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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

22 January 1879: Morning and Early Afternoon

In the morning of 22 January, Chard received orders for his unit of engineers to report to the Central Column's camp at the foot of a monolithic, sphinx-like mountain called Isandlwana, about ten or twelve miles east of the drift in KwaZulu. Unsure whether the order was meant to include him personally, Chard obtained permission from Spalding to accompany his men and get the orders clarified.

Chard rode ahead of his men, who were riding in a wagon containing tools. He reached the camp about midmorning and quickly learned that he was to remain at Rorke's Drift to work on the ponts, keep the road to Helpmekaar serviceable, and supervise the entrenching of expected reinforcements. While he was at Isandlwana Chard observed that Zulus were "moving on the distant hills, and apparently in great force." (1)

During his return trip Chard met his men. He made them get out and walk to the camp, and returned with the wagon and driver to Rorke's Drift. To his regret, he found out later that all of his men were killed that day.

Upon returning to Rorke's Drift late in the morning Chard reported to Spalding. The latter was about to leave for Helpmekaar to hurry along the reinforcements, already long overdue. Almost as an afterthought Spalding asked Chard whether he or Bromhead was senior. Chard didn't know. Spalding then consulted his Army List and spoke the fateful words, "I see you are senior, so you will be in charge, although of course nothing will happen, and I shall be back again this evening early." (1) He then rode off, leaving Chard to take his place in history.

About noon the sounds of rifles and cannons firing could be heard from the direction of Isandlwana. No one deemed this cause for concern, but curiosity moved Surgeon Reynolds and the Reverends Smith and Witt to climb the Shiyane to take a look. In the humid heat of summer this undoubtedly took some time.

Chard returned to his camp, which was by the drift, not at the station. After a comfortable lunch in his tent he worked on writing some letters home. Around midafternoon two lieutenants arrived at the KwaZulu side of the drift, apparently greatly agitated. After being ferried across, one of them rode on to Helpmekaar while the other, James Adendorff of the NNC, informed Chard of the disaster that had befallen the Central Column.

Chelmsford had taken about half the column to locate and engage the main Zulu impi. The remainder, just over seventeen hundred men, had been left to defend the camp. That morning, British scouts had stumbled upon the Zulu impi, about twenty thousand strong, encamped just a few miles away, in the opposite direction that Chelmsford had taken. The Zulu indunas had not planned to attack that day, but the sight of the British scouts had an electric effect on the Zulu soldiers, who rose impetuously and launched an attack, their indunas powerless to restrain them. Instinctively working "the horns of the bull" to perfection, and despite sustaining heavy casualties themselves, they wiped out the British force. Only about sixty white and four hundred black soldiers survived. (The Zulu army took no prisoners, routinely disemboweling its victims to prevent their corpses from harboring evil spirits.) Chard had witnessed the preliminaries to this encounter earlier. The whole action took little more than three hours. It was the worst defeat that a British army would ever suffer at the hands of native troops. And a sizeable force from this Zulu army was now heading for Rorke's Drift.

Chard was completely taken aback, and did not at first believe Adendorff, hinting that perhaps the latter had not stayed long enough to observe the true outcome of the battle. He quickly recovered from his shock, however, and sent a note to Bromhead at the station. Then he left a small force to guard the ponts and rode with Adendorff to join Bromhead and B Company.

It is worth noting here that of all the British survivors of Isandlwana, Adendorff alone remained with the garrison and helped defend the post. All the others rode on to Helpmekaar. Though he received no decorations, Adendorff deserves credit as the only British soldier to have fought at both Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift.

Upon arriving at the post at about 15:00, Chard saw that Bromhead had already heard the news and had begun making preparations for either defending or abandoning the place. His men and the NNC had begun emptying the storehouse of mealie bags (two-hundred-pound sacks of grain) and biscuit boxes (one hundred pounds each) which could be used to construct makeshift barricades for defense. He had also ordered two wagons manhandled near the hospital so that the patients could be more easily evacuated should the garrison abandon the station.

Chard quickly conferred with Bromhead and Dalton. Dalton was junior to Chard, Bromhead, and Dunne, but his experience and bearing lent him an authority beyond his rank. Indeed, many veterans of the battle credited Dalton with being the real mastermind behind the defense, and Chard, in his official report to Queen Victoria, would heap praise upon him. Dalton pointed out that if the garrison evacuated the station they would be slowed down by the wagons carrying the hospital patients. The Zulus would be certain to overtake them. Caught in the open, they would be surrounded and annihilated. Jim Rorke's buildings and the plentiful supplies of ammunition and army food (mealie bags and biscuit boxes) at least offered the chance to improvise a fortification of sorts.

That was all that Chard and Bromhead needed to hear. The garrison would make a stand.

22 January: Preparations

With B Company and the NNC working feverishly, the barricades, three to four feet high, went up quickly. One wall of mealie bags extended from the northwest corner of the kraal westward along the top of the rocky ledge until it drew even with the west wall of the hospital, where it turned at a right angle until it joined the northwest corner of that building. Another mealie bag wall, which incorporated the two wagons, connected the southeast corner of the hospital with the northwest corner of the storehouse. The space between the storehouse and kraal was also filled with mealie bags. (See map.)

At about 15:30 a company of roughly a hundred Natal Native Horse (NNH), composed, like the NNC, of local tribesmen with grudges against the Zulu, arrived from Isandlwana. Their commander, Lieutenant Alfred Henderson, offered their services to Chard. (It should be noted that the commissions of colonial lieutenants, and even captains, were junior to Chard's and Bromhead's regular army commissions. This is similar to volunteer versus regular commissions in the American Civil War.) Chard ordered them back beyond the Shiyane to impede the Zulu advance as much as possible, then to fall back and join the garrison. They rode off to comply. Chard also recalled his men from the drift, ordering them to bring a water cart with them.

At this point, the general feeling appears to have been that the loss of either building would spell the end for the garrison. In any event, no attempt was made to evacuate the hospital. Six privates were detailed to defend it as best they could. These men quickly began barricading the doors and windows with mealie bags and biscuit boxes, plus whatever else they could lay their hands on. They also took pickaxes and knocked loopholes – apertures just big enough to shoot through – in the stone walls. Some of the hospital patients were "walking sick," well enough to take their place at the barricades. Others, though less than fully ambulatory, were still able to shoot. These men were given rifles and told to do what they could. Relatively few patients were so completely incapacitated that they could not assist in the defense to some degree.

With the barricades and the loopholeing of the hospital and the storehouse, the post was actually reasonably secure, given the fact that the Zulus had no artillery and generally poor quality firearms. And despite the huge disparity in numbers, the British garrison did have some advantages. For one, the fact that they occupied a fort, albeit a makeshift one, meant that the Zulus would be unable to execute "the horns of the bull," since there were no flanks to envelop. Also, the fact that their perimeter was so small would make it difficult for the Zulu indunas to bring the full force of their numerical superiority to bear at any one time. There would simply be precious little room for all their soldiers to attack at once.
It was now about 16:00. Chard posted a lookout atop the storehouse roof to warn of the Zulu approach. As the barricades neared completion, there were two huge piles of mealie bags left in front of the storehouse, as well as many biscuit boxes. There was no time to cut down the brush and trees to the north of the station, nor to otherwise clear any fields of fire, since the barricades received top priority. Ammunition boxes were opened and bayonets were fixed.

Throughout the preparations, according to Chard, "…fugitives (i.e., survivors) from the camp (at Isandlwana) arrived, and tried to impress upon us the madness of an attempt to defend the place." (1) They caused some concern, not just for the possible effect on morale, but also because the men would gather to hear their stories, thus slowing down work on the all-important barricades. None of these fugitives except the aforementioned Adendorff remained. As Chard put it, "our little garrison was as well without them." (1)

Between 16:00 and 16:30 events moved rapidly. The Reverends Smith and Witt came scampering down from the Shiyane to warn the garrison of the Zulus' approach. (Surgeon Reynolds had seen the earlier approach of Adendorff and the other survivors, and had returned then to see if any required medical attention.) At this time Witt left the station to be with his wife, whom he had sent to a nearby settlement. A few shots were exchanged between the Zulus and the NNH. The lookout on the storehouse roof reported about four thousand Zulus moving toward the post. Then an absolutely incredible scene occurred.
Within a matter of minutes the NNH came galloping past the garrison, followed by Henderson, who yelled out that they would no longer obey his orders and rode after them. Having fought well at Isandlwana, leaving only when given permission by the commander there, the NNH's rapid retreat shocked the NNC into following suit. To their credit, the NNC's work on the barricades was invaluable to the men who remained. At about this time, someone – accounts differ as to exactly who – yelled out the famous warning, "Here they come, black as hell and thick as grass!" (2)

Chard and Bromhead were aghast. In the blink of an eye 60% of their garrison, more or less, had simply vanished. They were left with a force of no more than one hundred fifty men, several dozen of whom were hospital patients, to defend a perimeter that, including the buildings and the kraal, stretched for two hundred sixty yards. Chard immediately ordered the construction of a wall of biscuit boxes (smaller, lighter, and easier to handle than the mealie bags) from the northwest corner of the storehouse northward to the northern mealie bag barricade. This astute tactical stroke provided a fallback position should the entire perimeter prove untenable. (This was particularly reassuring to one wit, who explained that army biscuits would stop anything.) Still, as Chard stated in his report to Queen Victoria, "We seemed very few now all these people had gone." (1)

A force of about five hundred to seven hundred men of the iNdluyengwe ibutho was the first to engage the British garrison, circling around the Shiyane and attacking from the south. They deployed into line about six hundred yards from the barricades, screened their movement with skirmishers, and advanced rapidly, fanning out as they did into their normal crescent "horns of the bull" formation and shouting their war cry of "Usuthu! Usuthu!" After reporting this, the garrison's lookout came down from the storehouse roof to take his place on the line.

It was now about 16:30, 22 January 1879. The Battle of Rorke's Drift had begun.
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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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