Rorke's Drift is one of the great moments of British military history, and was made the subject of a 1964 film starring Michael Caine and, in a 1983 episode of the classic BBC sitcom Only Fools and Horses, Del Boy and his brother Rodney discover that their great-great-grandfather fought at Rorke's Drift.
One of those British soldiers at Rorke's Drift was Private Robert Jones, of Monmouthshire, who joined 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot in 1876 aged just 19.
Eleven Victoria Crosses, the most for any single action, were awarded that day.
Private Jones was one of those awarded a VC, and his own citation praised his “conspicuous bravery and devotion to the wounded at Rorke’s Drift”.
But he was so haunted about what he had seen that day that in 1898, at the age of just 41, he shot himself in woods near his home.
At the time, suicide victims were banned from being buried in consecrated ground in Britain, but this was overturned for Private Jones. But, after his burial, his headstone had to face away from the church, unlike all of the others in the graveyard.
Now, disgusted by such treatment of a war hero, former SAS hero Pete Winner, who took part in the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege in London and the 1972 Battle of Mirbat in Oman, is campaining to have Private Jones's headstone facing the proper way.
SAS hero's battle for survivor of Rorke's Drift
EXCLUSIVE by Bob Graham
25/04/2010 (external - login to view)
Pete Winner horrified at how Zulu war veteran Robert Jones was treated
Kneeling beside a gravestone in a village churchyard, one old soldier pays his respects to another.
As a veteran of the SAS, Pete Winner put his life on the line in the Middle East and the Falklands as well as helped to end the 1980 Iranian embassy siege.
But even he is left speechless in admiration for the man he has to come to honour...
Private Robert Jones, one of just 140 British soldiers who fought off 4,000 Zulus at Rorke’s Drift in South Africa in 1879 – the battle was famously immortalised in the 1964 film Zulu, starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker.
Yet this final resting place in Herefordshire of Private Jones, VC, also serves as a continuing slight to the memory of one of Britain’s greatest heroes.
Pete Winner was one of the 20 SAS soldiers who bravely managed to rescue 25 of the 26 hostages held by Iranian Arab separatists in the Iranian embassy in London in 1980
All the other gravestones in St Peter’s graveyard face towards the church, but his, humiliatingly, faces the other way because he committed suicide.
Driven to despair by his memories of Rorke’s Drift, Private Jones took a shotgun into the woods not far from St Peter’s on a summer’s day 19 years after the battle – and shot himself.
Church law then decreed no one who committed suicide could be buried on consecrated ground – and the change in the position of the gravestone was a half-hearted compromise to appease the mounting anger over such shoddy treatment of a hero, who had gone home to work as a farm labourer.
Now former Staff Sergeant Winner is urging the church authorities to think again, arguing that Private Jones was a victim of post- traumatic stress disorder, a condition which has blighted the lives today of veterans of the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Stanley Baker and Michael Caine in "Zulu", 1964
“I owe it to this brave soldier to try to right a wrong that has existed for well over a century,” said Mr Winner, 61.
“If soldiers back then suffered mental problems it was largely ignored or dismissed as battle fatigue.
“Fortunately we are more enlightened now. But I believe there is no doubt that Robert Jones was suffering from classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I live near to the churchyard in Peterchurch and when I went in search of Private Jones’s grave I was appalled at this insult to a man who was a hero for his country.
“I am determined to try to do something about it – to get the authorities to re-site the gravestone so it faces the church, just like every other one in the churchyard.” Jones, who was born in Raglan, Monmouthshire joined the Army at 19 in 1876.
As a private in the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot, Jones was among a small force stationed at Rorke’s Drift a mission station and former trading post, which came under attack from 4,000 Zulus.
Private Jones, soon after joining the army in 1876
Jones and another private, William Jones, were sent to protect seven patients in the mission hospital. In an article in the Strand magazine Jones explained what happened:
“The Zulus attacked us in very strong and overwhelming numbers. I found a crowd in front of the hospital and coming into the doorway.
“I said to my companion William Jones ‘they are on top of us’, and sprang to one side of the doorway.
“There we crossed our bayonets, and as fast as they came up to the doorway we bayoneted them, until the doorway was nearly filled with dead and wounded Zulus.
“I had three assegai wounds, two in the right side and one in the left but after a long time of fighting at the door we made them retire, and then we made our escape out of the building. Just as I got outside, the roof fell in – a complete mass of flames and fire.
The enemy came on closer and closer with the fighting lasting about 13 hours, or better.
“As to my feelings at that time, they were that I was certain that if we did not kill them they would kill us, My thought was only to fight as an English soldier ought to for his most gracious sovereign, Queen Victoria, and for the benefit of old England.”
British soldiers stand down after their battle against the Zulus at Rorke's Drift, 1879.
Eleven Victoria Crosses, the most for any single action, were awarded that day. Private Jones’s own citation praised his “conspicuous bravery and devotion to the wounded at Rorke’s Drift”.
The medal is now owned by Lord Ashcroft, a collector of military memorabilia who owns 152 Victoria Cross medals.
On leaving the Army, Jones settled in Herefordshire where he became a farm labourer, married Elizabeth Hopkins and had five children.
But he could not forget Rorke’s Drift and the nightmare of what had happened as he fought for his life.
He constantly complained to his wife of severe headaches as his health broke down. Finally he could take no more and borrowed his employer’s shotgun, saying he wanted to go crow shooting.
The verdict at the inquest was suicide while temporarily insane. The coroner heard how Jones had been plagued by constant nightmare of Zulus coming at him with spears.
He was only 41 when he died in 1898 but he would not be allowed to rest in peace.
Local authorities eventually relented on the ban on suicide victims being buried in consecrated ground because of the remarkable bravery Private Jones had shown, fighting for his country.
Yet his family was to suffer more humiliation as they mourned his loss. St Peter’s decided his coffin could not be carried in through the front gates, instead it had to be manhandled into the cemetery over a wall. And his headstone would have to face away from the church, unlike all of the others in the graveyard.
Mr Winner feels a special bond with Jones as, like him, he knows of the nightmares faced by soldiers fighting against the odds, during 18 years with the SAS.
In the 1970s he was one of nine SAS men who held off 250 insurgents in what has become known as The Battle of Mirbat in Oman.
Then in 1980 he was one of the first SAS men in to break the six-day Iranian Embassy siege in London’s South Kensington which he covers in his book Soldier I, The Story Of An SAS Hero.
“It was after the Falklands it all began to fall apart,” said Mr Winner. “Until then life had all been about nervous excitement and adrenalin but when it was over I found it hard to cope. I think it would have been very similar for Private Jones.
“It may have taken a few years, but I know he had repeated nightmares, same as me.
“The SAS was a very macho outfit and we were not supposed to talk about such things. We were supposed to come out of the end of it, smiling and with bravado.
When there was a problem, we’d slap one another on the back and have another drink. But inside you’d know things weren’t right.”
Post-traumatic stress and his battle with alcohol broke up his marriage.
Even today the nightmares continue. “There isn’t a night when I get a good night’s sleep. If I’m lucky I’ll sleep fitfully until four or so in the morning, then I’ll just lie awake thinking about the things that have happened.
“The effects of post-traumatic stress need to be more widely recognised. More than 260 Falkland veterans have committed suicide compared to the 255 killed in action.
“I hope my battle over the grave will highlight the problem and stop it being swept under the carpet as it has been for generations.”
firstname.lastname@example.org (external - login to view)