1879: The Defence of Rorke’s Drift

History Hit

4 mins

12 Feb 2017

On this day in 1879 a tiny band of British soldiers began the bloody business of repelling a determined attack by thousands of Zulus. The desperate courage of this famous last stand – at the mission station of Rorke’s Drift – came to epitomise the way in which the British at home saw their Imperial soldiers overseas at the Empire’s zenith.

Rorke’s Drift, a former trading post owned by Irish merchant James Rorke, assumed great strategic importance on the 9th January 1879. With war between the Zulu Empire and the South African British colony of Natal threatening, the post was occupied by a British force due to its useful location right on the Buffalo river, which constituted the border between the two belligerents. Just two days later, after a British ultimatum towards the Zulus expired without satisfactory answer, the troops in Rorke’s Drift – commanded by Lord Chelmsford, crossed the river and began to move into Zulu territory. A very small garrison under a Lieutenant Bromhead of the Warwickshire Foot was left behind, with orders to turn the Drift into a makeshift hospital and supply post while his fellow soldiers marched north.

Despite the popular modern image of helpless natives being mowed down by British machine-gun fire, the Zulu Empire were a military force to be reckoned with. Over the course of the 19th century their battle tactics and weaponry – such as the famous Assegai spear – were enough to subjugate many of the surrounding African nations through conquest. Only in the 1870s did they come into contact with the expanding British Empire, and despite a technological inferiority they had the numbers and experience to cause the British real problems in the right circumstances. And, at the battle of Isandlwana, their status as formidable opponents was proved. A Zulu force of 20,000, armed mainly with spears and shields, fell upon Chelmsford’s 1800-strong column and utterly defeated it, despite state-of-the-art rifles and heavy guns. Over a thousand British soldiers were killed in what was the Empire’s worst ever defeat to an indigenous foe. On the 22nd two exhausted riders reached Rorke’s Drift bearing this terrible news, and that 4-5000 of the exhultant Zulu warriors were heading their way. The garrison’s commanders, decided after a short debate that given the difficulties of transporting the hospital patients, they would have to make a stand and attempt to fight off the enemy.

A photograph of a Zulu warband taken at around this time. They were organised fighters with regiments and battle formations

Throughout the day the defenders prepared a makeshift defensive perimeter, whilst nervously looking over their shoulders as the Zulu force marched ever nearer. They arrived at 4.30 PM. Known as the Undi Corps, these warriors had not been engaged earlier at Isandlwana and were eager to win some glory of their own. To show the seriousness of their intent, they were commanded by King Cetshwayo’s half-brother Prince Dabulamanzi. At this point some of the cavalry picketed around the drift began to flee, an action which disgusted the remainder so much that they fired on them, killing a Corporal. This left Bromhead with just 150 men to defend the perimeter. A new smaller wall was hastily constructed with biscuit boxes, the toughest material at the garrison’s disposal. Just minutes later, the Zulus attacked.

Though rifle fire thinned out their charging ranks there were simply too many to kill in that way, so fierce hand-to-hand fighting ensued when the warriors reached the walls. In this sort of combat the British had no real advantage over their experienced foe other than their defensive wall. They fought heroically, however, and suffered just five men dead during this first assault. Battered, the Zulus withdrew and regrouped for another attack which was not long in coming. By six PM Lieutenants Bromhead and Dalton had been forced to abandon the outer North wall after determined assault and withdraw to the field hospital. Here, savage fighting took place as Zulus surrounded the small building like the sea lapping against a rock and tried almost anything to get inside and slaughter its inhabitants. As the native warriors slowly and inexorably took over the building, the roof of which burst into flames, its defenders risked their lives to shepherd the patients out and to the dubious safety of the stone cattle Kraal (Afrikaans word for enclosure), the last line of defense. Some patients could not be saved and were murdered in their beds during the retreat.

The defense of the biscuit box wall

The defense of the Kraal continued relentlessly until the early hours of the 23rd, when the garrison were exhausted beyond words and low of ammunition. They had lost 17 killed and 15 wounded, a sizable total considering the tiny size of the garrison. Suddenly, as the dawn broke, however, they were unexpectedly saved. The light revealed that the Zulus had gone, and only their dead and wounded remained. Against all the odds, the garrison had survived. The enemy had left hundreds dead behind, and after the massacre at Isandlwana and the killing of the British patients earlier the garrison and the relief force that arrived that day were not in a merciful mood towards their wounded. The defiant defence of Rorke’s Drift left a lasting impression at home, and was repsonsible for 11 Victoria Crosses. Some modern critics have contended that this had more to with hiding the severity of the defeat at Isandlwana than anything particularly heroic at Rorke’s Drift. Though there is doubtless some truth in this claim, as a tale of survival against the odds it has few competitors.