Rorke’s Drift

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produced by the clicking of the tongue against the roof of the mouth and said to imitate the sound of the spear being withdrawn from an enemy’s flesh.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.

About The Author

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. Read more about Jim »