The Medals of the Anglo Zulu War

The Victoria Cross

  The Victoria Cross – the ultimate accolade, is Britain’s highest honour for bravery in battle; it is a medal that has an awesome mystique. There is something brooding about the dark bronze of the medal with its dull crimson ribbon that sets it apart from the glittering silver and colourful ribbons of other awards.

Victoria Crosses were awarded for acts performed in terrifying and bloody circumstances; the tunnel vision of spontaneous bravery in saving a helpless comrade; the calculated act because there was no alternative or that the risk is worth taking. 

Award of Rorke’s Drift Victoria Crosses

GazettedNameDate awardedWhere awardedBy whom
2 May 1879Chard16 July 1879St Paul’s, ZululandLt. Gen. Wolseley
17 June 1879Reynolds16 July 1879St Paul’s, ZululandLt. Gen Wolseley
2 May 1879Hook3 August 1879Rorke’s DriftLt. Gen. Wolseley
2 May 1879Hitch12 August 1879Netley Mil. HospitalQueen Victoria
2 May 1879Bromhead11 September 1879UtrechtLt. Gen. Wolseley
2 May 1879Jones, R11 September 1879UtrechtLt. Gen. Wolseley
2 May 1879Allen9 December 1879Windsor CastleQueen Victoria
2 May 1879Jones, W13 January 1880Windsor CastleQueen Victoria
17 November 1879Dalton16 January 1879Fort NapierMaj. Gen. Clifford
29 November 1879Schiess3 February 1880PietermaritzburgLt. Gen. Wolseley
2 May 1879Williams1 March 1880GibraltarMaj.Gen. Anderson

The Distinguished Conduct Medal

 The alternative gallantry award was the Distinguished Conduct Medal, which was instituted in December 1854 for other ranks only. Before this date there had been no way of rewarding outstanding acts of bravery by ordinary soldiers and, in the rush of jingoism that accompanied the outbreak of the Crimea War, the press and the public demanded some form of recognition for their heroes. Moving with unusual speed, the Horse Guards produced the DCM, which carried with it a gratuity of £15 for sergeants, £10 for corporals and £5 for privates. Many of these medals, such as the Crimea War medal, were issued to men actually serving at the front, and were worn by them in the trenches before Sebastopol.

 Like most medals of this period, it was designed by William Wyon. The obverse showed the young Queen Victoria’s diademed head, while the reverse had the inscription, FOR DISTINGUISHED CONDUCT IN THE FIELD. The medal was made of silver with a scrolled silver suspender that hung from a ribbon of red with a dark blue centre stripe. The result was aesthetically pleasing and generally well received.

  The awarding of this medal, however, has a history of inconsistencies. For instance 770 were awarded during the Crimea War but only 10 for the Indian Mutiny, while 2,026 were issued for the Boer War but just 87 for the Sudan.

 The Zulu War saw as many as 23 Victoria Crosses awarded compared with just 14 DCM’s. One wonders why only 5 DCM’s were awarded for the Defence of Rorke’s Drift when there were so many acts of gallantry displayed. Indeed, one could argue that some of the Victoria Crosses awarded for this action probably merited the DCM instead. But then other motives were at work to lessen the impact of Isandlwana on the British public. The Rorke’s Drift recipients of the  ‘Silver Medal’, as it is sometimes known, were Corporal Francis Attwood, Army Service Corps, Gunner John Cantwell, Royal Artillery, the celebrated Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne 2/24th and Private William Roy 1/24th who was one of the defenders of the hospital. Private Roy left the army but could not settle; he emigrated to Australia where his health deteriorated. In 1887 a military concert was held in Sydney for his benefit as he was ‘almost blind and helpless’. He lived out the remainder of his life in an institution. The fifth recipient was Corporal Michael McMahon, Army Hospital Corps who subsequently had his award taken away for theft and desertion.

Following the awards of the Victoria Cross, the press speculated about awards for the other participants.  Comment from The Times was typical, even though nothing came of the suggestion:

It is probable that the medal for Distinguished Service in the field will be given to the whole of the garrison at Rorke’s Drift and that B Company, 2nd Battalion 24th Foot in commemoration of the gallant stand it made on the 22nd January1879. This will be a lasting honour to the Company and the Regiment. It is satisfactory to note that the non-combatant officers have also received a step of rank. Surgeon Major Reynolds and Messrs. Dalton and Dunne have richly earned their promotion.

The South Africa Medal

The South Africa Medal, to give the Zulu War Medal its correct title, was given to all who were involved in the war effort and covered the period from September 25th 1877 to December 2nd 1879. The original design was by William Wyon RA and was the same as the 1853 medal issued to participants of the ‘Kaffir Wars’ or, as they have been politically corrected, the Frontier Wars, for three separate campaigns during the years 1834-35, 1846-47 and 1850-53. The medal is a silver disc measuring 35.5mm (1.4″) diameter. The authority for the medal came from a Royal Warrant dated January 1880 which was followed by a further two Royal Warrants. This was followed by a General Order No. 103 published in August 1880. Due to its ambiguous drafting, a further clarifying G.O. No. 134 was issued in October 1880.  The medal obverse shows the diademed head of a young Queen Victoria with the legend VICTORIA REGINA. The ‘young Queen’ design first appeared on medals as early as 1842 and was still used nearly forty years later on the 1879 medal. One might wonder why this should be when the other campaign medals of the 1870-80 period show a matronly head of the Queen. The probable explanation is cost. Some 36,600 medals, all struck by the Royal Mint, were issued and as there was already a die for the South African War Medal, it was a fairly simple matter to mint a further quantity.

The reverse was designed by L.C.Wyon, (a son of W. Wyon RA). Beneath the words SOUTH AFRICA is the graceful illustration of the lion symbolising Africa and is usually wrongly described as stooping to drink from a pool in front of a protea bush. In fact, the artistic effect should convey submission. One Under-secretary hoped that ‘the lion doing penance will not be taken for the British Lion’. In the exergue (the space below), the date “1853” was substituted with a Zulu shield and four crossed assegais. The recipient’s name and unit were stamped or engraved on the rim in capital letters. After months of deliberation, Queen Victoria finally approved the ribbon of watered pale orange with two wide and two narrow dark blue stripes, which symbolised South Africa’s parched terrain and many watercourses. 

Also issued for fitting to the medal was a date bar or clasp. Of all the medals ever issued, that to the Zulu War presents a bewildering number of permutations. Date bars for 1877, 1877-78 and 1877-79 were issued to members of the Colonial forces who fought against the Gcalekas. There was a separate 1878 bar for operations against the Griquas, also for Colonial forces only. There were also bars for 1877-78-79 and 1878-79 and the Imperial regiments like the 3rd, 13th, 24th, 80th, 88th and 90th were entitled to fix these to their medals, as were N Battery 5th Brigade Royal Artillery3, the principle being that the year(s) on the clasp convey all the operations in which the recipient may have engaged in. The 1879 bar was issued to all who took part in operations in Zululand. For those who remained in Natal, 5,600 medals without a bar were issued, with the largest number in this category being awarded to the sailors of H.M ships Euphrates, Himalaya, Orontes and Tamar.

Curiously, those members of B Company who fought at Rorke’s Drift but did not cross the border into Zululand nevertheless received bars to their medals, whether by omission or design is not known. Army Order 103 dated 1 August 1880 specifically excluded the award of clasps to those who did not cross into Zululand.  

Of all the campaign medals from Victoria’s small wars, medal collectors today find the Zulu War Medal the most collectable. Prices vary according to the recipient, regiment and the action. Rorke’s Drift recipients command the highest price. A survivor of Isandlwana would be equally valued. Medals to soldiers of the 24th are more sought after than those of other regiments. An exception is for medals of the 80th who were at Ntombe Drift. 

 Colonial forces medals are naturally more sought after in South Africa, with Hlobane participants the most desirable. Because of their scarcity and mystique, Zulu War gallantry medals command very high prices and rarely appear on the market. Although it can be an expensive hobby, medal collecting offers the enthusiast the spur to research and learn more about the individuals involved in this most fascinating of colonial wars. 

Miscellaneous medals awarded relating to Rorke’s Drift

Gold Medal of the British Medical Association

Surgeon Major Reynolds also received the Gold Medal of the British Medical Association in July 1879.

Royal Red Cross

At the age of nineteen years, nurse Janet Wells took part in the Russo-Balkan War of 1878. She was then sent to South Africa with the second Zululand invasion force where she supervised the military hospital at Utrecht and then moved to Rorke’s Drift. After the battle of Ulundi, she spent several weeks at Rorke’s Drift. She returned to England while still only twenty years of age and resumed her career in nursing.  Nurse Wells received the Zulu War campaign medal and in 1883, she was presented to Queen Victoria who awarded her the rare Royal Red Cross for her nursing services during the Zulu War. She was also awarded the Russian Red Cross for her services during the Russo-Balkan War

Award of Rorke’s Drift Victoria Crosses