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Rorke's Drift Sections
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   The Two Armies
   First Day Preparations
   The Battle Begins
   The Hospital and Perimeter <<<
   Aftermath and Casualties
   Notes

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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 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!" (5)

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.
- - -
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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