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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

Initial Zulu Attacks

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.

Prince Dabulamanzi posted a bevy of snipers along a rocky terrace on the Shiyane. From this position, a squad of well-trained, well-equipped marksmen could have made the garrison's position desperate if not completely untenable within minutes. But the Zulu snipers were neither, and at this point their fire was more of a nuisance than a danger to the British. As the battle progressed, however, some of their bullets did find targets, if only by accident. He also moved the majority of his soldiers around to the north (front) of the station, where cover was plentiful. Some of these Zulus deployed as snipers as well, and the range was so close that even their antiquated firearms were quite dangerous.

After their first attack was repulsed the reinforced Zulus focused their efforts on the front of the hospital. The rocky ledge seems to have been highest here, but despite that obstacle the bush, trees, and tall grass provided excellent cover. Also, the mealie bag barricade in this sector was apparently not quite as tall as in the rest of the perimeter, possibly because it was the farthest from the storehouse and therefore the last portion to be constructed. The Zulus launched repeated assaults against this part of the perimeter. Chard describes the pattern that would continue throughout most of the next twelve hours: "A series of desperate assaults were made (by the Zulus)… but each was most splendidly met and repulsed by our men, with the bayonet." (1) The Zulus were extremely wary of British bayonets, and with good reason. Ceaseless hours of bayonet drill had turned the average British infantryman into a most dangerous opponent in hand-to-hand combat, often making him the equal or better of even a well-trained, athletic adversary. Mehlokazulu kaSihayo, a Zulu veteran of Isandlwana, attested to this: "Some Zulus threw assegais at them (British soldiers); but they did not get close – they avoided the bayonet; for any man who went up to stab a soldier was fixed through the throat or stomach and at once fell." (3) This prowess with the bayonet coupled with the effectiveness of their rifle fire accounts for the fact that very few British casualties were caused by edged weapons. Most were caused by Zulu firearms.

The First British Withdrawal

As effective as the British defenders were, the Zulus kept coming. Over and over again they threw themselves at the barricade in front of the hospital. As Colour-Sergeant Frank Bourne, senior NCO of B Company, said in a radio interview in the 1930's, the Zulus "tried to leap the parapet, and at times seized our bayonets, only to be shot down. Looking back, one cannot but admire their fanatical bravery." (4) Finally Chard judged the position in front of the hospital too dangerous to hold, and ordered a short wall of mealie bags constructed from the northeast corner of the hospital northward to the original mealie bag wall. This made sense tactically, for from this position a half dozen riflemen could cover the front of the hospital instead of the eighteen or so that had manned the original position. However, the defenders and patients inside the hospital were now completely isolated from the remainder of the garrison since, with the exception of one high window in the east wall, all of the hospital's doors and windows were now outside the defensive perimeter. In other words, all exits led to Zulus.

It was now about 18:00. Concerned as he was about the occupants of the hospital, Chard was also becoming increasingly worried about the men on the north wall, who had no cover from the fire of the Zulu snipers on the Shiyane, directly behind them. He and Bromhead appear to have posted the best shots in the company on the south wall to pick off as many of these snipers as they could. They were aided by the setting sun, which lit up the hillside like a huge floodlight. The substandard Zulu ammunition produced puffs of smoke which also helped the British riflemen zero in on their targets. Furthermore, the range was ideal for their Martini-Henrys. A native servant of Chard's hid in a cave on the Shiyane throughout the battle and testified afterwards to the accuracy of the British riflemen.

The Second British Withdrawal

Even so, the Zulu snipers were causing casualties that Chard's tiny command could ill afford. Storekeeper Byrne was shot through the head while offering a drink of water to a wounded soldier, dying instantly. The continuous Zulu attacks on the north wall were also straining the defensive line to the breaking point, even though heroic bayonet charges led by Chard and Bromhead had thus far repulsed each one. Luckily for the garrison, the Zulus at Rorke's Drift exhibited a command failure that would plague the entire Zulu army throughout the war – the inability to coordinate attacks. If every individual soldier in the impi had charged at the same time, there is no way that Chard's little command could have avoided annihilation, firepower or no. Luck will only go so far, however, and Chard decided it was time to constrict the British perimeter again. The Zulus had finally forced their way into the hospital, setting fire to its thatched roof in the process. Damp from recent downpours, the roof was smoldering slowly, but this must have appeared the coup de grace for the hospital occupants at the time. Chard ordered the defenders to withdraw behind the biscuit box wall, effectively leaving the men in the hospital to their fate. Unfortunately for those men, the move again made tactical sense. At one stroke the defenders' firepower was concentrated, the most vulnerable parts of the perimeter were abandoned, and the storehouse shielded the garrison from the fire of the Zulu snipers on the Shiyane, who then rejoined the rest of the impi. It was now about 18:30.

The Zulus took advantage of the abandoned barricades for cover to fire at the garrison and launch attacks from even closer range than before. One defender, Corporal Friederich Scheiss of the NNC, a "walking sick" from the hospital, took notice of several Zulus whose fire was particularly galling. Leaving the relative safety of the biscuit box wall, Scheiss, a native Swiss, approached the Zulus, leapt atop the barricade in front of them, and despite being wounded in his instep shot or bayoneted three. He would become the first soldier who was not in the regular British army to receive the Victoria Cross.

The Zulus continued to assault the north wall, one attack after another being met with a withering fire and repulsed by desperate bayonet charges. At about this time Dunne, by all accounts a tall man, formed the remaining piles of mealie bags into a kind of redoubt, pyramidal in shape and about eight feet high, Zulu bullets whistling around him all the while. A large "scoop" at the top of this redoubt held the worst of the sick and wounded plus some riflemen. From this position the soldiers could aim over the heads of their fellow defenders in any direction, thus directing their fire to wherever it was most needed. This was as close as Chard could get to a mobile reserve.

In addition to attacking the north wall, the Zulus also began to storm the kraal. In the midst of these attacks, at about 19:30, the defenders witnessed an amazing sight. Across what was now no man's land a patient was crawling out the high window in the east wall of the hospital. Their comrades inside – at least some of them – were still alive!
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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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