On 22-23 January 1879, a British garrison of just over a hundred men – including sick and wounded – defended a hastily-fortified mission station from thousands of battle-hardened Zulu warriors.
The successful defence against all odds has caused many to regard this battle as one of the greatest in British history, despite its relative insignificance in the outcome of the Anglo-Zulu War.
Here are twelve facts about the battle.
1. It followed the disastrous British defeat at Isandlwana
It was the worst defeat ever suffered by a modern army against a technologically inferior indigenous force. Following their victory, a reserve of the Zulu ‘impi’ marched towards Rorke’s Drift, keen to destroy the small British garrison stationed there, on the border of the Kingdom of Zululand.
2. The Rorke’s Drift garrison consisted of 150 men
Almost all of these men were British regulars of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot (2nd/24th) under Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead.
3. They were facing over 3,000 Zulu warriors
These men were fierce warriors, well-versed in the art of war and under orders to show no mercy. One of their primary weapon was a light spear called an iklwa (or assegai), that could either be thrown or used in hand-to-hand combat. Many also used a club called an iwisa (or knockberrie). All warriors carried an oval shield made of oxhide.
A few Zulus equipped themselves with firearms (muskets), but most preferred their traditional equipment. Others were equipped with powerful Martini-Henry rifles – taken from the dead British soldiers at Isandlwana.
4. John Chard commanded the defence
Chard was a Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers. He had been dispatched from the Isandlwana column to build a bridge over the Buffalo River. Upon hearing that a large Zulu army was approaching, he took command of the Rorke’s Drift garrison, supported by Bromhead and Assistant Commissary James Dalton.
Initially, Chard and Bromhead considered abandoning the Drift and retreating to Natal. Dalton however, convinced them to remain and fight.
5. Chard and his men transformed Rorke’s Drift into a bastion
Aided by Commissary Dalton and Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, the former garrison commander, Chard soon transformed Rorke’s Drift into a defend-able position. He ordered the men to erect a wall of mealie bags around the Mission Station and to fortify the buildings with loopholes and barricades.
6. The battle soon descended into fierce hand-to-hand fighting
It was a fight of assegai vs bayonet as the Zulus tried to break through the defences.
7. There was a fierce fight for the hospital
As the fight raged on, Chard realised that he needed to shorten the perimeter of the defence and thus had to give up control of the hospital. The men defending the hospital began a fighting retreat through the building – some of whom carried patients too injured to move.
Although most of the men successfully escaped the building, some were killed during the evacuation.
8. Zulu attacks continued deep into the night
Zulu attacks on the Drift continued until around 4am in the morning of 23 January 1879. By daybreak however, a sleep-depraved British force discovered that the Zulu force had disappeared.
The arrival of a British relief column commanded by Lord Chelmsford later that day put the end of the battle beyond doubt, much to the relief of the paranoid Drift defenders.
9. The British force lost 17 men
These were mostly inflicted by assegai-wielding Zulu warriors. Only five British casualties came from Zulu firearms. 15 British soldiers were wounded during the fight.
351 Zulus, meanwhile, were killed during the battle while another 500-odd were wounded. It is possible that the British put to death all the injured Zulus.
10. The battle was turned into one of the most famous war movies in history
In 1964 ‘Zulu’ came to world cinemas and became, arguably, one of the greatest British war films of all time. The film stars Stanley Baker as Lieutenant John Chard and a young Michael Caine as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead.
11. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded after the Defence
It remains the most Victoria Crosses that have ever been awarded in one action. The recipients were:
- Lieutenant John Rouse Merriott Chard, 5th Field Coy, Royal Engineers
- Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
- Corporal William Wilson Allen; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
- Private Frederick Hitch; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
- Private Alfred Henry Hook; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
- Private Robert Jones; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
- Private William Jones; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
- Private John Williams; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
- Surgeon-Major James Henry Reynolds; Army Medical Department
- Acting Assistant Commissary James Langley Dalton; Commissariat and Transport Department
- Corporal Christian Ferdinand Schiess; 2nd/3rd Natal Native Contingent
12. Many of the defenders suffered what we now know as PTSD following the battle
It was predominantly caused by the fierce close-combat fighting they had with the Zulus. Private Robert Jones, for instance, was said to have been plagued by recurring nightmares of his desperate hand-to-hand fights with the Zulus.