Rorke’s Drift, 64km from Dundee, in KwaZulu-Natal, was a trading post and mission station on the Natal – Zululand border, situated near a natural ford (drift) on the Buffalo (Umzinyathi) River.
At 2.00pm on the 22 January 1879, Major Spalding, still unaware of the disaster at Isandlwana, left the trading post in order to ascertain the whereabouts of No.1 company due two days earlier. He left camp saying to Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers, “You will be in charge, although, of course nothing will happen, and I shall be back again early this evening.”
Lieutenant Chard then rode down to the river to inspect the work being carried out on the drift.
At 3:30pm two officers of the Natal Native Contingent arrived at the ford bearing the news of the battle at Isandlwana, and that one wing of a Zulu impi (regiment) was bearing down on the trading post.
Lieutenant Chard quickly returned from the river to find that Lieutenant Bromhead, who had also heard the news, was in the process of organising the defences.
Mealie (maize) sacks, each weighing 200lbs, were used to build a sturdy barricade and with the help of 250 men from the Natal Native Contingent. There was no time to evacuate the patients from the hospital so six Privates were detailed to barricade the doors and windows and knock loopholes in the outside walls.
At 4.00pm Surgeon James Reynolds, Reverend Otto Witt (the Swedish missionary who ran the mission), and Reverend George Smith came scampering down from a hill overlooking the station with news that thousands of Zulus were fording the river and were no more than five minutes away.
The approaching Zulu force was numerically vastly superior to the soldiers at Rorke’s Drift. The uDloko, uThulwana and inDluyengwe impis mustered more than 4,000 men, none of whom had been drained by the battle at Isandlwana earlier that day.
At this point, Lieutenant Vause and the mounted natives, having already seen the slaughter at Isandlwana hill, headed for the rear. Upon seeing their comrades retreat, Stephenson’s Natal Native Contingent leapt over the barricades and followed. Outraged that Stephenson and his European officers were following their charges, some British soldiers fired after them.
In a matter of minutes the Lieutenant Chard’s defending force had been reduced by more than half. In fact there were now a mere 139 men to defend the depot.
In what proved to be a magnificent tactical move, Lieutenant Chard ordered that a second line of defence be thrown up to bisect the area. A solid line of biscuit boxes was built from the corner of the store down to the front defence. This would give the garrison a second chance if the hospital and surrounding area was to fall into enemy hands.
It was about 4.30 pm when Sergeant Gallagher yelled ‘Here they come, as thick as grass and as black as thunder!’ as the first warriors from the inDluyengwe impi swept down from the Oscarsberg Hill to attack the back of the trading post.
Although the Zulus initial attack had been repulsed there was nevertheless a weakness in the British defences. The section of the barricade in front of the hospital was poorly constructed and by taking cover in the thick bush at the bottom of the slope, the Zulus were able break through and torch the thatch roof of the hospital and store.
‘The white men had by this time made their preparations; they were quite ready. The Zulus arrived at Rorke’s Drift. They fought, they yelled, they shouted, ‘It dies at the entrance! It dies in the doorway!’ They stabbed at the sacks; they dug with their assegais. They were struck; they died.’
Description of the fighting by Munyo of the uThulwana inutho in ‘ A Zulu Boy’s Recollection of the Zulu War’ G.H. Swinny , London 1884.
While the front of the post was coming under attack, the older more experienced Zulu impis, the uThulwana, inDlondlo and uDloko, started showing themselves on the slopes of the Oscarsberg Hill. Seeing that the back of the British position was heavily defended, they moved round the post to regroup with the inDluyengwe in the flat land in front of the hospital and the rocky ledge.
The Zulu army was already in possession of firearms, obtained from white traders over the years. But these were 20 or 30 years old and no match to the Martini-Henrys now in use by the British army. However, they still proved useful for Zulu sniper shots from the Oscarberg hill.
Chard was becoming concerned as his men were wounded. He could not afford to lose more men and he was also well aware that the hospital was on fire.
The men stuck in the hospital were in a decidedly unenviable position. The building was a curious arrangement of small rooms with a central spine running most of the way through.
With the roof burning and Zulus at the window, Private Williams broke through the mud-brick wall to join up with Private Hook on the far side. A fire fight erupted as Zulus fired through the door and Hook returned fire.
Together they worked there way through the building, with one man to defend the existing hole, the other would break through the wall and, by picking up both Robert and William Jones and some patients on route, the defenders were able to break through to a window looking onto the yard outside.
Lekker Links
Rorke’s Drift VC
SAHistory online
BBC News: 125th anniversary
Anglo-Zulu War Historical Society
British Battles
Fugitives’ Drift Lodge
South African Military History Society Anglo-Zulu War 1879 overview
Battle of Isandlwana 1879
Battle of Ulundi 1879
David Rattray, Anglo-Zulu War expert
King Cetshwayo
Lieutenant Chard and the other soldiers had by this stage regrouped in front of the store house. The Zulu fire from the hill had been negated, thanks to the building between the British and the Oscarsberg hill. Fearing that this final defensive area might fall to the enemy, Chard ordered the building of a makeshift stronghold using excess Mealie bags not used to construct the original barricade.
Lieutenant Chard became aware that there was some activity near the hospital when he saw men clambering through a window on the second storey. Corporal Allen and Private Hitch ran the 30m gauntlet to pull the survivors from the burning building to relative safety.
With all the men  lying in the small area in front of the store and in the cattle kraal, the garrison settled in for the last gruelling part of the battle.
As night fell, the Zulu attacks grew stronger as the snipers on Oscarberg – now devoid of targets – joined the attack. The blazing hospital gave the British an eerie light to fight by and indeed helped them to a certain degree, as they could see from which direction the attacks were being launched.
As the building burnt out, the inky blackness benefited the Zulus. Lieutenant Chard was never quite sure where the Zulus were to attack from and by taking up war cries from different areas, the Zulus kept the defenders constantly on the alert.
The cattle kraal came under renewed assault and had to be evacuated by 10:00pm, leaving the remaining men in a small bastion around the storehouse.
Lieutenant Bromhead, at about midnight, gathered a group of men around him and with bayonets fixed charged the Zulus, routing them from the kraal. Reverend George Smith, in between handing out ammunition, prayed that the Zulus would go away and leave the garrison in peace. Eventually his prayers were answered. Zulu attacks finally ended by 2:00am, replaced by harassing fire from the Zulu firearms and assegai until 4:00am.
As dawn broke on the 23 January, the British could see that the Zulus were gone; all that remained were the vast piles of dead –  nearly 350 Zulu soldiers and 17 British soldiers.
At about 7:00am a Zulu impi appeared on Kwasinqindi Hill opposite the trading post, and the weary redcoats manned their positions once again.
Unexpectedly the Zulu army did a wide detour around the front of the trading post and slipped over the Buffalo (Umzinyathi) River back into Zululand. The Zulus could see from the hill what Chard couldn’t see from the post – Lord Chelmsford’s force coming back into Natal from the direction of Isandlwana hill.
Following the Battle of Isandlwana the day before, Lord Chelmsford’s army had spent an uneasy night at the base of the Isandlwana hill, where they had seen a dull glow, which they correctly assumed was Rorke’s Drift post burning.
Lord Chelmsford started moving back towards Rorke’s Drift before daylight in an attempt to spare his men from the gruesome sight of thousands of dead men, both Zulus and British. On route they passed a large party of Zulus who slipped passed, quite close to the British force. This did nothing to reassure Lord Chelmsford and he was more convinced than ever that Rorke’s Drift had been destroyed.
After arriving at the Buffalo (Umzinyathi) River, Lord Chelmsford sent some of the mounted infantry up to the trading post to investigate. Private Hook recalled, “We broke into roar after roar of cheering, waving red coats and helmets, and we cheered again and again.”
A bronze plaque was erected by the Historical Monuments Commission in 1954 in honour of the British solders who died at Rorke’s Drift.
In 1999 the other side to the story was remembered when a memorial was constructed to the Zulu warriors who fought for their embattled kingdom.
Under guidance from the Anglo-Zulu War Historical Society – a project is underway to construction a traditional Zulu village at Rorke’s Drift – with local Zulu people, in traditional Zulu dress, to show off their proud traditions and culture.

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