Africa – Battle of Rorke’s Drift

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The Battle of Rorke’s Drift, also known as the Defence of Rorke’s Drift, was a battle in the Anglo-Zulu War. The defence of the mission station of Rorke’s Drift, under the command of Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers, immediately followed the British Army’s defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879, and continued into the following day, 23 January.

Just over 150 British and colonial troops successfully defended the garrison against an intense assault by 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu warriors. The massive, but piecemeal, Zulu attacks in battle of Rorke’s Drift came very close to defeating the tiny garrison but were ultimately repelled. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders, along with a number of other decorations and honours.

Prelude to the Battle of Rorke’s drift

Rorke’s Drift, known as kwaJim (“Jim’s Land”) in the Zulu language, was a mission station and the former trading post of James Rorke, an Irish merchant. Rorke’s Drift was located near a drift, or ford, on the Buffalo (Mzinyathi) 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 Rorke’s drift.

Battle of Rorke's Drift

map of the attack

On 11 January, the date the British ultimatum to the Zulus expired, 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 under the overall command of Brevet Major Henry Spalding, 104th Foot, a member of Chelmsford’s staff.

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.

Captain Thomas Rainforth’s G Company of the 1st/24th Foot was ordered to move up from its station at Helpmekaar, 10 miles (16 km) to the southeast, after its own relief arrived, to further fortify the Rorke’s drift. Later that evening a portion of the No. 2 Column under Brevet Colonel Anthony Durnford, late of the Royal Engineers, arrived at the drift and camped on the Zulu bank, where it remained through the next day.

Late on the evening of 21 January, Durnford was ordered to Isandlwana, as was a small detachment of No. 5 Field Company, Royal Engineers, commanded by Lieutenant John Chard, which had arrived on the 19th to repair the pontoons which bridged the Buffalo. Chard rode ahead of his detachment to Isandlwana on the morning of 22 January to clarify his orders, but was sent back to Rorke’s Drift with only his wagon and its driver to construct defensive positions for the expected reinforcement company, passing Durnford’s column en route in the opposite direction.

Sometime around noon on the 22nd, Major Spalding left the station for Helpmekaar to ascertain the whereabouts of Rainforth’s G Company, which was now overdue. He left Chard in temporary command. Chard rode down to the drift itself where the engineer’s camp was located. Soon thereafter, two survivors from Isandlwana – Lieutenant Gert Adendorff of the 1st/3rd NNC and a trooper from the Natal Carbineers – arrived bearing the news of the defeat and that a part of the Zulu impi was approaching the station.

Upon hearing this news, Chard, Bromhead, and another of the station’s officers, Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton (of the Commissariat and Transport Department), held a quick meeting to decide the best course of action – whether to attempt a retreat to Helpmekaar or to defend their current position. Dalton pointed out 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.

Defensive preparations for the Battle of Rorke’s Drift

Once the British officers decided to stay, Chard and Bromhead directed their men to make preparations to defend the Rorke’s Drift. With the garrison’s some 400 men working quickly, a defensive perimeter was constructed out of mealie bags. 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.

At about 3.30 pm, a mixed troop of about 100 Natal Native Horse (NNH) under Lieutenant Alfred Henderson arrived at the station after having retreated in good order from Isandlwana. They volunteered to picket the far side of the Oscarberg (Shiyane), the large hill that overlooked the station and from behind which the Zulus were expected to approach.

With the defenses nearing completion and battle approaching, Chard had several hundred men available to him: Bromhead’s B Company, Stevenson’s large NNC company, Henderson’s NNH troop, and various others (most of them hospital patients, but ‘walking wounded’) drawn from various British and colonial units. Adendorff also stayed, while the trooper who had ridden in with him galloped on to warn the garrison at Helpmekaar.

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 mealy bag and biscuit box barricade within the stone-walled cattle kraal.

The approaching Zulu force was vastly larger; the uDloko, uThulwana, inDlondo amabutho (regiments) of married men in their 30s and 40s and the inDlu-yengwe ibutho of young unmarried men mustered 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 and is often referred to as the Undi Corps. It was directed to swing wide of the British left flank and pass west and south of Isandlwana hill itself positioning 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 ford of the Buffalo river leading to Rorke’s Drift.

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

Most Zulu warriors in battle of Rorke’s Drift were armed with an assegai (short spear) and a shield made of cowhide. The Zulu army drilled in the personal and tactical use and coordination of this weapons system. Some Zulus also had old muskets and antiquated rifles, though their marksmanship training was poor and the quality and supply of powder and shot dreadful.

The Zulu attitude towards firearms was that: “The generality of Zulu warriors, however, would not have firearms – the arms of a coward, as they said, for they enable the poltroon to kill the brave without awaiting his attack.” Even though their fire was not accurate, it was responsible for five of the seventeen British deaths at Rorke’s Drift.

While the Undi Corps had been led by inkhosi kaMapitha at the Isandlwana battle, the command of the Undi Corps passed to Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande (half-brother of Cetshwayo kaMpande, the Zulu king) when kaMapitha was wounded during the pursuit of British fugitives from Isandlwana. Prince Dabulamanzi was considered rash and aggressive and this characterization was borne out by his violation of King Cetshwayo’s order to act only in defence of Zululand against the invading British soldiers and not carry the war over the border into enemy territory. The Rorke’s Drift attack was an unplanned raid rather than any organized counter-invasion, with many of the Undi Corps Zulus breaking off to raid other African kraals and homesteads while the main body advanced on Rorke’s Drift.

At about 4:00 pm, Surgeon James Reynolds, Otto Witt – the Swedish missionary who ran the mission at Rorke’s Drift – and army chaplain Reverend George Smith came down from the Oscarberg hillside with the news that a body of Zulus were fording the river to the southeast and were “no more than five minutes away”. At this point, Witt decided to depart the station as his family lived in an isolated farmhouse about 30 km away and he wanted to be with them. Witt’s native servant, Umkwelnantaba, left with him; so too did one of the hospital patients, Lieutenant Thomas Purvis of the 1st/3rd NNC.

The battle of Rorke’s Drift

At about 4:20 pm the battle began with Lieutenant Henderson’s NNH troopers, stationed behind the Oscarberg, briefly engaging the vanguard of the main Zulu force. However, tired from the battle and retreat from Isandlwana and short of carbine ammunition, Henderson’s men departed for Helpmekaar. Henderson himself reported to Lieutenant Chard that the enemy were close and that “his men would not obey his orders but were going off to Helpmekaar”.

battle of rorke's drift

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. Outraged that Stevenson and some of his colonial NCOs also fled from the barricades, a few British soldiers fired after them, killing Corporal William Anderson.

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 the men who were at the station were there as hospital patients, although only a handful of these were unable to take up arms. With fewer men, Chard realised the need to modify the defences, and gave orders for the construction of a biscuit-box wall through the middle of the post in order to make possible the abandonment of the hospital side of the station if the need arose.

At 4:30 pm, the Zulus rounded the Oscarberg and approached the south wall. Private Frederick Hitch, posted as lookout atop the storehouse, reported a large column of Zulus approaching. The Zulu vanguard, 600 men of the iNdluyengwe, attacked the south wall which joined the hospital and the storehouse. The British opened fire at 500 yards (460 m).

The majority of the attacking Zulu force swept around to attack the north wall, while a few took cover and were either pinned by continuing British fire or retreated to the terraces of Oscarberg. There they began a harassing fire of their own. As this occurred, another Zulu force swept onto the hospital and north west wall.

Defense of Rorke's Drift

Those British on the barricades – including Dalton and Bromhead – 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’ rifles, slashing at British soldiers with assegai 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.

Zulu fire, both from those under the wall and around Oscarberg, caused a few casualties and five of the 17 who were killed or mortally wounded in the action were struck while at the north wall.

Defense of the hospital

Chard realized that the north wall, under almost constant Zulu attack, could not be held, and at 6:00 pm Chard pulled his men back into the yard, abandoning the front two rooms of the hospital in the process. The hospital was becoming untenable; the loopholes had become a liability, as rifles poked through were grabbed at by the Zulus – but if the holes were left empty Zulu warriors stuck their own weapons through to fire into the rooms. Among the soldiers assigned to the Hospital were Corporal William Wilson Allen and Privates Cole, Dunbar, Hitch, Horrigan, John Williams, Joseph Williams, Alfred Henry Hook, Robert Jones, and William Jones.

Privates Horrigan, John Williams and Joseph Williams and patients tried to hold a hospital entrance with carbines and fixed bayonets. Joseph Williams defended a small window, and 14 dead Zulus were found later beneath the window. As it became clear that the front of the building was being taken by the Zulus, John Williams began to hack a way of escape through the wall dividing the central room and a corner room in the back of the hospital. As he made a passable hole, the door into the central room came under furious attack from the Zulus, and he only had time to drag two bedridden patients out before the door gave way.

The corner room that John Williams had pulled the two patients to was occupied by Private Hook and another nine patients. John Williams hacked at the wall to the next room with his pick-axe, as Hook held off the Zulus. A fire fight erupted as the Zulus fired through the door and Hook returned fire – but not without an assegai striking his helmet and stunning him.

Williams made the hole big enough to get into the next room, occupied only by patient Private Waters, and dragged the patients through. The last man out was Hook, who killed some Zulus who had knocked down the door before diving through the hole. John Williams once again went to work, spurred by the fact that the roof was now on fire, as Hook defended the hole and Waters continued to fire through a loophole.

After fifty minutes, the hole was large enough to drag the patients through, and the men – save Privates Waters and Beckett, who hid in the wardrobe (Waters was wounded and Beckett died of assegai wounds) – were now in the last room, being defended by Privates Robert Jones and William Jones. From here, the patients clambered out through a window and then ran across the yard to the barricade.

Of the eleven patients, nine survived the trip, as did all the able-bodied men. According to James Henry Reynolds only four defenders were killed in the hospital: one was a member of the Natal Native Contingent with a broken leg; Sgt Maxfield and Private Jenkins who were ill with fever and refused to be moved; and a Private Adams who also refused to move. A Private Cole assigned to the hospital was killed when he ran outside.

Reportedly Jenkins was also killed after being seized and stabbed; another Hospital patient killed was Trooper Hunter of the Natal Mounted Police. Among the hospital patients who escaped were a Corporal Mayer of the NNC; Bombardier Lewis of the Royal Artillery and Trooper Green of the Natal Mounted Police who was wounded in the thigh by a spent bullet. A Private Conley with a broken leg was pulled to safety by Hook, although Conley’s leg was broken again in the process.

The evacuation of the burning hospital completed the shortening of the perimeter. As night fell, the Zulu attacks grew stronger. The cattle kraal came under renewed assault and was evacuated by 10:00 pm, leaving the remaining men in a small bastion around the storehouse. Throughout the night, the Zulus kept up a constant assault against the British positions; Zulu attacks only began to slacken after midnight, and finally ended by 2:00 am, instead being replaced by a constant harassing fire from the Zulu firearms – a fire that in turn only ended at 4:00 am.

By that time Chard’s force had lost 14 dead. Two others were mortally wounded and 8 more – including Dalton – were seriously wounded. Virtually 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.

Aftermath

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, recover rifles, and look for survivors, many of whom were executed when found. At roughly 7:00 am, an Impi of Zulus suddenly appeared, and the British manned their positions again.

No attack materialized, 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 redcoats left their breakfast to man their positions again; however the force turned out to be the vanguard of Lord Chelmsford’s relief column.

Breakdown of British and colonial casualties:

  • 1st/24th Foot: 4 killed or mortally wounded in action; 2 wounded
  • 2nd/24th Foot: 9 killed or mortally wounded in action; 9 wounded
  • Commissariat and Transport Department: 1 killed in action; 1 wounded
  • Natal Mounted Police: 1 killed in action; 1 wounded
  • 1st/3rd NNC: 1 killed in action
  • 2nd/3rd NNC: 2 wounded

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