EXACTLY 100 years separate the birth dates of Peter Fielding and his great-grandfather John Fielding. Although they were born into vastly different worlds, John’s story as a VC-winner at one of the most famous battles where Welshmen have fought is still remembered.

The Fielding family were immigrants from Ireland who fled the potato famine. One of 10 children, John’s family moved to Cwmbran in around 1862 when his father found work as a farm labourer.

John worked at the Patent Nut and Bolt Works of Messrs Weston and Grice (later Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds) in Cwmbran as a “nut and bolt cutter”.

Why he decided to join the army is a mystery. There was no great emergency at the time and his wages would have been higher than the shilling a day he would have received as a private.

But John duly accepted his first payment from the Army – his ‘King’s Shilling’ when he enlisted in the 24th Warwickshire Regiment of Foot on May 22, 1877. For reasons which are still unclear, he enlisted under the name John Williams.

Almost a year later he would sail for Capetown on the troopship Himalaya with his regiment.

Sailing to this distant land he would have had the company of many other soldiers from Monmouthshire. Pte William Osborne from Blaenavon, Ptes Joseph Williams and John Murphy from Newport and Pte John Jobbins from Pontnewynydd.

They initially fought skirmishes with Xhosa tribes, but by the end of 1878, relations with the Zulu king Cetewayo had worsened. In late December, four companies of British soldiers were sent to face his army.

The British, keen to move into lands occupied by the Zulus, issued an ultimatum demanding that Cetewayo disband his army. By January 11, 1879, he had not replied to the ultimatum and the invasion began.

Most of the British force crossed the Buffalo River on January 22 to face the Zulu army at Isandhlwana. They left ‘B’ Company, of which John Williams and other Gwent men were a part, behind to guard the station at Rorke’s Drift.

The result was a catastrophe for the British. The 1700-strong force was attacked and only some four hundred men survived.

A survivor of the battle Pte John James, of Blaenavon, wrote home soon after. “Our loss was frightful” he said. “We lost five companies of men, our colours, our ammunition”, before adding grimly: “We had to sleep that night among the dead. It was a dreadful sight to see how our men were cut up.” Another letter from Pte William Meredith, of Pontypool, wrote of the horrific scene in order “to get it from my mind”. Many were literally butchered. The drummer boys were “hung up on hooks and opened like sheep”.

This was the prospect which now faced John Fielding and the men of ‘B’ Company at Rorke’s Drift.

As the dead still lay on the ground at Isandhlwana, later on the 22nd an ‘impi’ or corps of 4,500 Zulus was led by Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande, the brother of King Cetewayo across the Buffalo River to attack Rorke’s Drift.

The post was established as a trading store and mission station and consisted of a house and a chapel. The house was being used as a field hospital where wounded men lay. There were only 104 men who were fit enough to fight.

Lt John Chard of the Royal Engineers gave an account of the defence. He was told in mid-afternoon that the Zulus were heading their way. He wrote how John Williams and his friend Newport soldier Joseph Williams were among those posted to defend the hospital. From behind an improvised wall made of biscuit boxes, the waves of Zulu attacks were repulsed by rifle fire. After a number of unsuccessful attacks the Zulus set fire to the hospital roof.

John Williams had held one of the rooms by firing out of holes made in the walls but his ammunition was running out. Zulus were at the door of the hospital trying to break it down. John began to desperately hack through the wall with an axe so they could escape. As he did this the Zulus broke through. Joseph was stabbed with spears.

Pte Alfred Hook was defending the neighbouring room and he reported hearing John shout: “The Zulus are swarming all over the place, they’ve dragged Joseph Williams out and killed him.”

John dragged the wounded away. The defenders pulled back to a new defensive line from where they fought the Zulus back throughout the night.

Lt Chard told how as darkness came “we were completely surrounded.” But the attacks were repulsed throughout the night “with great vigour” he said and by 4am the firing had ceased.

When dawn came at last, the Zulus withdrew taking their wounded with them and leaving at least 351 dead around the barricades.

Just over 150 British troops had defended the garrison against an assault by thousands of Zulu warriors. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders, one of which would be to John Fielding for the courage he showed in saving the wounded.

The battle site at Rorke’s Drift is kept as a memorial to all who perished. It lies in what is now Kwazulu Natal and is just north of Durban.

“It must have been very strange, as a South Wales boy to be delivered there and then to have faced such an enemy.” Peter says.

He says it is a moving place: “The site isn’t very elaborate or high-tech. there is a memorial stone at the Rorke’s Drift site and the buildings with a small museum. They’re just very simple, dignified and well-maintained.”

“It was very emotional to think that John was there and that he was one of the few who came back to tell the tale.” he says.

Peter is moved by the annual commemoration which is staged in Cwmbran every year on the nearest Saturday to the anniversary of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift.

“Over 100 people turn up – it really is most impressive.”

He also attends a biennial event where the relatives of the Victoria Cross and the George Cross are invited. “It’s held every two years at the Union Jack servicemen’s club in London.”

When John Fielding died in November 1932, his coffin was taken on a gun carriage, draped with the Union Flag to St Michael’s Church in Llantarnam. A regimental Sgt Major followed carrying the Victoria Cross and John Williams’ other medals on a velvet cushion. The procession headed by the band and drums of the Monmouthshire Regiment stretched for over half a mile.

See film of John Fielding's funeral:
(the report uses the name John Fielding enlisted under, John Williams)

It is profoundly moving that as Last Post is sounded and the standards dip on Saturday, they will be keeping alive the memory of those who died and those who were brave in that desperate battle in that desperate place.

The parade will take place tomorrow, at St Michael’s Church in Llantarnam, from 10.30am tomorrow (Saturday January 21).