Local financial planning business backs Ashby Royal British Legion's tributes to Rorke's Drift survivor

By Graham Hill

30th Apr 2024 | Local News

Ashby Royal British Legion chairman Dan Harrison sponsor Laura Hughes (centre), commitee member Graham Allman and LH Financial Planning staff at the Old Cottage Hospital in Ashby. Photos: Ashby Nub News
Ashby Royal British Legion chairman Dan Harrison sponsor Laura Hughes (centre), commitee member Graham Allman and LH Financial Planning staff at the Old Cottage Hospital in Ashby. Photos: Ashby Nub News

Ashby Royal British Legion has received a cash boost ahead of next month's ceremony to mark the anniversary of the rededication of a Rorke's Drift battle survivor.

LH Financial Planning, based at the Old Cottage Hospital in Ashby, has donated £1,000 towards the service which is taking place on May 18 at Ashby Cemetery.

The money will also be used to set up a display at Ashby Museum featuring genuine artifacts from the conflict which took place in 1879 and was part of the Anglo-Zulu War.

The rededication service for Rorke's Drift survivor, Private John Smith - was held at Ashby Cemetery last year.

Representatives of the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment - which played a major role in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 - were part of the solemn occasion which was to remember the life of the former soldier, who lived in Ashby but suffered a form of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder on his return to England, and later took his own life.

Just over 150 British and colonial troops defended the station against attacks by 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu warriors.

A rededication service was held in May last year at Ashby Cemetery

The conflict was later the subject of the 1964 movie, Zulu.

Pte Smith was wounded in the stomach, having been stabbed by an assegai, a Zulu spear, but survived the battle.

However, following his death, he was buried in an unmarked grave at Ashby Cemetery on 11 July, 1899. 

Last year, however, members of Whitwick Royal British Legion campaigned for a headstone and a service to mark Pte Smith's life, which resulted in the ceremony in Ashby.

Now, Ashby British Legion intend to hold a remembrance service every five years, following the upcoming occasion.

But members also hope to raise the profile of PTSD in this country as a result.

Laura Hughes, director at LH Financial Planning, told Ashby Nub News: "We have a close friend who is a retired Major General in the Army, Mitch Mitchell, and he will be at the service.

"As well as the service, we're also going to be sponsoring the planned display at Ashby Library which is very important in remembering Pte Smith."

Ashby RBL chairman, Dan Harrison, said: "The battle at Rorke's Drift has gone down in history because of the few British soldiers that held off thousands of Zulus.

"But there is another message here in that Pte Smith suffered from a form of PTSD when he returned to this country.

Dan Harrison with the cheque for £1,000 from LH Financial Services along with RBL committee member Graham Allman and Laura Hughes of LH Financial Planning

"He tried to commit suicide before and failed, only to be fined by a court for the attempt. He eventually took his own life at Heather Railway Station.

"But even now, there are homeless ex-soldiers on the streets. What's being done to help them?

"So although we're honouring a man who died 125 years ago, the issues still apply today."

RBL committee member, Graham Allman, added: "A total of 11 Victoria Crosses for bravery were awarded following the battle at Rorke's Drift, which has never happened before or since.

"That is one of the reasons why it has gone down in history."

The move to make sure Pte Smith's re-burial is commemorated is part of a drive to get people joining the Legion in Ashby.

Graham added: "We want new people, and what the general public often doesn't realise is that you don't have to have been a member of the armed forces to be a member of the armed forces.

Pte Smith's history was made public at last year's service, and Ashby RBL has issued details again as follows.

John Smith was married in Heather to Margaret and worked as a 'hawker'. 

As a hawker he would travel from town to town peddling a variety of items – firewood, clothing, lamp oil, kitchen implements, and other small domestic necessities carried in a pack or pushed along in a small cart. 

Hawkers often attended market days and purchased surplus stock which they then carried to smaller towns and villages, moving from door to door to sell to customers for a profit. 

His wife stated that he travelled as far afield as Tamworth and surrounding villages his trips taking him away from home for two or three weeks at a time. His Army pension and income from selling his wares made up his income, a friend stated that John and Mary lived in humble but very comfortable circumstances.

The same friend, another Veteran (Mr Martin), described John as having a retiring disposition and not disposed to relate his extraordinary experiences, though John did admit to having had a marvellous escape at Rorke's Drift. 

It was believed at the time of his death that only this fellow Veteran, his Wife and a small circle of people knew of John's military career.

In early June 1899, John was arrested for attempting suicide in Union Passage, Ashby de la Zouch, his attempt was witnessed and prevented by an Ashby man who knocked a razor from his hand. 

The attempt resulted in a minor wound that did not require medical attention. 

He admitted to drinking on the night and to have had domestic differences. John appeared before Magistrate Mr J German in court. He was found guilty of attempting to commit suicide, fined £5 and bound over for three months. His wife Margaret stated that John suffered from headaches because of the wound sustained in South Africa and was troubled greatly by hot weather.

John Smith committed suicide near Heather Railway Station in Leicestershire in July 1899. The engine driver giving evidence at the Coroner's Inquest stated that he was driving near the number 17 bridge between Shackerstone and Heather when he saw a man lying across the track. The brakes were applied but the engine travelling at about 30 miles an hour ran over the figure and about a dozen wagons followed. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Ashby-de-la-Zouch Cemetery on 11 July 1899.

Consider John's experience in South Africa: the small garrison at Rorke's Drift knew of the fate of those 24th Regiment companies at Isandlwana prior to the Zulu Impi's arrival. Fugitives from the camp had brought the grim news. They were also aware that they were extremely unlikely to be able to outmarch the Zulu. 

Time to prepare for the attack also gave them time to reflect on their own chances of survival. I doubt anyone could imagine fully the feelings of the defenders awaiting the victorious and overwhelming Zulu attack. John Smith fought at the barricades, in hand-to-hand combat.

Of the wounded survivors from Rorke's Drift he is believed to be the only one with Assegai spear wounds. All other wounds having been caused by enemy gunfire.

We cannot say with any certainty of course what affect it may have had, but with today's greater knowledge and experience of post-traumatic stress disorder John Smith would have received counselling and treatment that may have saved his life. As it was, he was a Victorian soldier suffering from 'Battle fatigue' 'Shell Shock' 'combat stress' inflicted during the white heat of the encounter at Rorke's Drift, Natal, South Africa January 22nd to 23rd 1879.

     

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