ZULU — as movie blockbusters go, it’s a classic.
Beneath a blazing African sun, Michael Caine, Stanley Baker and a handful of gallant Welshmen fight for their lives against endless hordes of terrifying spear-wielding warriors.
Except they weren’t all Welsh.
Private John William Roy was born in Angus, his folks lived in Dundee and hardly anyone has ever heard of him.
The film was based on the battle of Rorke’s Drift in 1879, an episode which was the epitome of the imperial exploits that peppered the Victorian age.
As ever, the film-makers strayed from accuracy a few times. There were more Englishmen than Welsh in the battalion depicted in the battle, for example, and there was a lot less singing in real life.
But what is fact is that Pte Roy joined the 24th Regiment of Foot in 1870 when he was only 17 years old and was sent off to the Anglo-Zulu war nine years later.
And he only survived the campaign because he was off sick on the day of the first battle.
That engagement was the battle of Isandhlwana, where a force of some 20,000 Zulus overwhelmed and destroyed a British/Native army numbering some 1,300 — more than 700 of whom were British troops.
It was an utter disaster and British military prestige was shaken.
Pte Roy should have been there — and he would have died there — but he had been sent to a small military hospital suffering from a sore throat.
It was a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire for John, because the hospital was at Rorke’s Drift.
The very next day, the rampant Zulus turned up and launched a murderous attack.
The slaughter was appalling but the beleaguered garrison of Rorke’s Drift triumphed and the battle became a legend that inspired the epic 1964 movie.
Pte Roy played his part in the fight and, a few days later, wrote to his family in Dundee — and this is the letter upon which historian Gordon Douglas stumbled.
“They came down upon us about three o’clock in the afternoon,” wrote Pte Roy in his letter adding: “To the best of my calculations there were 6,000 or 7,000 of them.
“They very nearly overpowered us. They took the hospital and set fire to it, so I fixed my bayonet and charged out.
“There were 30 Zulus chasing us, but the men inside the fort shot them before they could harm us. There were four men burned alive in the hospital.
“We kept our position until morning. There are only two of us saved belonging to my company. Give my love to all friends. Good night, for I must go to my post again.”
Pte Roy was a brave man, of that there’s no doubt, and he received the Distinguished Medal for his exploits at Rorke’s Drift — namely hauling a wounded comrade from the burning hospital.
But his army career was far from spotless, with bad conduct, drink-related injuries and other black marks on his record.
He made corporal but left the army the following year and emigrated to Australia in 1883 at the age of 27.
By 1887 he was in poor health — “almost blind, and helpless” — and a special concert was held to raise funds for him. Even the Mayor of Sydney attended.
He died on May 30 1890, aged just 35, at which time his occupation was given as baker.
Today, in Sydney Art Gallery, there’s a stirring painting showing soldiers escaping from the burning hospital at Rorke’s Drift and the central figure in the painting is Pte Roy carrying his wounded comrade to safety.
Local historian Gordon Douglas is best known for his books on the Mars Training Ship.
However, during research at Dundee’s Wellgate Library, he stumbled across something he found “quite staggering”.
Scrolling through a microfiche of newspapers first printed more than 130 years ago, he found a letter sent by a young soldier to his folks back in the city to reassure them he had survived a battle.
Further searching identified the soldier and the battle in which he had just participated.