On 22 January 1879 just over 150 British soldiers began the bloody business of repelling a determined attack by thousands of Zulu warriors. The desperate courage of this famous battle – at the mission station of Rorke’s Drift – came to epitomise the way in which the British at home saw their soldiers overseas at the Empire’s zenith.
The Buffalo frontier
Rorke’s Drift, a former trading post owned by Irish merchant James Rorke, assumed great strategic importance on 9 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.
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.
Disaster at Isandlwana
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. Hundreds of British soldiers were killed in what was the Empire’s worst ever defeat to an indigenous foe.
On 22 January two exhausted riders reached Rorke’s Drift bearing this terrible news, and that 4-5000 Zulu warriors were heading their way.
The garrison’s commanders – Lieutenant John Chard, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead and Assistant Commissary James Dalton – 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.
Preparing the Drift for battle
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.
The Battle of Rorke’s Drift
Though rifle fire thinned out their charging ranks, there were simply too many fight in that way, so fierce hand-to-hand combat ensued when the warriors reached the walls. In this sort of fighting 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 defence.
Some patients could not be saved and were killed in their beds during the retreat.
The defence of the Kraal continued relentlessly until the early hours of 23 January, when the garrison were exhausted beyond words and low of ammunition. They had lost 17 killed and 15 wounded, a sizeable total considering the 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 responsible for 11 Victoria Crosses. Some modern critics have contended that this had more to do 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.