The Battle of Rorke’s Drift

It was the greatest stand in British military history.

Frederic Augustus Thesiger, Second Baron Chelmsford, was promoted to major general in March 1877, and appointed to command British forces in South Africa with the temporary rank of lieutenant general in February 1878. In January of 1889, Henry Bartle Frere [1], a personal friend of Thesiger, engineered a war against the Zulu nation, then led by King Cetshwayo, previously a associate of the British Empire by treaty.  Consequently, Lord Chelmsford initiated a military expedition against the Zulu nation. On 22 January 1879, a large Zulu army attacked Chelmsford’s force at Isandlwana, overwhelming the British and destroying Chelmsford’s central (albeit separated) military column.  The attack was unexpected and the worst defeat of the British Army by native forces in the entire history of the British Empire.

On 11 January 1879, Company B, 2ndBattalion, 24th(2ndWarwickshire) Regiment of foot, under the command of Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead was detailed to garrison a post along the Buffalo River abutting the Zulu borderland.  The post had been turned into a supply depot and hospital under the overall command of Brevet Major Henry Spalding of the 104thFoot, a member of Chelmsford’s staff.

On 20 January, Chelmsford’s central (Number 3) column marched six miles further east, leaving Company B in charge of the garrison at Rorke’s Drift (in the local language, known as Jim’s land), a Christian mission station and the trading post of James Rorke, an Irish merchant. A company of the 2ndNatal Native Contingent (NCC) under Captain William Stevenson was detailed to remain at the post to reinforce Company B.  The NCC company numbered about 100 locally recruited militia. Later that evening, a contingent of Number 2 Colum under Brevet Colonel Anthony Dumford (Royal Engineers) arrived and camped along the river bank, where it remained through the next day.

Late in the evening of the next day (21 January), Dumford was ordered to Isandlwana, along with a small detachment of British Engineers under the command of Lieutenant John Chard.  Chard’s mission was to repair the pontoon bridge over the Buffalo River.  Chard rode ahead of his detachment to Isandlwana to clarify his orders, but was sent back to Rorke’s Drift with only a wagon and its driver to construct a defense for the expected reinforcement of a company of infantry.  En route, he passed Dumford’s column going in the opposite direction.

Sometime around noon on 22 January, Major Spalding departed the station for Helpmekaar to ascertain the whereabouts of Company G, which was overdue in its arrival.  He left Chard in command.  Not long after, two members of the NCC arrived at Rorke’s Drift with news of the defeat at Isandlwana.  Chard and Bromhead were informed that a large force of Zulu warriors was not far behind. Together with Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton, Chard and Bromhead decided that given their few wagons and the number of hospital patients at the mission, it would be best to stand and defend rather than to attempt a cross country withdrawal.

Rorkes Drift 002
Defense of Rorke’s Drift Station taken from the public domain

Chard, as senior officer with Bromhead serving as second in command, ordered preparations to defend the station.  Working quickly, a defensive perimeter was constructed out of sacks of maize and wooden biscuit boxes.  The perimeter included the storehouse, the hospital, and a stout stone cattle enclosure. The buildings were fortified with firing holes; external doors were barricaded with furniture.  Around 1530 on 22 January, a mixed troops of Natal Native Horse (NNH) arrived under Lieutenant Alfred Henderson, having withdrawn from Isandlwana in good order.  Henderson volunteered to picket the far side of Rorke’s Drift, a large hill that overlooked the station and from the expected avenue of approach of Zulu forces.  Chard was now in charge of around 400 men: Bromhead’s 104-man company, Stevenson’s NNC, and Henderson’s NNH troop, with a mixed bag of others (most of whom were hospitalized patients but regarded as walking-wounded).  A trooper of horse was sent to warn the garrison at Helpmekaar.

Chard believing that his force was sufficient to defend Rorke’s Drift, posted British soldiers around the perimeter, adding among them, hospitalized casuals and available civilians.  The NCC, armed mostly with spears, were posted outside the perimeter but within the stone-walled corral.  When the Zulu finally appeared, Chard must have been aghast at their numbers: between 4 to 6,000 men, none of whom had been involved in the assault at Isandlwana. It was a reserve force commanded by King Cetshwayo’s brother, Prince Dabulamanzl kaMpande.  By the time Dabulamanzl reached Rorke’s Drift, at around 1630, they had quick-marched some 20 miles in eight hours.

The Zulu were armed with a short spear and shield made from cowhide. As a force, they were tactically proficient and strategically efficient.  Some of the Zulus had antiquated muskets, but they were ill-trained in the use of this weapon and the quality and supply of powder and shot was inadequate.  Most warriors preferred the spear, since the use of firearms was regarded as cowardly. Nevertheless, Dabulamanzl was a rash and overly aggressive commander.  He disregarded Cetshwayo’s directive to act “in defense of Zululand” against the British. He was specifically told not to carry the war across the border of Zululand, which would have included Rorke’s Drift on the opposite side of the Buffalo River.

The follow sequence of events then transpired, this according to author Jonathon Mayo [2].

  • The Zulu were formidable, well-disciplined, and adept in hand to hand fighting. Their main weapon is the short spear, called “Iklwa” because that’s the sound it makes when pulled from an opponent’s body.  As the first Zulu arrive at the Buffalo River, they are fired on by British pickets serving under Lieutenant Henderson.  Henderson’s force, intimidated by the large force, make a rapid withdrawal.  Henderson shouts his apologies to Chard.  When the remaining NNC soldiers at the mission observe their fellows retreating, they leap over the barricades and join them.  The men of Company B fire upon the cowards, killing a British corporal.
  • Zulu scouts report that the station is weakly defended and full of stores of weapons and food. Dabulamanzl believes that such rich stores will be easy for the taking.
  • Chard realizes that the well-prepared perimeter was designed for a force of around 200 men; 100 of these have just ran away, leaving him with a force of only one-hundred. He orders Company B to construct a new barricade behind the previous structure; this will allow him a secondary position, if needed.  Private Fred Hitch is sent to the roof of the storehouse as a lookout.  At 1630, Hitch announces the arrival of the Zulu force.  Lieutenant Chard asks, “How many.”  Hitch’s answer, “Between 4,000 and 6,000 sar.”  Lieutenant Bromhead answers, “Is that all?  We can manage that.”
  • 28-year-old Private Henry Hook observes the Zulu speed of approach. It is as if they expect little resistance.  He announces their approach to the hospitalized men.  Although sick or injured, some of these men ask for weapons so that they can defend themselves.  Hook and five casuals are assigned to defend areas so small that “…you could hardly swing a rifle within them.”  When the enemy is within 500 yards, Hook and others begin to fire their rifles.  The Zulus continue the speed of march (a running trot).  They remain completely silent.  Within 300 yards, the Zulu force takes shelter behind large boulders on the rise across the Buffalo.
  • By 1700, Zulus mass in front and behind the Mission Station. They begin their assault by leaping over a garden wall and charging British positions. Dozens of Zulus in front of the perimeter are killed but are quickly replaced by second and tertiary ranks.  The attack continues; Zulus continue to fall, either killed or mortally wounded.  Private James Dunbar shoots one of the Zulu leader’s dead; Prince Dabulamanzl takes cover behind a tree only one-hundred yards from the perimeter and directs the ongoing attack from this near-in position.
  • By 1715, wave after wave of Zulu were hurtling themselves at the barricades. The length of the British bayonetted rifles provides them with a distinct advantage. Private Hicks descended from the roof of the storehouse to join the fray.
  • At 1730, rifled Zulus took up positions to fire upon the British; their weapons were inaccurate at that range and there were no casualties. Commissary James Dalton begins pacing behind the front rank offering calm-voiced encouragement to his men.  A Zulu warrior rushed the front rank; Dalton directed fire at the fellow and he was killed. Second later, Dalton was wounded in his shoulder.  Calmly handing his rifle to Lieutenant Chard, Dalton is led to the rear for medical attention before Chard is even aware that he’d been injured.  Within moments, however, Dalton is back at his post —his calm voice giving confidence to the riflemen.  Private Hook later wrote of Dalton, “…the bravest man I ever knew.”
  • Rorkes Drift 001
    Artist unknown, discovered via internet search engine

    By 1800, two British soldiers had been killed with four others wounded. Still, Company B was in grave danger of being overwhelmed by the onslaught of Zulu warriors. Lieutenant Chard ordered his men to take up their secondary positions as the Zulu surround the hospital. At 1820, Privates Hook and Thomas Cole were defending a corner room in the hospital. Hook described the ordeal as being like “trapped rats in a hole.”  One of the patients begs hook to remove the bandages from his hands so he can use a rifle.  Cole, who is claustrophobic, forces open a door and is immediately killed. The Zulu begin throwing torches on the thatched roof.  Hook, with no wish to be burned alive, slips through a door into the next room.  His situation has not improved.

  • At 1830, chaos reigns within the hospital as the Zulu break down the barricaded doors. Private Joseph Williams and four patients are killed.  In the next room, Hook is fighting like a cornered tiger, bayoneting and shooting any Zulu he sees.  Private John Williams soon joined Hook, bringing with him a pickaxe. Williams begins to punch a hole in the wall furthest from the attackers.  The last patient left alive is Sergeant John Connolly, a large man who suffered a broken leg.  Hook crawls through the small hole made by Williams, grabbed Williams by his coat, and pulled him through the small opening.  Connolly’s leg is re-broken in the process, but he’s alive.  As Hook and Connolly exited the room, Zulus broke into the room and in a fit of rage, attempt to spear Hook through the opening. Hook kills as many as show their faces in the aperture.  Again, Williams begins to axe his way through the furthest wall.
  • By 1915, Hook, Williams, and the rest of the survivors have reached a room at the far end of the hospital building, closest to their fellows defending the storehouse. The room has a window barely big enough to get a man through.  The flames atop the building allow the men to see that they are fifty yards from the storehouse, but the yard is being raked by British and Zulu rifles.  The first man out of the window is Private Hunter, promptly killed by a Zulu spear. Lieutenant Chard called for two volunteers to help rescue the Hook party.  Private Fred Hitch and Corporal William Allen leap over the barrier and rush to the aid of their comrades; British soldiers provide covering fire. One by one, Hitch and Allen pull the men through the window as Private Hook remained inside killing Zulus with their bayonets.  They have run out of ammunition.
  • By 2000, all remaining redcoats have escaped from the hospital building and joined their fellows behind the barricades.Zulus butcher what remain of the hospital patients who didn’t get away.
  • By 2030, Prince Dabulamanzl’s force is assured of victory. He orders an assault of the storehouse, which is furthest away from the burning building, allowing his men to fight under the cover of darkness.  Lieutenant Chard realizes that his position is getting worse by the minute.  Company B will not be able to survive if the storehouse falls.  He orders his troopers to construct an 8-foot high redoubt from available sacks of maize.  The redoubt is constructed within ten minutes and the wounded are carried inside.  Now the British soldiers form a protective circle within the redoubt and they begin to deliver accurate fire over the heads of the soldiers firing from the barricade.
  • At 2100, the Zulu attack comes to a halt as a force of British appear in the distance from Natal. Reinforcements never arrive, however.  The British force can see the burning buildings and, assuming that Company B has been destroyed, retreat back to Natal.
  • At midnight on 23 January, the British have been without water for more than eight hours. To relieve their suffering, Chard orders a small detail to retrieve the water cart situated halfway between the ruins of the hospital and the storehouse. Private Henry Block and two others attack the Zulu who remain inside the yard and pull the wagon toward the redoubt and the men are promptly watered.
  • By 0100, both sides are exhausted. Zulu attacks are becoming less ferocious—they have had nothing to eat or drink for over 17 hours.  Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead have no idea what is going on outside the barricades.  It is pitch black.  The din of battle has subsided.  In turn, the officers climb to the highest part of the redoubt to watch and listen. Chard later reported, “It was an anxious watch.”
  • By 0330, excepting an occasional gunshot and a cry from the suffering, the battle area is completely quiet.
  • Sunrise came at 0520. As the sun lights the surrounding area, Chard and Bromhead observe that the Zulu have gone.  All that remained were pools of blood, dead bodies, broken spears, spent cartridges, and damaged shields.  A cloud of smoke hangs over Rorke’s Drift.
  • At 0600, Private Hook approached a sentry who stood near the barricade looking across the river. Hook asked, “What are you looking at?”  The soldier didn’t respond, so Hook tilted his helmet back. The man has been shot through the head and died at his post.
  • At 0700, Chard set his men back to work repairing barricades. Suddenly, a thousand Zulus appear from the southwest and perch themselves on the grass hill overlooking Rorke’s Drift.  Chard and Bromhead call their men back behind the barrier, but they are aware that ammunition is perilously short.  Another attack will be fatal to Company B.
  • 0800 arrived and there had been no activity among the Zulu. After an intense hour, the Zulu arise and begin walking away.  Chard and Bromhead are baffled until they observe a column of men approaching in the distance.  Private Hook wondered aloud: “Are they friends to relieve us, or more Zulus to destroy us?”  They were British mounted rifles.  Surgeon Reynolds surmised that the weary Zulu had no desire to clash with fresh troops.

It had been a long day.  Lieutenant Chard was refreshing himself with the water from the Buffalo River when Lord Chelmsford [3] approached him.  The general was emotional in thanking Company B for their heroic service under insufferable circumstances.  The biscuit boxes that saved Company B were opened and the men finally fed.  A barrel of rum is shared among the men.  Private Hook, who doesn’t drink … changed his mind on this one occasion.

The Zulu situation was equally dire: they had been on the move for six days; had not eaten for two.  Within their ranks were hundreds of wounded and they were several days away from any supply.  Of killed in action were 351 confirmed deaths, but this number may have increased to 500.  The British relief force did not spare the wounded Zulu; additional deaths may have resulted from among the wounded carried away by the main body of Zulu warriors.

British losses were 17 killed, 15 wounded.

Victoria CrossThe Victoria Cross (VC) is the most prestigious award in the British honors system.  Created on 29 January 1856, its recipients are cited for gallantry in the presence of the enemy.  Since established, only 1,358 brave men have received this award.  Eleven of these men distinguished themselves in this one battle.

The names of these men are:

Lieutenant John Rouse Merriott Chard, 5thField Company, Royal Engineers

Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, Company B, 2nd/24thFoot

Corporal William Wilson Allen, Company B, 2nd/24thFoot

Private Frederick Hitch, Company B, 2nd/24thFoot

Private Alfred Henry Hook, Company B, 2nd/24thFoot

Private Robert Jones, Company B, 2nd/24thFoot

Private William Jones, Company B, 2nd/24thFoot

Private John Williams, Company B, 2nd/24thFoot

Surgeon Major James Henry Reynolds, Army Medical Department

Acting Assistant Commissary James Langley Dalton, Commissariat and Transport Department

Corporal Christian Ferdinand Schiess, 2ndNatal Native Contingent

Endnotes:

[1] 1815-1884, British colonial administrator, who enjoyed a successful career in India, became the governor of Bombay.  As high commissioner for Southern Africa, Frere, he implemented a policy which attempted to impose a British confederation in the region that led to a series of regional wars, culminating in the invasion of Zululand and the First Boar War (1879-1881).  British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone recalled Frere to London to face charges of misconduct.  He was eventually censured for his reckless behavior while in the service of Queen Victoria.

[2] Author of Titanic Minute by Minute, this section obtained from the Daily Mail, 15 January 2019.

[3] The British Government was not happy with Chelmsford’s performance as a field commander. The foreign office issued orders for his relief but the delay in securing his replacement left him in command, which in turn led to the Zulu War.  Chelmsford finally handed over command to Wolseley on 15 July at the fort at St. Paul’s, leaving South Africa by ship for England two days later.  Despite of his incompetence, Chelmsford was honored as a Knight Grand Cross of Bath —even though he was severely criticized by a subsequent inquiry initiated by the British Army into the events that had led to the Isandlwana debacle.  Lord Chelmsford would not again serve in the field.

8 thoughts on “The Battle of Rorke’s Drift”

  1. I think history shows that Chard was the key leader at this particular moment. Afterward he did not live up to that reputation, perhaps because he was considered socially below that of other senior officers of the time. Whether or not that is true, we currently see warriors second guessed for battle outcomes by civilians and politicians.
    Thankfully Chard and his troopers were recognized for their stand against staggering odds.

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  2. I must have watched ZULU 4-5 times. Also bought and read the book Washing of the Spears. Lots to be gained by reading military history and even watching some movies. I made it through RVN for two main reasons: blind good luck and I had read so many non fiction military history books before opting to volunteer to come back on active duty in mid 1966, having already done 7 years active duty and receiving an Honorable Discharge in Feb 65. I enrolled in PLC two days after returning to home of record in Feb 65. Well, you know the Marine was my family as a kid and I had to go back in. I wonder what would my life would have been like if I had stayed in college and get commissioned through PLC?

    At any rate much, much more reading of history ought be required. One can learn from the mistakes and successes of the past. However, we mostly don’t and pay bitter prices for it.

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  3. I’m a bit of a gun nut.
    The troops of the 24th were armed with the .577-450-caliber, falling block, Martini-Henry standard infantry rifle. it was a single shot breech loading by means of a lever which ran underneath the trigger group, which dropped the rear portion of the breach–falling block–, partially extracting a spent cartridge and provided a ramp to insert a new load. The rifle was 54 inches long with a barrel length of 33.2 inches, it weighed nine pounds. The rear sight was graduated to 1,400 yards –rather an over-optimistic estimation of the rifles accuracy at that range–. The standard load of the .577-450 cartridge was a .450-caliber paper-patched lead bullet weighing 480 grains, with 85 grains of black powder, and a muzzle velocity of 1,350 fps. –think slightly greater than Sharps .45/70 rifle ballistics–. It had quite a hefty kick. Enlisted men were issued a triangular bayonet with a 21½-inch blade. The rate of fire was somewhere between 12 to 14 rounds per minute.
    It was reported, that during the repeated Zulu attacks in the night, the men loaded and fired their rifles as fast as they could, causing the thin forestocks to become so hot that they had to be wrapped with rags to keep the men from burning their hands.

    Mustang, my friend, thank you once again for this wonderful piece of history.

    Warren

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