It was on this day in 1879 that one of the most famous little battles in British history began at the remote mission station of Rorke’s Drift in what is today South Africa when around 150 British troops were attacked by upwards of 4,000 Zulu warriors in the Anglo-Zulu War. The astounding thing is that, despite those seemingly hopeless odds, the British were victorious. The forces of Queen Victoria at Rorke’s Drift were led by Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers and Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead of the 24th Regiment of Foot. The Zulus were led by Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande. The battle was supposed to have been a simple ‘mopping up’ operation on the part of the Zulus after they had wiped out a British column of over a thousand men at the battle of Isandlwana in the worst defeat suffered by a European army at the hands of a non-European foe prior to being surpassed by the Italian defeat at Adowa who were later surpassed by the Spanish defeat at Annual in 1921. The heroism of the British forces at Rorke’s Drift was, therefore, something badly needed for the morale of the British Empire after suffering so devastating a loss. Not only did the handful of men at the isolated mission station repulse repeated attacks by a vastly larger enemy, they forged a record of courage that remains unsurpassed in British military history to this day. Since the institution of the Victoria Cross in 1856, the highest award for battlefield heroism the British monarch can bestow, more were earned at Rorke’s Drift (11) than in any other engagement to date.
That was how I first became aware of the action at Rorke’s Drift as my history professor at the time was an avowed Anglophile whose special area of expertise was the history of the Victoria Cross. Most people probably know about it thanks to the classic 1964 film “Zulu” starring Stanley Baker and Michael Caine. The movie actually has a royal connection as the man playing Zulu King Cetshwayo was one of his relatives, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi who later became famous as a political leader and a somewhat controversial one at that for his strident anti-communism and break with the African National Congress. The film famously contains a number of historical inaccuracies but is entertaining for all of that and correctly shows the daunting odds and courage displayed by both sides in the battle. The little outpost had heard, of course, about the annihilation of the column under General Lord Chelmsford at Isandlwana but knew that it would be hopeless to try to retreat in open country slowed by the many sick and injured they would have to carry along with them. So, they decided to stay and fight it out at Rorke’s Drift, knowing it would be a fight to the death since, as was demonstrated at Isandlwana, the Zulus were not in the habit of taking prisoners, particularly when it came to British regulars.
The Zulus were mostly part of a reserve force that had seen no combat at Isandlwana and were fresh and eager. Added to this was the fact that the Zulus were of a time-honored warrior tradition, very fit and possessing incredible stamina. The British force, by comparison, consisted of a large number of wounded men, some men of the Natal Native Contingent were armed only with spears and their commanders would not have been considered top-notch at the time. Lt. Chard did not have the best reputation in the army, Lt. Bromhead was half deaf and their ranking NCO was the youngest in the army. They were, on the whole, better armed than their enemies who mostly fought with primitive melee weapons though a number did have rifles. The British were better trained in the art of modern warfare but the Zulus also had a primitive but quite effective system of command and control with established tactics that had worked for them in the past. Finally, given their immense numerical superiority there should have been no doubt that they would have defeated the little British outpost and that fairly quickly and completely. The redcoats hastily improvised the best fortifications they could with the space and materials on hand and then waited for the waves of Zulu warriors to come crashing down around them.
The Zulus were not actually supposed to attack Rorke’s Drift. King Cetshwayo was no fool and realized that if he were to provoke a general war with the British Empire he would surely lose. He wanted to repel them from his claimed territory but gave orders against invading that of his enemies. As it turned out, the defeat at Isandlwana enraged British public opinion against the Zulus while the action at Rorke’s Drift inspired them that victory was possible and obtainable. Prince Dabulamanzi made the attack on the mission station on his own authority, being known for his aggressiveness and for being what we would today call a ‘war hawk’. After an initial clash with a small troop of the Natal Native Horse the cavalrymen retreated, leaving the men at Rorke’s Drift on their own. At that point most of the native troops there abandoned the post as well. At about 4:30 PM the Zulus came on, taking as much fire as the British could put out, in attack after attack before recoiling to catch their breath and try again.
The fighting was fierce and often hand to hand as the British fought desperately for their lives against wave after wave of Zulu warriors. For the redcoats, absolutely every casualty counted. As he lost men, Lt. Chard was forced to slowly give ground, abandoning his north perimeter wall and a few rooms in the buildings on that side to the Zulus. Still, in the best tradition of the British infantrymen, they kept order, maintained discipline, stood and gave fire until the enemy was right upon them and then fought them off with the bayonet. The fighting went on through the evening and into the night. Time and time again the British position was all but overrun but each time the heroic soldiers desperately fought their way back and held their ground. Crowds of Zulus were everywhere and the hospital had to be abandoned during the night as the two sides fought from room to room. Chard and Bromhead had improvised some interior lines and as their losses mounted pulled back more and more to maintain a defensible position. The Zulus, for their part, took very heavy losses but continued to attack with tenacious determination. As the night dragged on the British were finally reduced to a mere handful of men, many of them wounded, and they were almost out of ammunition. Mention must also be made of the medics, commissary men and the field chaplain who acquitted themselves just as heroically as the combat infantrymen, tending the wounded in the midst of battle, bringing up ammunition and taking part in the battle themselves.
When dawn broke the next morning it was clear the British could not withstand another attack. If the Zulus had come on once more in all likelihood they would have swiftly taken Rorke’s Drift and massacred the remaining survivors. However, the Zulus had lost about a thousand men killed or wounded so that even their feisty chieftain had to admit that the little mission station was simply not worth it. To the great relief of the British survivors the Zulus decided not to try again and retreated. Sometime after 8AM a British relief force arrived under Lord Chelmsford so that the work of clearing the field and burying the dead could commence. It had been one of the fiercest battles in the history of the British Empire, lasting only hours and not of immense strategic importance but seeing some of the most brutal and desperate combat imaginable. It also saw some of the finest acts of bravery and heroism in the annals of British military history. Eleven men received the Victoria Cross, the most ever given to the men of one regiment for a single action, and four received Distinguished Conduct Medals for conspicuous valor in the face of the enemy. Another man, by all accounts, would have received the Victoria Cross had he not died in the battle as there was no provision at that time for posthumous awards.
Today, I doubt few people outside of military historians in the UK are all that familiar with the action at Rorke’s Drift and most would probably, I am sad to say, feel uncomfortable or even ashamed about it. White Europeans fighting African natives, that’s just terrible and brings up all that history of colonialism and the British Empire that the modern “citizens” of the UK would prefer to forget about or apologize for. Of course, it is a false dilemma to say one must choose between being either a jingoistic racist or someone ashamed of your own history. I look at Rorke’s Drift and see a clash of two kingdoms, unfortunate, but each with a great military tradition behind them and each displaying the heights of courage and tenacity. Ultimately, as we know, the Anglo-Zulu War ended in an “Anglo” victory with the Zulus losing their independence. However, we cannot assume that would not have happened anyway as the British (and most other Europeans for that matter) have now left South Africa and the Zulu kingdom is still not exactly independent but they seem to be okay with that. When remembering Rorke’s Drift and the wider war there is no reason for either side to be ashamed. The British troops were doing their duty and they and the Zulus alike displayed matchless courage. Britain was ultimately victorious but the Zulus had given them a fight like few other non-European peoples ever did.