The Battle of Rorke’s Drift

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Neil Thornton describes the epic battle between an assortment of British forces and Zulu warriors on 22-23 January 1879.

The Anglo-Zulu War was a short conflict, lasting from January-July 1879, but the actions within that period – specifically the two battles fought on the 22-23 January 1879 are now firmly enshrined into the annuls of British military history. They resulted in starkly contrasting outcomes, but, nevertheless, both served to show that the British soldier and the Zulu warrior were worthy adversaries, and bravery on both sides was prevalent in equal abundance.

The war began on 11 January 1879 after an ultimatum, sent to King Cetshwayo by the British across the border in Natal, met with no response by the deadline. The ultimatum was impossible to meet and the British knew it. As such, soldiers had been preparing for war, ready to cross into Zululand to topple the Zulu nation – a task that was expected to be achieved without difficulty. Three crossing points were selected, one of which was at Rorke’s Drift. Lord Chelmsford, the commanding officer of the South African force, accompanied this central column.

The column advanced across the Mzinyathi (Buffalo) River into Zululand at Rorke’s Drift on 11 January. Ten days later, after being delayed due to the poor roads and boggy conditions, they were camped just ten miles further afield at iSandlwana. Ultimately, the column would be split into two with one searching for the Zulus and the other remaining in camp and being wiped out almost to a man by the enemy’s overwhelmingly superior numbers.

Rorke’s Drift owed its name to Jim Rorke, an Irish farmer and trader who had acquired the land in 1849, on which he had built his home and accompanying storehouse. The Zulus, who knew Rorke and had dealings with him, referred to Rorke’s Drift as ‘KwaJimu’, meaning ‘Jim’s place’. Jim Rorke died in 1875 and the place was later purchased by the missionary, Otto Witt, on behalf of the Church of Sweden. Witt resided in the house, and converted the store into a chapel. By January 1879 the mission station was in the hands of the British who rented it as a line of communication and as a supply depot, utilising the house as a makeshift hospital and the chapel as a storehouse.

Much to their disappointment, B Company, 2/24th, commanded by Lieutenant Gonville ‘Gonny’ Bromhead, was detailed to remain behind to garrison the Rorke’s Drift mission station when the column advanced. Also at the station were a number of native levies who had been surplus when the Natal Native Contingent (NNC) units had been formed prior to the invasion. These men, under the direction of Captain Stevenson, numbered in the region of 200. Various others were at the post too, including Surgeon Reynolds, who was charged with running the hospital which, at the time, contained around 35 patients – the majority of whom were suffering from fever and other ailments commonly associated with campaigning in foreign climates.

Lieutenant John Chard, 5th Company, Royal Engineers, had arrived at Rorke’s Drift on 19 January in advance of their main body to operate and maintain the punts which were being used to ferry men across the river and which were located about half a mile from the mission station.

On the afternoon of 22 January, after returning from a brief visit to iSandlwana, Chard was having lunch by the punts when he saw two riders approaching from across the river. From these men he learned that the camp at iSandlwana had fallen to the Zulus. Simultaneously, Bromhead and the men at the mission station also received news of the disaster and learned that the Zulus were now approaching them. A quick discussion took place between Bromhead, Surgeon Reynolds and two men of the Commissariat Department – Senior Commissary Walter Dunne and Acting Assistant Commissary James Langley Dalton. Dalton, an ex-colour sergeant in the regular Army asserted that they should fortify and defend the post by forming a barricade, using the mealie-bags and boxes. His suggestion was quickly accepted, and the work commenced in earnest.

By the time Chard arrived, the barricades were well underway. He agreed with what was being done and thrust himself into preparing for the coming fight. A body of 100 friendly natives under Lieutenant Henderson then rode in to the post, having escaped from iSandlwana. Chard instructed them to ride out and hold up the Zulus as best they could and then return to join the defence. Initially they complied, but after firing on the Zulus they turned about and retired past the mission station to safety. This action then prompted the 200 natives stationed at Rorke’s Drift, who had been instrumental in erecting the barricades, to flee in panic, together with Captain Stevenson. With these unexpected losses, the perimeter was now far too large for their reduced numbers (approximately 155) to hold. Chard quickly devised a new line of defence by ordering the construction of a wall of boxes dividing the perimeter, giving them a fall-back position, if needed.

Private Fred Hitch was stationed as a look-out on the hospital roof and was the first to see the Zulus as they arrived. After informing Bromhead that there were several thousand Zulus upon them, Private Morris jokingly called out: “Is that all? We can manage that little lot.” The defenders fully expected to lose their lives, but they certainly did not lose their sense of humour.

The Zulu attack began at 4.30pm, headed by the iNdluyengwe. The south barricade was their target but, just 50 yards from the wall, the defenders’ heavy fire stopped them in their tracks and caused them to veer round the hospital towards the front of the post. Others sought cover behind anthills and the ovens that were outside the perimeter from where they exchanged shots with the defenders. Those that veered around the hospital threw themselves at the weak defences in front of it. They were soon over the barricades and hand-to-hand fighting broke out before they were repulsed. Bromhead and Dalton fought from here whilst Chard manned a more central position. From the south wall he observed the arrival of three other Zulu regiments – the uThulwana, iNdlondo, and uDloko. All four of the Zulu regiments involved at Rorke’s Drift were experienced veterans, and the warriors in these three regiments were in their 40s.

The Zulu reinforcements followed the approach of the iNdluyengwe and flanked the hospital before launching attacks against the north wall. Others had fanned out across the Shiyane hill overlooking the post from where they poured down a fire on the defenders, the effect of which, owing to their outdated and poorly maintained muskets, proved to be ineffective.

It soon became evident that the position in front of the hospital was untenable. The Zulus were scaling the feeble barricades and getting in amongst the men, bringing great risk to the integrity of the defence. A small barricade was hastily thrown up, linking the end of the hospital to the north wall, to which the defenders were compelled to fall back upon. As a consequence the entrance to the hospital was now extremely vulnerable and the front door, which was not barricaded, was exposed to the Zulus, who attempted to force their way in. To help the men trapped within, Bromhead led multiple bayonet charges against them to relieve pressure on his men in the building and to keep the Zulus out of the inner defence.

 

Abandoning the yard

The Zulus continued to launch their attacks against the north wall, but they were repulsed each time at the point of the bayonet. One attack, extending across the whole wall, and involving the largest number of Zulus yet, came extremely close to breaching the barricades in front of the storehouse. Men from other points in the defence had to rush across to help their comrades before the attackers were turned away. Another attack like this would surely overrun the position. As such, Chard called out for the men to abandon the yard and fall back behind the biscuit-box retrenchment wall that had been built for this purpose. Surgeon Reynolds later claimed, “But for this retrenchment our fort could not have held out five minutes longer.”

The men in the hospital were now completely isolated in a no man’s land between the defenders and attackers. A desperate fight in the building now began.

 

The hospital

Shortly before the attack, six privates of B Company – John and Joseph Williams, Henry Hook and Thomas Cole, and William and Robert Jones – were stationed in the building in pairs to protect the sick and wounded.  Besides the front which, prior to the retirement, opened into the defensive perimeter, the other sides of the building were completely out of sight of the main defence and the men here were fighting in isolation for their rooms. The outer doors opened into enemy-held territory and there were no interior doors connecting their rooms.

Henry Hook was fighting from a corner room. His mate, Thomas Cole, had exited the building early in the fight to man the barricades where he was shot in the head and killed. Hook had then retired into a neighbouring room holding a number of patients where he remained until John Williams came bursting in, shouting that the Zulus had breached his room and dragged out Joseph Williams and two patients and killed them. Having hacked through his interior wall, bringing two patients with him, John Williams’ escape had been a miraculous one.

Hook and Williams now had around ten patients with them and they were determined to carry out their orders to protect the sick. As the Zulus attempted to burst in, Hook threw himself at the door. As he fought to keep them at bay, Williams began to break through the next wall at the rear of the building. Things became decidedly worse when the Zulus set fire to the thatched roof, filling the hospital with thick, choking fumes, and lighting up the sky as darkness began to set in.

Meanwhile, the two Joneses were engaged in the defence of their two inter-connected rooms on the opposite side of the building. A small window from their end room overlooked the yard, beyond which lay the newly established defensive perimeter. Having almost expended their ammunition they were horrified when the men outside withdrew from the yard. After shouting across to their comrades outside, Surgeon Reynolds went sprinting out across the yard to the hospital and passed up a supply of cartridges before turning and running back. He received a bullet through his helmet for his troubles, as well as a Victoria Cross, but despite their timely resupply, the Joneses quickly used up their stock. After their door was breached they fought and successfully repulsed the Zulus before escaping from the window and across the yard to their comrades outside. They were able to extract all but one patient – the delirious Sergeant Maxfield, who refused to leave and was stabbed to death by the Zulus.

The Joneses had already evacuated by the time Williams reached the end rooms. Following the same escape route through the window, Williams began to assist the patients out, whilst Hook continued to stall the Zulus, dragging a man – Connolly, who had a broken leg – with him as he retired through the rooms.

Through the efforts of these four hospital defenders, many of the patients were saved. They each received the Victoria Cross for their efforts.

 

The storehouse compound

As the men in the hospital were desperately fighting for their lives, those outside were doing the same. After the withdrawal from the yard the main defence was now situated inside a small perimeter in front of the storehouse, consisting of the north wall barricade, the cattle kraal, the storehouse and the biscuit-box retrenchment. They were now stronger and more compact, with sufficient men to man the barricades without any gaps. They were, however, a much tighter target and with the Zulus now able to man the opposite sides of the abandoned barricades, the incoming gunfire was much more effective than it had been earlier.

A number of casualties were inflicted on the garrison at a critical point in the barricade. This corner section – where the north wall met the biscuit-box barricade – was a precarious position to hold. As such, Bromhead personally led the defence from here and almost all the men who stood with him were shot down. Other gunshot casualties followed, caused by the Zulus, who were crouched behind the abandoned defences and surrounding cover. Curiously, not a single man lost his life from an assegai whilst manning the barricades and besides those men who were involved in the hospital fighting, just one man – Sergeant Smith – was wounded by one.

Corporal William Allen and Private Fred Hitch were two other men who stood out for their gallantry during the battle. After retiring from his position on the south wall, Allen had taken up a post behind the biscuit boxes. Hitch was on the opposite side with Bromhead but, together, the two men temporarily scaled the steps to the storehouse attic to cover the hospital evacuations. Both men went on to be wounded.

The light from the burning hospital illuminated the Zulus in this area and they were shot down by the defenders on the biscuit-box wall. The Zulu charges continued and one sustained attack against the north wall came very close to cracking the defence. Hitch later said that he thought, “They made up their minds to take Rorke’s Drift with this rush.” They came very close to succeeding too. During this struggle, one Zulu was about to spear Bromhead but Hitch spotted the threat and quickly bluffed the warrior by pointing his unloaded rifle at him whilst shouting to get his attention. The Zulu panicked, hopped over the barricade and made off. Hitch was then wounded by a gunshot that completely shattered his shoulder but Bromhead saw him fall and returned the favour by shooting down the Zulu before he could finish Hitch off. Eventually, the Zulus were beaten back and they retired into the surrounding scrub once again.

Shortly after 7pm, after failing to crack the north wall, the Zulus began to assault other points in the defence, chiefly the cattle kraal and storehouse which they attempted to set alight. There were two piles of surplus mealie-bags stacked in front of the store, and Chard ordered them to be converted into a redoubt from which a number of men could fire on the Zulus over the heads of their comrades at the barricades. It could also hold the wounded and be used as a last bastion if and when the end came. But the end did not come.

As the night wore on the hand-to-hand fighting died down, but the Zulus still surrounded the post and continued to pour their fire at the defenders. The night was spent on full alert but when daylight broke it was discovered that the Zulus had retired. In the morning they appeared on a nearby hill and it was suspected that they were planning on recommencing their attacks, but instead they made off across the border. Unbeknown to the defenders at the time, the Zulus had spotted Lord Chelmsford’s half-column approaching, and this had prompted their retirement.

 

The aftermath

The defenders suffered 15 dead with a further two dying of wounds. Many more were wounded, and eleven men were awarded the Victoria Cross for their gallantry. Although there are no definitive figures on Zulu losses, it is distinctly possible that they suffered close to 1,000 casualties all told.

It is often stated that the importance of Rorke’s Drift was exaggerated in order to stem the backlash from the iSandlwana debacle. From primary reports, accounts and letters written by those who were there, there is little doubt that, at the time, it was believed that an invasion of Natal had been averted at Rorke’s Drift. However, the threat of an invasion was probably never really a reality. Prince Dabulamanzi had been intent on a raid across the border to appease the bloodlust of the Zulus he led, who had been kept in reserve at iSandlwana. By crossing into Natal, they had directly disobeyed King Cetshwayo’s orders not to cross the border in fear of acting as the aggressor.

It is also debated whether or not the eleven Victoria Crosses were a smokescreen for the disaster, but when each one is assessed on its merits, it is quite evident that they were fully justified.

Of all the disputes and complexities thrown up by the battles of 22-23 January 1879, there is one aspect that cannot be questioned, and that is the bravery and tenacity displayed by both the British soldier and the Zulu warrior.

 

You can read about the medals awarded at Rorke's Drift here.

 

Check out the development and use of the iconic Martini-Henry rifle here.

 

See about collecting the Zulu weapons here.