|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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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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