The Battle of Rorke's Drift
The Battle of Rorke's Drift was fought on the same day, 22 January 1879, as the nearby Battle of Isandlwana, where the British army suffered the most humiliating defeat in its history against a native military force, fighting the Zulu army of King Cetshwayo.
There was no sign of G Company, so Spalding rode off towards Helpmekaar to look for them, leaving Chard in command during his absence.
After the central column of Major General Lord Chelmsford had crossed the Mzinyathi River in its invasion of Zululand, It was on its way to its meeting with destiny at Isandlwana, the mission buildings below Shiyane Hill – also known as the Oskarsberg – were converted into a hospital and provision depot. Under the command of Major Henry Spalding, the camp included Lieutenant John Chard of the 5th company, Royal Engineers, who was tasked with preparing an entrenchment intended to be occupied by G Company of the 1/24th Regiment under Captain Rainsforth and which was due to advance from Helpmekaar on the morning of the battle. Also at the camp was B Company of the2/24th Regiment under Lt.Gonville Bromhead, and one company of the 2/3rd Natal Native Contingent. Chard, who had ridden to Isandlwana had returned by mid-morning.
Later that morning intense gunfire was heard from the direction of Isandlwana, and news soon reached Chard of the disaster that had struck the Central Column. Chard hastily ordered preparations for a defensive stand at Rorke's Drift.
Bromhead ordered mealie bags and biscuit boxes to be taken from the store and used in the fortifications. B Company’s tents were struck, the water cart filled and dragged into the yard between the two buildings, and two wagons were also pulled into the defences incorporating the two buildings.
Patients in the hospital who were able to bear arms were posted at positions in the hospital.
The Zulu reserves, under the command of Cetshwayo's brother Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande who rode on a white horse, totalled some 4,000 warriors and had crossed the Mzinyathi River at a point above Fugitives' Drift and advanced towards the post. As they approached the Natal Native Contingent they and their white officers fled, leaving Chard with about 100 able-bodied men. This meant that the original perimeter was far too extended, so Chard hastily had a new barricade of biscuit boxes built from the corner of the storehouse to the front wall.
The Zulu attack was launched at around 4:30 pm, with the terraces behind the post having been occupied by warriors. Somewhat inaccurate rifle fire was directed at the defenders, who responded with well-controlled volleys. Several elements of the Zulu force charged toward the front of the hospital, but Prince Dabulamanzi dismounted and encouraged his warriors to attack en masses rather than in small groups. Repeated attacks were launched, and eventually sniping from the Shiyane terraces began to take its toll.
At about 6pm Chard decided to consolidate his position, which necessitated abandoning the hospital. The defenders withdrew gradually, room by room, assisted by Private John Williams who used a pick-axe to breach the internal walls. Their slow progress was marked by some acts of incredible bravery, especially since the Zulus had set fire to the roof. Chard's men provided covering fire to enable the men to cross the open area between the hospital and the new perimeter.
The Zulus launched waves of renewed fierce attacks crashing into the defences. The defender's rifle fire was so intense that their gun barrels glowed red-hot. Chard ordered a mealie bag redoubt to be built in front of the store to be used as a final stand. Snipers from the terraces now joined the attack, and the Zulus succeeded in occupying the stone kraal on the east side of the perimeter. Fierce, almost hand-to-hand fighting continued until around midnight, when the Zulu attack began to slacken due to sheer exhaustion. Firing finally ceased at around 4 am the following day.
At dawn the defenders gazed in amazement at the carnage that surrounded them. Then, at about 7 am the Zulus reappeared, only to sit down and rest on the western side of the post. The weary defenders prepared to face a renewed onslaught, only to witness the warriors rising up and moving back down to the Mzinyathi River where they crossed back into Zululand, within a few hundred metres of Lord Chelmsford who was returning with the remainder of the Central Column, who had left Isandwana shortly before dawn.
The defenders lost 15, plus two who were to die later from their wounds. Virtually every other man had been wounded. The Zulus lost over 370 warriors who were counted and buried in two mass graves, and at least a further 100 were dragged away by the departing warriors towards the river.
Subsequent to the battle the British awarded 11 Victoria Crosses, the highest decoration for bravery, to some of the defenders. This remains until today the largest number of VCs awarded in any single engagement, anywhere in the world!
There is a museum and interpretation centre at Rorke's Drift, which is open from 08h00 to 17h00 daily. There is a picnic site and toilets. The nearby ELC Craft centre is also well- worth a visit, and is open from 08h00 to 17h30 on weekdays, and between 10h00 and 15h00 on Sundays..
The Rorke's Drift battle site is well signposted, and is situated off the R68 road between Dundee and Nqutu.
- A Brief Introduction to the Battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal
- The History of the KwaZulu-Natal Battlefields: Leopard-Skin, Khaki and Redcoat
- Some of the most important KwaZulu-Natal Battlefield sites
- The Battle of Isandlwana
- The Battle of Rorke's Drift
- The Battle of Spionkop (Spioenkop)
- Helpful Hints to Remember When Visiting Battlefields