The battle for this little known outpost and the deeds of its heroic defenders has become an undying example of discipline and British guts in the face of overwhelming odds. This small but famous victory overshadowed the greater defeat suffered earlier in the day by Lord Chelmsford’s army at Isandlwhana.
Rorke’s Drift, known as “Jims land” to the Zulus, or kwaJimu in their own isiZulu language, was a mission station and former trading post of James Rorke, an Irish trader. It was located near a ford, or drift, on the Buffalo River which marked the border between British held Natal and the Zulu Kingdom. Following Rorke’s death, (he shot himself in a drunken rage) a Swedish missionary, Otto Witt, purchased the post and used it as a base to bring Christianity to the natives.
The Zulu nation, under its leader Cetawayo, was a militaristic society and the British, responding to incursions into Natal, issued an ultimatum to Cetawayo demanding that he disband his army. On the 9th of January 1879, a British force under the command of Lord Chelmsford, arrived at the drift. When the British ultimatum expired on the 11th, Chelmsford moved his column to the Zulu bank in a show of force and left the post, which had been converted into a supply depot and hospital, guarded by a Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead and a small force comprising “B”Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot. This regiment was to be reformed as the South Wales Borderers some years later. Bromhead came from an army family, his father having fought at the Battle of Waterloo and his grandfather, at Saratoga. He was profoundly deaf, a disability that had severely restricted his promotion opportunities.
On the 20th of January, Chelmsford moved deeper into Zulu territory, marching to Isandlwhana, some 6 miles eastwards, leaving behind the small garrison, plus a contingent of the 2nd/3rd Natal Native Contingent of some 300 men, commanded by Captain William Stevenson. Left in overall command of the post was Brevet Major Henry Spalding of the 104th Foot. A further company, ( G Company) of the 1st/24th Foot, commanded by Captain Thomas Rainforth, was ordered from its base at Helpmekaar, ten miles to the southeast to reinforce the garrison at the drift.
Later that evening a British column under the command of Brevet Colonel Durnford arrived and camped on the Zulu side of the Buffalo, remaining there throughout the next day. On the evening of the 21st, Durnford received orders to move his column forward to Isandlwhana. Also ordered forward was a small detachment of No 5 Field Company of Royal Engineers, commanded by Lieutenant John Chard, which had arrived on the 19th to repair the pontoons that bridged the Buffalo. John Chard was born in Plymouth in 1847 and joined the army in 1868. Chard’s orders were not clearly written and on the morning of the 22nd he rode to Isandlwhana to seek clarification, from where he was ordered to return to Rorke’s Drift to construct defensive positions for the expected reinforcements arriving from Helpmekaar. On his way back he passed Durnford’s column en route for Isandlwhana.
At noon, a worried Major Spalding left the drift to search for Captain Rainforth and his now overdue force. Before leaving, Spalding consulted the Army List to find who was the most senior of the two lieutenants left at the drift and discovered that Chard had three years seniority over Bromhead. He accordingly placed Chard in temporary command of the post and, this done; he rode out and with him, his chance of military glory. Later that afternoon, two survivors from Isandlwhana, a Lieutenant Gert Adendorf of the Natal Native Contingent and a Lieutenant Vaine, arrived bearing news of the defeat and that a Zulu Impi or Regiment was on its way to the post. Vaine then rode on to warn the base at Helpmekaar.
Chard held a brief meeting with Bromhead and another of the station’s officers, Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton of the Commissariat and Transport Department, to decide the best course of action, whether to attempt a retreat to Helpmekaar or to defend the post. Dalton pointed out that a small company, slowed, by hospital carts full of patients would be easily overtaken and defeated by the fast moving and numerically superior Zulu force. It was agreed that the only acceptable course was to remain and fight. With the decision taken, Chard and Bromhead set the garrison of some 400 men to building a defensive perimeter of mealie bags connecting the hospital and the storehouse. The buildings were further fortified by loopholes knocked through the external walls to be used as firing points and the external doors were barricaded with furniture. To protect the remaining hospital patients, Bromhead detailed a guard of nine men, Privates Alfred Hook, Robert Jones, William Jones, John Williams, Joseph Williams, Frederick Hitch, John Horrigan William Allen and Thomas Cole. Some of the patients were able to bear arms and were stationed at the firing loopholes in the hospital walls.
Among the trickle of survivors arriving from Isandlwhana was a contingent of Natal Native Horse, under the command of Lieutenant Alfred Henderson. The cavalryman placed his men under Chard’s command and was ordered to deploy his troops as a picket guard behind the Oscarberg, a large hill that overlooked the station and from where the attack was expected to be made.
With several hundred men, Chard felt fairly confident that he could withstand the Zulus. With Bromhead’s redcoats, the NNC troops and Henderson’s cavalry, plus the “walking wounded” from the hospital, he had secured his perimeter.
The approaching Zulu force was vastly larger, the uDioko, uThulwana, iNdiondo regiments of married men in their 30s and 40s and iNdiuyengwe of young unmarried men numbered around 4,000. This force, often referred to as the Undi corps, did not take part in the Isandlwhana battle, but was ordered to swing around to the west to cut of any retreat by the British. By 4.30, when they had reached Rorke’s Drift, they had fast marched for 20 miles from the morning encampment they had left at 8 in the morning.
At about 4pm, the picket warned Chard that a large body of Zulus had crossed the river to the south east and “were no more than five minutes away”. Lieutenant Henderson then galloped up to the post and advised Chard that the cavalry picket would no longer obey his orders and were fleeing. This desertion must be seen however, in the light of their previous actions at Isandlwhana where they had fought well from the first and were now exhausted and low on ammunition. As the horsemen galloped by in retreat, Trooper Henry Lugg, a patient in the hospital, heard one shout as he passed, “Here they come, black as hell and thick as grass”.
Witnessing this retreat, Stevenson and his force of 300 NNC troops also opted to quit the post and fled. Outraged by this desertion, shots were fired at them by the redcoats, wounding some and killing a Corporal Anderson. From his position as a lookout on the storeroom roof, Private Fred Hitch shouted that he could see four to six thousand Zulus approaching. With typical gallows humour of the soldier, Trooper Augustus Morris from below replied, “Is that all?”.
Chard’s position was now critical. The garrison now numbered some 155 men, of these, only Bromhead’s company could be considered experienced fighting men and 39 of these were there as hospital patients, although most were able to take up arms.
With fewer men and the Zulus nearly upon them, Chard realised that he could not hold the perimeter for long. He ordered the construction of a biscuit tin wall across the middle of the post as a second defence line should he have to abandon the hospital.