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Rorke's Drift Sections
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British-Zulu War Articles
Rorke's Drift

The Battle of Rorke's Drift
The Battle of Rorke's Drift
by Gilbert Padilla

The Morning After

The garrison was astounded. Zulu bodies were everywhere. At about 05:00 Chard sent out patrols to assess the situation and collect Zulu weapons. He ordered that the walls of the hospital be torn down, lest the Zulus return and use them for cover. For this same reason Chard also had the men remove the thatched roof of the storehouse (the Zulus had tried mightily but unsuccessfully to ignite it).

The garrison was in for one final scare. At about 07:00 a large group of Zulus assembled on a nearby hill, just out of rifle range. Exactly who they were and what their purpose was remains unclear, though some have suggested that they were a rearguard for the main impi. Chard hastily recalled his patrols and the garrison braced itself for another attack. Each man had a fair amount of ammunition in his pouch, but reserves, which had numbered about 20,000 rounds or more before the battle began, were now down to about 900 rounds, or less than ten rounds per man. One more determined attack would certainly finish the garrison.

But the Zulus did not attack. They lingered on the hill for a while, apparently taking snuff, and then they marched away. The reason for their appearance may not be known, but the reason for their departure would soon be evident. From their vantage point they could see what the British garrison could not, namely, the return of the remnants of Chelmsford's column, roughly 1,000 strong, which had spent the night at the grisly Isandlwana battlefield after returning from his wild goose chase. The van of this column arrived at about 08:00, to the cheers of the bone-weary garrison.

Rorke's Drift was relieved.

Casualties

The British garrison at Rorke's Drift suffered 15 killed in action, plus two that died later as a result of wounds sustained during the battle, for a total of 17 killed. A further 10 or so were wounded seriously enough to bear mention in official reports, and more than one received wounds that were not deemed serious enough to report. All in all, the garrison sustained casualties at a rate of about 30 percent.

Regarding Zulu casualties, on the morning following the battle the garrison counted just over 350 Zulu bodies in the immediate vicinity of the station. However, this is not an accurate indication of how many Zulus were killed in action, since Zulu bodies were discovered for weeks afterward along the trails they would have taken on their way home, on and around the Shiyane, and in various other places. Thus, most estimates of Zulu dead are in the range of 500 to 600, which seems more reasonable. Factoring in educated guesses as to the number of Zulu wounded, they may have suffered a casualty rate of 30-35 percent or more.

These casualty numbers surely bear witness to the courage, doggedness and determination of both the defenders and the attackers. By the end of the battle, both sides were like heavyweight boxers who had fought each other to the point of utter exhaustion. The British were too weak to take another punch, the Zulus too weak to throw one.

Aftermath

Immediately after the battle, the residents of British Natal were convinced that the tiny garrison of Rorke's Drift had saved their colony from a Zulu invasion, which to their minds would have been a bloodbath for them and their families. Colour-Sergeant Bourne voiced this same opinion in 1936. (4) In reality, though, the Battle of Rorke's Drift, memorable and heroic though it was (on both sides), decided nothing of any strategic importance. The Zulus were not about to invade Natal, and had in fact violated Cetshwayo's orders by attacking Rorke's Drift in the first place. However, the battle did provide a propaganda coup for the British government, which loudly lauded the heroism of the garrison in an attempt to deflect as much public attention as possible away from the debacle at Isandlwana.

It was Isandlwana, however, that truly influenced the course of events. Though the British government did not necessarily share Frere's views concerning confederation, it could not allow such a humiliating defeat to go unavenged. Reinforcements were dispatched to Natal, and the Zulu kingdom was eventually broken at the Battle of Ulundi on 4 July 1879.

- - -

Written by Gilbert Padilla. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Gilbert Padilla at: mrp95020@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 2002 Gilbert Padilla

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