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Page last updated at 11:56 GMT, Thursday, 19 June 2008 12:56 UK

Hunting the heroes

Michael Caine in the 1964 film Zulu

By Rob Liddle
BBC News

Zulu descendants and battle re-enactment enthusiasts will join dozens of family members by a graveside next month to honour a reluctant hero. Nearly 130 years after the battle of Rorke's Drift - immortalised by the film Zulu - why does the military defence still rate so highly in the public's imagination?

Lynn Whale was amazed to find the strange wreath lying on her great-grandfather's grave earlier this year.

She had just dragged her husband along to a Nottingham cemetery to show him James Marshall's plot which she herself had discovered only months before by coincidence, while looking for the graves of other ancestors.

"I just couldn't figure out who would have left it, or what it was for," she says. "So I left my name and mobile number with it, asking: 'What's your connection with my great-grandfather?"

James Marshall
In later life James gave no hints about his wartime experience

As a result, a few days later she was contacted by a distant cousin she didn't know existed. He told her that he had made some inquiries and that the wreath had been left on behalf of James's regiment on the anniversary of the battle of Rorke's Drift.

What was more, he said, James had been among the survivors of the battle, which saw some 140 men successfully defend their garrison against an onslaught by up to 5,000 Zulu warriors.

He also stunned her with the news that there was due to be a service of rededication at James's graveside in July, involving civil dignitaries, a Zulu theatre group and re-enactment enthusiasts the 1879 Group.

"I could hardly believe it. Had we not stumbled across his grave we would never have realised all this was going to happen," says mother-of-two Lynn.

"You research your family hoping that you find something interesting out and then you discover something like this. It's very exciting.

"But I just wondered how it was that something like this did not get handed down through the generations. He just never told anybody about it. It was something hidden from the family. When he came out of the Army I suppose he just didn't want to go there."

Bayonet point

That James's exploits came to light at all is largely thanks to the work of genealogist Kris Wheatley, who devotes "15 hours a day, seven days a week" to uncovering the stories of the forgotten heroes of Rorke's Drift.

During Anglo-Zulu War of 1879
140 British soldiers defended garrison against assault by up to 5,000 Zulu warriors
Based around B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot - later the South Wales Borderers
British losses were recorded as 17 - more than 500 Zulus died
Eleven Victoria Crosses awarded to participants

She has spent many years painstakingly reconstructing the lives and times of the defenders - many of whom, like James Marshall, were reluctant to reveal their experiences of the "empire's longest day" to friends and family back home.

She describes James as "known within the family as the man with no relatives and no past".

Kris's own great-grandfather, Caleb Wood - who is also buried at Ruddington - was with the 21-year-old James as the members of B Company fought off the warriors, between the station's hospital and storehouse.

In her published accounts of around 40 of the men's stories she relates that Caleb in later life recalled the battle, and told how he saw Private James Marshall find himself out of position and in mortal danger amid the fighting, before James switched round and speared three Zulus with the point of his bayonet.

Some historians have argued that the importance of Rorke's Drift was exaggerated by military commanders in order to draw attention away from the Army's disastrous defeat at nearby Isandlwana earlier the same day.

Soldiers being honoured by gun salute
Two of the soldiers at Ruddington were honoured at a ceremony in 2004

But even though 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders, many of the men were forgotten about as soon as they returned home - several suffering the effects of what is now recognised as post-traumatic stress, says Kris.

For her it is a fitting tribute to them to now tell their stories, and she has vowed to carry on "as long as God spares me".

"These lads just had a wool jacket and a bayonet and a rifle," says Ms Wheatley, 64.

Lynn Whale was barely aware of the battle until she found out her own connection. Now she has watched the film Zulu for the first time and become fascinated by the story.

"I think one of the reasons that it captures the imagination so much is down to the regiments, who are so fiercely proud of their history - they perpetuate it."

The ceremony at Ruddington cemetery on 13 July will bring together many branches of her family for the first time. She is pleased that it has given a fresh focus for her recently widowed father.

"It's something he's very proud of," she says. "We are all very proud."

Below is a selection of your comments:

What a wonderful story and congratulations to those involved especially all the effort in tracing the stories of some of these forgotten heroes. They really were heroes too, no matter what some revisionist historians may say. It was also a wonderful movie too of course.
Martin Kelly, London

Thousands of people who were defending their country from foreign invaders were massacred by vastly superior technology. We celebrate this?
Ryan, Brighton

Interesting story. I tend to agree that Rorkes Drift was heavily played up at the time to distract public attention from the disaster at Isandwlana which was, I believe, the worst military defeat of the British Army against a native force. The film Zulu fascinated me as a child but it took another 15 years before they made a film about Isandwlana, Zulu Dawn. However that takes nothing away from the heroes who fought at Rorke's Drift that day.
Alan Carter, Hassocks

My great grandfather is confirmed to have been there and on his return had 13 children. My mother is now checking if my other great-grandfather was there as this is also a feeling in the family. Would be a major feat to have both sides of the family there and survive.
Gareth, Cardiff

The film 'Zulu' certainly was a big part of the inspiration for my nephew to join the Royal Welsh Fusiliers at age 17, as I'm sure it has inspired so many young Welsh lads. Having been sent to Iraq on his first tour of duty aged 18, he returned suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and has now left the army. Needless to say, his mother will certainly not be letting his younger brothers watch 'Zulu' until they are old enough to understand that alongside glory comes pain and consequences.
Manchester Expat, Manchester

A great-uncle of mine, William Oakley, was in the 1st Bn 24th Foot, and was killed by the Zulus at Isandhlwana. He was born in Braughing, Hertfordshire, the first of a family of eleven. My grandmother, Anne Oakley was one of the youngest of the family. I have William's medal. My grandmother never mentioned William! My father, who passed William's medal to me, could tell me nothing of his army service.
John Gillard, Watford, Herts

We may celebrate this battle now but it wasn't always thus. My Great x 4(?) Uncle fought at Rorke's Drift and was one of the eleven awarded the VC. Alas, the experience of fighting off the Zulus encroaching on the hospital - armed only with an unloaded bayoneted rifle - left its mark, and on his eventual retirement to the Welsh countryside he took his own life whilst out hunting. He was probably suffering from PTSD but such was the shame with which suicide was regarded back he was buried with his headstone facing the graveyard wall. I am told had it not been for his military efforts he would not have been permitted a church burial at all. His family, left in penury, were forced to sell his VC some years later.
James, Twickenham

It's fascinating that so many people devote so much time researching, particularly, the battle of Rorke's Drift. Our farm overlooked both battlefields, Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. We used to annually follow the 'Fugitives route' which tracked the route the survivors of the battle of Isandlwana took trying to reach Rorkes Drift. Along the way are markers indicating where the fallen were found. Both here and South Africa, both battles still generate much interest with re-enactments taking place fairly regularly. Both my brother and father were regular participants. Perhaps the root of the enduring interest is because the battles marked the point the Empire first knew of her fallibility - although, probably not!
Anton, South Africa

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12 Nov 03 |  Nottinghamshire
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