January 22-23, 1879 – Battle of Rorke’s Drift

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Rorkes drift Britain’s Alamo (With a Happier Ending) Any true student of military history has seen – or has a copy at home – of the 1964 film Zulu. It shows a heroic defense of a frontier outpost by a small band of British regulars against a numerically superior, determined native foe. The battle of Rorke’s Drift has attained a certain mythos. The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 could – rightly or wrongly – be called a “war of aggression” with Britain playing the role of the bully. Unfortunately, the bully’s prey hit back, hit back hard, and gave the bully a very bloody nose. The Zulu Empire, situated in what is today the province of KwaZulu-Natal in the Republic of South Africa, had fought with the Boer and British settlers of southern Africa for 50 years or more. British political leaders were seeking to unify the disparate provinces that today comprise South Africa, but the Zulus stood in their way. After a British diplomat issued an ultimatum to the Zulus to disarm and disband their army, British forces invaded Zululand on January 11, 1879. Neither the ultimatum nor the invasion had the approval of the British government in far-off London. The first major battle of the war occurred earlier in the day on January 22 at Isandlwana, where over 1300 British regulars and members of their native contingent were massacred by 20,000 Zulus before noon. The disaster at Isandlwana was partly a result of poor reconnaissance by the British, as well as their failure to follow their own orders to form a wagon laager when making camp. [Refer back to “Boers Battle Zulus, Defense Wins,” December 16, 2009] One portion of the Zulu army, being held in reserve, had been unable to participate in the battle. Someone in that force reminded his brother-warriors of a nearby mission station where more British soldiers were located. Given this chance to “wash their spears,” 4000 Zulus marched the 10 miles from the site of the massacre to the mission station/army depot at Rorke’s Drift on the Natal side of the Buffalo River. Their advance was delayed by the need to find a usable crossing, which took them some time. Fortunately, two European officers of the Natal Native Contingent (NNC) managed to escape Isandlwana on horseback and ride to Rorke’s Drift to warn them, arriving at about noon. There were only about 135 British soldiers at the post, with 96 fit for duty, the rest laid up in the hospital (which had been the mission station built in 1877 by Swedish missionary Otto Witt). They also had a company of NNC – between 225-250 men and their white officers – as well as about 100 men of the Natal Native Horse (who had escaped from Isandlwana earlier in the day) to scout for the approaching Zulus. The three senior officers present – Lieutenant John R.M. Chard, Royal Engineers; Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, commander of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot; and, Acting Assistant Commissary James Langley Dalton – discussed their options. It was never established positively who should receive the credit for the decision to defend Rorke’s Drift, but due to the relative inexperience of both Chard and Bromhead, that honor should go to Mr. Dalton. Mr. Dalton was an experienced sergeant-major, having retired from the British army several years previously. He volunteered to serve in the Army Commissary Service as the possibility of British action against the Zulus loomed. Thoughts of retreat were almost instantly quashed, as moving the wounded by wagons in the open countryside of Natal would be suicidal, allowing the more mobile Zulus to simply run them down. It was, therefore, decided to defend the mission station. Men were assigned to guard the hospital, and began making loopholes in the walls and to barricade outward-facing doors. Work began shortly thereafter to construct barricades using 200-pound bags of mealies (cornmeal) and large biscuit boxes, which were in large supply in the storehouse. A fairly large perimeter was established, which included the storehouse, the hospital and a stone cattle kraal (corral). In the meantime, Rev. Witt, Surgeon James Reynolds and assistant army chaplain Padre George Smith clambered up a nearby hill to watch for the Zulus. Lt. Chard felt he would be able to hold the mission station with the forces at his disposal, especially with something like 20,000 rounds of ammunition in the storehouse. At about 4 p.m. Surgeon Reynolds, Padre Smith and Rev. Witt descended from their vantage point and reported they had sighted the approaching Zulus at a nearby ford, saying they were about five minutes away. Almost immediately, an NNH trooper appeared, saying the Zulus were about a minute away. This declaration caused the rest of the mounted natives to bolt, which their officers were unable to stop. As the mounted men left, the NNC company also took to their heels, followed by their commander and white NCOs. This last desertion provoked a response from some of the British troops, who fired on the fleeing NNC, killing one of their NCOs. Shortly after, Rev. Witt obtained a horse and fled the scene to join his family. As more Zulus began to appear, Lt. Chard recognized that the current defensive line was too large, so he ordered construction of an inner wall to shorten the perimeter, and ordered evacuation of the hospital. As these orders were being carried out, the first cries of “Usuthu! Usuthu!” could be heard coming from the throats of thousands of Zulus; the first wave of Zulus charged the northwest wall and hospital… [And now, for something completely different…] The Zulu army at this time had been honed by some 60-70 years of fighting and conquest by their founding ruler Shaka Zulu. The current Zulu ruler, Cetsewayo (catch-a-WHY-oh), could call on between 40,000 and 50,000 men, essentially a national militia. Zulu men were enrolled in regiments in groups at a young age. If a regiment served well, the whole regiment would be permitted to marry en masse. Members of married regiments were denoted by wearing black head-rings. Most unmarried regiments were considered the “standing army” while married men over the age of 40-50 were essentially the reserves. The attackers of Rorke’s Drift consisted of elements of three regiments of married men in their 30’s and 40’s, and elements from a fourth regiment of younger unmarried men. Each regiment also had various distinguishing marks like loincloth color or fabric, ceremonial headdresses or leg or arm adornments. Colors and decorations of their oval cowhide shields also marked different regiments. Most unmarried regiments had black shields with other decorations, while married units could have nearly any colored and decorated shield design. A unit that truly distinguished itself in battle could be honored by the royal caveat by carrying white shields, thus denoting what were effectively the veteran units. The primary weapon of the Zulu regiments was the iklwa, a short-handled spear mainly used in hand-to-hand combat, still sometimes referred to as the assegai. Another secondary weapon was the knobkerrie, a club carved from a tree trunk which often served as a badge of a regimental officer. The Zulus were also trained to use their shields as an offensive weapon. In addition, during the previous decades many Zulus began acquiring European firearms through trade. There were hundreds of these weapons being carried by the attackers of Rorke’s Drift. [It is, however, a myth that the Zulus were carrying firearms looted from the dead soldiers at Isandlwana, as none of the attackers of Rorke’s Drift had been involved in that fight. The weapons being used were older smoothbore or rifled muskets.] The defenders of Rorke’s Drift were a mixed bag of men. Most were English, with some Irish, a few Welsh, and one documented Scotsman amongst them. One of the recipients of the Victoria Cross (VC), Corporal Ferdinand Schiess of the NNC, was born in Switzerland, of all places. The vast majority were from the lowest rungs of the English social ladder. They were paid “a shilling a day” and endured the disdain of their social betters when they returned home. [Readers are urged to read the poem by Rudyard Kipling entitled “Tommy” for a general impression.] The primary weapon of the men was the Martini-Henry rifle, the first British service rifle that was a true breech-loader with metallic cartridges. It fired a single .577/450 round, which then required working the lever to eject the spent cartridge, inserting a fresh round, then working the lever again to prepare the rifle for firing. Under good conditions, a British soldier could fire up to 10 rounds in a minute. However, the earlier ammunition had a tendency – especially in African climes – to overheat the breech block after extended use, easily fouling the rifle. This sometimes forced soldiers to use either their bayonet or a personal knife to extract the spent cartridges in order to reload, slowing their rate of fire. This unfortunate tendency of the Martini-Henry is perhaps partly to blame for the disaster at Isandlwana. […and now, back to our story…] The first attack was repulsed with rifle fire and heavy hand-to-hand fighting. These Zulus then clambered up onto the nearby hill and began sniping at the defenders. A second attack against the hospital was more successful. The roof of the hospital soon caught fire, forcing an evacuation of the defenders and the patients. Showing singular valor during this part of the fight were Privates Henry Hook, Robert Jones, William Jones and John Williams. The Privates Jones defended one corner of the hospital, shooting Zulus and fighting with those that attempted to wrest their rifles from them through the loopholes. Many of the rooms of the hospital were not connected to each other, making the hospital a maze and a deathtrap. As the defenders became hemmed in, Private Williams used a pickaxe to chop holes in three separate walls, allowing the defenders to drag themselves and 8 patients to safety. Private Hook took on the Zulus in desperate hand-to-hand combat, prevailing time and again. Eventually, they escaped the conflagration to join the other defenders in the now-shortened perimeter, as the hospital burned to the ground. [Each of these four men were awarded VCs for their bravery. The conflagration also help light up the night, allowing the British to see their foes more clearly as the fighting continued past sundown (about 7 p.m. local time). The Zulus launched several more attacks throughout the next several hours, keeping the defenders busy, allowing them no rest. Actual fighting stopped around 2 a.m., with Zulu sniping ending about 2 hours later. At dawn on the 23rd (around 5:30 a.m.), the hospital was burnt completely, and the defenders had been fighting for nearly 10 continuous hours. At that time, Lt. Chard sent men out to search for Zulu survivors (which were shot, clubbed or bayoneted), gather weapons, and count bodies. About 370 Zulu bodies were calculated, but it was speculated that more were carried off by their comrades. As the British finally started to relax, a lookout spotted a force of Zulus in the distance, causing the men to “stand to” once more. By this point in the battle, the defenders had less than 900 rounds left to them. However, this group of Zulus had apparently been involved in the fight and wanted no part of further conflict. Many of the Zulus were seen taking snuff, as they had no food or water close at hand. After about an hour, the Zulus moved off to east, back towards their homeland. An hour later, another force of men was spotted approaching the mission station, but it was a British relief column. The battle of Rorke’s Drift was over… The final result? An estimated 500 Zulu dead; 17 British killed, 13 wounded. As a result of their defense of Rorke’s Drift, a total of 11 Victoria Crosses – the highest award given by the British military – were awarded. It was the single largest number of VCs given for a single action in the history of the British army. Five other men received Distinguished Conduct Medals (considered a “near miss for the VC”), with some of the defenders receiving brevet promotions. [Surgeon Reynolds, one of the VC recipients, also had his pet fox terrier named Dick mentioned in his citation. Dick stayed by his master’s side throughout the battle, except at one point to bite a Zulu who came too close to Reynolds.]
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I have been to the regimental home of the 24th Foot, in Brecon, Wales. It is an amazing place. When you walk in the door, the first thing you see is a display case with the 11 VC's on display. There are all sorts of original artifacts there as well. Martini-Henry rifles, ammunition boxes, bayonets, Zulu spears, asagi, shields, etc. Some are from Rourke's Drift, while others are from the battlefield of Ishandalwhana. These latter include some of the drums and instruments from the band, etc. It's a wonderful place to spend a few hours, and Brecon is a wonderful town as well.

If you ever have th chance to go, you should. You will not regret it.

Keep telling that history; read some great military history.

How do you keep a people down? ‘Never' let them 'know' their history.

The 7th Cavalry got their butts in a sling again after the Little Big Horn Massacre, fourteen years later, the day after the Wounded Knee Massacre. If it wasn't for the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, there would of been a second massacre of the 7th Cavalry. Read the novel, “Rescue at Pine Ridge”, and visit website http://www.rescueatpineridge.com

The military history of these United States has long suffered from the absence of that great part played by black soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. It has only been in these past 2-3 decades that any sort of wide-ranging recognition of their courage, compassion, and professionalism has been forthcoming to the general populace, and that is a damned shame. They have been a part of this nation's military story since before the revolution, and still proudly serve today. God Bless them all. Others may not know so much of them, but those who have served beside them do, and it is to be hoped that coming generations will also hear the tales of their exploits, as a part of our shared American experience.

There is only one race, human, and only one America, though some will try and divide it into many parts for their own selfish manipulative reasons. Let us tell our story as the story of ONE nation, of ONE people, with a proud history from founding to present day.

Hi, i just thought i'd post a comment and let you know your blogs layout is really messed up on the K-Melon browser. Anyhow keep up the good work!

Please amend. Lt Chard was a Royal Engineer (Corps of Royal Engineers) and not Royal Artillery as mentioned above. Otherwise, a good rendition of what occurred. The Royal Engineers do not poses 'Regimental Colors' as an Infantry Bn would have, because they have been involved in every conflict, rather they adhere to their motto - UBIQUE - everywhere. FOLLOW THE SAPPER!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Chard http://www.remuseum.org.uk/biography/rem_bio_chard.htm

Very well thought out writing on your part. I will certainly make sure to sign up to your RSS feed so I can be updated whenever you post again. I'm always on the hunt for unique authors. Be Cool

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.