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Geneva to honour Swiss Victoria Cross hero

Schiess won a VC for helping the wounded and killing several attacking Zulus Alphonse Marie De Neuville

Much has been written about the Anglo-Zulu Battle of Rorke's Drift, yet few people know that one of the 11 Victoria Crosses awarded for bravery went to a Swiss.

This content was published on July 2, 2008 - 13:11

Over 100 years later, the heroic story of Christian Ferdinand Schiess is due to be retold next year at the Museum of the Swiss Abroad at the Château de Penthes in Geneva.

On January 22, 1879 at Rorke's Drift on the Natal border with Zululand in South Africa a tiny British garrison of 140 men - many of them sick and wounded - fought for 12 hours to repel waves of attacks by an army of 4,000 Zulu warriors. The epic battle followed the crushing defeat of a British force at the hands of the Zulus at nearby Isandlwana.

This valiant defence of the garrison was rewarded by Queen Victoria's government with no fewer than 11 Victoria Cross medals, and was later immortalised in the 1964 film Zulu, starring Stanley Baker and Michael Caine.

One of the VC recipients was Corporal Schiess – a Swiss from canton Bern.

"He was the first non-British [soldier] and only Swiss to receive the award and he was completely unknown – it's a great story," Anselm Zurfluh, the director of the Museum of the Swiss Abroad, told swissinfo.

While there are many gaps in his life story, what is clear is that Schiess was born on April 7, 1856 in Burgdorf, canton Bern, although his place of origin was Herisau, the largest town in canton Appenzell-Outer Rhodes.

"His father was Niklaus Schiess, a stone-cutter known as 'Bernese Schiess'," said Alistair Massie, an expert from the National Army Museum in London.

It is unclear whether he was then brought up in an orphanage or later whether, at the age of 15, he served for the French in Algeria, said Massie.

Allegiance to Britain

In 1877 Schiess sailed from Hamburg, Germany, to South Africa and pledged his allegiance to the British, who were then beginning their colonisation of Africa. He was appointed corporal in the 2nd Battalion of the Natal Native Contingent, a large force of black auxiliary soldiers who helped defend the British colony of Natal.

In January 1879, at the start of the bloody Anglo-Zulu war, Schiess was carried to the field hospital at the army supply depot at Rorke's Drift with a bad foot infection caused by marching across the veldt wearing ill-fitting army boots.

On January 22, as defenders fought off wave after wave of Zulu attacks and despite his injury, Schiess carried several wounded to the hospital, and later as the Zulus breached the lines of defence, he helped dislodge and kill the attacking warriors.

"In the Zulu film you see him hobbling out of the infirmary on his crutches, throwing them away, bayoneting a few Zulus and killing one who was wounding British troops," explained Jeffrey Long, a member of the Royal British Legion who uncovered the little-known story of Schiess and his VC while researching the story of Rorke's Drift.

Schiess received the VC a year later at a special parade in Pietermaritzburg on February 3, 1880.

"The VC was delayed as they didn't realise he was a European. They thought he was part of the Native Contingent," said Long.

Despite the recognition, after leaving the army Schiess failed to find work and four years later he was found on the streets of Cape Town suffering from exposure and malnutrition.

"He wrote to the Commonwealth Office in England and applied to work on the railways and in the prison service, but they turned him down," said Long.

The Royal Navy offered him free passage to England, which he accepted, but he became ill during the voyage and died on board ship on December 14, 1884 aged 28, and still with his VC.

Exhibition

Schiess was buried at sea off the coast of Angola, but his VC, which was still in his possession when he died, ended up travelling on to England.

"It went to the War Office where it ended up in a drawer and was forgotten about. It was only found when the old office furniture was being cleared out in the 1950s," said Long.

The original medal is now on display at the National Army Museum in London, but Long and Zurfluh have made a high-quality replica to feature in a major exhibition on the Swiss hero next April.

"We'll have a uniform, rifle, bayonet, documents on Schiess and the Zulus, and spears," said Long.

"But there are still many gaps in this story. Perhaps somewhere, someone will have some record of him or his family or background."

swissinfo, Simon Bradley

Key facts

The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest military decoration awarded for valour "in the face of the enemy" to members of the armed forces of some Commonwealth countries and previous British Empire territories.
The VC was introduced on January 29, 1856 by Queen Victoria to reward acts of valour during the Crimean War. Since then the medal has been awarded to 1,352 individual recipients.
Due to its rarity, the VC is highly prized and the medal can reach over £400,000 (SFr810,800) at auction.

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Battle of Rorke's Drift

Rorke's Drift was a mission station in Natal, South Africa. During the Anglo-Zulu War, the defence of Rorke's Drift (January 22-23, 1879) immediately followed the British Army's defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana earlier in the day.

Some 150 British and colonial soldiers successfully defended their garrison against an intense assault by 4,000 Zulu warriors. More than 300 Zulus died, compared with only 15 members of the British force.

The successful defence of the outpost is held as one of history's finest defences.

Eleven Victoria Cross medals were awarded to the defenders, the most ever received in a single action by one British regiment.

The events surrounding the assault on Rorke's Drift were first dramatised by military painters, notably Elizabeth Butler and Alphonse de Neuville, and later in the film Zulu, starring Stanley Baker and Michael Caine.

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