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DateOriginal Topic
12th April 2004Looking for help
By Andy Ward
I am trying to trace a Walter Reed who am led to believe may have been at Rorkes drift .
Could anyone help ?
12th April 2004John Young

To my knowledge, there was no-one by the name of Walter Reed present during the Defence of Rorke's Drift.

If you're sure on the spelling there was a Private W. Reed in the 57th (West Middlesex) Regiment, which served in on the coastal side of the campaign after arriving in the wake of the Isandlwana disaster.

John Y.
13th April 2004Peter Ewart

It may help to try to trace the origin of the belief that a Walter Reed "was at Rorke's Drift."

If he was a family member, efforts to pin down the source of the story may assist you. Even if he wasn't, establishing the earliest existence of the belief will help you to ascertain who may have been responsible - the most likely person, of course, being presumably the man himself, in some form or another.

Whether you have come across a written or published claim or supposition, or whether the tradition has been in a family for some time, there may be a plausible reason for the story's existence, however garbled or corrupted it may have become, even though he certainly wasn't one of the defenders of the post on 22nd/23rd January 1879.

Presumably Walter Reed was a soldier in Victorian times and it is known or believed that he served in South Africa? If you obtain his individual army service record from the National Archives (former Public Record Office) in Kew (look in WO97) you'll get a good idea of when and where he served and which campaign medals were awarded, etc etc., provided he was "discharged to pension" and didn't die in service.

Knowledge of his regiment and picking up what information was provided in any obituary may also garner additional details, as this is likely to touch upon his military life. Regardless of his later social status, there is a much better chance of finding an obit/funeral report in his local paper if he died between the 1920s - when they became almost routine - and the 1970s, when most local papers descended to tabloid size and standards, leaving no space for these valuable contributions.

The reality likely to emerge is that he served in South Africa and possibly even in Zululand in 1879 (checked the Medal Roll?). However, thousands of soldiers were based briefly at Rorke's Drift at the beginning of the campaign and many more were similarly billetted or passed through it later in the war but played no part at all in the famous engagement there.

One or two forts were raised on and near the site afterwards and were garrisoned for some years on and off, and the British were in action in Natal, the Transvaal and in Zululand during the 1880s, as well British forces passing through Rorke's Drift during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. Any one of those may have said at some time "I once saw Rorke's Drift" or even "I was at Rorke's Drift," such true tales being recalled, picked up and misunderstood many years later by those in the family who had heard them. Even "he served in Zululand" doesn't take long to become "he was at Rorke's Drift," later generations confusing this place with the war itself and not realising the nature of this engagement as a sideshow compared with the main battles of the campaign.

You shouldn't have too much difficulty establishing how and where the story came from, then you'll see why it is a very common claim or innocent belief. However, if every soldier who is "believed" to have been there WAS there at the crucial time, Dabulamanzi probably wouldn't have gone near the place!

Good luck.