A Time for Heroes: The Battle of Rorke's Drift 1879
Updated: Nov 15, 2019
The Battle of Rorke's Drift 1879
Following the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, the British awarded 11 Victoria Crosses (VC’s) to the defenders of Rorke’s Drift. 11 Victoria Crosses is still to this very day, the largest number of VCs ever awarded for any one single engagement, anywhere in the world!
For 12 long exhausting hours of death and carnage, a handful of British soldiers, 139 to be exact, stood off wave after wave of Zulu warrior attacks at a little mission turned into a depot store and farm house made into a field hospital near the Buffalo River in Natal Province, South Africa in 1879.
The Zulu’s were out for more blood as there had already been bloodshed that day. The Zulus were fresh off from the slaughter of over 1,000 British troops under Lord Chelmsford at his advance camp at Isandlwana, and now they were heading to Rorke's Drift looking for more British blood. The men at Rorke’s Drift had learned of the slaughter of their fellow comrades at the hands of the Zulus at Isandlwana. Now they (the Zulus) were coming their way. The decision was made to stay and fight as opposed to fleeing Rorke’s Drift and being caught on open ground and dying at the hands of thousands of Zulu warriors and their already blood-soaked spears.
The British garrison (primarily Welsh soldiers of the 24th Regiment Foot) under the command Lieutenants John Chard (who himself had only just arrived at Rorke’s drift the few days before) and Gonville Bromhead set about building up a defensive position against the approaching Zulus with the stains of British blood on the spears and with the thoughts of more. The tents were struck, and looped firing holes were cut into the buildings as a hasty barricade was erected outside connecting the buildings that was made of any materials that could be found at hand. Lt Chard also quickly had a new barricade of biscuit boxes built from the corner of the storehouse to the front wall.
About 4,000 Zulu warriors under the command of Zulu King Cetshwayo's brother, Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande crossed the Mzinyathi River at a point above Fugitives' Drift and advanced towards Rorke’s Drift. The Zulus took up positions around the drift and then started their attack about 4:30 pm on the 22nd. The Zulus fired down on the defenders from the terraces above (their fire was somewhat ineffective because of the Zulus poor shooting skills, many using rifles they had just taken from dead British soldiers) and behind the drift, but this was countered with the typical British well-controlled volley firing (a rank of soldiers firing at once, then followed by another rank and then another). At the same time, the Zulus charged toward the drifts outer defensive positions like a pack of demons only to be turned back by the fire power of British rifles. Prince Dabulamanzi encouraged his warriors to attack en masse rather than attacking in small groups and as repeated attacks were launched, each attack failed. In the meantime, the Zulu rifle fire from the high ground above the drift was starting to have an influence on the drift’s defenders, even though the Zulus were at best, were very poor shots.
Lieutenant Chard needed to consolidate his position, so he ordered the abandoning of the hospital and consolidated his remaining men to his defensive perimeter. In the hospital, the outnumbered defenders withdrew from the hospital room by room by chopping holes in the walls to retreat to each next room until they escaped the hospital. This hectic withdrawal saw many heroic acts of bravery that day, and as the roof of the hospital had been set ablaze by the Zulus, this had resulted in the deaths of a few of the defenders. With excellent cover fire by the riflemen of the Welsh 24th Foot, the hospital escapees were able to cross the open ground between the hospital and the now new perimeter to join their fellow comrades.
The Zulus continued their attacks on the defenders with wave after wave of howling Zulu warriors crashing headlong into the Chard’s defenses. (Zulu stabbing spears and animal skin shields against cold hardened steel British Martini Henry breech loading rifles and bullets from behind barricades). The drifts defender's rifle fire was so intense that day that their gun barrels turned red-hot from the heat of battle. For those that could not fight, they passed out ammunition to those that could. Lt. Chard ordered a final stand to be built. The defenders quickly erected a last-ditch barricade in front of the depot store as it looked as if the end could come at any time. With the help of gun fire from the high ground, the Zulus were able to occupy a stone kraal on the east side of the perimeter putting extreme pressure on the defenders. The battle was fierce and at times it was almost a like a bloody hand-to-hand contest of wills to win that continued until about midnight with both sides being bloodied. The Zulu attacks began to slowly weaken throughout the remainder of the night due to the sheer exhaustion of the fight itself and the constant unsuccessful deadly headlong charging of the Chard’s defensive position. The fighting finally ended in the early morning hours of the 23rd, around 4 am.
Almost 500 Zulu warriors lay dead in front of them along with 15 of their fellow British defenders and another 12-lay wounded.
As the sun broke that morning over a now quiet and eerie Rorke’s Drift. The drifts defenders could then see the blood and carnage that lay before them of the battle’s aftermath. Almost 500 Zulu warriors lay dead in front of their eyes, along with 15 of their fellow British defenders and another 12-lay wounded. Two of which would later die of their wounds resulting in 17 dead defenders. About 7 am that morning, the Zulus did reappear, but they did not attack, they instead, just sit down on the ground and rested for a while on the western side of the drift. As drift’s defenders began to prepare themselves for what they thought would be another day of bloody battle and maybe the end for them. They were surprised to see the Zulu warriors slowly get up and begin to retreat to the Mzinyathi River from where they had come and then back into their own lands. The Zulus retreated only a few hundred yards away from where Lord Chelmsford had just arrived with the remainder of his command. The bloodshed was over for that day, at least.
The British would continue onward to win the Zulu wars, but nothing could overshadow the bravery of the defenders of Rorke’s Drift on that day. In the end, when you have no choice but to fight, when flight is useless and could mean your own destruction. Never give up and remember, that once, 139 brave men stood against 4,000 fierce Zulu battle hardened warriors and lived to tell their story.
Victoria Cross Awardees: The Battle of Rorke’s Drift 22 to 23 Jan 1879
Alfred Hook 24th Regiment Foot
Christian Schiess 3rd Natal Native Contingent
Frederick Hitch 24th Regiment Foot
Gonville Bromhead 24th Regiment Foot
James Dalton Commissariat and Transport Department