The Battle of Rorke's Drift

Rorke’s Drift: the iconic defence of the mission station by a small force of British and colonial troops; which saw a record award of Victoria Crosses and restored the faith of Victorian Britain in the Army

War: Zulu War

Date: 22nd January 1879

Place: Tugela River in Natal Province, South Africa

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The defence of Rorke's Drift at the height of the battle
The defence of Rorke's Drift at the height of the battle
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Combatants: British infantry with Natal irregulars against Zulu warriors.

Commanders: The British garrison was commanded by Lieutenant John Chard, Royal Engineers, and Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead of the 24th Foot. The Zulus were commanded by Prince Dabulamanzi kaMapande.

Zulu War Medal
Zulu War medal: Thanks to Historik
Orders of Greenwich, Conn, USA.

Size of the armies: 139 British troops against about 4,500 Zulus.

Uniforms, arms and equipment:
The Zulu warriors were formed in regiments by age, their standard equipment the shield and the stabbing spear. The formation for the attack, described as the “horns of the beast”, was said to have been devised by Shaka, the Zulu King who established Zulu hegemony in Southern Africa. The main body of the army delivered a frontal assault, called the “loins”, while the “horns” spread out behind each of the enemy’s flanks and delivered the secondary and often fatal attack in the enemy’s rear. Cetshwayo, the Zulu King, fearing British aggression took pains to purchase firearms wherever they could be bought. By the outbreak of war the Zulus had tens of thousands of muskets and rifles, but of a poor standard, and the Zulus were ill-trained in their use. The Zulus captured some 1,000 Martini Henry breech loading rifles and a large amount of ammunition. Some of these rifles were used at Rorke’s Drift. All the British casualties, few though they were, were shot rather than stabbed.

Winner: The British.

British Regiments:
B company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Foot: later the South Wales Borderers and now the Royal Regiment of Wales.

Men of the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, Army Service Corps, Commissariat and Medical Corps.


Rorke's Drift: the mealie bag wall; the burning hospital in the background

The Battle of Rorke's Drift
The Battle of Rorke's Drift
(this map appears in the best selling book, The Dangerous Book for Boys
by Gonn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden, in the section Famous Battles-Part Two)

Account:
Rorke’s Drift is an iconic battle for Britain like Isandlwana, but for the reverse reason. After the disastrous and apparently inexplicable slaughter of the 1st Battalion, the 24th Foot, Bromhead’s B Company, 2nd Battalion of the same regiment with their colleagues restored the prestige of British arms by their successful defence of the mission station.

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The Intrenched Position at Rorke's Drift
The Relief of Rorke's Drift after the battle on 22nd January 1879
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Just as it was incomprehensible to the public in Britain that 1,000 British infantry armed with modern breach loading rifles could be overwhelmed by native troops armed principally with stabbing spears, it was astounding that a handful of the same troops could withstand the overwhelming attack delivered against the mission station later the same day.


Rorke's Drift: defending the biscuit box wall

On 11th January 1879, Lord Chelmsford led the Centre Column of his invading army into Zululand, crossing the Tugela River at Rorke’s Drift. On 22nd January 1879, the Zulu Army sidestepped Chelmsford’s advancing force and wiped out the troops he had left at his advanced camp by the hill of Isandlwana, principally the 1st Battalion, 24th Foot under Colonel Pulleine.

Cetshwayo, the Zulu King, when he dispatched his army to fight Chelmsford’s invading columns, issued orders that his warriors were not to enter the British colony of Natal. He still hoped to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the war and did not wish to be labeled an aggressor.

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Dabulamanzi: the Zulu general who led the attack on the British at Rorke's Drift
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Lieutenant Bromhead VC
Lieutenant Bromhead VC, 24th Foot

As the battle at Isandlwana drew to a close several Zulu regiments under Cetshwayo’s younger brother, Prince Dabulamanzi kaMapande, reached the Tugela River, cutting off the few escaping British. These regiments had not been involved in the battle and looked for a way to join in the success. Dabulamanzi, an aggressive leader, resolved to lead these Zulu regiments to the further triumph of capturing the British base at the Rorke’s Drift crossing on the Tugela.

A single company of infantry garrisoned the mission station at Rorke’s Drift, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Foot. Although the 24th was designated the South Warwickshire Regiment, this company was manned largely by Welshmen. The company colour sergeant was Frank Bourne; the sole officer, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead.

The mission belonged to the Reverend Otto Witt, a Swede. Mr Witt’s church had been turned into a store by the British Army; his house a military hospital under Surgeon James Reynolds.
Lieutenant John Chard, Royal Engineers, arrived at Rorke’s Drift on 19th January 1879 with a party of sappers. Chard had cause to journey up to Isandlwana immediately before the battle and on his return saw groups of Zulus.

On 21st January 1879 the garrison heard firing from the distant battle and a group of officers climbed the nearby hill. They saw what they eventually realised to be parties of Zulus advancing towards the mission station. News of the disaster at Isandlwana was confirmed by the arrival of Lieutenant Ardendorff from the camp.

The British garrison set to fortifying the mission station. Tents were struck and stored and the buildings loopholed for defence. The store (church) and building (Witt’s house) were linked by walls of mealie bags.

The defence of Rorke's Drift
The defence of Rorke's Drift

A party of Durnford’s unit arrived and was posted forward to hold the Zulu advance as long as possible.

At 4.20pm firing was heard from the hill and the men of Durnford’s unit returned to the mission station and then left for Helpmakaar, the nearest Natal town. The company of Natal Native Infantry also left, leaving the regular British troops and some Natal irregulars.

The garrison hurriedly built a shorter perimeter line of biscuit boxes to accommodate the greatly reduced numbers of soldiers.


The defenders after the battles

500 Zulus appeared around the hill to the South, running towards the mission station. They were met by a heavy fire from the garrison and at some 50 yards from the wall veered around the hospital to attack from the North West. They were driven back by the fire from the garrison and went to ground in the undergrowth, uncleared due the shortage of time.

The main body of Zulus came up and opened a heavy fire on the British from cover around the West and North West of the mission station.


Zulu Warrior

The hospital at the western end of the fortifications became the focus for the fighting. Set on fire and stormed by the Zulus, it became untenable. As many men were extracted as possible, the remaining patients perishing in the flames. Privates John Williams, Henry Hook, William Jones, Frederick Hitch and Corporal William Allen all received the Victoria Cross for their defence of the hospital building, fighting with bayonets once their ammunition was expended, as they contested every room with the attacking warriors.

The fighting now concentrated on the wall of biscuit barrels linking the mission house with the mealie wall. As night fell the British withdrew to the centre of the station where a final bastion had been hastily assembled. The light from the burning hospital assisted the British in their fire. The savage Zulu attacks were resisted until around midnight when unexpectedly the ferocity of the assault fell away. Firing continued until around 4am when the Zulus withdrew. By then the British held only the area around the storehouse.

At 7am a body of Zulus appeared on the hill, but no attack followed. It became apparent that the Zulus could see Chelmsford’s column approaching from the direction of Isandlwana. The Zulus turned and left.

Soon afterwards the column arrived at the drift and crossed the Tugela, marching up to the mission station. Chelmsford’s delight at finding the garrison alive and still resisting was heavily tempered by his despair at finding that no survivors from Isandlwana had escaped to Rorke’s Drift.


24th Foot at Rorke’s Drift
Illustration courtesy of Tim Reese

Casualties: Zulu casualties are thought to have been around 500. The garrison of the mission station comprised 8 officers and 131 non-commissioned ranks. Of these 17 were killed and 10 wounded.

B Company at Rorke's Drift
B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Foot: Defenders of the Mission Station at Rorke's Drift

Follow-up:
The defeat at Isandlwana brought Lord Chelmsford’s Centre Column back to the Tugela. Chelmsford had then to ensure that the Zulu Armies did not invade Natal. He called for substantial reinforcements and got them. In March 1879 Colonel Evelyn Wood’s Northern Column inflicted a heavy defeat on the Zulus at Khambula. In April 1879 Chelmsford relieved Colonel Pearson’s Southern Column, entrenched for some months at Eshowe, and later renewed the advance from the Tugela.

On 4th July 1879 Cetshwayo’s Zulu Army was utterly defeated at the Battle of Ulundi. Fighting continued in a desultory form until Cetshwayo’s capture on 28th August 1879 and the end of the war.

Lietenant Chard VC
Lieutenant Chard VC, Royal Engineers

Regimental anecdotes and traditions:

  • Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead were each awarded the Victoria Cross for the defence of the Rorke’s Drift mission station and promoted major.
  • In addition to the soldiers of the 24th who distinguished themselves in the defence of the hospital, Victoria Crosses were awarded to Surgeon Reynolds, Commissary Dalton and Corporal Schiess of the NNC. Colour Sergeant Bourne and Private William Roy of the 24th Foot, Gunner Cantwell of the Royal Artillery and Corporal Attwood of the Army Service Corps were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
  • Sir Garnet Wolseley, taking over as Commander-in-Chief from Lord Chelmsford, was unimpressed with the awards made to the defenders of Rorke’s Drift, saying “it is monstrous making heroes of those who shut up in buildings at Rorke’s Drift, could not bolt, and fought like rats for their lives which they could not otherwise save.”

The medical consequences of the battle: It seems likely that a number of the defenders of Rorke’s Drift subsequently suffered from what is now classified as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Corporal Schiess fell “on hard times” and died in 1884 aged 28 years; Pte John Fielding’s hair is said to have turned white shortly after the battle; William Jones in old age suffered from nightmares that the Zulus were about to attack; Robert Jones shot himself in 1896.

References:
Washing of the Spears by D. Morris
Zulu War by Ian Knight (Pan Grand Strategy).



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