THE ANGLO ZULU WAR OF 1879
ROBERT GERRARD FRGS
THE BATTLE OF RORKES DRIFT
The Battle of ISandlwana had been a disaster, but the Battle of Rorkes Drift, with its tiny garrison up against immense odds, would go down in military history as a feat of arms, and has become part of the mystique of warfare.
It was at 3.30 on the afternoon of the 22nd January, that Lieutenant John Chard was working on the pontoon on the Buffalo River, when two hot and sweaty officers, Lieutenants Adendorff and Vane, appeared on the Zululand bank and shouted at Chard, advising him of the total disaster that had occurred at ISandlwana.
Minutes before a mounted native soldier had ridden into the camp and delivered Captain Gardners scribbled note to Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, advising him of the disaster at ISandlwana and that a large Zulu column was coming to attack the camp at Rorkes Drift. Bromhead had promptly sent a horseman to the river to summon Chard.
When Chard galloped into the camp some 2,700 yards from the river, he saw tents being struck and some sick or wounded being loaded onto a wagon. Chard and Bromhead had to make a very rapid decision. Were they to stay and fight, or run. The only place to run to was the camp at Helpmekaar, 26 kilometers to the north-west.
At the time there were 36 sick or wounded in the hospital, 20,000 rounds of ammunition in the store, and two empty wagons in the camp.
From all the documentation one can read it is apparent that Chard and Bromhead wanted to run. Take the sick and wounded, the 20,000 rounds of ammunition, which could not possibly be left to the enemy, put them on the back of the wagons and try to get to the camp at Helpmekaar.
There was an old soldier in the camp called Dalton. Dalton was 47 and had been a Sergeant in the British army, and now held the equivalent of a Quarter-Masters commission. He was a Commissariat Officer. Dalton turned to Chard and Bromhead and said "If we run from here and are caught out in the open by the Zulus, they will cut us to pieces in seconds. What weve got to do is remain in the camp and fortify it". The diet for black and white soldiers was the same. They both ate mealies corn off the cob corned beef and British army biscuits.
I need you to picture a vast pyramid of mealie bags stacked outside the store. Each bag weighed 200 pounds. To give you a better idea of how many bags there were, every day that Lord Chelmsfords column remained in Zululand, 50 huge wagons, with a potential payload of eight tons each, would make their way back to Rorkes Drift to pick up supplies. And, Dalton said "What weve got to do is remain in the camp and fortify it, using those thousands of bags of mealies".
There are many examples of British soldiers making stands against impossible odds, but none quite like Rorkes Drift.
What one has to try and imagine are 450 British soldiers in that camp, of whom 36 are sick or wounded. There are therefore 414 healthy soldiers. And, as it transpires, those 414 men had slightly less than one hour to complete the fortifications before the Zulus attacked.
The backdrop to what was the British camp is a mountain to the south called the Oskaberg. About a third of the way up the mountain is a large rock shelf, which runs east-west across the front of the mountain. Just below the rock shelf are many small caves, all facing down onto two crudely built structures, both of which have thatched roofs and are built of stone and mud. The area, no larger than four tennis courts, would be fortified and held by 140 British soldiers for 11-11 ½ hours, against 4-4,500 Zulus. 300 Colonial soldiers having fled the post seconds before the Zulus assault.
The sick and wounded were split between five exterior cubby-hole rooms in the hospital, supported by six healthy soldiers who had been detailed to protect the casualties. These men would go through sheer and utter hell. Thousands of Zulus would assault the hospital. Some would get in. The thatched roof would be torched, forcing those inside to hack holes through walls separating each room to get from one end of the hospital to the other. Most would escape, with the help of comrades, who had at this stage retreated from thousands of Zulu warriors to a tiny fortified area of less than one tennis court size in front of the store.
By 3.30am on the 23rd both the Zulu warriors and the British soldiers were exhausted. The chambers and barrels of the Martini Henry rifles glowed red in the night from the thousands of rounds of ammunition dispensed. Bayonets lay broken alongside broken Zulu assegais and Zulu dead. Mealie bags lay scattered and black smoke hug over the camp.
By 6.30 that morning the Zulu army departed, leaving 600-1,000 Zulu dead, and 15 British dead, two dying and 12 wounded.
The British soldiers would for their valour be awarded eleven Victoria Crosses and four Distinguished Conduct Medals. But the Zulu survivors received no commendations for their bravery. King Cetshwayo had specifically told his indunas when briefing them of the British invasion of his kingdom that they were to force the British back into Natal, but not to cross the Buffalo River themselves.
Rob Gerrard FRGS, the resident historian at ISandlwana Lodge, relates these events of all the battles of the Anglo Zulu War with passion and knowledge as if he had been there. Battles themselves have limited interest, but he brings the characters involved on both sides to life and relating information found in trunks and archives, his audience is spell-bound.
Next Month The Battle of iNtombi Drift
Copyright © Robert J. Gerrard 2003
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