Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Defence of Rorke's Drift

The Defence of Rorke's Drift stands out in history as one of the finest examples of discipline and valor ever recorded. A battle in which, about 140 men successfully defended the Drift against an overwhelming force of about 4,500 Zulus.

The Battle of Rorke's Drift

The Combatants: British infantry with Natal irregulars against Zulu warriors.

The 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 Dabulamanzi kaMapande.

The Size of the Armies: 139 British troops against about 4,500 Zulus.
British Regiments: 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.

The Zulu War of 1879 is full of individual acts of heroism, devotion and situations of the gravest peril; yet the one that clearly stands out and has echoed its way though history is The Defence of Rorke's Drift. On January 22nd 1879, the main Zulu Impi of 20,000 men attacked the British Camp at Isandlwana. The 1,500 defenders were overrun and massacred. Later that day, the mission station at Rorke's Drift was attacked. 140 men successfully defended the Drift against an overwhelming force of 4,000 Zulus.

11 Victoria Crosses were awarded for this action. Asandlwana January 22nd 1879. Eleven days after invading Zululand, the camp at Isandlwana was attacked by 20,000 Zulu warriors. Chelmsford had left the camp earlier that day with half the Column, believing the main Zulu Army to be some way away. The 1,500 men that remained fought a furious battle, but as the horns of the Buffalo surrounded them, they were overrun and massacred with deadly efficiency. It was the most devastating defeat of a modern army. More officers were killed than at Waterloo and more men than at Alma or Inkermen.

The Zulu Prince kaMpande commanded an impi a force of about 4,500 zulu warriors. The Prince, disobaying his brothers (the King) request not to cross the Buffalo River into Natal, he chose to attack the British supply base close to a river crossing known as Rorke's Drift. A mission station that consisted of a dwelling house and a chapel, both sturdily built of stone. The house was doing temporary duty as a field hospital, the chapel was full of stores and there were only 104 men who were fit enough to fight.

The command of the post had passed to Lieutenant Chard of the Royal Engineers and commanding a company-strength detachment was Lieutenant Bromhead of the 24th Regiment.

James Langley Dalton, Acting Assistant Commissary, ordered the construction of barricades connecting the two buildings.

When the Zulus attacked they were unable to reach the men behind the barricades and they were pelted by rifle fire at point blank range. Most of those who withstood the fire with armored checst plates were thouraly dispatched bayonets.

After a number of unsuccessful attacks the Zulus set fire to the hospital breaking in they began attacking patients. A private named Alfred Henry Hook kept them at bay with his bayonet while John Williams hacked holes in the wall separating one room from another and dragged the patients through one by one.

The Fighting continued all night as the Zulus made charge after charge on the barricades. Both sides fought with desperate courage. In the yard Surgeon James Henry Reynolds tended to the wounded, oblivious to the life and death struggle going on all around him. Those too badly hurt to shoot propped themselves up as best they could and reloaded the guns, and re-supplied ammunition to those who were still on their feet.

*As dawn broke, the British could see that the Zulus were gone; all that remained were the vast piles of dead - over 370 bodies were counted. Patrols were dispatched to scout the battlefield, recover rifles, and look for survivors. At roughly 7am an impi of Zulus suddenly appeared, and the weary redcoats manned their positions once again. Yet no attack materialised. The Zulus were utterly spent, having been on the move for six days prior to the battle and having not eaten properly for two. In their ranks were hundreds of wounded, and they were several days march from any supplies. Soon after their appearance, the Zulus left the way they had come.

Around 8am, another force appeared, and the redcoats abandoned their makeshift breakfast of rum, tea and biscuits to man their positions once again. This was no Zulu force, however; Lord Chelmsford and the column he commanded had arrived. The battle was over. Eleven soldiers, including seven of the 2/24th, were awarded the Victoria Cross - the most awarded in a single action in the history of the British Empire.

Along with discipline and valor defending a small outpost when vastly outnumbered has been a strategic goal of western fighting forces ever since this historic battle. It’s a shinning example of what a disciplined fighting force with strong on the ground unit leadership can accomplish 1879 Africa or 2006 Iraq and Afghanistan.


* is taken from wikipedia Rorke's Drift

Book - Like Wolves on the Fold: The Defence of Rorke's Drift by Mike Snook

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