Lieutenant Colonel Frank E. Bourne DCM OBE

On 8 May 1945, as the United Kingdom and the United States began celebrating Victory in Europe (VE) Day, a 91-year-old British hero took his final breath at his home in Kent, England.  His name was Frank Edward Bourne.  Few people know about him today, but by the end of this post, I hope my readers will know about this remarkable man.

Frank was born in Balcombe, Sussex, southeast England, on 27 April 1854.  He was the last of eight sons born to James Bourne and Harriet Gibson, a farming family.  From every account, James and Harriett Bourne were good parents, hardworking, and respectable.  Frank was a bright young man, literate, and motivated to make something of himself.  What he wanted from life was a challenge, and if he could also have an adventurous life, even better.  Where did one go in the south of England to find an adventurous life?  They went to the Army, of course.

Frank Bourne enlisted in the British Army in Brighton, East Sussex, in December 1872.  Knowing his son was making a colossal mistake, James tried to change Frank’s mind, but the young man would not be detoured.  Frank’s enlistment record reflects that he stood five and a half feet tall, was of slender build, and had brown hair, grey eyes, and a dark complexion.[1]

A year later, having completed basic training, young Frank was posted to the Second Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot (also, 2nd Warwickshire).  He was one of those young men to whom soldiering came naturally.  In 1875, Frank was promoted to corporal and then, three years later, to Colour Sergeant — the senior noncommissioned officer in his rifle company (more or less equivalent to a company first sergeant in the U.S. military structure).  Because of his youth and relative inexperience, the men of Company B referred to him as “The Kid.”  Most of the privates in the company were in their thirties.

He may have taken a ribbing because of his relative youth, but the men highly respected Bourne.  He was the only literate enlisted man in the company, which allowed him to help his men write letters home to their families.  He was fair, even-handed, and very calm, and when he wanted the men to do something, they “snapped to.”

In 1879, Frank was 25 years old.  This was the year his battalion commander posted Company B to the missionary outpost at a ford (drift) along the Buffalo River abutting Zululand in South Africa.  The outpost was named Rorke’s Drift.  Colour Sergeant Bourne’s company commander was Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead.

In the native language of the Zulu people, Rorke’s Drift was called Kwa Jimu (Jim’s land); the mission was one belonging to the Church of Sweden, formerly a trading post owned by merchant James Rorke.  Under Lieutenant General Frederick Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford, Rorke’s Drift became a vital supply depot and field hospital under the overall command of Brevet Major Henry Spalding.  Company B was detailed to provide security for the depot/hospital.

On 20 January, Chelmsford marched his 2,000-man army to Isandlwana, some 10 miles east of Rorke’s Drift.  The next day, a small engineer detachment of No. 5 Field Company, Royal Engineers, under Lieutenant John Chard, arrived to repair the pontoons that bridged the Buffalo River.  Chard, unsure of his orders, rode to Chelmsford’s position to receive clarification.  He was ordered back to Rorke’s Drift with orders to construct defensive positions.

Spalding departed the station for Helpmekarr on 22nd January to ascertain the location of Captain Rainforth’s Company G, which was late in arriving.  Spalding left Chard in temporary command.  So informed, Lieutenant Chard went to the station to observe the work underway on the pontoons.  A short time later, two survivors from Chelmsford’s army arrived and informed the men at Rorke’s Drift that the British army had been defeated (in fact, wiped out) — and that the Zulu Army was en route.

Lieutenant Chard called a meeting with Lieutenant Bromhead and Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton (Commissary and Transportation Department) to decide whether they should defend Rorke’s Drift or withdraw to Helpmekarr.  Dalton opined that the Zulu would quickly overtake a small party with wagons of sick and injured men.  The consensus was that the soldiers should stay and defend.  See also The Battle of Rorke’s Drift.  It was the most incredible stand in British military history.

As senior NCO, Colour Sergeant Bourne was at the forefront of the company’s activities — from organizing and assigning the men to their defensive positions to providing them with an example of soldierly virtue and remaining conspicuously in the fight.  In his statement to the BBC in 1936, Bourne said, “Now just one word for the men who fought that night.  I was moving about amongst them at all times, and they did not flinch for one moment.  Their courage and bravery cannot be expressed in words.  For me, they were an example all my soldiering days.”

Frank Bourne was not one of the men to receive the Victoria Cross for the fight at Rorke’s Drift, but he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (the nation’s second-highest award).[2]  The medal carried with it an annuity of £10 monthly.  For Bourne and the surviving men of Company B, the Zulu War was over.  In 1880, 2nd Warwickshire departed South Africa for Gibraltar.  The British Army offered Bourne an officer’s commission, but not being wealthy enough to sustain an officer’s position, he turned it down.  He was instead promoted to Quarter Master Sergeant.[3]

At Gibraltar, Frank Bourne married Eliza Mary Fincham and began to raise his family; they eventually had five children.  His battalion eventually ended up in India and Burma but saw minimal action.  In 1890, Bourne was advanced to Honorary Lieutenant and appointed to serve as Adjutant, School of Musketry in Hythe, Southampton.  Bourne remained at this post for many years, eventually retiring as a Major in 1907.

In retirement, Major Frank Bourne DCM assisted Field Marshal Frederick Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts (a much beloved general officer known in the ranks as “Bobs”) with the administration of the National Service League and the National Smallbore Rifle Association.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Major Bourne rejoined the army and was posted as Adjutant, School of Musketry, Dublin.  By the end of the First World War, Bourne had been promoted to lieutenant colonel and awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE).[4]

One hell of a soldier.  Rest in peace, Colonel Bourne.

Sources:

  1. Find A Grave Memorials (online).
  2. Imperial War Museum, United Kingdom (online).

Endnotes:

[1] According to these records and photographic evidence, Frank Bourne looked nothing like the actor who played him in  the film, Zulu — Nigel Green.

[2] Queen Victoria created the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) in 1854 in recognition of gallantry in the field by “other ranks” of the British Army.  It is the oldest award for gallant conduct ranking only below the Victoria Cross (created in 1857).  In 1993, the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross replaced the DCM, CGM, and DSO.  The CGC is now the second-highest medal for gallantry in combat in the United Kingdom.

[3] During the Napoleonic War, the demand for experienced military officers prompted the British Army to offer battlefield commissions to enlisted men.  However, the system of commissions in those days required officers to purchase their commissions, which to most low-to-middle-class Englishmen, was cost prohibitive.   

[4] Technically, the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is an order of chivalry in recognition of public service outside civil service, established in 1917 by King George V.