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The Battle of Rorke's Drift

22/23 JANUARY 1879 by Graeme Smythe

The men of “B” company 2/24th Regiment and others who had been ordered to stay behind at the Rorke’s Drift supply depot had reason for feeling left-out. Looking after stores and hospital patients was not what soldiering was about, whereas their comrades, including the entire 1st Battalion were marching into the Zulu Kingdom intent on destroying the capital at Ondini (Ulundi) and hoping to capture the first prize, King Cetshwayo Kampande. Life was mundane and by all accounts the force in Zululand was indeed seeing some action. Word had filtered through that there had been a successful raid on Sihayo Kaxongo, a local Zulu chieftain, and that the force was now encamped at the Sphinx-like Hill, Isandlwana. Brevet Major Henry Spalding (104th Regiment) was in overall command of the post. His responsibilities included keeping open lines of communication and making sure that supplies were moved forward to the main force in enemy territory. Wednesday, the 22nd January, was proving to be just another tedious day and Spalding, already anxious that two extra companies of the 24th Regiment had not arrived from the fort at Helpmekaar, decided to go and see if anything was amiss. After consulting his army list, he saw that Lt. John Rouse Merriot Chard (5th Company - Royal Engineers) was the next most senior officer. Spalding left camp with the immortal words: “You will be in charge, although, of course nothing will happen, and I shall be back again early this evening.”

The British force in Natal was in need of engineers and Chard had been called up to the border to primarily maintain the pontoons positioned on the Buffalo River. These pontoons which, due to the flooded state of the river were an essential part of the invasion plan, had taken a severe pounding due to the almost constant flow of military traffic into Zululand. Chard and a hand-full of men from 5th Company had arrived in Durban on the 5 January and were at the Drift by the 19th. Three days later he was in command of the garrison and although he had previously been on foreign service, he had never seen any action. He seemed to have been well liked amongst his fellow officers but as a company officer he was described as being “A plodding, dogged sort” and “Hopelessly slow and slack.”

The duty of second-in-command devolved to Lt. Gonville Bromhead who was in command of “B” Company 2/24th. An unassuming character, he was often called “The Deaf Duffer” and was once described as being “fearless but hopelessly stupid.” Some of the men under his command might even have blamed his condition for been one of the reasons why they had not been invited to join the advance column in Zululand.

After Spalding’s departure, Chard went back down to the pontoons. It would appear that he was not taking the Zulu threat seriously and was not overly concerned when he heard the distant sound of rifle fire. Likewise, Bromhead and his party at the post had heard this fire coming from the direction of Isandlwana, but did not think much of it.

The Reverend Otto Witt (the incumbent missionary), the Reverend George Smith (acting chaplain to the central column), Surgeon Reynolds and a Private from "B" Company took it upon themselves to climb the Oscarsberg/Shiyane Hill behind the post to see what was happening to the advance party. One can imagine their horror when in the distance they recognised a strong Zulu force heading in the direction of Rorke's Drift.

By this stage, some of the Isandlwana survivors had reached the post and had given Bromhead the stark facts - that the camp at Isandlwana had been taken and barely a man had got out of the mess alive. Not surprisingly, none of these survivors stayed to defend the camp but rode off to Helpmekaar, ostensibly to warn the garrison stationed there. Bromhead quickly pencilled a note to be taken to Chard at the river. Chard had already been alerted by two survivors, Lieutenants Adendorff and Vane, who had taken the more direct route from Isandlwana and ended up at the drift.

Chard rode up from the river to find that Bromhead was in the process of organising the defences although several of the survivors mention that acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton, a veteran with 30 years service, was the moving force behind this brave move. Mealie (maize/corn) sacks, each weighing 200 lbs., were used to build a sturdy barricade and without the help of 250 men from the auxillary force, the Natal Native Contingent, it is unlikely that the defences would have been completed in time. Bromhead ordered that six Privates (Henry Hook, Robert Jones, William Jones, John Williams, Joseph Williams and Thomas Cole), should take over the defence of the hospital. There was no time to evacuate the patients and these men busied themselves barricading the doors and windows and knocking loopholes in the outside walls. As Hook succinctly puts it: “we were pinned like rats in a hole”.

The barricades were designed to link the hospital with the store house. Incorporated into this arrangement was a cattle kraal (pen) with dry stone walls approximately 4 feet high. Given that the garrison had a distinct height advantage, all in all, it was not a bad position to defend. The only problem was the Oscarsberg Hill, gently sloping up behind the post.

Chard puts the time at a little after 3.30 pm when a small party of the Natal Native Horse, who had survived Isandlwana, rode up to the post. Their officer asked for instructions and Chard ordered this force to go back round the Oscarsberg Hill to retard the Zulu advance. This was duly done, but at around 4.00 pm Chard noticed the same horsemen galloping off along the road to Helpmekaar. This was too much for the jittery men from the Natal Native Contingent and they abandoned the post to follow their fleeing comrades. Chard was immediately struck by the gravity of the situation. In his report he mentions that: “We seemed very few now all these people had gone.”

In fact there were now a mere 139 men to defend the depot and in what proved to be a magnificent tactical move, Chard ordered that a second line of defence be thrown up to bisect the area. A solid line of biscuit boxes was built from the corner of the Commissariat store down to the front defensive line. This gave the garrison another option. If the hospital and surrounding area was to fall into enemy hands, the men could always retreat to the small area in front of the store. Private Frederick Hitch had been posted as look out on the hospital roof and when quizzed by Bromhead about what he could see, he replied that between four to six thousand Zulus were advancing on the post.

Strictly speaking, the Zulus who attacked Rorke's Drift, had not been involved in the battle at Isandlwana. Although they were in the vicinity, they had been kept in reserve and were no doubt very displeased that they had missed out on the action. The young Indluyengwe Regiment had joined up with elements of the Zulu right horn and had pursued the fugitives up to the Buffalo River where they had paused before crossing. It was probably this force that the Natal Native Horse had encountered and it was certainly this force that made the initial attacks on the mission station.

It was about 4.30 pm when the first warriors from this Indluyengwe Regiment swept down from the Oscarsberg Hill to attack the back of the British position. Trooper Harry Lugg, a patient in the hospital, makes mention of the fact that he had "the satisfaction of seeing the first I fired at roll over at 350 (yards)" and goes on to say that it was some of the best shooting he had ever seen at that distance. Although the Zulus were running into this particularly galling fire, Chard was impressed that their pace did not slacken and this first suicidal rush was only checked when the warriors were within 50 yards of the barricades. Here the survivors took refuge behind the cook house and ovens.

Although the Zulus had been initially repulsed and the British position was looking impregnable, there was nevertheless a weakness. The section of the barricade in front of the hospital was poorly constructed and by taking cover in the thick bush at the bottom of the slope, the Zulus were able to get in close to the British line and with a concerted effort they were able to break through. Private Frederick Hitch, who had taken up a position on this part of the line claims that the Zulus pushed right up to the porch of the hospital before they were checked. However, the Zulus now had a much needed foot hold within the barricaded area and by torching the thatch roof they were now exerting a lot of pressure on the defenders.

While the front of the post was coming under attack, the older more experienced Zulu regiments, the Uthulwana, Indlondlo and Udloko started showing themselves on the slopes of the Oscarsberg Hill. Prince Dabulamanzi Kampande accompanied this second party and he assumed control of the Zulu force. Seeing that the back of the British position was heavily defended, he moved his men round the post to regroup with the Indluyengwe in the flat land in front of the hospital and the rocky ledge.

Meanwhile, a large number of Zulus with firearms had taken up positions on the bottom slopes of the Oscarsberg Hill. From there, they opened up with a heavy fusillade, hitting Corporal Scammell through the shoulder. When acting storekeeper - Louis Byrne - was in the process of giving Scammell a drink of water, a stray musket ball passed straight through his head, killing him instantly, while two men on the back barricade were also hit.

Corporal William Allen was struck in the arm and Corporal John Lyons in the neck.* Surgeon Reynolds had a narrow escape with a musket ball passing through his helmet. James Dalton was not as lucky and being in the thick of the fighting he was more exposed than most and was severely wounded.

Chard was becoming concerned. He could not afford to lose more men and he was also well aware that the hospital was on fire. One can almost assume that he had given up hope that any of his men in the hospital would survive the blaze and he retreated back to relative safety - to the area in front of the Commisseriat store, behind his second line of defence.

The men stuck in the hospital were in a decidedly unenviable position. The building itself was a curious arrangement of little rooms with a central spine running most of the way through. Most of the rooms on the back side, facing the Oscarsberg hill, did not have interleading door ways, which made it extremely difficult for the defenders to communicate. Besides this, no one had counted on the Zulus setting fire to the thatch. Gunner Arthur Howard had abandoned his position earlier on and taken his chances by slipping through the Zulus and hiding amongst some dead horses and pigs that had been killed by the Zulus during an earlier thrust at the front barricade. He lived to tell the tale. Private Thomas Cole was less fortunate. Suffering from claustrophobia, he left the building through the front door and was immediately hit by a stray bullet which passed through his head and struck Private James Bushe on the bridge of his nose. Private Joseph Williams was defending a window when Zulus grabbed hold of his rifle, pulled him through, and hacked him to pieces. Two patients also fell to these Zulus. His fellow defender in that particular room, Private John Williams (Fielding),** was in a predicament. With the roof burning and Zulus at the window, he had no option but to break through the mud brick wall to join up with Henry Hook on the far side. Hook in a desperate attempt to hold his corner room had an amazing tale to tell.

While poking his rifle through a loophole to get a better shot at the Zulus, he claimed that the Zulus nearly wrenched it from his grasp. Fortunately for Hook he had a far better grip on the butt and he was able to slip in a spare cartridge and shoot a Zulu at point blank range. With one man to defend the existing hole, the other would break through the wall and by picking up both Robert and William Jones and some patients on route, the defenders were able to break through to a window looking onto the yard outside.

*The musket ball that hit Lyons came to rest, lodged between two vertebra and was only extracted three weeks later by a doctor in Ladysmith. He survived the ordeal and kept the musket ball as a memento. His descendants donated it to the royal regiment of Wales Museum where it is on display.**He had apparently taken the pseudonym “Williams” to prevent his parents from tracing him when he joined the military.

Chard and the remainder had by this stage regrouped in front of the store house. The Zulu fire from the hill had been negated, thanks to the building between the British and the Oscarsberg, but new problems were becoming apparent. The rocky ledge which is at its most prominent in front of the store house proved to both a blessing and a curse. Although it gave the defenders a distinct height advantage, this ledge created ideal cover for the Zulus who were using it to creep up close to the front barricade. There are several accounts of Zulus, armed with muskets, surprising the British and shooting them at almost point blank range. Fearing that this final defensive area might fall to the enemy, Chard ordered that Assistant Commissary Walter Dunne should supervise the building of the "Last Redoubt" - a makeshift stronghold created by using the excess Mealie bags that were not used to construct the original barricade.

As it became dark, the attackers seemed to gain confidence and renewed their attempts to break into the area in front of the store. Chard talks about being entirely surrounded with the Zulus taking out their frustrations on the camp of the 24th, which was outside the perimeter.

Chard became aware that there was some activity near the hospital and to his surprise he saw men clambering through a window set high up in the wall. Understanding their predicament, he asked for volunteers to help evacuate these defenders and patients. Two men came forward, Corporal William Allen and Private Fred Hitch. Some of the British behind the line of biscuit boxes were employing enfilading fire to keep the Zulus on the outside of the abandoned barricades, but the task was by no means easy. Allen and Hitch, so to speak, had to run the gauntlet of 30 yards to help pull the survivors from the burning building while the return journey was no less arduous.

Trooper Hunter’s luck ran out. In his bed clothes he was trying to get to safety, unassisted, when a Zulu vaulted the barricades and speared him between the shoulder blades. The defenders had the satisfaction of seeing this Zulu dropping dead before he could reach cover.

With all the men inside the small area lying in front of the store, the garrison settled in for the last grueling stage of the battle. The blazing hospital gave the British an eerie light to fight by and indeed helped them to a certain degree, as they could see from which direction the attacks were being launched. However, as the building burnt out, the inky blackness started to benefit the Zulus. Chard was never quite sure where the Zulus were to attack from and by taking up war cries from different areas, the Zulus kept the defenders constantly on the alert. Private John Jobbins from “B” company claims that the Reverend George Smith, in between handing out ammunition, was praying that the Zulus would go away and leave the garrison in peace. Eventually his prayers were answered, but not before the Zulus with a desperate effort had captured part of the cattle kraal. Bromhead, at about midnight, then gathered a group of men around him and with bayonets fixed they charged the Zulus, occupied the kraal, and routed them. By all accounts this gave the British the much needed psychological edge and the Zulu attacks began to peter out and fade away. The men were both physically and mentally spent and it was not until the daylight before they could fully ascertain the true horror of this engagement.

There was, however, a final scare. According to Chard, at about 7am on the morning of the 23rd a large party of Zulus could be seen massing on the Kwasinqindi Hill opposite the post. He was a worried man. Ammunition was low (down to a box and a half) and if the Zulus were to make one last attack, it is unlikely that the garrison could come up with much resistance. But a curious thing happened and the men were spared. The Zulus got up as one, did a wide detour around the front of the post and slipped over the Buffalo River into Zululand. From their position on the Kwasingqindi Hill they could see what Chard and the defenders couldn't - Chelmsford's force moving back into Natal from the direction of Isandlwana.

Chelmsford had spent an uneasy night at the base of the Isandlwana Hill. Behind the Oscarsberg Hill, his force had seen a dull glow, which they correctly assumed was part of the Rorke's Drift post burning. Chelmsford started moving back towards Rorke’s Drift before daylight in an attempt to spare his men from the gruesome sight of thousands of dead men, both Zulus and British. On route they passed a large party of Zulus who slipped passed, quite close to the British force. This did nothing to reassure Chelmsford and he was more convinced than ever that Rorke's Drift had been destroyed.

After arriving at the Buffalo River, Chelmsford sent some of the mounted infantry up to the post to investigate. Even from the Drift, his remaining men could hear the cheers of the garrison.

As Henry Hook recalls: “We broke into roar after roar of cheering, waving red coats and helmets, and we cheered again and again.” The battle had been won! For their efforts in saving the Rorke’s Drift post, a total of eleven men were awarded with the Victoria Cross, making this the highest number ever awarded for a single engagement in British Military History.

The following were the recipients:

Lieutenant J.R.M. Chard (Royal Engineers)
Surgeon J.H. Reynolds (Army Medical Department)
Acting Assistant Commissary J.L. Dalton (Commissariat Department)
Lieutenant G. Bromhead (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Corporal W.W. Allen (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private F. Hitch (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private A.H. Hook (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private R. Jones (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private W. Jones (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private J. Williams (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Corporal F.C. Schiess (Natal Native Contingent)
A total of five men were awarded the distinguished conduct medal:
Colour-Sergeant F. Bourne (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private W. Roy (1st Batt., 24th Regiment)
Wheeler J. Cantwell (Royal Artillery)
Second Corporal F. Attwood (Army Service Corps)
Second Corporal M. McMahon (Army Hospital Corps)
(McMahon had his award withdrawn after being charged and found guilty of theft at Helpmekaar)

British Casualties:

Killed:

Acting storekeeper L.A. Byrne (Commissariat Department)
Sergeant R. Maxfield (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private R. Adams (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private J. Chick (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private T. Cole (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private J. Fagan (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private G. Hayden (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private W. Horrigan (1st Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private J. Jenkins (1st Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private E. Nicholas (1st Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private J. Scanlon (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private J. Williams (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Trooper S. Hunter (Natal Mounted Police)
Corporal W. Anderson (Natal Native Contingent)
Plus: One Unknown Private (Natal Native Contingent)

Died of Wounds:

Lance-Sergeant T. Williams (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private W. Beckett (1st Batt., 24th Regiment)

Seriously Wounded:

Acting Assistant Commissary J.L. Dalton (Commisseriat Department)
Corporal W.W. Allen (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Corporal J. Lyons (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Corporal C. Scammell (Natal Native Contingent)
Corporal F. Schiess (Natal Native Contingent)
Drummer J. Keefe (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private J. Bushe (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private P. Desmond (1st Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private F. Hitch (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private A.H. Hook (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private R. Jones (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private J. Smith (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private W. Tasker (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Private J. Waters (2nd Batt., 24th Regiment)
Trooper R. Green (Natal Mounted Police)

Unfortunately there are no written records from the Zulu side and only one unconfirmed eye witness account of the battle. One can therefore only speculate as to how many Zulus were killed. The British soldiers mention burying 351 Zulus on the 23 January, but talk about finding many more subsequently. Besides this, no one will ever know how many died, once back in Zululand, from bayonet and rifle wounds. An approximate total figure would be between 500-600.
There was no formal Zulu award for bravery, although the "Isiqu", a necklace made from interlocking pieces of wood was awarded to warriors who had distinguished themselves in battle. There were no doubt some exceptional acts of bravery, but because it was an ignominious defeat, it is unlikely that any awards were made

 

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