The Defence of Rorke’s Drift

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The Battle of Rorke’s Drift – a heroic defence of missionary station and hospital – has gone down in history as the ultimate example of the victorious underdog. 139 British soldiers held off 4000 well-trained Zulu warriors over the course of 12 gruelling hours of combat. Their bravery and ingenuity was so great that 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded, the most ever bestowed for a single battle. Rorke’s Drift was merely an outpost as opposed to a fortified position, and the defenders, and defences, were not fit to fight. Nonetheless, they prevailed against the battle-ready Zulu army. This landmark battle in the Anglo-Zulu war has gone down in British legend and still today is remembered as the epitome of bravery and duty carried out against all the odds.

In 1877, Lord Carnarvon, the Secretary of State for the colonies, wanted to extend British imperial influence in South Africa by creating a federation of British colonies and Boer republics. To ensure their security, they realised that they needed to pacify Zululand, which bordered their territory for the Zulus were renowned for their martial ability.

To try and avoid conflict with the Zulu people, Carnarvon gave the King of the Zulus, Cetshwayo, the option to surrender and disband his armies to make way for British rule and federation. When confronted with this unfavourable deal, Cetshwayo understandably refused. Thus the Anglo-Zulu war began in January 1879, when the British General Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand.

The Army entered Zulu territory in three sections: the right column entered near the mouth of the Tugela river to secure the abandoned Missionary Station at Eshowe; the left column made for the formerly Dutch town of Utrecht and the middle column, led by Lord Chelmsford himself, crossed the Buffalo river at the outpost of Rorke’s Drift and tried to find the Zulu army.

On 22 January 1879, Chelmsford established a temporary camp for his column near Isandlwana, but neglected to strengthen its defences, only encircling his wagons around it. After receiving intelligence reports that part of the Zulu army was nearby, he led part of his force out to find them.

The lacklustre fortification proved a fatal error: over 12,000 Zulus, the core of Cetshwayo’s army, launched a surprise attack on Chelmsford’s poorly-fortified camp. Fighting in an over-extended line which was too far from their ammunition, the British were swamped by the sheer volume of their enemies forces, and the difference in numbers proved to be fatal; the majority of their 1,700 troops were killed and both their supplies and ammunition were seized. The Battle of Isandlwana was a major defeat and nothing short of a disaster for the redcoats, one which forced Chelmsworth to retreat. The injured men at Rorke’s Drift were on their own.

The defeat at Isandlwana gave the Zulus momentum: on the same day, 4,000 Zulus under Dabulamanzi kaMpand, the king’s half-brother, descended on the isolated and now vulnerable outpost. When survivors from Isandlwana came to warn Lieutenant Chard, the commander at Rorke’s Drift, he had to decide whether to flee or fight. Given that the position had become more hospital than outpost, it was simply impossible to leave, as the injured occupants would travel too slowly and the fast Zulu army would inevitably kill them on the road. The only option was to stay and fight.

Chard and his second in command, Lieutenant Bromhead, built a perimeter out of mealie bags (sacks of corn), and, using the existing walls of the buildings, created a strong outer defence. The walls were fitted with standing blocks to enable troops to fire over the top and ‘loopholes’ (holes in the wall) were created to make it easier to bayonet the enemy. Every man who could walk was given a job.

Any man who diminished morale was locked up. This was a crucial decision: it is hard to imagine the panic and sense of despair that the men must have felt knowing that thousands of Zulus, who had just defeated a well-equipped army of far greater numbers, were on their way and they, mostly classed as ‘walking wounded’, had to defeat them while being heavily outnumbered, vulnerable and with no hope of reinforcement from the main army.

Miraculously a mixed troop of about 100 Native Natal horse (NNH) regiment under Lieutenant Alfred Henderson arrived at the station after having retreated in good order from Isandlwana. They volunteered to picket the far side of the Oscarberg, the large hill that overlooked the station and from behind which the Zulus were expected to approach. With the defences nearing completion and battle approaching, Chard had several hundred men available to him which he thought would be enough to keep the Zulu’s at bay. This greatly improved all important morale.

At 4:20pm, the battle began with Lieutenant Henderson’s NNH troopers, stationed behind the Oscarberg, briefly engaging the vanguard of the main Zulu force. However, tired from the battle at Isandlwana and retreat to Rorke’s Drift, and short of carbine ammunition, Henderson’s men fled for Helpmekaar. Seeing the size of the Zulu force, they deemed it a lost cause. Henderson himself reported that “his men would not obey his orders.” Such was the lack of morale among the defenders of Rorke’s Drift that, upon seeing Henderson’s fleeing cavalry, another company followed suit and fled. Only around 150 men were left to defend the post, 39 of which were classed as hospital patients. The outraged remainders shot upon the fleeing company, killing a corporal.

At 4:30pm, Zulus reached the south wall and the British opened fire. Soon the Zulus were attacking from all sides: to utter surprise of the defenders, they were fired at by rifles. Unbeknownst to the British, the Zulus had bought rifles when they began to experience British aggression and in addition to the rifles that they had seized of the dead at Isandlwana. Despite their inexperience with rifles, they were responsible for 5 of the 17 British fatalities.

The north wall became the epicentre of the fighting as the Zulus concentrated their attack on what they thought was the weakest point. At 6pm, Chard realised that the outer wall would fall, so he ordered a retreat to the yard where they had built a secondary wall.

However, this retreat made the hospital indefensible. Thus, a daring escape was necessary for the 11 men too infirm to fight. As the hospital was overrun, Private Williams was instructed to defend the window through which the Zulus were trying to enter while the others limped away. The intense firefight set the hospital ablaze and forced the patients to break their way through the wall which would allow them to escape behind the barricade. After 15 minutes of hacking at the plaster wall, Private Hook made it through as the others continued to defend the hospital. 9 out of the 11 patients made it out. The escape from the hospital is famous for its demonstration of selfless bravery: the fit could have abandoned the invalid, but they left no man behind. Both Williams and Hook were awarded Victoria Crosses.

Illuminated by the burning hospital, the fighting raged for 10 hours until 2am when the Zulus stopped their assault, only firing at the burning hospital from afar. Every member of the defence garrison had sustained an injury and there were 17 dead. As dawn broke, the nature of the battle revealed itself to the Garrison as piles of Zulu bodies lay scattered in and around Rorke’s Drift. 375 Zulu bodies were buried but the true number of deaths and injuries is unknown.

The Defence of Rorke’s Drift is without a doubt one of the greatest, and most surprising, victories in British history, serving as a triumphant tale to boost morale, aiding the eventual British victory in the Anglo-Zulu war. Despite the controversial nature of the Anglo-Zulu War as a whole, the battle will always be a true demonstration of bravery, determination and duty, above all else.

Greaves, A., 2002. Rorke’s Drift. W&N Military.

Knight, I., 2010. Zulu Rising. Pan.