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Battle of Rorke's Drift
Part of the Anglo-Zulu War
Date 22 January – 23 January 1879
Location Rorke's Drift, South Africa
Result Tactical British victory
United Kingdom British Empire Zulu Kingdom
United Kingdom John Chard
United Kingdom Gonville Bromhead
Dabulamanzi kaMpande
139 British soldiers (80 fully fit for active duty),
300-350 African colonial troops (deserted)[1]
Casualties and losses
17 killed
14 wounded
351 killed[2]

The Battle of Rorke's Drift was a battle in the Anglo-Zulu War. The defence of the mission station of Rorke's Drift immediately followed the British Army's defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana earlier that morning on 22 January 1879, and continued to the following day, 23 January. One hundred and thirty-nine British soldiers successfully defended their garrison against an intense assault by four to five thousand Zulu warriors. The overwhelming Zulu attack on Rorke's Drift came very close to defeating the tiny British garrison, and the British success is held as one of history's finest defences.[3][citation needed] Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders, along with a number of other decorations and honours.



Rorke's Drift was a mission station and former trading post located near a drift (ford) on the Mzinyathi (Buffalo) River (28°20′57″S 30°32′3″E / 28.34917°S 30.53417°E / -28.34917; 30.53417Coordinates: 28°20′57″S 30°32′3″E / 28.34917°S 30.53417°E / -28.34917; 30.53417; sometimes incorrectly identified as the Tugela River, of which it is a tributary) forming the border between Natal and KwaZulu. On 9 January 1879 the Centre Column under Lord Chelmsford arrived and encamped at Rorke's Drift. On 11 January, the date the British ultimatum to the Zulus expired, the column crossed the river at Rorke's Drift and encamped on the KwaZulu bank. A small force composed of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot (The regiment was only renamed the South Wales Borderers during a later reorganisation in 1881, leading to the incorrect belief (perpetuated in the Film 'Zulu') that the regiment was a Welsh one, when in fact most of the men were recruited from the industrial towns and agricultural classes of England) was detailed to garrison the station, requisitioned as a supply depot and hospital under the command of Brevet Major Henry Spalding, 104th Foot, a member of Chelmsford's staff.[3]

On 20 January, after reconnaissance patrolling and building of a track for its wagons, Chelmsford's column marched to Isandlwana, approximately six miles (10 km) to the east (but eleven miles or 17 km by the circuitous track), leaving behind the small garrison. A large company of the Natal Native Contingent (NNC) under Captain William Stephenson was ordered to reinforce the post, and G Company of the 1st Battalion, 24th Foot, at Helpmekaar was ordered to entrench at the drift after its relief arrived. Later that evening a portion of the Second Column under Brevet Colonel Anthony Durnford arrived at the drift and camped on the KwaZulu bank, where it remained through the next day.[3]

Late on the evening of 21 January, Durnford was ordered to Isandlwana, as was a small detachment of the No. 5 Field Company, Royal Engineers, led by Lieutenant John Chard, which had arrived on the 19th to repair the pontoons. 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.[3]

Sometime around noon of 22 January (the time is in dispute, as are the circumstances leading to his departure), Major Spalding, apparently unaware of the disaster at Isandlwana, left the mission station in order to ascertain the whereabouts of G Company, leaving Chard in temporary command. Chard rode down to the drift itself where the engineer's camp was located. Two surviving officers of the 3rd NNC at Isandlwana - Lieutenants Vaine and Adendorff -arrived soon after bearing the news of the defeat and that one wing of a Zulu impi, under the command of the king's half brother, Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande, was bearing down on the mission station.[3]

While the exact origin of the decision to stay and fight is unknown, the three officers at the station—Lieutenant Chard, B Company commander Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, and Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton - soon decided that this was the only acceptable course; a British column, especially one burdened with carts full of wounded, would be easily overtaken by a Zulu force, and in open country, the British would be swamped by the numerically superior Zulus, a fact pointed out by Dalton. A company of Natal Native Horse fleeing from Isandlwana volunteered to picket the far side of the large hill overlooking the station, which overlooked the drift at which the Zulu were expected to cross.[3]

Historical picture of Zulu warriors from about the same time as the events at Rorke's Drift

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 more than 4,000 warriors, none of them engaged during the battle at Isandlwana. Contrary to popular belief, the Zulus had some old muskets and antiquated rifles stockpiled that were carried by the force approaching Rorke's Drift.

Once the British officers decided to stay, Chard and Bromhead directed their men to make preparations to defend the mission station. A defensive perimeter was constructed out of two-foot (0.6 m) high biscuit boxes weighing almost a hundred pounds (45 kg) and mealie bags which encompassed the storehouse, the hospital, and a stout stone kraal. The inclusion of the hospital had made the perimeter dangerously large and Chard ordered the construction of a second line of boxes through the middle in order to facilitate a withdrawal if the need arose. The buildings were fortified, with makeshift loopholes knocked in the walls and doors facing out of the perimeter barricaded with spare furniture. In all, Chard had roughly 120 healthy men available to him, most drawn from 'B' Company of the 2/24th, plus Stephenson's detachment of the Natal Native Contingent (approximately 225-250 men) and 100 mounted natives of the Natal Native Horse under Lieutenant Alfred Henderson - a force sufficient, in Chard's estimation, to fend off the Zulus.[3]

The battle

Drawing of Rorke's Drift Post, History of the Corps of Royal Engineers.[4]
Rorke's Drift today; The hospital stands left, and the store is on the right

At 4:00, Surgeon James Reynolds, Otto Witt - the Swedish missionary who ran the mission at Rorke's Drift - and army chaplain Padre George Smith came down from Oscarberg, a hill overlooking the station, with the news that the Zulus were fording the river at what later became known as "Fugitive's Drift" to the southeast and were "no more than five minutes away." Soon after, one of the mounted natives under Henderson reported that the Zulus were about a minute away. At this point, the mounted natives broke. Having been the last unit to retreat from the slaughter at Isandlwana, they deserted and Henderson was unable to stop them. Upon seeing this flight, Stephenson's NNC company leapt over the barricades and followed. Outraged that Stephenson and his European NCOs also deserted, a few British soldiers fired after them, killing Corporal Anderson.[3]

At a stroke, the defending force had been reduced by more than half to 150 men, of which only the 96 of B Company could be considered a cohesive unit, and 35 of whom were hospitalized (only about 9 of which couldn't defend themselves). Chard immediately realised the need to shorten the perimeter, and gave orders for a new line bisecting the post to be constructed, with the hospital being evacuated. As the natives disappeared, Private Fredrick Hitch, posted as lookout atop the storehouse, reported a Zulu column of four to six thousand approaching. Almost immediately after the Zulu vanguard, 600 men of the iNdluyengwe appeared from behind Oscarberg and attacked the south wall which joined the hospital and the storehouse.

Immediately, a heavy volley of gunfire was opened up at 500 yards, and while at first ragged, the British fire soon steadied, killing a number of Zulus. The majority of the attacking force swept around the wall, while a few took cover, from where they were either pinned by continuing British fire or retreated to the terraces of Oscarberg, where they began a harassing fire of their own. As this occurred, a large force swept onto the hospital and north west wall, and those 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 others' bodies to drive the British off the walls, but a "peculiar aversion to the bayonet" defeated these breaches.

Zulu fire, both from those under the wall and around Oscarberg, began to find its mark. Corporal Schiess was shot in the leg, and then lost his hat to a Zulu shot; Commissary Dalton, leaning over the parapet to shoot a Zulu, was wounded in the shoulder by a bullet and dragged out of the line to have his wound dressed; Keefe, 'B' Company's drummer, suffered a skin wound to the head; Corporal Scammell, of the NNC, was shot in the back, and Private Byrne, attempting to help him, was killed by a shot to the head, as was 'Old King' Cole, another private in 'B' Company (see below at hospital section). The Suppressive fire from the mountain only grew worse; Privates Scanlon, Fagan and Chick were slain. At least 1/3 (five) of the 17 killed, or died of wounds, were struck at the Front wall.

It became clear to Chard that the front wall, under almost constant Zulu attack, could not be held, and at 6 o'clock 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 the following: Corporal William Wilson Allen; Pvts: Cole; Dunbar; Frederick Hitch; Horrigan; John Williams; Joseph Williams; Alfred Henry Hook; Robert Jones; William Jones

The surivors of Rorke's Drift stand down after their battle against the Zulus.

As it became clear that the front of the building was being abandoned, the Welshman John Williams began to hack his way through the wall dividing the central room and 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. Pitted against the Zulus, Joseph Williams managed to kill several before being overwhelmed. The remaining men in the room, Private Horrigan, Adams, and two more patients, were stabbed to death. The surviving two patients were taken by John Williams into one of the corner rooms, where he linked up with Private Hook and another nine patients.

Lieutenant John Rouse Merriott Chard

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 a bullet smashing into his helmet and stunning him. Williams made the hole big enough to get into the next room, occupied only by Private Waters, and dragged the patients through. The last man out was Hook, who killed the Zulus who had knocked down the door before diving through the hole. 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 the loophole. After fifty minutes, the hole was large enough to drag the patients through, and the men - save Private Waters and Beckett, who hid in the wardrobe - were in the last room, being defended by a pair of privates called Jones. (Waters was wounded and Beckett died of assegai wounds.) From here, the patients clambered out 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 Native with a broken leg who couldn't be moved; 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. Private Joseph Williams reportedly defended a small window at the far end of the Hospital, and 14 dead Zulus were found later beneath the window. Williams with Private John Williams (above) and two patients tried to hold a hospital entrance with bayonets; but the entrance was forced and Joseph Williams was seized; dragged outside and stabbed with assegais. 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 hospital completed the shortening of the perimeter. As night fell, the Zulu attacks grew stronger as the snipers on Oscarberg - now devoid of targets - joined the attack. The cattle kraal came under renewed assault and was evacuated by ten o'clock, 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 two o'clock, instead being replaced by a constant harassing fire from the Zulu firearms - a fire that in turn only ended at four o'clock. Chard's force had lost fifteen dead, with eight more - including Dalton - seriously wounded, and virtually every man had some kind of minor wound. They were all exhausted, having fought for the better part of ten hours, and were running low on ammunition as well. 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 bodies - over 370 bodies were counted. Patrols were dispatched to scout the battlefield, recover rifles, and look for survivors. At roughly 7am, an Impi of Zulus suddenly appeared, and the British manned their positions again, though no attack materialized. The Zulus, however, had been on the move for six days prior to the battle and having 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 8am, another force appeared, and the redcoats abandoned their breakfast to man their position again, however the force turned out to be the vanguard of Lord Chelmsford's relief column.

Modern view of battle site

Victoria Crosses

Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the British defenders, the most ever received in a single action by one regiment, seven to soldiers of the 24th.[3][5] This high number may be interpreted as a reaction to the earlier British defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana, although at Isandlwana the British killed more than twice the number of the enemy as they lost. The extolling of the victory at Rorke's Drift took the public's attention away from the great defeat at Isandlwana and the fact that Lord Chelmsford had disobeyed orders by entering Zululand.[citation needed]

Dalton was not originally named among the VC recipients, eventually receiving his medal in January 1880, after an outcry when a number of accounts credited him, rather than Chard or Bromhead, for initiating the defence.[citation needed]

Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead

Also, five men were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. They were:

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.” [6]

Depictions and dramatisations

The events surrounding the assault on Rorke's Drift were first dramatised by military painters, notably Elizabeth Butler and Alphonse de Neuville. Their work was vastly popular in their day among the citizens of the British empire, but virtually forgotten by the time the film Zulu was released in 1964. In 1979 the Battle of Isandlwana was dramatised in the film Zulu Dawn. The battle of Rorke's Drift was given a chapter in military historian Victor Davis Hanson's book Carnage and Culture as one of several landmark battles demonstrating the superior effectiveness of western military practices. In 1990 the game developer Impressions Games released a videogame based on the historical battle and was also featured by Mad Doc Sotware in its 2006 strategy game "Empire Earth II: The Art of Supremacy" as one of its "turning point" battle modes.[1]

Post battle

After the end of the battle, the surviving defenders were left without shelter and medical care. As a result, diseases such as typhoid and cholera spread. Three of the garrison also died, two of wounds the day after the battle and one of disease 2 May 1879. Worthy of note is Corporal Christian Ferdinand Schiess, the only non-British or Commonwealth VC recipient, who died in poverty five years later on a ship to England and was buried at sea. His only possession was his Victoria Cross, which is now on display in the National Army Museum.[7]
Breakdown of casualties:

  • 1st Battalion/24 Regt:3 killed/1 Dow/2 wounded
  • 2nd Battalion/24 Regt:8 killed/1 Dow/9 wounded/1 DOD
  • Army Commissariat & transport: 1 killed
  • 1st Battalion/1 Regt NNC: 1 killed
  • 2nd Battalion/2 Regt NNC: 1 killed/1 wounded
  • Natal Mounted Police: 1 killed/1 wounded

See also




  1. ^ Donald R. Morris, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, The Washing of the Spears, Da Capo Press, 1998, p. 401.
  2. ^ F.E. Colenso, History of the Zulu War and Its Origin, London, 1880, p.305
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i "The Battle of Rorke's Drift". Retrieved 2009-05-25. 
  4. ^ Porter, Whitworth (1889), "Drawing, Rorke's Drift Post", History of the Corps of Royal Engineers, II, London: Longmans, Green, and Co, p. 31,, retrieved 2008-08-14 
  5. ^ London Gazette: no. 24717, pp. 3177–3178, 2 May 1879. Retrieved on 2007-11-28.
  6. ^ The Battle of Rorke's Drift
  7. ^ Victoria Crosses held by the National Army Museum


  • Military Heritage discussed Rorke's Drift and the politics of the Victoria Cross (Roy Morris Jr., Military Heritage, August 2005, Volume 7, No. 1, p. 8).
  • Greaves, Adrian, Rorke's Drift, Cassell, London, 2002.
  • Morris, Donald R. The Washing of the Spears: A History of the Rise of the Zulu Nation under Shaka and Its Fall in the Zulu War of 1879
  • Knight, Ian, Rorke's Drift 1879, "Pinned Like Rats in a Hole"; Osprey Campaign Series #41, Osprey Publishing 1996
  • Porter, Whitworth (1889), "South African Wars, 1847 – 1885", History of the Corps of Royal Engineers, II, London: Longmans, Green, and Co, pp. 24–43,, retrieved 2008-08-14 
  • Snook, Lt Col Mike, 'Like Wolves on the Fold: The Defence of Rorke's Drift'. Greenhill Books, London, 2006. ISBN 1-85367-659-4

External links


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