The Defense of Rorke's Drift
The Weird Aryan History - Lesson #22
The Defence of Rorke's Drift
22nd and 23rd of January, 1879
[This is the battle on which the movie "Zulu" was based.]
In January 1879 the British invaded KwaZulu in South Africa, without the sanction of the home government, in a war brought about by the misguided policy of "confederating" southern Africa under the direction of the Governor-General Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere. The fiercely indepedent AmaZulu people refused to lay down their arms and accept British rule. The British General Officer Commanding, Lord Chelmsford, despite having abundant military intelligence on the AmaZulu, had a misconceived idea of the fighting prowess of his enemy. The result was that on 22nd January a British force of seventeen hundred strong, was attacked and only some four hundred men, of whom only some eighty were Europeans, survived at a place called Isandhlwana.
Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande commanded an impi, the Undi 'corps' of 4,500. His men had played little part in the action at Isandhlwana. Goaded on by his warriors who sought loot and glory, and despite the orders of his brother, King Cetshwayo kaMpande, not to cross the Buffalo River into Natal, he chose to attack the British supply base close to a river crossing known as Rorke's Drift, which the AmaZulu called KwaJimu. Looking up towards the hospital building, with some of the original ledge still visible. The post was established in a trading store-cum-mission station that consisted of a dwelling house and a chapel, both sturdily built of stone. The house was doing temporary duty as a field hospital, the chapel was full of stores and there were only 104 men who were fit enough to fight.
The command of the post had passed to Lieutenant Chard of the Royal Engineers, when Major Henry Spalding of the 104th Regiment left on the morning of the 22nd January. Commanding a company-strength detachment was Lieutenant Bromhead of the 24th Regiment.
James Langley Dalton, a volunteer serving as an Acting Assistant Commissary and a former Staff Sergeant, ordered the construction of barricades connecting the two buildings with sacks of corn, and an inner barricade with biscuit boxes.
When the Zulus attacked, wielding their short stabbing assegais, they were unable to reach the men behind the barricades and they were blasted by rifle fire at point blank range. Most of those who did mount the breastwork were repulsed by the bayonets of the defenders. Some of the Zulus were armed with rifles, purchased from unscrupulous traders or captured at Isandhlwana, but they were not trained marksmen and the British soldiers were able to pick them off at long range.
After a number of unsuccessful attacks the Zulus set fire to the hospital, burst in and began to spear the patients. A private named Alfred Henry Hook, a Gloucestershire man, kept them at bay with his bayonet while his friend John Williams hacked holes in the wall separating one room from another and dragged the patients through one by one, the last man had dislocated his knee. Williams had to break the other to get him out of a window and into the yard where the barricades offered some protection.
Fighting went on all night in the fitful glare from the blazing hospital as the Zulus made charge after charge on the barricades. Both sides fought with desperate courage. A patient from the hospital, a Swiss born adventurer Christian Ferdnand Schiess, stabbed three Zulus in quick succession after he had clambered over the breastwork. In the yard Surgeon James Henry Reynolds tended to the wounded, oblivious to the life and death struggle going on all around him. Those too badly hurt to shoot propped themselves up as best they could and reloaded the guns, and re-supplied ammunition to those who were still on their feet.
When dawn came at last, the Zulus drew off taking their wounded with them and leaving at least 351 dead around the barricades. Later Lord Chelmsford arrived on the scene with a column of British soldiers.
Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead were both awarded the Victoria Cross, as were the redoubtable privates Alfred Hook, Frederick Hitch, Robert Jones, William Jones, Corporal Allen, James Langley Dalton and Pte. John Williams. Surgeon Reynolds got the Cross for tending the wounded under fire; and the Swiss volunteer Christian Schiess - the first to a soldier serving with South Africa forces.
To this day, the defence of Rorke's Drift holds the record in the British Army for the highest number of VCs awarded for a single engagement.