|The Battle of Rorke's Drift
by Gilbert Padilla
The Fight for the Hospital
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.
The chaotic nature of the fighting in the hospital makes a precise
reconstruction difficult, all the more so because none of the defenders set
down a first-hand account until years later. One thing seems clear, though.
With all the advantages that the Zulus had, the defenders did have one
advantage of their own, namely, that the rooms were of such claustrophobic
dimensions that much of the Zulus' numerical advantage was negated. The rooms
were in fact so small that one of the defenders who suffered from
claustrophobia could not take the confinement, and ran outside where he was
killed by the Zulus.
Left to "sink or swim" on their own, the remaining defenders managed to
improvise a tactic that kept their heads above water. While the Zulus were
forcing entry at a door or window, at least one defender would hold them off
with bullet and bayonet while another would knock a hole in the interior
mudbrick walls with pickaxe, bayonet, knife, anything that was handy. The
patients in the room would then be helped, even forced, through the opening
into the next room. There was no time for niceties. One patient who was
recovering from a broken knee had it broken again during this process. After
the last patient had been moved whoever had been fending off the Zulus would
sprint through as well. Then the entire laborious, dangerous process would be
repeated in the next room, with the addition of any defenders and patients who
were already there. One of the defenders, Private Joseph Williams, was overcome
by the Zulus, spread-eagled, and literally hacked to pieces, tragically buying
time for his fellow defenders to accomplish their task.
The four remaining defenders realized that their only chance was to burrow
through, room by room, to the east wall and hope that they could exit through
the high window there. The increasingly heavy smoke and the growing darkness
(sunset was at 19:00) doubtless added to their sense of urgency. The fighting
was in such close quarters that sometimes there was only room for one Zulu to
engage one defender. The Zulus would stab with their assegais, even throwing
them at times, and grab for the British soldiers' rifles and bayonets. One Zulu
did get a strong grip on a rifle muzzle, but the defender was somehow able to
maintain his grip on his rifle butt with one hand, reload with the other, and
shoot the brave warrior. In this deadly manner the defenders inched ever closer
to the east window. Of course, they had no way of knowing that this window now
opened onto no man's land.
When the first patient began to struggle through the window, two members of the
garrison, Corporal William Allen and Private Fred Hitch, vaulted over the
biscuit box wall and ran to render what assistance they could. Their comrades
behind the wall maintained a covering fire that kept the Zulus' heads down as
much as possible, but some were still able to fire and throw spears from behind
the abandoned barricades. One determined Zulu even jumped over the barricade
and assegaied a disoriented patient to death, though he himself was quickly
picked off by a British rifleman. Most of the patients, however, managed to
run, walk, stumble, or even crawl the thirty yards or so to the biscuit box
wall, though it must have seemed a much farther distance at the time. Allen and
Hitch ran the gauntlet of Zulu fire repeatedly to help the least ambulatory.
However, Maxfield's delirium caused him to fight his rescuers so much that they
decided to leave him until last. The Zulus killed him before he could be
rescued. Once the surviving patients reached the wall, eager volunteers helped
them up and over. Though the battle itself continued, one of the most storied
episodes in the history of the British army had come to a close.
It is worth noting that several hospital patients survived the battle outside
the British perimeter. This is surely an indication of the confusion that
reigned during the defense of the hospital. One patient managed somehow to
charge through the Zulus and hide among some Zulu corpses. Throughout the night
several Zulus stepped on him but none took any notice of him. He survived to
rejoin the garrison the next day. Another made his way to the cookhouse,
discovering to his horror that Zulu snipers had preceded him. He covered his
face and hands with ashes from the ovens and wrapped himself in a black cloak
he had acquired from Witt's wardrobe, opting to stay where he was rather than
risk detection by moving again. He remained miraculously undiscovered through
the remainder of the battle. He also survived.
After the battle the four surviving hospital defenders, plus Allen and Hitch,
were all awarded the Victoria Cross. Williams might have received one as well,
but there was no provision for posthumous awards at that time.
The Final British Perimeter
As night fell, the Zulus, having driven the British from the hospital,
launched a series of intense charges against the kraal. The defenders here were
aided by interior walls that provided convenient fallback positions from which
they made the Zulus pay dearly for each gain. The mealie bag redoubt was also
within a few feet of the kraal and the riflemen there could fire almost
straight down into the Zulus, decimating their ranks. Again, bayonet
countercharges drove the Zulus back only to see them regroup and hurl
themselves at the British again. And yet again a bayonet countercharge would
blunt their assault. With prodigious efforts, however, the Zulus finally drove
the British from the kraal, reducing Chard's beleaguered command to the
storehouse and a few square yards in front of it, the total being about the
size of an American baseball diamond.
By this time (about 20:00) the hospital roof had gone from smoldering to
burning, the blaze illuminating much of the area. This was a great advantage
for the British, as the Zulus were unable to mask their attacks under cover of
darkness. They could form ranks in the dark, but to get to the British
positions they had to cross lighted ground. Whenever they did, the garrison let
loose a murderous stream of lead. Thus, the fire that had been set to kill
British soldiers ended up helping those British soldiers kill Zulus.
The most dangerous part of the British perimeter was now the northwest corner,
where the biscuit box wall joined the mealie bag barricade. This area was
exposed to Zulu fire from several directions. Bromhead commanded this corner
personally. At one point, he was the only soldier there who was not killed or
wounded. One of the others, Private Hitch, was shot in the right shoulder, the
bullet shattering his shoulder blade. A friend bound Hitch's wound with the
lining from a coat, and Bromhead swapped his revolver for Hitch's rifle. Hitch
fired the revolver until he was too weak. He then distributed ammunition to his
fellow defenders until he collapsed from loss of blood. Surgeon Reynolds later
removed thirty-nine bone fragments from his wound.
Reynolds established a makeshift aid station on the storehouse veranda, where
he tended the wounded at great risk to himself. At one point a Zulu bullet
pierced his helmet. He also distributed ammunition, as did Chaplain Smith, who
is said to have included the admonition, "Don't swear, boys, and shoot them!"
As the night wore on the Zulu attacks became less and less intense, an
indication that they were becoming as exhausted as the garrison. In addition to
the wounded, most of the defenders had suffered a variety of knocks and cuts.
Many had bruised shoulders and burned fingers from their Martini-Henrys, which
had quite a recoil and had become scorching hot from the constant firing. Some
soldiers switched shoulders until both were bruised, then rested their rifles
on the barricades, held them at arm's length, and hoped to make up in volume of
fire what they lost in accuracy. That the Zulus were equally exhausted is also
evident from the statement of one of their veterans that by about 22:00, when
they made what would prove to be their final charge, "it was no longer
fighting; they were exchanging salutations merely." (6)
At about midnight Chard led a few men over the biscuit box wall to retrieve the
water cart that had been brought up from the drift and left near the hospital.
With covering fire from the garrison and their own bayonets keeping the Zulus
at bay, they managed to pull the cart to the wall. A leather hose was passed
over the wall and canteens, helmets, anything that would hold water was filled.
At about the same time, or shortly thereafter, Bromhead led a fierce bayonet
charge that drove the Zulus from the kraal. Both of these actions gave the
defenders a huge psychological boost. Encouragement was also provided by an
inexplicable rumor that relief was on the way from Helpmekaar. In a positively
eerie turn of events, Spalding was in fact leading such a force at about that
time. However, seeing the fire and smoke from the hospital, he assumed that the
garrison had been wiped out. Fearful of being surrounded by Zulus himself, he
returned to Helpmekaar.
After the Zulus' last charge was repulsed, a firefight of varying intensity
continued. When the fire from the hospital flared up, the Zulus would shoot at
the British, the British would respond, the fire would subside, and relative
quiet would ensue until the blaze flared up again. All the while the Zulus
would shout out, "Usuthu! Usuthu!" from various positions around the station,
keeping the garrison wondering where the next attack would come from. By this
time, however, many of the Zulu citizen-soldiers decided that enough was
enough, and slipped back across the Mzinaythi. Prince Dabulamanzi apparently
ordered a general withdrawal early in the morning of 23 January. Exactly when
this withdrawal began is unclear, but the last shots of the battle were fired
at about 04:00. When dawn broke at 04:30, the Zulus were gone.
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Written by Gilbert Padilla. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Gilbert Padilla at:
Copyright © 2002 Gilbert Padilla