January 23, 1879: Zulu! The Battle of Rorke’s Drift Ends

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A Brief History

On January 23, 1879, the British Army in South Africa ended its second major battle in as many days against Zulu warriors known as Impis in the British  war to seize Zululand.  The Battle of Rorke’s Drift followed the Battle of Isandlwana by only a matter of hours, but fortunately for the British had a different conclusion.

Digging Deeper

Yesterday we discussed the Battle of Isandlwana, memorialized in the 1979 movie Zulu Dawn, and today we address the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, memorialized in the 1964 movie Zulu.

In 1879 the British under Sir Henry Bartle Frere, High Commissioner of South Africa, invaded Zululand on a pretext of Zulu King Cetshwayo refusing to accede to unacceptable demands, when in fact the Zulu King wanted to negotiate and did not want war.  Led by Lt. General Lord Chelmsford the invasion took place without the blessing of the politicians in London.

At Rorke’s Drift Mission Station the British contingent of 140 British soldiers, 11 colonial soldiers, and 4 civilians were led by Lt. John Chard and Lt. Gonville Bromhead.  Chard was an Engineer Officer and was senior to Bromhead, an Infantry Officer.  The infantrymen and engineers were tasked with defending the station which had been turned into a supply depot and field hospital.  The engineers were left there to construct defenses, and the bulk of British troops were sent off to Isandlwana, leaving only the 150 or so men.

On the afternoon of January 22, 1879, word of the catastrophic defeat at Isandlwana reached the garrison at Rorke’s Drift, causing discussion on what the garrison should do.  To attempt an escape with wagons in the open was thought to be a sure disaster, so staying put and defending in place was decided to be the only real, if sickeningly poor option.  Later that afternoon a hundred men of the Natal Native Horse (cavalry) showed up and took up defensive positions on the hill overlooking the route an attacking Zulu force could be expected to take.  At this time the garrison still had a couple of hundred extra soldiers of the Natal Native Caribeeners (NNC) under a Captain Stevenson.

When around 4000 Zulu warriors showed up at about 4:20 pm, the NNH engaged the Impis for a short fight, until short of ammunition and exhausted from having fought at Isandlwana, the NNH saw escape as the better part of valor and took off for safer environs, leaving the garrison on its own.  When the NNH fled the battle, their commander hurriedly explained to Lt. Chard that he could not stop his men’s flight, and Captain Stevenson decided to take his contingent and flee as well, leaving the 150 men under the charge of the 2 lieutenants to man the garrison.

The hordes of Zulus attacked the undermanned garrison, which opened fire at about 500 yards range.  Various attacks from different directions were made to probe the British defenses, looking for a weak spot.  Despite being mowed down by accurate British rifle fire, the Zulu warriors kept attacking, climbing over the bodies of their fallen comrades to storm the walls of the kraal (corral, or defensive perimeter).  Hand to hand combat with spear versus bayonet ensued, a desperate battle.  In the melee, Zulus did their best to wrest rifles from the British and to use those rifles against their original owners, with some limited success.

As Zulus came over the perimeter walls and attacked the British manning firing loopholes in the hospital and adjacent buildings, the hospital was overrun with the occupants barely escaping by breaking through a wall.  Of the 11 patients in the hospital, an amazing 9 patients survived the escape.  The hospital on fire and darkness falling, the British fell back into the cattle kraal (corral) where they defended their positions throughout the horrible night.  The British had suffered 14 dead, 2 mortally wounded, and another 8 seriously wounded.  Nearly all the survivors had a wound or wounds of some kind.  Out of 20,000 rounds of rifle ammunition available at the start of the battle, only 900 rounds remained by midnight, after which the Zulus kept up only probing and harassing fire and attacks.

At dawn on January 23, 1879, the Zulu warriors were gone.  A contingent of Zulus did show up to face the beleaguered garrison, but only silently looked at the British before leaving as well.  The British counted 351 dead Zulus around the station, but it has been estimated another 500 wounded may have been massacred by the British after the battle, the massacre of British at Isandlwana providing motivation for the butchery.  Both Lt. Chard and Lt. Bromhead were awarded the Victoria Cross, along with 9 other of their men, an extraordinary amount of such awards.  Another 4 British soldiers were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

The Battle of Rorke’s Drift remains one of the celebrated defensive stands in British Army history, and is a testament to the bravery of the British soldiers against enormous odds and the courage and tenacity of the Zulu warriors that kept attacking into deadly fire.   The 1964 film, Zulu, may have some historical inaccuracies, but was a popular film and provides a vivid and stirring account of the battle, one worth watching.  To draw a comparison, think of Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his 265 troopers who were massacred by around 2500-3000 Native Americans.  Had Custer prevailed, you can imagine the songs of praise sung to his memory!

Question for students (and subscribers): Was the Battle of Rorke’s Drift one of the British Army’s finest hours?  (Not for the guys that fled!)  Tell us your opinion of the fight, and what other British battles could be considered equally heroic  in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see The Daily Mail and The Guardian.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.