Colonel John Rouse Merriott Chard was a British Army officer who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his role in defending Rorke’s Drift mission station in southern Africa in January 1879. Chard built defences and commanded a group of just over 150 men who successfully repelled an attack by up to 4,000 Zulu warriors. As one of history’s most famous last stands, the song inspired Rorke’s Drift, from 2016’s The Last Stand.
Chard came from a well to-do family; his elder brother was also a military officer and the younger was a church rector. Educated both privately and at grammar schools, Chard was a career officer who attended the Royal Military Academy before joining the Royal Engineers regiment in 1868. He was deployed in Bermuda and Malta before being deployed to the south of Africa when Britain began the Anglo-Zulu War in January 1879.
A Lieutenant at the time, Chard was sent to Africa in response to a request for more engineers to help prepare for the invasion of the Zulu Kingdom. He and his men were originally tasked with maintaining a ferry crossing on the Buffalo River, which divided the British colony of Natal from the Kingdom. He was just upstream from Rorke’s Drift, a former trading post that the invading British had decided to use as a garrison.
On the morning of 22 January Chard received news that his men were required at Isandlwana, 10 miles to the East, where the first offensive of the British invasion was to take place. On arrival, he was told only his men were needed and he should go back to Rorke’s Drift. En route, he spotted a Zulu army approaching in the distance and reported it to the garrison’s Major, Henry Spalding, who when soldiers did not start returning from the battle as expected, left the trading post to see if he could hurry the reinforcements. Before leaving, he placed Chard in command of the station – despite him having gained no combat experience in his 10 years with the Army – because he was technically senior to the other Lieutenant on site, Gonville Bromhead.
The British Army was utterly defeated at Isandlwana and the Zulus were on the move. When two survivors brought news that a large Impi (army) of Zulus was approaching Rorke’s Drift, Chard sprang into action, despite his inexperience, and alongside Bromhead and another senior officer ordered the construction of barricades and preparation of the defence.
Despite overwhelming odds, the British were able to defend the garrison until the Zulus ceased their assault in the early hours of the following day. As dawn broke, the British counted an initial 351 dead Zulus, having lost just 14 of their own in the night (although a further 10 were wounded, two mortally).
Chard stayed at Rorke’s Drift for some weeks after the battle to supervise the repairs, before being involved in the second, more successful, invasion of the Zulu Kingdom. In the meantime, Chard’s report of the battle had been sent to Britain where he was gaining a reputation as a hero. Chard and 11 of his men were given the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military award for valour.
Some of Chard and Bromhead’s superiors resented the celebrity the two received, but on arrival back in the UK after the war he received a hero’s welcome – even being invited to have dinner with Queen Victoria herself. A number of military promotions followed and he reached the rank of Colonel in 1897.
Later that same year, however, Chard was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue, now thought to be a result of his fondness for pipe-smoking. He had surgery twice, but the cancer returned and he retired to his brother’s rectory for the final weeks of his life. He was buried in his brother’s churchyard, and the many floral wreaths included one from the Queen, who had kept in contact with him over the years.
Chard’s Victoria Cross is on display today at the Imperial War Museum in London. He was portrayed in the 1964 movie Zulu by Welsh actor Stanley Baker, who bought Chard’s medals in an auction and kept them until his death in 1976.