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Rorke's Drift

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

British Plans

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.

In early December of 1878 Frere’s agents presented King Cetshwayo with a list of demands which Frere knew the king could not possibly accept, along with a deadline of thirty days to respond. Meanwhile Chelmsford assembled his forces for the coming invasion. He had planned a campaign of five converging columns, but his government’s reluctance to send reinforcements compelled him to amend that number to three. These consisted of a Central Column and two flanking columns, totaling about seventeen thousand men of all ranks. Chelmsford chose to accompany the Central Column, the strongest of the three. On 11 January 1879, he led the column across the Mzinaythi (Buffalo) River, the border between Natal and KwaZulu, at a former trading post and current mission station known as Rorke’s Drift. The invasion of KwaZulu was under way.

Background: The Station

It is not surprising that a trader would settle in a place that was well suited to accommodate travel (and therefore commerce), and Jim Rorke had picked just such a place. Situated on one of the main routes from Natal to KwaZulu, a shelf of sandstone guaranteed that the drift, or ford, at that site would be usable except during the most severe floods. The Irish-born Rorke had bought the land in the 1840’s. He built two stone buildings with thatched roofs – a house and a store – along with a stone cattle kraal, or pen, about half a mile southeast of the drift, on the Natal side. The store measured about twenty feet by eighty feet while the house was about eighteen feet by sixty feet. Rorke apparently had an odd sense of interior design, for most of the rooms in his house opened only to the outside, with no interior doors or windows and no common corridor or hallway. These buildings sat on a shelf of land about five feet high in the shade of a hill known to the Zulus as Shiyane, "The Eyebrow," which sloped up about three hundred fifty yards behind the buildings, to the southeast. Here Rorke farmed, hunted, and traded across the Mzinaythi with the Zulus, who called his homestead KwaJim, "Jim’s Place." Rorke died in the 1870’s, and his widow sold the homestead to a Scandinavian missionary society. This society installed the Reverend Otto Witt, a Swedish missionary, as incumbent. Witt converted Rorke’s store to a chapel and renamed the Shiyane as the "Oskarberg" after the King of Sweden, but made no other significant changes before war broke out.

The distance from the west wall of the house to the east wall of the kraal measured about a hundred yards. The edge of the shelf dropped off in a rocky ledge about ten yards in front, i.e., north, of the house. This ledge meandered to the east past the kraal, whose northern wall was built along its edge, and there was a great deal of brush and trees at its base. The area to the back of the station, between the buildings and the Shiyane, was relatively clear, though there was a cookhouse and some ovens just south of the chapel. (See map.)

Before crossing the Mzinaythi Chelmsford had requisitioned the station from Witt and converted the chapel to a storehouse for supplies and the house to a makeshift hospital. He had also installed two ponts (pontoons) which served as rafts to ferry wagons and soldiers across the river, sliding along cables. However, he had not thought it necessary to fortify the station. Therefore, no entrenchments were dug and no fields of fire cleared. This neglect would put a great burden on the British garrison in the upcoming battle.

Background: The British Garrison

The overall commander of the British post at Rorke’s Drift was Major Henry Spalding, Deputy Acting Adjutant and Quartermaster-General, who also commanded the last supply depot prior to Rorke’s Drift, at a place called Helpmekaar, about eight miles south. The backbone of the garrison was B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot (2nd Warwickshires), commanded by Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, with about ninety-five effectives. Based in Brecon in southern Wales, the 24th probably had a higher proportion of Welshmen in its ranks than most units in the Victorian British army. There were, however, plenty of Englishmen, Irishmen, and Scotsmen as well. One of the myths of the Anglo-Zulu War is that Rorke’s Drift was defended entirely by Welshmen.

B Company was reinforced by a company of the Natal Native Contingent (NNC), a force raised from local tribes that had a history of enmity with the Zulus. Exactly what their numbers at Rorke’s Drift were is not totally clear. Poorly armed, poorly trained, and poorly led, the standard complement of an NNC company would include about a hundred soldiers of all ranks, including officers (all of whom were white), but this one seems to have been arbitrarily augmented to an apparent strength of between two and three hundred.
The supplies were under the supervision of Assistant Commissary Walter Dunne of the Commissariat and Transport Department, aided by Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton (a former sergeant with the 85th Regiment with thirty years’ service) and Acting Storekeeper Louis Byrne, a local civilian volunteer. The hospital patients were under the care of Surgeon James Reynolds of the Army Medical Department, assisted by three members of the Army Hospital Corps. The Reverend George Smith, another local volunteer, served as unofficial chaplain to the Central Column.

Also present was a small group from 5th Company, Royal Engineers, led by Lieutenant John Rouse Merriot Chard. Chard’s primary responsibility was to keep the ponts in good working order, as by this time (22 January) they were showing signs of wear from the considerable traffic in men and supplies.

The Zulu Army

Unlike its British counterpart, the Zulu army was not a standing professional force. It was composed of citizen-soldiers who nevertheless had a well-deserved reputation for being ferocious warriors. The army’s basic tactical unit was the ibutho, or regiment (plural, amabutho). These were created by periodically conscripting men in their late teens from throughout the kingdom. The exact strength of each ibutho depended on the number of eligible men in the kingdom when it was formed, but fifteen hundred seems to have been an approximate median, though many of the younger amabutho were significantly larger, an indication of the success of King Cetshwayo’s reforms. Once established, each ibutho received a distinctive name, and was obligated to serve the king until he gave permission for its members to marry. This usually occurred when the men reached their thirties. At that point their primary obligation shifted from the king to their families, and they passed from active duty to reserve. However, like reservists everywhere, they could be mustered in a national emergency, and the British invasion certainly met that criterion. All told, King Cetshwayo fielded an army with a total strength of about forty thousand, more or less what the British had anticipated. About half of this army was sent to oppose the Central Column, which the Zulus correctly judged the most dangerous.

The Zulu force that attacked Rorke’s Drift is sometimes referred to as a corps. This is more a matter of convenience for a western audience than an accurate reflection of Zulu organization, though in that regard it is somewhat useful. The iNdluyengwe, uThulwana, iNdlondlo, and uDloko amabutho constituted the force, or impi, that assaulted the British garrison. The whole was commanded by Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande, who actually held no official rank in the army, his authority emanating from the fact that he was the king’s half brother.

The Zulu army had no logistical infrastructure, and was expected to forage for its provisions. This worked well in the 1820’s under the legendary King Shaka, when the army was invading other nations’ territory, but caused some problems in 1879 in a defensive campaign fought on home soil. Locals often saw the approach of their own countrymen as a danger to their crops. There was no way around this inconvenience, however, since King Cetshwayo had explicitly forbidden his soldiers from crossing the Mzinaythi into Natal. He hoped that waging a purely defensive campaign would give him leverage in future peace negotiations.

British Weapons

The standard firearm of the British Army in 1879 was the Martini-Henry Mark 1 rifle. Measuring four feet from butt to muzzle, this rifle fired a .450 caliber unjacketed lead bullet. It could be sighted for over a thousand yards, but was most effective at about three hundred fifty to four hundred yards. A well-trained infantryman could operate this single-shot breechloader at the rate of twelve aimed rounds or twenty-four unaimed rounds per minute. The Martini-Henry could also be fitted with the Pattern 1876 Socket Bayonet, whose triangular (cross-section) blade measured nearly twenty-two inches long. Nicknamed "The Lunger," British troops were heavily trained in its use. This training would stand them in good stead at Rorke’s Drift.

Though a few members of the Royal Artillery were present at Rorke’s Drift, all guns were with the Central Column.

Zulu Weapons and Tactics

The primary Zulu weapon was the assegai, a short stabbing spear. The assegai’s blade could measure anywhere from twelve to eighteen inches in length, with the shaft adding perhaps another two or three feet. That Zulu soldiers were well-trained in its use is evident from the reports of British Army doctors who observed that very few wounds to the arms or legs were inflicted by the Zulus, who always aimed for their opponents’ abdomens with an underhand, upward thrust. In addition, many warriors carried several longer, lighter spears for throwing. Some carried clubs as well. Zulu soldiers were also equipped with an oval cowhide shield that measured about three and a half feet long by two feet wide. The colors and patterns on the shields were carefully matched for each ibutho. They were issued by the state, and were not the property of individual soldiers.

In addition to the traditional Zulu weapons, however, King Cetshwayo’s soldiers also carried firearms. Most of these were obsolete models, dumped on the world market by unscrupulous arms dealers. Some were as antiquated as the old English "Brown Bess" smoothbore flintlock from the Napoleonic Wars, though many others were percussion models not nearly that old. The quality of their powder and ammunition was usually far from good, and the Zulus seem to have had little concept of routine maintenance. Nor were they generally very good marksmen. Nevertheless, about two-thirds of the Zulu army began hostilities with access to some sort of firearm. That the Zulus only acquired them by looting from the British is another myth of the Anglo-Zulu War.

The standard Zulu tactic was known as "the horns of the bull." In this maneuver, a large body of mostly older warriors ("the chest") would make a frontal assault to pin the enemy force in place while two encircling columns of generally younger warriors ("the horns") would surround the enemy on both flanks and cut off his line of retreat. A tactical reserve ("the loins") would be committed as circumstances dictated. The Zulu army could perform this maneuver very quickly over all types of terrain without breaking ranks. By and large, Zulu commanders, or indunas, were extremely adept at spotting and exploiting enemy weaknesses. However, their soldiers were basically light infantry, and their success depended upon rapidly closing to hand-to-hand combat, where they could wield their assegais with deadly effect. Conversely, if they could be kept at bay their effectiveness could be neutralized.

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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

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