The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 9 No 3 - June 1993

(incorporating Museum Review)

SCHIESS, Christian Ferdinand

by F Ernst and K Scheurer

Christian Ferdinand Schiess was born on 7 April 1856 in Burgdorf (Berne), Switzerland, the son of Niklaus and Anna Schiess. He grew up in the orphanage in Herisau (AR). At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 he joined the French Forces. He was then only 15 years old, but appeared older due to his strong build. In the same year; he received his baptism of fire on the battlefield. After the cessation of hostilities, he served another five years with Bourbakie's Army before taking his discharge and returning to Switzerland in 1876.

At about this time agents of the Cape Government were recruiting Swiss labourers and farmers to emigrate to the Cape on a state-aided scheme. During 1877 and 1878 some 67 men, many with families, landed at Cape Town and East London.

With a group of emigrants, C F Schiess arrived by ship in East London in August 1877. He was then 21 years old. He joined the army volunteers to fight with distinction in the Frontier War between the Cape Forces and the Xhosa tribes.

During the interval of peace which followed, and not having learned a trade, he worked as itinerant labourer ('Handlanger').

When the Zulu War began in Natal in 1879, Schiess again joined the Army and owing to his military experience was made a corporal in the Natal Native Contingent (NNC).

During an attack on Chief Sirayo's kraal, he was wounded in the leg with an assegai. He was hospitalised at Rorke's Drift on the Buffalo River. While he was there, fleeing soldiers brought the news from the nearby battlefield of Isandlhwana of the British defeat. Some 4 000 Zulu warriors, excited by their recent victory, were approaching Rorke's Drift to attack. Rorke's Drift, originally a mission station and trading store, consisted of only a few buildings, one of which served as a hospital and contained twenty-eight wounded. The garrison consisted of some 100 British and 850 native soldiers.

The commanding officer decided that it was not possible to carry the wounded with him on a retreat and he would not abandon them. He ordered the position to be prepared for defence. As tension mounted, the native soldiers all fled, and the defensive lines had to be shortened. Everybody, irrespective of rank, set to work. Using mealie (maize) bags, ammunition boxes and anything else that could be moved, barricades were erected between the buildings to form a laager. When the attack came in the afternoon of 22 January 1879 they were ready, 139 men of whom 104 were fit to fight and face the 4 000 attacking Zulus. Of the wounded in the hospital, only two could take an active part in the defence. One of these was Corporal Schiess. He was a gigantic man and conspicuous by the badge of his military unit, a red rag twisted around his hat.

The Zulus attacked furiously and, like all the defenders at Rorke's Drift, Schiess fought like a tiger. When his hat was shot off his head by a Zulu, he bent down to restore it. In the split second that followed, a Zulu warrior mounted the barricade in front of him and he looked up just in time to fight him off. Schiess himself continually jumped onto the barricade to dislodge warriors crouching behind it. The battle went on all night and in the morning the Zulus retreated. The defenders suffered seventeen casualties. For their heroic defence, a total of eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded, the most in any battle.

Schiess was presented with the Victoria Cross during a parade in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, on 3 February 1880, when he was 24 years old. The award was made by Lord Garnet Wolseley.

Later Schiess went to India, but fell on hard times and then returned to Natal, South Africa. He could not find work and was given a passage on the ship Serapis to return to England. However; his health had deteriorated and he was too ill to survive the sea voyage. He died on 14 December 1884, aged 28 years, on board ship, and was buried at sea off the coast of Angola.

Although Corporal Schiess became destitute, he retained possession of his Victoria Cross, the only one awarded to a Swiss National. It was found on his body when he died on board the Serapis. It was sent to the War Office in England and is now on display at the National Army Museum, London.

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