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JONES, Private Robert (24th Foot)
DescriptionThe Zulu War Victoria Cross Pair Awarded to Private Robert Jones, 2nd Battalion, 24th Foot, for his Gallantry in Saving the Lives of Six Patients from the Hospital during the Historic Defence of the Mission Station at Rorke’s Drift on 22nd and 23rd January 1879
Victoria Cross, the reverse of the suspension bar officially inscribed (Private Robert Jones, 2-24th Regt.), the reverse centre of the Cross officially dated ‘22. 23. Jany. 1879.’
South Africa 1877-79, clasp, 1877-8-9 (V.C. 716 Pte. R. Jones, 2-24th Foot)
Old repair to the ribbon slot on the upper part of the suspension bar of the Victoria Cross, contact marks and pitting to both medals, a fine and historic pair (2)
FootnoteVictoria Cross (jointly with 804 Private William Jones) London Gazette 2 May, 1879: ‘Robert Jones, Private, 2nd Battn. 24th Regt. At the hospital, in a ward facing the hill, Private William Jones and Private Robert Jones defended the post to the last, until six out of the seven patients it contained had been removed. The seventh, Sergt. Maxfield, was delirious through fever. Although they had previously dressed him, they were unable to induce him to move. When Private Robert Jones returned to endeavour to carry him away, he found him being stabbed by Zulus as he lay in his bed.’
The news of the epic defence, in early 1879, of the remote outpost at Rorke’s Drift against some 4,000 Zulu warriors, flushed with victory following the annihilation of the 1st Battalion, 24th Foot at Isandhlwana, thrilled Victorian Britain and has been hallowed ever since as one of the most heroic stands in military history. The backbone of the Rorke’s Drift garrison consisted of ninety-five men belonging to ‘B’ Company of the 2nd Battalion, 24th Foot. Acts of gallantry performed during the defence resulted in the awards of eleven Victoria Crosses - the highest number ever conferred for a single action - with seven of them going to members of ‘B’ Company. Of those seven, only Robert Jones’s Cross has failed down the years to find its way into the Regimental museum of the South Wales Borderers. The action has inspired numerous artists and, as a recipient of the Victoria Cross, Robert Jones’s heroism has been celebrated in every major work from Lady Elizabeth Butler’s painting The Defence of Rorke’s Drift, January 22nd 1879, to the 1964 cinema classic Zulu, in which Jones’s part was played by actor Denys Graham. It has been said that Robert Jones never really escaped from the traumatic events at Rorke’s Drift and continued to be haunted by visions of the lethal contest between thrusting bayonet and the vicious stab and slash of the assegai until he met his tragic end at the age of forty-one. However, at the time, the performance of Jones and his kind did much to restore public morale after the Isandhlwana disaster, and has been seen ever since as epitomising the stalwart and disciplined fighting qualities of the British infantryman.
Robert Jones, a farm worker’s son, was born into the agricultural community of Tynewydd, Clytha, near Raglan, Monmouthshire, on 19 August, 1857. Described as ‘a typical Welsh country boy’, he worked alongside his father on the land until he was eighteen when, against his family’s wishes, he went off to Monmouth to enlist into the 24th Regiment of Foot on 10 January, 1876. On the 28th of that month, 716 Jones, as he was now known among the proliferation of other Joneses in the regiment, was posted to the 2nd Battalion at Dover. Recorded on enlistment as being five feet seven and a half inches tall, with a fresh complexion, grey eyes and brown hair, he embarked for South Africa in February 1878 for service in the Cape Frontier War. In early January 1879 he marched up through Natal with the strongest of the five British columns intent on the invasion of Zululand. The column, comprising 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 24th Foot; a squadron of Mounted Infantry; about 200 Natal volunteers; 150 Natal Police; two battalions of the Native Contingent; some native Pioneers and six Royal Artillery guns, was accompanied by the Commander-in-Chief, Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford and his staff.
On the Natal side of the Buffalo River, the Reverend Otto Witt’s lonely Swedish mission station was commandeered as the column’s most forward post on the line of communication and adapted for use as a commissariat store and hospital for sick N.C.O’s and men. On the 11th Chelmsford’s column crossed the Buffalo River by the ford, or drift, a quarter of a mile away leaving the 2/24th’s ‘B’ Company under Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead to garrison the mission with the help of a company of the Natal Native Contingent, some half dozen other details and three commissariat officers. Surgeon Reynolds was in charge of the hospital and the Reverend George Smith, a missionary, acted as chaplain to the troops. Major Spalding of the 104th Regiment was left in overall command.
At dawn on the 22nd, a young officer rode into the station with a message from Lord Chelmsford, concerning a native column coming up under Colonel Durnford, and excitedly announced that the main column had gone into camp nine miles away at Isandhlwana and that “a big fight was expected.” At about half past six that morning, Lieutenant John Rouse Merriott Chard, R.E., who had been left in charge of the ponts, or ferry boats, at the drift, obtained permission from Spalding to ride out to Isandhlwana and ascertain if there were any new orders which would effect the service of the ponts under his command. Chard returned at noon and reported that large bodies of Zulus had been reported working round the left of the camp at Isandhlwana, and said he thought that they might try to make a dash for the mission. This caused some excitement but everyone felt certain that Lord Chelmsford and his column, some 4,000-strong, would never permit the Zulus to move against the mission unmolested. The Rev. Witt, Rev. Smith and Surgeon Reynolds took themselves off to the summit of a neighbouring hill ‘to watch the fun’ through field glasses. About an hour later, however, Major Spalding decided that it might be advisable to bring up the company of the 1/24th left ten miles further down the road at Helpmakaar and, leaving Chard in command, set off on his self-imposed task. John Chard returned to his ponts.
At about 3:15 pm he saw two men riding ‘hell for leather’ towards the drift. A pont was sent across the river to bring them across. Lieutenant Adendorff of the N.N.C. had a terrible tale to relate. Lord Chelmsford had gone out that morning with half his force to make reconnaissance and select a new camping ground. Some 1,800 officers and men had been left at Isandhlwana. At noon the Zulu force, whose presence had been observed for some hours, had audaciously rushed the unprepared camp in overwhelming numbers and slaughtered the force, almost to a man. Meanwhile, nothing had been heard of Lord Chelmsford or his half of the column, and now another Zulu force was advancing rapidly towards Rorke’s Drift. Stunned by Adendorff’s news, Chard then received an urgent message from Bromhead who likewise had just been informed of the disaster by a Mounted Infantryman carrying a note which said the post was to be strengthened and held at all costs.
After a hurried consultation between Chard, Bromhead and Assistant Commissary Dalton, it was decided to abandon the ford and concentrate all efforts in holding the mission. By 3:30 pm the guard at the drift had been recalled and the preparations for the defence were begun. At about the same time what seemed to be a welcome reinforcement arrived in the form of an officer and one hundred troopers from Durnford’s force. The officer reported to Chard for orders and was asked to post vedettes in the direction of the advancing horde and hold it up as much as possible. When forced to retire on the post, the troopers were to help in its defence. Meanwhile the work of strengthening the mission was being carried on apace. A wall constructed of mealie (maize) bags was raised to a height of four feet and continued in the form of a rectangle of which the bottom, or south east and south west, corners were filled respectively by the walls of the thatched hospital and storehouse which stood about forty yards apart.
It was decided to leave those patients unable to bear arms inside the hospital, as it was generally considered by Surgeon Reynolds and others that neither ‘building would be taken unless with the fall of the whole place.’ The defence of the hospital, which measured sixty by eighteen feet and was divided into a number of rooms, some with interconnecting doors and others accessible only via outside doors, was left in the charge of Reynolds. Lieutenant Bromhead detailed Private Robert Jones and five other ‘B’ Company men, namely Privates Harry Hook, 593 William Jones, 1395 John Williams, 1398 Joseph Williams, and Thomas Cole, to assist. The hospital walls were loopholed, and the windows and outside doors barricaded with tables and mattresses.
When word was received that the Zulus had been sighted, Witt, having returned from the hill top with Reynolds and Smith, exercised his right to depart. Every man now took up his assigned post. At 4:15 pm firing was heard beyond the hills to the south and shortly afterwards the officer of Durnford’s force rode in reporting that the enemy were at hand and that his men would not stand and were making off towards Helpmakaar. The sight of the fleeing troopers proved too much for the N.N.C. who likewise departed, reducing the total number of men under Chard’s command to about 152 of whom thirty-three, hospital patients. Chard now realised that the line of defence was too extended for the men who remained, but he proved equal to the crisis. The eighty by twenty foot storehouse, formerly used by Witt as a church, contained biscuit boxes besides mealie bags and ammunition. The biscuit boxes were feverishly placed across the rectangle connecting the parallel northern and southern mealie bag walls, so forming an inner work at the storehouse end, into which the defenders at the hospital end might withdraw. When the wall was only two boxes high the cry went up: “Here they come!”
Private Robert Jones was stationed at a loophole in a room occupied by patient Corporal Jessy Maher of the N.N.C. at the rear of the hospital. The room contained a barricaded external door and a window, and adjoined the kitchen which extended out from the main line of the hospital rear wall. His view south towards the Oscarberg Hill, would have allowed him to see the approach of the iNdluyengwe Regiment, as it advance at the run, screened by a line of skirmishers which was constantly fed by the main body, over the right shoulder of the hill. Making straight for the southern mealie bag wall, the Zulu impi was met by a steady well-sustained fire from the defenders .577 Martini-Henry rifles, but progressed with rare courage to within fifty yards of the wall. Here, however, they were caught in a withering cross fire from the mealie bags and the loopholed storehouse, and the main Zulu effort swept to the left and, skirting the hospital, fell upon the men holding the north west corner of the mealie bag wall. This assault was beaten off and the iNdluyengwe, reinforced by the uDhloko and uThulwana Regiments moved eastwards finding cover below the rocky terrace upon which the northern mealie bag wall had been raised. Meanwhile, large numbers of Zulu snipers kept up a heavy fire from positions on the slopes of Oscarberg Hill.
Next, the Zulus rose up from the terrace and with a wild rush made a determined and ferocious attack on the northern mealie bag wall. The defenders holding that breastwork had to contend not only with the savages at their front but also with the uncomfortable thought of being shot in the back. Inevitably as the Zulu fire from Oscarberg became less erratic and after a number of men had been killed by the sniper fire, Lieutenant Chard was forced to give the order for the men holding the mealie bag walls to retire behind the biscuit box wall at the eastern end of the enclosure. This left Robert Jones and his comrades in the hospital completely cut off.
The Zulus swarmed around the building trying to break in at various points and fire the thatch. Having expended all his ammunition, Robert Jones helped Maher into the adjoining kitchen, where 593 Private William Jones was posted with six more patients. Returning to his original room with his namesake, they crossed bayonets and took post at the doorway, which was being smashed in by several warriors. Trooper Lugg firing from a loophole in the kitchen extension wall managed to get a good shot at a number of them but at length they burst through the makeshift barricade. Those Zulus who managed to dodge Lugg’s fire were then taken on by the two Joneses who together bayonetted every warrior as he approached. During the struggle in the doorway, Robert Jones received three assegai wounds from the attackers as they leapt forward in their eagerness to enter the room, one of the injuries being ‘a spear scrape on the abdomen - a particularly close shave’. When their duties at the doorway permitted, the Joneses went into the kitchen and helped the patients through the high window which provided the only means of escape into the area between the north and south mealie bag walls from which Chard had withdrawn his men.
While the Joneses were holding the enemy at bay in the doorway and attempting to get their last patient, Sergeant Maxfield, dressed, a pick axe smashed through the wall behind them. This was 1395 Private John Williams making an escape route for Private Harry Hook and their surviving charges who had been quartered in the western end of the building. While Hook and Williams heaved their eight surviving patients through the hole and fought off the pursuing Zulus, the Joneses succeeded in dressing Maxfield who was delirious with fever, but he refused to move and their efforts to get him to do so were interrupted when they had to take over at the escape hole from Hook and 1395 Williams who had to assist their patients out of the window. As Robert and William Jones retreated to join Hook and Williams, the Zulus began to scramble through the escape hole. The hospital roof was now a smouldering mass, and Hook, 1395 Williams, 593 Jones and Robert Jones, decided to make their exit. When the other three had climbed out of the window, Robert Jones, having passed out his Martini-Henry, decided to make a final attempt to save Maxfield. Groping his way through the smoke filled room he made his way towards the stricken Sergeant lying on his bed. But it was too late, for Maxfield was being repeatedly stabbed by the Zulus.
Robert Jones clambered out of the window and, just as he dropped down into the dangerous no man’s land of the bullet swept enclosure, part of the hospital roof fell in behind him. A hair raising dash across the enclosure brought a total of fourteen patients and their four gallant rescuers into the biscuit box retrenchment. Privates Cole and 1398 Joseph Williams had both been killed defending the hospital patients, the latter being dragged outside, repeatedly stabbed and, in accordance with Zulu ritual, his stomach ripped open.
The struggle to hold the retrenchment now commenced. Chard ordered the construction of a lofty mealie bag redoubt at its centre, in which the wounded were placed for safety and from which an elevated field of fire was maintained as long as daylight lasted. When darkness fell, the Zulus used its cloak to mount several attacks, but again each onslaught was beaten off. Then the hospital roof flared up illuminating the surrounding area for hundreds of yards and allowing the defenders to resume their well aimed fire. By 10 pm, however, the hospital thatch had burnt itself out and the men of ‘B’ Company resorted to the use of the bayonet as the Zulus again attempted to force their way over the ramparts. At about midnight the attacks began to slacken after eight hours of ceaseless fighting, but there was still little rest for the defenders as the Zulus continued to maintain a desultory fire until 4 am. The first streak of dawn revealed the extent of the slaughter around the post, and the welcome sight of the Zulus retiring around Oscarberg Hill. Seemingly it was all over. Chard issued orders to remove the thatch from the storehouse roof, to strengthen the defences and send out patrols. When the latter had returned, the Zulus suddenly reappeared lining the heights to the south west. All work was instantly stopped and every man returned to his post. The garrison steeled itself for another desperate struggle, but then the advance of the Zulus wavered, and without any obvious explanation they retired behind the hill from whence they had come.
Meanwhile, Lord Chelmsford’s force had marched back into camp at Isandhlwana during the night and had stumbled upon the mutilated corpses of the 1/24th. In the early hours of the morning of the 23rd, Chelmsford dejectedly set out for Rorke’s Drift expecting to find a similar scene of carnage. He found instead ‘the survivors of as gallant a defence as the annals of the British Army have ever known’.
Robert Jones was immediately acknowledged for his services during the defence being mentioned in Lieutenant Chard’s report dated 25 January, 1879. He was also mentioned in the account which Chard was asked to write for the Queen. His Victoria Cross was gazetted on 2 May, 1879, and he received the decoration from Lord Wolseley at Utrecht, Transvaal, on 11 September, 1879. Robert Jones left South Africa bearing the scars of one bullet and a total of four assegai wounds. Following service at Gibraltar and in India, he returned to Britain on 25 November, 1881, and was transferred to the Army Reserve. He was recalled for service on 2 August, 1882 and was again transferred to the Army Reserve on 7 February, 1883. His final discharge from Army service came about on 26 January, 1888. In 1885 he married Elizabeth Hopkins and settled at Peterchurch in Herefordshire where he found work as a labourer on the estate of Major de la Hay. He was by all accounts a good father to his five children and ‘a talented amateur poet’.
One of Jones’s wounds left him with a legacy of head pains and, in August 1898, he collapsed. Although he recovered, his wife noticed a change in his personality and he started to drink more than before. A few weeks later on the morning of 6 September, Elizabeth Jones noticed her husband acting strangely before leaving for work. On reaching Major de la Hay’s home at Crossways House, he asked for a shotgun and two cartridges, saying that he was going out to shoot vermin. Shortly afterwards the gun was fired in the Major’s garden and a few minutes later Robert Jones was found dead with the back of his head blown away. An inquest returned the verdict of suicide while of unsound mind.
Refs: The Silver Wreath; The Zulu War VC’s (Bancroft); Rorke’s Drift (Bancroft); The Victoria Cross (Creagh & Humphris); Zulu, Isandlwana & Rorke’s Drift 22-23 January 1879 (Knight); Nothing Remains but to Fight, The Defence of Rorke’s Drift (Knight); The Zulu War Now and Then (Knight & Castle); The Lummis Files; Rorke’s Drift (Whitton); The VC’s of Wales and The Welsh Regimemts (Williams).