Rorke's Drift survivor is honoured as Ashby Cemetery plays host to moving memorial service for John Smith

By Graham Hill

31st May 2023 | Local News

The rededication was held at Ashby Cemetery. Photos: Ashby Nub News
The rededication was held at Ashby Cemetery. Photos: Ashby Nub News

The rededication service for Rorke's Drift survivor, Private John Smith - held at Ashby Cemetery last Saturday - has been described as 'unique'.

Representatives of the Royal Welsh 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 a former soldier, who suffered a form of PTSD on his return to England, and later took his own life.

Wreaths were laid and the Last Post played by a Royal Engineers bugler, before a minute's silence was held.

Pte Smith was buried in an unmarked grave at Ashby Cemetery on 11 July, 1899. 

But in the defence of Rorke's Drift, he was wounded to the stomach having been stabbed by an assegai, a Zulu spear. However, he survived the battle.

The headstone, supplied by English Rose Memorials in Loughborough, was revealed and includes a QR code at the back which can be scanned, meaning visitors can immediately read the history of Pte Smith and the Zulu Wars on their mobile phones.

The Ashby and Whitwick branches of the Royal British Legion were there, along with Gary Johnson who, along with Mark Brown, helped to research Pte Smith's history.

A replica medal was made for the occasion

Gary said: "I have an avid interest in all things military, and as soon as we realised there was a Rorke's Drift survivor here, especially as it was unmarked, we knew it was time to act.

"We searched the records and the town council identified the grave, then we contacted the Royal Welsh to get as much recognition as we could, then we arranged the headstone.

"This is unique, this hasn't happened in my lifetime, although we think there is another unmarked grave of a survivor in Kibworth, near Market Harborough, and we've started looking in to that, but John was the priority.

"It was Mark who did most of the online research, the culmination of it all was to bring some humanity to it all, there was even a waiver for the compensation he owed for a damaged uniform. We had that written off with the help of the Royal Welsh.

"We started late last year, December perhaps, we thought we might get this done a bit earlier, but the Coronation meant we couldn't get everyone together until now."

John Lynn – Chairman of Ashby De La Zouch Royal British Legion - and Phil Beet - Chairman of Whitwick Royal British Legion - also spoke at the service.

Phil added: "The regimental representation was down to Mark Brown who got in touch with the Royal Welsh for research and information, then it snowballed from there.

"Julie Smith works in the funeral industry and she was able to arrange for the donation of the headstone - which costs a lot of money.

"But this is what we do, we honour our fallen. This chap had an unmarked grave for over 120 years.

"We also have to thank Ashby de la Zouch Town Council for the part they played as well. We couldn't have done it as good as this without them."

The service also highlighted the advances that have been made in treating mental health for those serving in the military.

John said: "It was a very moving occasion, and we had a good turnout. But what John had was an early form of PTSD, which I was also diagnosed with a few years ago."

Phil added: "It was seen previously as having a lack of moral fibre, a weakness, 'man up' or 'get on with it'. We've moved on but in the First World War people were still being executed for running away from the battle.

"Now, PTSD has become more obvious, you can see it from conflicts in Northern Ireland, The Falklands, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq - PTSD is no longer a taboo subject.

"We can talk about it openly. I would think John would be embarrassed by the ceremony, but for us, he did his bit for Queen and country, at the time. He has to be honoured.

"The fact that we also have the QR code on the back of the stone means he will be remembered forever, this is a fallen hero. For want of a better word, this will increase Ashby's 'tourism'.

John added: "People come from all around the country looking for these graves and the history is now directly available to them."

Also present at the service was Dave Sutcliffe who brought a personal message to the grave.

He said: "I was a guide for the KwaZulu-Natal region, now I live in Burton.

"It gives me great pleasure to attend occasions such as this to promote it and the battlefields region. I saw that this service would happening on the Anglo-Zulu War interest group Facebook page, and when Mark put it up, I asked to be invited.

"There is so much to learn, but the 1960s film Zulu is not entirely accurate!"

     

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