On 22 January 1879, one of the world’s most remarkable military engagements took place. It was a short, but intense, battle in what is known as the Anglo- Zulu Wars. For two days, some 150 British soldiers defended Rorke’s Drift mission station from an estimated 4,000 Zulu warriors.
The British Empire wished to annex the Zulu Kingdom in South Africa. The entire war lasted only five months. The Zulus decisively won the first of the engagements at the Battle of Isandlwana, but the British knew the final victory. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift occurred some two weeks into the war. 150 British and colonial soldiers spent two days defending their garrison against 4,000 Zulu warriors.
Britain was intent on expanding its territory and influence in South Africa in the 1870s and had declared war on the Kingdom of Zululand. Rorke’s Drift was a mission station — named for James Rorke, an Irish merchant who once ran a trading post there, near the border between the British colony of Natal and the Zulu Kingdom. At the beginning of the war, the British had set up camp there, transforming two bungalows on the site into a supply depot and hospital. When the British troops departed to engage the Zulus in the Battle of Isandlwana, “B” Company was left behind to guard the garrison. Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead was the “B” Company leader. When the Battle of Rorke’s Drift began, though, only 139 soldiers were encamped there. They had no idea how their defense of the mission station would change their lives and history.
Having suffered a devastating defeat at Isanlwana, losing 1300 of the 1800 soldiers involved to an army carrying spears, not guns. Major Henry Spalding and some of those under his command when to look for the British forces when the troops did not return from the battle. He left Rorke’s Drift in the command of Lieutenant John Chard. Unfortunately, for Chard, two British soldiers delivered the news of the British defeat at Isanlwana and the warning that the Zulu Impi (army) was heading for the station. The small company remaining in the mission station had little choice but to set up their defenses. They could not “outrun” the Zulus in their own territory, and it was too dangerous to move the hospital patients. Chard, Bromhead, and other officers at the garrison ordered sacks of corn and biscuit boxes be used to create a crude defensive perimeter, knocked firing holes through the walls of the site’s buildings and barricading the doors with furniture.
As preparations were nearing completion, a group of cavalry on retreat from Isandlwana arrived and offered to take position on a hill near the station in the direction the Zulus would be coming from. They added their numbers to between 100 and 350 foot soldiers from Natal who had been ordered to remain at the garrison to support B Company. At this point there were several hundred men in the vicinity of Rorke’s Drift, including ‘walking wounded’ in the hospital, and Chard felt his force was sufficient to stave off the coming threat.
The site Sabaton provides us with this account of the battle: “But the Zulu force was much larger than feared, comprising 3,000 to 4,000 reserve troops who had not even seen combat in the previous day’s battle and were fresh and fit. The cavalry on the hill engaged the first of the Zulus but, tired and running low on ammunition, they fled. On seeing this, the soldiers from Natal and their commander also turned and ran, leaving B Company and the hospital patients alone. Some members of B Company were so angry that they fired after the deserters, killing one of them.
“With the defending force now down to just over 150 men inside the garrison, Chard ordered a hasty reorganisation of the defences to create a fall-back position for the defenders, and at 4.30pm the first group of 600 Zulus attacked. With few guns, the Zulus resorted to crouching under the defensive wall, trying to grab the British rifles or stab and slash with their spears. In places they climbed over each other’s bodies to try to drive the British off the wall, but were driven back.
“After some time, it was clear the wall could not hold under the sheer volume of attackers, so Chard began pulled his men back toward the inner perimeter and the hospital. A melee ensued, with Zulus grabbing for the British rifles whenever they were put through the firing holes, or trying to fire their own weapons through them into the hospital. At some point the hospital roof was set ablaze. As the entrance to each room in the hospital gave way, the defenders would hack their way through the wall to retreat into the neighbouring room, pulling the hospital patients through with them. Eventually they made it through to the other side and made a break across the yard to the fall-back barricades.
“The Zulus kept up their assault long into the night. The attacks began to subside after midnight but did not cease fully until 2am. By then, the garrison had lost 14 men, with 10 others suffering serious wounds. They had fought for 10 hours and had just 900 rounds of ammunition remaining from the 20,000 that had been stored at the mission.
“Fortunately, when dawn broke, the Zulus were gone; for them it had not been a planned raid but an opportunistic one. As the garrison began picking up the pieces from the night before, another Impi of Zulus suddenly appeared and they rushed to man their positions again. These Zulus, however, had been on the march for days and were carrying wounded comrades, and they left the way they had come. An hour later another group of soldiers appeared and the positions were manned again – but these turned out to be the relief force from the next garrison.
“Eleven of the defenders of Rorke’s Drift were awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military honour for bravery. It was the most ever awarded for a single action by one regiment. Some commentators suggested it was a way of drawing the British public’s attention away from the embarrassing defeat at Isandlwana the preceding day, however many more have challenged that assumption, with the battle capturing popular imagination and inspiring generations of artists and authors. The most famous depiction of Rorke’s Drift in popular culture is the 1964 film Zulu, produced by Stanley Baker and starring a young Michael Caine.”
According to On This Day, “At 4.20 PM on January 22, 1879 a force of 4,000 Zulu warriors began to lay siege to the station. Their intermittent attacks were to last for almost twelve hours. Fortunately for the British, although some of the Zulus had old muskets and antiquated rifles, most were armed only with a short spear called an assegai and a shield made of cowhide. So in weaponry they were no match for the highly trained soldiers with their (then) sophisticated rifles and firepower. But the manpower advantage lay massively in favour of the Zulus.
“By 4 AM, after nearly 12 hours repulsing wave after wave of attacks involving hand-to-hand combat, a number of British soldiers lay dead. Most of the others were exhausted, rapidly running out of ammunition, and probably in no condition to repel another assault. But they didn’t have to. As dawn broke they saw that the Zulus were gone, leaving behind a battleground littered with the dead and dying. Zulu casualties were around 500, while the British sustained 17 dead and 10 wounded.”
The Victoria Cross is Britain’s highest medal for bravery. Eleven were awarded to the defenders of Rorke’s Drift – the most ever received in a single action by one regiment.
NOTE! The song Rorke’s Drift can be found on Sabaton’s 2016 album The Last Stand. You may listen to the song HERE.