to it. The greatest task was in getting the sick and wounded out of the hospittal, (of) which the Zulus had bursted open the doors and killed them in there beds.

Wilest doing this I noticed it was with great difficatly (difficulty) they were keep (kept) back, they keeping up a heavy fire from front and rear from which we suffered very much. It was than (then) about when Mr Dolton(Dalton) was shot and Mr Dunn (Dunne). Mr Dolton was very active up till he was wounded. We had to fall back to the second line of defence when the Zulus took position (possession) of the hospittal.

Bromhead & myself & five others took up the position on the right of the second line of defence, (in) which we were exposed to three cross fires. Bromhead took the center and was the only one that did not get wounded. There was four killed and two wounded; myselfe was the last of the six – one shot. Bromhead & myself had it to our two selves about an hour & a half, Bromhead useing his rifel & revolver with deadly ame (aim). Bromhead keep (kept) telling the men not to waist one round.

About this time we was pressed very much. Bromhead was using his revolver with deadly ame. They seemed determined to move Bromhead & myself. We were so buissey (busy) that one had got inside and was in the act of assygien Bromhead, Bromhead not knowing he was there. I put my rifel on him knowing at the same time it was empty. Instead of him delivering the assygie which no doubt would have been faitle (fatal), he dodge(d) down and hop(p)ed out of the largur again. This was just before they tryed to fire the other building. They seemed to me as if they made up there minds to take Rorks Drift with this rush. They rushed up madley not with standing the heavy lost (loss) they had all ready suffered.

It was in this struggle that I was shot. They pressed us very hard, several (‘one’ deleted) of them mounting the barricade. I knew this one had got his rifel presented at me, but at the same time I had got my hands full in front and I was at the present when he shot me through the right shoulder blaid and (the bullet) passed through my shoulder which splintered the shoulder bone very much, as I have had in all 38 pieces of broaken bone taken from my shoulder. I tryed to keep my feet but could not; he could have assygied me had not Bromhead shot him with his revolver. Bromhead seemed very sorry when he see me down bleading so freely, saying, ‘Mate, I am very sorry to see you down.’ I was not down not more than a few minuits, strip(p)ed in my shirt sleeves, with my waist belt on and fleas (valise) straps. I put my wounded arm under my waist belt. I was able to make another stand, getting Bromhead’s revolver, and with his assistance in loading it I managed very well with it. At this time we were fighting by the ade (aid) from the burning hospital, which was much to our advantage. Bromhead at this time was keeping a strict eye on the aminoision (ammunition) and telling the men not to waist one round as we were getting short. I was serving out amuonision myself when I became thorstey and faint. I got worse. A chum tore out the linin (lining) out of Mr Duns (Dunne’s) coat and tied it round my shoulder. I got so thirsty that I could not do much. In fact we were all exhustead (exhausted) and the aminision was beg(inn)ing to be counted.

Deacken (Deacon), a comerade, said to me as I was leaning back against buicust (biscuit) boxes: ‘Fred, when it comes to the last shill (shall) I shoot you?’ I declyned. ‘No, they have very near done for me and they can finish me right out when it come to the last.’ I don’t rem(em)ber not much after that. When I came to myself again, Lord Chamford (Chelms ford) had realived (relieved) us of our task. Bromhead brought His Lordship to me and His Lordship spoak very kindley to me and the Dr dressed my wound. Bromhead was my principal visiter and nurse while I was at the Drift.

Frederick Hitch’s narrative needs no further commentary, except, perhaps, the closer identification of three men mentioned in the text. James Langley Dalton and Walter Alphonsus Dunne were members of the Commissariat; the ‘comerade’ who offered to shoot Hitch was Private George Deacon.

I am greatly indebted to Major G. J. B. Egerton, DL, of the Royal Regiment of Wales, Brecon, for his assistance and for his kindness in obtaining permission from the owner of the Hitch document for its publication here. My grateful thanks are also due to C. R. Leonard, Esq, of Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, a grandson of Frederick Hitch, for information supplied, and to the staffs of the South African Library, Cape Town and the City of Johannesburg Public Library for their help in providing me with valuable press comment. My father, too, W. H. Boucher, Esq, CBE, of Chester, merits a special mention for being the first to realize what “fleas” straps were!

Extract from Frederick Hitch's account

South African Military History Society /

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One Comment

  1. Private Hitch was invalided out of the Army in August 1879 at Netley Hospital after receiving his VC there from Queen Victoria. His scapula was completely shattered from a close-up Zulu bullet and Surgeon Reynolds removed 37 pieces of bone.

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