The Battle of Rorke's Drift
Rorke’s Drift: the
iconic defence of the mission station by a small force of British
and colonial troops; which saw a record award of Victoria Crosses
and restored the faith of Victorian Britain in the Army
War: Zulu War
Date: 22nd January 1879
Place: Tugela River in Natal Province, South Africa
Combatants: British infantry with Natal irregulars against
Commanders: The British garrison was commanded by
Lieutenant John Chard, Royal Engineers, and Lieutenant Gonville
Bromhead of the 24th Foot. The Zulus were commanded by Prince
Zulu War medal: Thanks to Historik
Orders of Greenwich, Conn, USA.
Size of the armies: 139 British troops against about 4,500
Uniforms, arms and equipment:
The Zulu warriors were formed in regiments by age, their
standard equipment the shield and the stabbing spear. The formation
for the attack, described as the “horns of the beast”, was said to
have been devised by Shaka, the Zulu King who established Zulu
hegemony in Southern Africa. The main body of the army delivered a
frontal assault, called the “loins”, while the “horns” spread out
behind each of the enemy’s flanks and delivered the secondary and
often fatal attack in the enemy’s rear. Cetshwayo, the Zulu King,
fearing British aggression took pains to purchase firearms wherever
they could be bought. By the outbreak of war the Zulus had tens of
thousands of muskets and rifles, but of a poor standard, and the
Zulus were ill-trained in their use. The Zulus captured some 1,000
Martini Henry breech loading rifles and a large amount of
ammunition. Some of these rifles were used at Rorke’s Drift. All the
British casualties, few though they were, were shot rather than
Winner: The British.
B company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Foot: later the South Wales
Borderers and now the Royal Regiment of Wales.
Men of the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, Army Service Corps,
Commissariat and Medical Corps.
Rorke's Drift: the mealie bag wall; the burning hospital in the
The Battle of Rorke's Drift
(this map appears in the best selling book,
The Dangerous Book for Boys
by Gonn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden, in the section
Famous Battles-Part Two)
Rorke’s Drift is an iconic battle for Britain like Isandlwana,
but for the reverse reason. After the disastrous and apparently
inexplicable slaughter of the 1st Battalion, the 24th Foot,
Bromhead’s B Company, 2nd Battalion of the same regiment with their
colleagues restored the prestige of British arms by their successful
defence of the mission station.
Just as it was incomprehensible to the public in Britain that
1,000 British infantry armed with modern breach loading rifles could
be overwhelmed by native troops armed principally with stabbing
spears, it was astounding that a handful of the same troops could
withstand the overwhelming attack delivered against the mission
station later the same day.
Rorke's Drift: defending the biscuit box wall
On 11th January 1879, Lord Chelmsford led the Centre Column of
his invading army into Zululand, crossing the Tugela River at
Rorke’s Drift. On 22nd January 1879, the Zulu Army sidestepped
Chelmsford’s advancing force and wiped out the troops he had left at
his advanced camp by the hill of Isandlwana, principally the 1st
Battalion, 24th Foot under Colonel Pulleine.
Cetshwayo, the Zulu King, when he dispatched his army to fight
Chelmsford’s invading columns, issued orders that his warriors were
not to enter the British colony of Natal. He still hoped to
negotiate a peaceful settlement of the war and did not wish to be
labeled an aggressor.
Lieutenant Bromhead VC, 24th Foot
As the battle at Isandlwana drew to a close several Zulu
regiments under Cetshwayo’s younger brother, Prince Dabulamanzi
kaMapande, reached the Tugela River, cutting off the few escaping
British. These regiments had not been involved in the battle and
looked for a way to join in the success. Dabulamanzi, an aggressive
leader, resolved to lead these Zulu regiments to the further triumph
of capturing the British base at the Rorke’s Drift crossing on the
A single company of infantry garrisoned the mission station at
Rorke’s Drift, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Foot. Although the
24th was designated the South Warwickshire Regiment, this company
was manned largely by Welshmen. The company colour sergeant was
Frank Bourne; the sole officer, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead.
The mission belonged to the Reverend Otto Witt, a Swede. Mr
Witt’s church had been turned into a store by the British Army; his
house a military hospital under Surgeon James Reynolds.
Lieutenant John Chard, Royal Engineers, arrived at Rorke’s Drift on
19th January 1879 with a party of sappers. Chard had cause to
journey up to Isandlwana immediately before the battle and on his
return saw groups of Zulus.
On 21st January 1879 the garrison heard firing from the distant
battle and a group of officers climbed the nearby hill. They saw
what they eventually realised to be parties of Zulus advancing
towards the mission station. News of the disaster at Isandlwana was
confirmed by the arrival of Lieutenant Ardendorff from the camp.
The British garrison set to fortifying the mission station. Tents
were struck and stored and the buildings loopholed for defence. The
store (church) and building (Witt’s house) were linked by walls of
The defence of Rorke's Drift
A party of Durnford’s unit arrived and was posted forward to hold
the Zulu advance as long as possible.
At 4.20pm firing was heard from the hill and the men of Durnford’s
unit returned to the mission station and then left for Helpmakaar,
the nearest Natal town. The company of Natal Native Infantry also
left, leaving the regular British troops and some Natal irregulars.
The garrison hurriedly built a shorter perimeter line of biscuit
boxes to accommodate the greatly reduced numbers of soldiers.
The defenders after the battles
500 Zulus appeared around the hill to the South, running towards
the mission station. They were met by a heavy fire from the garrison
and at some 50 yards from the wall veered around the hospital to
attack from the North West. They were driven back by the fire from
the garrison and went to ground in the undergrowth, uncleared due
the shortage of time.
The main body of Zulus came up and opened a heavy fire on the
British from cover around the West and North West of the mission
The hospital at the western end of the fortifications became the
focus for the fighting. Set on fire and stormed by the Zulus, it
became untenable. As many men were extracted as possible, the
remaining patients perishing in the flames. Privates John Williams,
Henry Hook, William Jones, Frederick Hitch and Corporal William
Allen all received the Victoria Cross for their defence of the
hospital building, fighting with bayonets once their ammunition was
expended, as they contested every room with the attacking warriors.
The fighting now concentrated on the wall of biscuit barrels
linking the mission house with the mealie wall. As night fell the
British withdrew to the centre of the station where a final bastion
had been hastily assembled. The light from the burning hospital
assisted the British in their fire. The savage Zulu attacks were
resisted until around midnight when unexpectedly the ferocity of the
assault fell away. Firing continued until around 4am when the Zulus
withdrew. By then the British held only the area around the
At 7am a body of Zulus appeared on the hill, but no attack
followed. It became apparent that the Zulus could see Chelmsford’s
column approaching from the direction of Isandlwana. The Zulus
turned and left.
Soon afterwards the column arrived at the drift and crossed the
Tugela, marching up to the mission station. Chelmsford’s delight at
finding the garrison alive and still resisting was heavily tempered
by his despair at finding that no survivors from Isandlwana had
escaped to Rorke’s Drift.
24th Foot at Rorke’s Drift
Illustration courtesy of Tim Reese
Casualties: Zulu casualties are thought to have been
around 500. The garrison of the mission station comprised 8 officers
and 131 non-commissioned ranks. Of these 17 were killed and 10
B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Foot: Defenders of the Mission
Station at Rorke's Drift
The defeat at Isandlwana brought Lord Chelmsford’s Centre Column
back to the Tugela. Chelmsford had then to ensure that the Zulu
Armies did not invade Natal. He called for substantial
reinforcements and got them. In March 1879 Colonel Evelyn Wood’s
Northern Column inflicted a heavy defeat on the Zulus at Khambula.
In April 1879 Chelmsford relieved Colonel Pearson’s Southern Column,
entrenched for some months at Eshowe, and later renewed the advance
from the Tugela.
On 4th July 1879 Cetshwayo’s Zulu Army was utterly
defeated at the Battle of Ulundi. Fighting continued in a desultory
form until Cetshwayo’s capture on 28th August 1879 and the end of
Lieutenant Chard VC, Royal Engineers
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
- Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead were each awarded the Victoria
Cross for the defence of the Rorke’s Drift mission station and
- In addition to the soldiers of the 24th who distinguished
themselves in the defence of the hospital, Victoria Crosses were
awarded to Surgeon Reynolds, Commissary Dalton and Corporal Schiess
of the NNC. Colour Sergeant Bourne and Private William Roy of the
24th Foot, Gunner Cantwell of the Royal Artillery and Corporal
Attwood of the Army Service Corps were awarded the Distinguished
- Sir Garnet Wolseley, taking over as Commander-in-Chief from Lord
Chelmsford, was unimpressed with the awards made to the defenders of
Rorke’s Drift, saying “it is monstrous making heroes of those who
shut up in buildings at Rorke’s Drift, could not bolt, and fought
like rats for their lives which they could not otherwise save.”
The medical consequences of the battle: It seems likely that a
number of the defenders of Rorke’s Drift subsequently suffered from
what is now classified as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Corporal
Schiess fell “on hard times” and died in 1884 aged 28 years; Pte
John Fielding’s hair is said to have turned white shortly after the
battle; William Jones in old age suffered from nightmares that the
Zulus were about to attack; Robert Jones shot himself in 1896.
Washing of the Spears by D. Morris
Zulu War by Ian Knight (Pan Grand Strategy).