Historian brings story of Zulu War veteran to life in new book

PUBLISHED: 07:56 22 February 2019 | UPDATED: 07:57 22 February 2019

Photographs from Kate Birbeck's recent trip to Zululand for the 140th anniversary of the Anglo Zulu War of 1879. The mountain is called Isandlwana and where the soldiers are is the actual battlefield. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Photographs from Kate Birbeck's recent trip to Zululand for the 140th anniversary of the Anglo Zulu War of 1879. The mountain is called Isandlwana and where the soldiers are is the actual battlefield. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

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A historian has shed light on the life of a famous soldier with links to Stansted and Saffron Walden who fought in the Anglo Zulu War of 1879.

Kate Birbeck's book about Alan Gardner. Picture: CONTRIBUTEDKate Birbeck's book about Alan Gardner. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Alan Gardner is one of only five British officers to survive the battle of Isandlwana and he is buried in St Mary’s Church, Stansted.

This year marks 140 years since the war and historian Kate Birbeck, who has been studying the conflict for more than 30 years, has shared his story after publishing his biography last year.

Ms Birbeck discovered his grave in 2016 and, during her research, found that his brother, Herbert, was MP for Saffron Walden from 1885 to 1895 and served as Lord Roseberry’s minister for agriculture. Alan himself was a Liberal Party politician.

“Virtually all of the Gardners are now buried at St Mary’s Church in Stansted,” Ms Birbeck said. “Alan and Herbert’s headstones were in a poor state of repair, so I made a vow to have them restored and to find out more about my new ‘neighbours’.

Alan Gardner memorial in South Africa. Picture: CONTRIBUTEDAlan Gardner memorial in South Africa. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

“The Gardner family are closely connected with the area - on April 29, 1885, Alan married Nora Blyth of Newton Hall, in Dunmow.

“Also buried in the church yard are Alan’s parents, Alan and Julia, as well as his brother Herbert and sister Evelyn.”

Ms Birbeck described how Alan’s survivor accounts give historians a “rare tantalising glimpse” into what happened on January 22, 1879, in South Africa.

“There was a very disastrous engagement between the number three column under Lord Chelmsford and the Zulu Army at a small hill called Isandlwana,” she said. “The 1,700 men in the British camp on the day comprised imperial infantry, black native contingent, auxiliaries, irregulars, wagon drivers and a mixed bag of camp followers. As sun set, nearly 1,300 would lie dead on the battlefield.

Photographs from Kate Birbeck's recent trip to Zululand for the 140th anniversary of the Anglo Zulu War of 1879. The mountain is called Isandlwana and where the soldiers are is the actual battlefield. Picture: CONTRIBUTEDPhotographs from Kate Birbeck's recent trip to Zululand for the 140th anniversary of the Anglo Zulu War of 1879. The mountain is called Isandlwana and where the soldiers are is the actual battlefield. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

“Zulus from this force would then go on to attack Rorke’s Drift in the afternoon, an incident made famous by Stanley Baker and Michael Caine in the 1964 epic film, Zulu.”

Ms Birbeck is still researching the Gardner family and would like anyone who has any information about Alan or his family to contact her on 07884114595 or 01279 810979.

The biography of Alan Gardner is on sale at Saffron Walden Tourist Information Centre.

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