Our hero of Rorkes Drift: James W Bancroft tells his story

PUBLISHED: 20:32 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:14 20 February 2013

William Henry Partridge

William Henry Partridge

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of William Partridge, a Monmouthshire miner who was one of the defenders of Rorke's Drift. James W Bancroft tells his story.

The epic movie Zulu, starring Sirs Stanley Baker and Michael Caine, which is shown regularly on television, reenacts the defence of Rorke's Drift in 1879, when a company of British soldiers held off an army of ferocious Zulu warriors. But who were these men, and what happened to the survivors of that desperate struggle?

William Partridge was born on June 27 1858. He was the oldest child in the family of two sons and two daughters of William Partridge, a sawyer and carpenter by trade, and his wife Sarah (formerly Williams), who had married in Newport, Monmouthshire in the previous year.

After serving in the Monmouthshire Militia, William decided to join the regular army, and enlisted at Monmouth on June 5 1877. 1410 Private Partridge was described as being five feet six and a quarter inches tall, with a fresh complexion, grey eyes and brown hair, and his religion was Church of England. He was posted to the 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment at Brecon.

The first few months of his army life were taken up with basic training, before he was sent to Chatham to join the regiment. Within a short time they were on the move to Portsmouth, and in early February 1878 they boarded the Himalaya and sailed for South Africa.

William saw active service in the Cape Frontier War, being appointed lance-corporal on 1 August 1878. However by 1 December 1878 he was a private again, and when the British army invaded Zululand in January 1879, men of his company were left to garrison the field hospital and storehouse which had been established at Rorke's Drift.

The main body of the British force made camp at a place called Isandlwana, and when half of these troops moved further into enemy territory on January 22 the men left in camp were attacked and overwhelmed by an army of Zulu warriors. Over 1000 soldiers were slaughtered, and about 4000 warriors advanced into Natal seeking more blood at Rorke's Drift.

Acts of heroism were commonplace in the British army, and most of the private soldiers were rough-and-ready lads from the coal mining or dockland areas, or the factory communities in and around the city slums, whose only alternative to the highly-disciplined life in the army was the precarious drudgery of the pit and mill. The combination of this and their staunch loyalty to the unit made them formidable fighters, and the rifles in their hands gave them a decisive advantage.

William was one of the hundred or so able-bodied men in the garrison who prepared to stand and fight, hastily building a makeshift barricade with bags and wooden boxes to form a compound between the hospital and storehouse. The first Zulu onslaughts were met by withering British rifle fire, and many warriors fell: 'as if they had been cut off at the knees', but they eventually rushed the barricade and the defenders were forced to use their bayonets in fierce hand-to-hand combat.

After setting fire to the roof of the hospital the Zulus forced their way in, killing some patients, while others were rescued by being passed through holes cut in partitions and then helped out of a window. Most of them reached an inner redoubt where they joined their comrades preparing to make a last stand.

The British soldiers fought with exceptional bravery and the Zulus eventually lost heart and moved off. When a relief column arrived on the following morning they found that 15 defenders had been killed, two were dying, and the Zulus had suffered about 500 casualties. The men in the garrison that fateful day had fought for their lives with exceptional gallantry, and for their valour 11 of them were awarded the Victoria Cross.

William saw further service in Gibraltar before returning to Britain to serve at the Brecon depot. There he met Mary Letitia 'Polly' Reeves, and they married at Brecon Register Office on November 13 1880. Mary's sister, Sarah Ann, had married Corporal William Allan, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his action at Rorke's Drift. William and Mary lived at first at 8 Pendre, St Johns, with Mary's parents.

A meeting of an injury assessment board held at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, in November 1881, confirmed that William was suffering from chronic rheumatism, which would materially affect his ability to earn an income. His condition was said to have been brought on by conditions during the Zulu War, and he was awarded a pension of seven pence a day for 12 months. He was medically discharged as being unfit for further service.

William and Mary's first child, Nellie, was born at Brecon in 1882, and a second, William Henry, was born in 1885, where William's father had become the local parish clerk. The family then moved to 46 Lancaster Street, Blaina, where William found employment as a stoker. A second daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1889, and another, Lilly, in 1891, who sadly only lived for a few days. In the autumn of 1894 William and Mary had a second son, Beswick, and Jessie, the last of their children, was born in 1899.

Though he had been discharged as unfit for army service, William continued working to support his family. When the Great War broke out in 1914, William and William Henry were working side by side in the same pit. William Henry felt the call to duty, regardless of the fact that he was working in a reserved occupation, and joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.

William Partridge died of myocardial degeneration on April 16 1930, aged 71. He was buried in Blaenau Cemetery, Gwent (section 7, grave 349). His grandson William and his teenage son, Tony, were among the 45 men who lost their lives in an explosion at the Six Bells Pit in Abertillery, on June 28 1960.

A new memorial stone for William Partridge is to be donated and dedicated in a British Legion service this autumn. A detailed tribute to Partridge appears in volume two of Legacy: Heroes of Rorke's Drift, available price 10 including postage from JWB, 280 Liverpool Road, Eccles M30 0RZ, or from the bookshop at the South Wales Borderers Museum at the barracks in Brecon. All royalties go to the regimental museum at Brecon.

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