On May 8, 1945, while Britan, the United States, and the rest of Europe were celebrating the end of World War II in Europe, the British military lost one of its icons, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Bourne. Bourne had been the last surviving British member of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift; he died just shy of his 91st birthday.

Bourne was born in Sussex, England in 1854 and enlisted in the British Army at the age of 18. Four years later he was promoted to Colour Sergeant, becoming the youngest NCO of this rank in the entire British Army. This earned him the nickname “The Kid.”

At first, he was nervous about his responsibilities in the unit. Although Colour Sergeants were usually older, almost like father figures, as well as tough as nails and hard-bitten soldiers, Bourne was just 23 and by his own admission “painfully thin.” 

Frank Bourne in the early 1900s.

On 22 and 23 January 1879, Bourne was part of the garrison at Rorke’s Drift in Natal, South Africa. Rorke’s Drift was a former trading post named after James Rorke, an Irish merchant. A drift in South Africa is a ford located on the Buffalo River which separated British-held Natal and the Zulu Kingdom.

Bourne was the Colour Sergeant in B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot, and aided Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead in organizing the defense at the mission station and the field hospital. The entire British garrison numbered about 250, with about 140 regulars, 11 colonial troops, 4 civilians, and 100 Natal Native Horse (NNH) cavalry. They were about to face Zulu warriors numbering between 3,000 and 4,000 who were approaching the British location.

The British troops barricaded themselves with mealie bags. Nearly all of the Zulu warriors were armed with an assegai (short spear) and a shield made of cowhide. Few of the Zulus had old muskets and antiquated rifles, though their marksmanship training and the quality and supply of powder and shot were of very poor.

The Zulu warriors made a forced march of some 20 miles and went straight into battle. Throughout the day of the 22nd and night of the 23rd, the Zulus made repeated attacks against the barricades. At times the fighting was hand-to-hand, but the outnumbered defenders held out until relief arrived.

At the outset of the battle with the Zulus nearly upon them, the NNH cavalry abandoned the British. Their commander, Lieutenant Henderson, reported himself to Lieutenant Chard that the enemy were close and that “his men would not obey his orders but were going off to Helpmekaar.” That left just 150 men to defend Rorke’s Drift.