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   The Two Armies
   First Day Preparations
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   The Hospital and Perimeter
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Rorke's Drift

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

The Two Armies
By the middle of the nineteenth century Great Britain held two colonies in southern Africa, the Cape Colony and Natal. These stretched from the southern tip of the continent (the Cape) upwards along its eastern coast (Natal). In the interior of the region were two independent Boer republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. Among these European enclaves were the remnants of the original African nations, the strongest of which was the Zulu kingdom, just north of Natal. To Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere, the British government’s High Commissioner for Southern Africa, this simply would not do. To Frere, the fiercely independent Zulus posed a serious threat to the policy of "Confederation", which he advocated. The object of this policy was to ensure stability by bringing all of these groups under British control. In 1877 Britain annexed the Transvaal, thereby inheriting a border dispute with the Zulu kingdom (Zululand, or KwaZulu). Further, in 1873 King Cetshwayo kaMpande had initiated a series of internal reforms with the goal of revitalizing and strengthening the Zulu nation. To remove this perceived threat to the authority of Queen Victoria, Frere determined to orchestrate a military confrontation with the Zulus for the express purpose of breaking their power. To the British Army commander in the region, Lieutenant-General Sir Frederic Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford, this seemed a task that would require neither much time nor much effort. Chelmsford estimated that King Cetshwayo could muster an army of over forty thousand warriors, but this was a part-time citizen force armed with mostly traditional weapons, i.e., spear and shield. No matter what training or discipline such soldiers might possess, both Frere and Chelmsford judged them no match for a well-trained, well-equipped, and well-led modern professional army.
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First Day Preparations
In the morning of 22 January, Chard received orders for his unit of engineers to report to the Central Column's camp at the foot of a monolithic, sphinx-like mountain called Isandlwana, about ten or twelve miles east of the drift in KwaZulu. Unsure whether the order was meant to include him personally, Chard obtained permission from Spalding to accompany his men and get the orders clarified. Chard rode ahead of his men, who were riding in a wagon containing tools. He reached the camp about midmorning and quickly learned that he was to remain at Rorke's Drift to work on the ponts, keep the road to Helpmekaar serviceable, and supervise the entrenching of expected reinforcements. While he was at Isandlwana Chard observed that Zulus were "moving on the distant hills, and apparently in great force." (1) During his return trip Chard met his men. He made them get out and walk to the camp, and returned with the wagon and driver to Rorke's Drift. To his regret, he found out later that all of his men were killed that day. Upon returning to Rorke's Drift late in the morning Chard reported to Spalding. The latter was about to leave for Helpmekaar to hurry along the reinforcements, already long overdue. Almost as an afterthought Spalding asked Chard whether he or Bromhead was senior. Chard didn't know. Spalding then consulted his Army List and spoke the fateful words, "I see you are senior, so you will be in charge, although of course nothing will happen, and I shall be back again this evening early." (1) He then rode off, leaving Chard to take his place in history.
* * *

The Battle Begins
The iNdluyengwe pressed its attack ferociously. From about four hundred yards on, however, the Martini-Henrys of the defenders exacted a devastating toll from the ranks of the attackers. Even so, the Zulus came within fifty yards of the barricades before their charge faltered in the face of the fire from the defenders behind the mealie bag barricade, abetted by a murderous crossfire from both buildings. The Zulus quickly discovered that the lack of cover made this the most dangerous part of the British perimeter to assault. The iNdluyengwe therefore veered to its left, around toward the front of the hospital, where the rocks, brush, and tall grass provided excellent cover, and paused momentarily. The fire of the defenders was so effective that one could trace the path of the iNdluyengwe by the bodies left in its wake. The remainder of the amabutho, married veterans who were perhaps somewhat slower than the more youthful iNdluyengwe, joined them, along with Prince Dabulamanzi. He had led the impi across the Mzinaythi in defiance of the King's orders because they had been the tactical reserve ("the loins") at Isandlwana. They had seen no action there and were therefore not allowed to join in the looting of the camp. In the light of this, it must have seemed a small thing to lead a quick raid across the river to allow his men to "wash their spears" in the blood of the garrison, plunder the supplies stored there, and return to their homes covered with glory. He doubtless relied on his relationship with the King, along with the anticipated victory and spoils, to shield him from any negative consequences.
* * *

The Hospital and Perimeter
In the lore of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift the fight for the hospital has gained almost epic status, a veritable "battle-within-a-battle." This is understandable for several reasons. One is that the occupants of the hospital fought alone, cut off from the rest of the garrison, without even an opportunity to replenish ammunition. Indeed, the absence of interior hallways or doors meant that they were initially cut off even from each other. Another is that with only six non-patients to mount a defense, the odds against them were even greater than for their comrades (the "David and Goliath" factor). Also, the "blue-collar" natures of the defenders – all were privates, without so much as a single NCO – is appealing to many. There was a sergeant present, Robert Maxfield of the 24th Regiment, but he was a patient, delirious with fever, and thus unable to make any kind of contribution. The cramped conditions guaranteed that much of the combat would be hand-to-hand, which captured the imagination of the public. In addition, the "time bomb" of the burning roof greatly added to the sense of urgency. All in all, the use of the word "epic" in describing this portion of the battle is more than understandable.
* * *

Aftermath and Casualties
At 05:00 Chard sent out patrols to assess the situation and collect Zulu weapons. He also ordered the thatched roof of the storehouse removed (the Zulus had tried mightily but unsuccessfully to ignite it) and the walls of the hospital torn down to prevent the Zulus from using them as cover should they return.  The garrison was astounded. Zulu bodies were everywhere. They counted over three hundred fifty around the station. This is not an accurate reflection of Zulu casualties, however, since bodies were found for weeks afterward on the Shiyane and along the Zulus’ route home, where many of their wounded had obviously expired after the battle. Most estimates of Zulu dead run from five to six hundred, which seems more reasonable.

* * *

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

Copyright © 2002 Gilbert Padilla
Featured Books

Like Wolves on the Fold: The Defence of Rorke's Drift

How Can Man Die Better?: The Secrets Of Isandlwana Revealed


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