Battle of Rorke's Drift; Outnumbered British Force Defends Supply Depot vs. 4000 Zulus

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Battle of Rorke's Drift; Outnumbered British Force Defends Supply Depot vs. 4000 Zulus

"Defence of Rorke's Drift" by Alphonse-Marie-Adophe de Neuville (1880)
Currently at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: January 22-23, 1879

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2010]

Many students of military history have seen – or have at home – 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 cult status in military history circles. [In my original post about this battle in 2010, I referred to it as "Britain's Alamo – With a Happier Ending."]


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 target 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 more than 50 years. British colonial politicians were seeking to unify the disparate provinces that today comprise South Africa, but the Zulus stood in their way. After a South African 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.

Map showing location of former Zululand in modern-day South Africa [Modern-day international boundaries are shown]; Image courtesy of
Map showing location of former Zululand in modern-day South Africa
[Modern-day international boundaries are shown]
Image courtesy of

Prelude to the Battle

The invasion of Zulu land was a well-planned operation, with the major forces divided into three distinct columns. The invading army consisted of some 6600 British troops, with about 9000 African native auxiliaries. The main column led by Lord Chelmsford was given the job of attacking the Zulu capital of Ulundi, while the other columns were tasked with keeping outlying Zulu tribes from interfering with Chelmsford's attack force. The main attack column consisted of about 1837 British, Boers, and native troops.

The first major battle of the war occurred 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 failure to follow their own orders to form a wagon laager when making camp. [Readers interested in the positive effects of laagering should refer to my post from December of 2009: Boers Battle Zulus, Defense Wins.]

One portion of the Zulu army, being held in reserve (sometimes referred to as the "loins" of the buffalo), had been unable to participate in the battle. They had been sent to block the line of communication and retreat for the British force. When the battle ended, this section of the Zulu army spontaneously advanced toward Rorke's Drift, where a small garrison was guarding the column's supplies. Given this chance to "wash their spears," an estimated 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.

Zulu ruler Cetshewayo, c. 1875; Photo on glass plate
Zulu ruler Cetshewayo, c. 1875
Photo on glass plate

[The Zulu ruler, Cetshewayo (catch-a-WHY-oh), had specifically told his regimental commander NOT to cross the Buffalo River to attack any enemy units, nor to attack any organized defenses such as Rorke's Drift. The Zulus at Rorke's Drift were under the command of Prince Dabulamanzi, a half-brother of Cetshewayo.]

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 150 British soldiers at the post, with 96 fit for duty, the rest laid up in the hospital (the mission station, built in 1877 by Swedish missionary Otto Witt, had been converted to serve as an aid station). 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.

The credit for the decision to stand and fight at Rorke's Drift should go to Mr. Dalton, due to the relative inexperience of both Chard and Bromhead. 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 and mercilessly slaughter them. It was, therefore, decided to defend the mission station. Men were assigned to guard the hospital, and began to make loopholes in the walls and to barricade outward-facing doors. The company of NNC, armed only with spears, was assigned to the well-built stone kraal (corral) by the storehouse.

Actual drawing of Rorke's Drift defenses, drawn by Lt. Chard, R.E. (Light red broken lines show path of Zulu attacks); Image courtesy of and Royal Regiment of Wales Museum, Brecon
Actual drawing of Rorke's Drift defenses, drawn by Lt. Chard, R.E.
(Light red broken lines show path of Zulu attacks)
Image courtesy of and
Royal Regiment of Wales Museum, Brecon

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 the stone kraal. In the meantime, Rev. Witt, Surgeon James Reynolds and assistant army chaplain Padre George Smith clambered up a nearby hill (known to the locals as Shiyane, generally known to the Europeans as the Oscarberg) 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 the Oscarberg and reported they had sighted the approaching Zulus to the southeast at a nearby ford. The enemy was 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.

The Zulu Force

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, Cetshewayo could call on 35,000 to 40,000 men, essentially a national militia. Zulu men were enrolled in regiments by age groups, usually in their teens. If a unit served with distinction, 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. [It was not unknown for warriors in their 60s – or even older – being called to service.] 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.

Typical Zulu warriors of various regiments, date of photo unknown; Image courtesy of
Typical Zulu warriors of various regiments, date of photo unknown
Image courtesy of

Each regiment also had various distinguishing features 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 royal decree 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 acquired European firearms through trade. There were several hundred 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 used were older smoothbore or rifled muskets, many in poor condition.] However, many Zulus considered the use of firearms unmanly, depriving your opponent of the opportunity to look into the eyes of his attacker. Though marksmanship training was unknown among the Zulus, it is a fact that 5 of the British soldiers killed at the battle succumbed to Zulu musket fire.

The British Force

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 "Tommy" by Rudyard Kipling for a general impression.]

Martini-Henry breech-loading rifle Mk III, with short lever; Image courtesy of
Martini-Henry breech-loading rifle Mk III, with short lever;
Image courtesy of

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 earlier in the day.

Battle of Rorke's Drift

As more Zulus began to appear, Lt. Chard recognized that the current defensive line was now 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 Zulu warcries of "Usuthu! Usuthu!" could be heard coming from the throats of thousands of Zulus; the first wave of Zulus charged the south wall. They were thrown back by the heavy volume of fire from the British soldiers, and heavy hand-to-hand fighting. Consequenly, the Zulus fell back, regrouped and swung to their left and hit the northwest wall and hospital.

Some of the Zulus then clambered up onto the nearby hill and began sniping at the defenders. Some Zulus concelled themselves in the walled garden north of the defenses. Several attacks were organized in this area, along with a number of Zulu marksmen firing into the enclosure. 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 two 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. Hook and Williams (an assumed name) grew fatigued, they would switch roles, Hook wielding the pickax and Williams taking on the Zulus. Eventually, despite the personal attacks of the Zulus, the fire threatening to engulf them, and the physical exertion of chopping their way through the hospital walls, they escaped the conflagration to join the other defenders in the now-shortened perimeter. The the hospital burned to the ground. [Each of these four men received 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 7:00 p.m. local time).

Paths of the three major attacks on the Rorke's Drift defenses, January 22-23, 1879; Image courtesy of
Paths of the three major attacks on the Rorke's Drift defenses, January 22-23, 1879
Image courtesy of

The Zulus launched several more attacks throughout the next several hours, keeping the defenders busy, allowing them no rest. Actual fighting stopped around 2:00 a.m., with Zulu sniping ending about 2 hours later. The defenders had fought for nearly 10 continuous hours, from late afternoon until the early morning. At dawn on the 23rd (around 5:30 a.m.), the hospital was in ruins, burnt completely. 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 had no food or water for 24-36 hours. After about an hour, the Zulus moved off to the east, back towards their homeland. An hour after that, another force of men was spotted approaching the mission station, but it was a column of British horsemen, who had escaped from Isandlwana. The battle of Rorke's Drift was over…


The final result? An estimated 500-750 or more Zulu dead. The number of Zulu dead is speculative, as it is likely the retreating warriors carried many of their dead and wounded from the field. Or, that some crawled away, hid among rocks or in caves on the Oscarberg, and were never accounted for.

The "butcher's bill for the British defenders? 17 killed, 10-13 wounded. Considering they were outnumbered something like 40 to 1, it is incredible that the casualties were not higher.

Footnote #1: As a result of their extraordinary defense of Rorke's Drift, a total of 11 Victoria Crosses – the highest award given by the British military – were awarded. It was among 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. [At that time, there was no provision for the posthumous awarding of the VC. One British soldier was "mentioned in dispatches" and apparently would have received the 12th VC, if he had survived.]

Footnote #2: The Victoria Cross recipients of Rorke's Drift:

Lt. John R.M. Chard, R.E., photographed 1881
Lt. John R.M. Chard, R.E., photographed 1881

  1. Lt. John R.M. Chard, Royal Engineers, officer commanding, Rorke's Drift;
  2. Lt. Gonville Bromhead, Company Commander, Company B, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot;
  3. Corporal William Allen, Company B, 2/24 Regiment;
  4. Private Frederick Hitch, Company B, 2/24 Regiment;

Private Henry Hook, Company B, 2/24 Regiment
Private Henry Hook, Company B, 2/24 Regiment

  1. Private Henry Hook, Company B, 2/24 Regiment;
  2. Private Robert Jones (#716), Company B, 2/24 Regiment;
  3. Private William Jones (#593), Company B, 2/24 Regiment;
  4. Private John Williams (Fielding), Company B, 2/24 Regiment;
  5. Surgeon James Henry Reynolds, Army Medical Department;
  6. Corporal Christian Ferdinand Schiess, 2nd Battalion, Natal Native Contingent
  7. James Langley Dalton, Acting Assistant Commissary, Commissariat & Transport Department

Acting Asst. Commissary James Langley Dalton; Image courtesy of
Acting Asst. Commissary James Langley Dalton
Image courtesy of

Footnote #3: 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.

Footnote #4: As mentioned at the beginning of this post, the 1964 film Zulu is a generally accurate depiction of the defense of Rorke's Drift. There are a number of Hollywood-style additions for dramatic effect, and there are a number of character depictions that are…just wrong! [Henry Hook is portrayed as an insubordinate, drunken malingerer, which is 180 degrees from his true self. At the London premiere of the film, Hook's two elderly daughters walked out of the theatre after seeing the incorrect portrayal of their father.] Otherwise, even after 50+ years, the film still holds up pretty well as entertainment.

Original lobby poster for Zulu (1964)
Original lobby poster for Zulu (1964)

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good picture

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