Battle of Rorkes Drift
The 23rd of January 1879 AD
Rorke’s Drift is still the subject of controversy well over 100 years after the battle took place. What is not in doubt is the fact that the battle was an heroic defensive action against what seemed like overwhelming odds.
The controversies arise about who truly led the defence, and if the heroism was magnified by the authorities. It is suggested by some that this was done to mask the fact that the Zulu War was one of aggression by the British under Lord Chelmsford, who in fact acted against government orders when he invaded Zulu territory, and to mask the defeat that same day of a much larger British force at Isandlwana, 11 miles from the mission at Rorke’s Drift.
Earlier on January 22 some 1,350 British soldiers out of a force of 1,700 had been wiped out at Isandlwana , by a Zulu force far superior in numbers, but poorly armed – the British had Martini-Henry Rifles, the Zulus assegais and some flintlock muskets. The Zulus suffered about 3,000 dead, but the battle was won without the need to commit their reserves of perhaps 5,000 warriors, who moved swiftly on the outpost at Rorke’s Drift, just over the border in Natal, where a field hospital had been set up.
This Zulu impi was not in fact fresh: it had been on the move for six days, and the warriors had not eaten that day or the previous one.
The force at Rorke’s Drift was aware of the oncoming impi, and part of the defensive force fled as it drew near – including Lt Stephenson of the Natal Native Contingent, and Lt Vause who led a small force of native horsemen, plus their British NCOs. As they fled some of the defenders fired on them, killing Corporal Bill Anderson. This particular incident was not one brought to the fore by the authorities after the battle.
Three British officers remained: Lt Chard of the Royal Engineers, Lt Bromhead of the Warwickshire Regiment, and Acting Assistant Commissary Dalton. They had decided to stand and fight as Dalton had stressed that in open country the Zulus would overwhelm them, and they would move slowly as they had 30 casualties to transport. Some have argued that the former NCO Dalton was the de facto commander at Rorke’s Drift. The defenders numbered 140 men, with 30 of them sick or otherwise unfit for combat.
Chard organised defensive lines with what was available – biscuit boxes and supplies bags. He reduced the defensive perimeter rapidly when Stephenson and Vause fled with their troops, and was careful to have a fall-back line in place in case the first was overwhelmed, as indeed it was.
At about 4pm the Zulus attacked, some firing from high ground nearby, others charging. The defenders opened fire when the Zulus were 400 – 500 yards away, killing many of them.
For the next 12 hours the battle raged, hand to hand fighting, sniping from a distance, and concerted efforts at key points in the defensive wall mingling in a confused and almost constant attack. Zulus crouching beneath the loopholes knocked in the walls of the hospital grabbed at protruding Martin-Henry rifles, others waited for an opportune moment and fired on the British through those same loopholes.
Perhaps the most famous aspect of the battle was the retreat through the hospital, with the Zulus forcing their way into the building and advancing room by room as the sick and their attendants held them back while knocking their way through walls of what was by then a blazing building until eventually they could flee to rejoin their comrades.
After dark the Zulu snipers joined the charges, sapping the strength of the defenders, but by 2am this part of the battle was over. The Zulus continued firing on the mission for another two hours, but by dawn they had retreated, leaving 370 dead.
The British shamefully shot or bayoneted any wounded Zulus they found on the battlefield, another aspect not highlighted by the official history, though it could be argued that the Zulus had done the same at Isandlwana the day before. At 8am the relief column arrived, and the defenders were able to rest at last. They had almost no ammunition left.
Ten Victoria Crosses were originally awarded, recipients including Chard and Bromhead. Dalton was given his VC the following year after public outcry and several reports that he had been to the fore in organising the defence rather than his two superior officers. The award of 11 VCs for one action remains a record. Among the 14 who died in or as a result of the defence were soldiers who would today have received the VC, but at that time no posthumous awards could be made.
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From Edward Davidson on 25th January 2010
Good article. Contained some information of which I was not previously aware. Enjoyed it.