22–23 January 1879

This painting of the defence of Rorke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 was made a year later by the French artist Alphonse de Neuville (1835–85). The scene shows the blazing hospital building and the evacuation of the ill and wounded. In the background can be seen some of the food bags that were used to build an improvised defensive barrier. When the picture was exhibited in London, 50,000 people paid to see it.

Among the many fables and legends that surround the remarkable survival of a small handful of British soldiers in the mission house at Rorke’s Drift during the Zulu Wars in southern Africa, one unassailable truth stands out: this was a victory, if victory it was, quite in defiance of the odds. A total of around 100 fit men, supported by a small number of invalids, held at bay all night an estimated 4–6,000 Zulu warriors. Even more extraordinary, all but 17 of the tiny garrison lived to tell the tale.

The battle should never have been fought at all. It came in the early weeks of a war between a British army in southern Africa commanded by Lord Frederic Chelmsford and the Zulu kingdom ruled by the powerful Cetshwayo (Cetawayo). The war was the result of growing imperial pressure from London to secure the demobilization of the large Zulu army and to force the Zulus to acknowledge British suzerainty. Zulu leaders would have preferred to keep the kingdom and reach a peaceful accord with British representatives, but British officials in Africa were determined on a war to reduce what they saw as a permanent threat to European settlement in the region. An ultimatum was sent to Cetshwayo on 11 November 1878 calling on him to demobilize his army and accept a British resident for Zululand as a way of ensuring that the army was not later reassembled. As the British knew, this was unacceptable to Cetshwayo, for the military system was a central element in the maintenance of Zulu rule. The British sought war, and when the ultimatum was not immediately accepted, Chelmsford was ordered to begin hostilities.

The British had 17,000 men and 20 artillery pieces. Zulu fighting quality was rated as poor against a disciplined force, and Chelmsford divided his troops into three columns, each sent across the border from the British colony of Natal into Zululand from a different direction. The British forces were supported by black auxiliaries that were in general less well-armed than white troops, who carried the Martini-Henry breech-loading rifle, a fast-firing infantry weapon first adopted in 1871. The Zulu army that gathered at the capital, Ondini (Ulundi), in early January 1879 numbered perhaps 20,000 men, armed with shields, the assegai spear, the’knobkerrie’ club and numerous older rifles, which they fired inexpertly. According to Zulu military practice, the army was divided into the shape of a buffalo: the main force in the centre (or chest) with two wings (or horns) that encircled the enemy right and left and then closed back towards the centre. A reserve force (the loins) was held behind the chest in case it was needed. This battlefield system had brought the Zulu army regular victories in open ground, but was less useful against a well-fortified position.

On 11 January, one of Chelmsford’s three columns, commanded by Colonel Richard Glyn, set out from Rorke’s Drift, a small mission house and store on the banks of the Buffalo River. They crossed the river and set up camp at Isandlwana Hill some miles inside Zulu territory, a position invitingly in the open. A small garrison was left at Rorke’s Drift to guard the stores, under the command of Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead. On 22 January, while Chelmsford was 16–19 kilometres (10–12 miles) from Isandlwana to reconnoitre the area with the main column, the Zulu commander, Chief Ntshingwayo, attacked the camp (which was defended by 1,000 troops) with perhaps 10,000 warriors in ‘buffalo’ formation. The camp was destroyed and all but a handful of the defenders were slaughtered and ritually mutilated.

News of the massacre arrived at Rorke’s Drift by the afternoon and frantic efforts were made to construct proper defences there, including walls built with bags of mealie, the local grain, and a fortification of biscuit tins. Two buildings, one of which was a makeshift hospital, were rapidly turned into an improvised fortress. As it became clear that a massive Zulu army was closing on the station, some of the British officers made good their escape, while 100 colonial militia camped nearby disappeared into the bush. Bromhead was joined by Lieutenant John Chard, an engineer in charge of the floating bridges over the river. They expected to be killed in turn, but rather than flee and be caught in the open they chose to stay and fight with their tiny detachment of fit men and a small quantity of ammunition.

Cetshwayo had not expected his army to carry on as far as Rorke’s Drift. Most warriors returned laden with plunder to bring news of their victory. But Prince Dabulamanzi, one of the king’s brothers, and a commander of the reserve ‘loins’ force, was frustrated at missing out at Isandlwana. Perhaps as many as 5,000 of his men swarmed on towards the Buffalo River where Dabulamanzi ordered them to take the post at Rorke’s Drift. The first wave attacked at around 5 p.m. and was driven off by concentrated rifle fire. The whole army could have swamped the post with ease, but the Zulu army attacked in smaller waves on each side of the buildings, withdrawing after suffering from the heavy British fire, to be replaced by new units. Dabulamanzi, who was sheltering behind nearby trees, could not direct the battle clearly. As dusk fell, the Zulus continued their assault, making it more difficult for the defenders to pick out the enemy. The hospital was set ablaze, providing improvised lighting to allow more accurate rifle fire, but by now there was regular hand-to-hand fighting, bayonet against assegai, as the Zulu soldiers reached the perimeter of the crude defences.

The few defenders in the hospital held up the Zulus who broke in with bullets and bayonets; but they were forced to retreat back through the flimsy partition walls from room to room. Those who were caught, including some of the patients who could not easily escape, were stabbed and beaten to death; the rest scurried across the yard between the two buildings and behind the biscuit-box barricade. The stone-walled kraal (enclosure) was stormed, but an interior wall and a redoubt of mealie bags some 6 metres (20 feet) high held the attackers at bay.

A relief force from a nearby settlement was spotted by Zulu scouts, which may well explain why the assault on the remaining buildings petered out after 9.30 p.m., to be replaced by intermittent rifle fire from both sides. But the relief force, seeing the flames from some distance away, assumed the mission house had been captured and returned whence they had come. The Zulu losses had been high and they were reluctant to fight at nighttime. In the early dawn the tired defenders, down to their last box of bullets, saw the enemy forces marching away. Dabulamanzi arrived back to join the main Zulu army the next day, 23 January to a derisory chorus for his failure with thousands of warriors to capture a small mission post.

In the morning, Chelmsford and his men arrived. They buried 351 Zulu dead lying around the buildings at Rorke’s Drift, but the troops, after seeing the slaughter and mutilation of the corpses at Isandlwana, were hard to control. An estimated 500 wounded and exhausted Zulus found in the surrounding countryside were bayoneted or clubbed to death. It was, one eyewitness recalled, ‘as deliberate a bit of butchery as I ever saw’. The defenders at Rorke’s Drift were liberally decorated with honours, including seven Victoria Crosses for non-officers. One of the recipients, Private Henry Hook, who had stubbornly defended the hospital as long as he could, ended his working life as the cloakroom attendant at the Reading Room of the British Museum Library. Chelmsford used Rorke’s Drift as cover for his incompetence at losing the camp at Isandlwana. The campaign was won after a tough struggle and Cetshwayo lost his kingdom. Rorke’s Drift lived on as an imperial legend, to be immortalized decades later in the film Zulu. Whatever mistakes the cinema version made, the courage and ingenuity of a small handful of British soldiers and officials has never been in question.