Wars, Battles & Campaigns

Rorke’s Drift

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.

The leader of the Zulu force was Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande, the brother of the Zulu king Cetawayo.  Keen for some of the glory which would cover those who had fought at Isandlwhana, he had ignored his brother’s orders to fight only in defence and within kwaZulu and led his men across the Buffalo River into Natal. The Zulus advanced, chanting their war cries and stopping every so often to stamp their feet in unison and making the very ground shake. What the small band of soldiers felt at the sight of this fearsome force advancing on them can only be imagined. The first attack was directed at the rear of the hospital. The British opened fire at 450 paces as the Zulus swept round the outpost and concentrated their efforts on the north wall while some others with weapons captured from the battle at Isandlwhana, began firing from the lower slopes of the Oscarberg. Trooper Lugg later recounted, “I had the satisfaction of seeing the first man I fired at roll over at 350 and then my nerves were as steady as a rock: there was some of the best shooting at 450 yards that I had ever seen”.

The barricades proved too high for the attackers to climb and they crouched beneath the walls and grabbed at the rifles of the defenders while others fired through gaps in the wall. Climbing on the bodies of the fallen, the Zulus tore at the parapet and the defenders were soon engaged in desperate hand to hand fighting, the Zulus using their short stabbing spear, the Assegai, known in Zulu as an Ixlwa,, a word produced by the clicking of the tongue against the roof of the mouth and said to imitate the sound of the spear being withdrawn from an enemy’s flesh. The British troops were armed with the Martini Henry 570/450 calibre breach loading rifle with its wicked 21 inch triangular sectioned bayonet. The Zulu fire from those at the wall and on the Oscarberg caused some casualties and was responsible for five of the seventeen British deaths in the action.

Privates Horrigan and the two Williams’ tried to defend the hospital entrance with rifle and bayonet. Joseph Williams positioned himself beside a small window from where he fired at the attackers, 14 dead Zulus were later found beneath the window.

Chard realised that the north wall could not withstand the sheer power of attack and at 6pm ordered his men to retreat into the biscuit barrel defence line and abandoned the two front rooms of the hospital which had become untenable. The loopholes in the walls had become a liability, the attackers grabbing the rifle barrels as they poked through and firing into the rooms when the defender’s fire slackened.

It was clear that the hospital building was being overrun and John Williams began to hack an escape hole in the wall between his central room and a small corner room on the inner wall of the hospital. The Zulus battered at the door to the central room and Williams was only able to drag two bedridden patients to safety before the door gave way. The room to where he escaped was occupied by Private Hook and nine patients. Williams began to hack through the wall to the next room, occupied by Private Waters, as Hook held the Zulus off with his bayonet. Williams made a hole big enough for the defenders to escape through before the Zulus could reach them, while Hook killed three of them before diving through. The bravery of these men was outstanding with Zulus outside and inside, their position looked hopeless.  The roof was now on fire and Williams again attacked an inner wall while Waters continued to fire through the loophole and Hook gallantly held the enemy off, stabbing any who attempted to crawl through the hole in the far wall After fifty minutes the hole was large enough to drag the patients through and all the men, save Privates Waters and Becket, escaped into the last room, this being defended by Privates Robert and William Jones. From here the group were able to clamber through a window and cross the yard to the barricade with the wounded on their backs. It was here that Trooper Sydney Hunter was killed by a Zulu who jumped into the courtyard and speared him.

Of the eleven patients, nine survived the trip, thanks to the bravery of a few redcoats. Sergeant Maxwell and a private of the NNC were killed during the escape, plus Private Cole, who, suffering from claustrophobia, panicked and ran outside where he was instantly killed. With the abandoning of the hospital, completing the shortening of the perimeter, the troops concentrated their fire on the Zulus now attacking the cattle kraal. When this too was overwhelmed, they retreated to a small, hastily built bastion around the storehouse. As night fell, the Zulu attacks became stronger until, shortly after 2 in the morning, when it began to slacken and was replaced by a constant harassing fire which continued till 4 am. A Zulu warrior had managed to find a spot near the walls from where he could snipe at the defenders and a Corporal Christian Schiess of the NNC volunteered to deal with him and, although wounded, killed the sniper and two others before returning to the redoubt.  By this time Chard’s force had lost 14 men, two others were mortally wounded and 8 more were seriously wounded, including Dalton.

Virtually every defender had some kind of wound and all were exhausted, having fought for almost ten hours without respite and were almost out of ammunition. Of the 20,000 rounds in reserve at the mission, only 900 remained.

At dawn the British could see that, except for the dead and wounded, the Zulus were gone. Patrols were sent out to scout the battlefield, recover rifles and look for survivors, most of who were executed when found. Chard’s men counted more than 350 Zulu bodies around the mission, but it is estimated that another 500 wounded or captured were put to death by the defenders, as witnessed by Trooper William Clark of the Natal Mounted Police, who noted in his diary that, “ altogether we buried 375 Zulus and some wounded were thrown in the grave. Seeing the manner in which our wounded had been mutilated after being dragged from the hospital… we were very bitter and did not spare wounded Zulus”. Samuel Pitt, a private in B Company during the battle, later reckoned that the official enemy death toll was too low, “We reckoned that we had accounted for 875, but the books will tell you 4 to five hundred”.  Many more dead and dying where discovered later on the trail leading back to kwaZulu. It is now estimated that more than 800 warriors were killed during the fighting with losses of just 17 defenders.

Around 7 am, an Impi of Zulus were spotted on the skyline and the British again manned their positions, but no attack materialised, possibly because the Zulus had been many days on the march prior to the battle and had not eaten for two. In their ranks were hundreds of wounded and they were several days from any supplies. It is also possible that from their vantage point they could see the approach of what remained of Chelmsford’s force numbering around 1,000 men. Shortly after, the Zulus left the way they had come.

At 8 am, this force was sighted by the British and the exhausted defenders abandoned breakfast and again manned their positions until it was seen that the oncoming troops were their own.

Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders of Rorke’s Drift, seven of them to soldiers of the 2nd/24th Foot- the most received in a single action by one regiment.After the battle both Chard and Bromhead were promoted to Captain and later to Brevet Major. By 1892, Chard, now a Lieutenant Colonel, was Commanding Officer in Singapore. He was promoted to full Colonel in 1897, but died shortly after from cancer of the tongue. Bromhead was promoted to Major in 1883 and served for some years in India before dying of typhoid fever in Allahabad in February 1891.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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