The Battle of Rorke's Drift

On 22-23 January 1879, 156 British and colonial troops successfully defended Rorke's Drift station against repeated attacks by 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu warriors; eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders, and the engagement is often characterised as the epitome of steadfastness against overwhelming odds.


The successful defence of the mission station of Rorke's Drift, under the command of Lieutenants John Chard of the Royal Engineers and Gonville Bromhead, began when a large contingent of Zulu warriors broke off from their main force during the final hour of the British defeat at the day-long Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879, diverting 6 miles (9.7 km) to attack Rorke's Drift later that day and continuing into the following day.

Rorke's Drift was located near a drift, or ford, on the Buffalo River, which at the time formed the border between the British colony of Natal and the Zulu Kingdom.

On 9 January 1879, the British No. 3 (Centre) Column, under Lord Chelmsford, arrived and encamped at the drift.

On 11 January, the column crossed the river and encamped on the Zulu bank.

A small force consisting of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot (2nd/24th) under Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead was detailed to garrison the post, which had been turned into a supply depot and hospital.

On 20 January, after reconnaissance patrolling and building of a track for its wagons, Chelmsford's column marched to Isandlwana, approximately 6 miles (9.7 km) to the east, leaving behind the small garrison.

A large company of the 2nd/3rd Natal Native Contingent (NNC) under Captain William Stevenson was ordered to remain at the post to strengthen the garrison.

This company numbered between 100 and 350 men.

The British force at Isandlwana was attacked by Zulus and mercilessly slaughtered.

Two survivors from Isandlwana arrived bearing the news of the defeat and the even more alarming news that a part of the Zulu army was approaching the station.

Upon hearing this news, Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead held a quick meeting to decide the best course of action – whether to attempt a retreat or to defend their current position.

It was felt that that a small column, travelling in open country and burdened with carts full of hospital patients, would be easily overtaken and defeated by a numerically superior Zulu force, and so it was soon agreed that the only acceptable course was to remain and fight.

Once the British officers decided to stay, Chard and Bromhead directed their men to make preparations to defend the station.

With the garrison's some 400 men working quickly, a defensive perimeter was constructed out of mealie bags and biscuit boxes.

This perimeter incorporated the storehouse, the hospital, and a stout stone kraal.

The buildings were fortified, with loopholes (firing holes) knocked through the external walls and the external doors barricaded with furniture.

With the defences nearing completion and battle approaching, Chard had several hundred men available to him:

Bromhead's B Company, Stevenson's large NNC company, Henderson's Natal Native Horse (NNH) troop, and various others (most of them hospital patients, but 'walking wounded') drawn from various British and colonial units.

The force was sufficient, in Chard's estimation, to fend off the Zulus.

Chard posted the British soldiers around the perimeter, adding some of the more able patients, the 'casuals' and civilians, and those of the NNC who possessed firearms along the barricade.

The rest of the NNC, armed only with spears, were posted outside the mealie bag and biscuit box barricade within the stone-walled cattle kraal.

The approaching Zulu force was vastly larger.

Two 'impis' (3,000 to 4,000 warriors), none of them engaged during the battle at Isandlwana.

This Zulu force was the 'loins' or reserve of the army at Isandlwana.

It was directed to swing wide of the British left flank in order to position itself across the line of communication and retreat of the British and their colonial allies in order to prevent their escape back into Natal by way of the Buffalo River ford leading to Rorke's Drift.

By the time the main body of the Zulu force reached Rorke's Drift at 4:30 pm, they had fast-marched some 20 miles (32 km) from the morning encampment they had left at around 8 am, and they would spend almost the next eleven and a half hours continuously storming the British fortifications at Rorke's Drift.

Most Zulu warriors were armed with an assegai (short spear) and a shield made of cowhide.

Some had antiquated firearms, but the quality of the equipment and marksmanship was poor, and even though their fire was not accurate, it would be responsible for five of the seventeen British deaths at Rorke's Drift.

At about 4:20 pm, the battle began with Lieutenant Henderson's NNH troopers briefly engaging the vanguard of the main Zulu force.

However, tired from the battle at Isandlwana and retreat to Rorke's Drift as well as being short of carbine ammunition, Henderson's men fled.

Henderson himself reported to Lieutenant Chard the enemy were close and that his men would not obey his orders.

Henderson then followed his departing men.

Upon witnessing the withdrawal of Henderson's NNH troop, Captain Stevenson's NNC company abandoned the cattle kraal and fled, greatly reducing the strength of the defending garrison.

With the Zulus nearly at the station, the garrison now numbered between 154 and 156 men.

Of these, only Bromhead's company could be considered a cohesive unit.

Additionally, up to 39 of his company were at the station as hospital patients, although only a handful of these were unable to take up arms.

The Zulu vanguard attacked the south wall, which joined the hospital and the storehouse.

The majority of the attacking Zulu force swept around to attack the north wall.

As this occurred, another Zulu force swept on to the hospital and northwestern wall.

Those British on the barricades were soon engaged in fierce hand-to-hand fighting.

The British wall was too high for the Zulus to scale, so they resorted to crouching under the wall, trying to get hold of the defenders' Martini–Henry rifles, slashing at British soldiers with assegais or firing their weapons through the wall.

At places, they clambered over each other's bodies to drive the British off the walls but were driven back.

Chard realised that the north wall, under near constant Zulu attack, could not be held.

At 6:00 pm, he pulled his men back into the yard, abandoning the front two rooms of the hospital in the process.

As night fell, the Zulu attacks grew stronger.

Throughout the night, the Zulus kept up a constant assault against the British positions; Zulu attacks only began to slacken after midnight, and they finally ended by 2:00 am, being replaced by a constant harassing fire from Zulu firearms until 4:00 am.

By that time, the garrison had suffered fourteen dead.

Two others were mortally wounded and many others were seriously wounded.

Almost every man had some kind of wound.

They were all exhausted, having fought for the better part of ten hours and were running low on ammunition.

Of 20,000 rounds in reserve at the mission, only 900 remained.

As dawn broke, the British could see that the Zulus were gone; all that remained were the dead and severely wounded.

Patrols were dispatched to scout the battlefield and to recover rifles and ammunition.

However, another large force of Zulus suddenly appeared, and the British manned their positions again.

No attack materialised, however, as the Zulus had been on the move for six days prior to the battle and had not eaten properly for two.

In their ranks were hundreds of wounded, and they were several days' march from any supplies.

Soon after their appearance, the Zulus left the way they had come.

Around 8:00 am, another force appeared, and the defenders left their breakfast to man their positions again.

However, the force turned out to be the vanguard of Lord Chelmsford's relief column, and the battle was over.

Estimates of the Zulu dead range from 375 to 875. Seventeen British deaths were recorded at Rorke's Drift.

Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders of Rorke's Drift, seven of them to soldiers of the 2nd/24th Foot – the most ever received for a single action by one regiment.

In the long annals of military history, it is difficult to find anything quite like Rorke's Drift, where a beleaguered force, outnumbered forty to one, survived and killed twenty men for every defender lost.

It was a memorable moment in British history.

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