THE DEFENDERS OF RORKE’S DRIFT
On January 22, 1879, Britain’s standing army suffered one of its greatest calamities. A few days later 150 ordinary men withstood 4,500 Zulu warriors to provide an example of “pluck” in the face of extraordinary odds. What is to be learned from history about the character of those men that can guide our attitudes toward leadership and how to endure in the face of impossible circumstances?
Lt. Col. Mike Snook is a serving officer of The Royal Regiment of Wales. His regiment is apparently the same regiment that plays an important role in his books about the British Empire’s confrontation with the Zulus in South Africa. The first book, HOW CAN MEN DIE BETTER, deals with the massacre at Isandlwana.
Messengers dispatched from the carnage at Isandlwana (less than eight miles away on the Buffalo River) brought the news that Zulu were headed for Rorke’s Drift, an old mission station that overlooked a river crossing. As soon as the news reached the men, the officers deployed men to move 200-lb mealie-bags and cases of meat out of the storehouse so that the building could be used to defend the unfortified outpost. The mission buildings stood about thirty-five yards apart and there was also a hospital with at least eleven rooms.
Since the mission was unprotected from attack there were only a few hours in which to stack the mealie-bags in order to create a defensive wall. In some areas a low rock wall already provided some defense but the men worked frantically to plug the gaps between the buildings.
Many of the hospital patients who were not completely helpless and fighting men were sealed into the barricaded hospital wards with sufficient ammunition to defend the hospital from loopholes improvised in the walls.
Knowing that the enemy could appear at any moment, every man worked stacking bags and using ox-wagons to reinforce the walls. It was too late to remove the dense brush and a stone wall twenty-five yards from the hospital that could provide cover for 300-400 Zulus.
A secondary perimeter of bags was created within the perimeter of the outer ring of mealie-bags to which the defenders could fall back. When time ran out, there significant gaps existed in the mealie-bag wall and a wood plank was put in place at the last minute.
The Zulu was a “courageous, crafty and dexterous light infantryman, who skirmished from cover to cover with consummate skill.” His assegais and other traditional weapons were supplemented by the one in four warriors armed with some kind of firearm, often smooth bore black-powder muskets, according to Lt. Col. Snook in LIKE WOLVES ON THE FOLD; THE DEFENCE OF RORKE’S DRIFT.
There is even evidence that some of the attackers at Rorke’s Drift may have been armed with Martini-Henrys. Snook concludes that there could not have been enough ammunition available even if the attackers had picked up a few of the rifles. Therefore shots that sounded like Martini-Henrys must have been carbines that used a .450-inch cartridge case with a slightly loader load.
The Undi Corps, four regiments of the Zulu reserve, contained some of the most elite warriors in Zululand. They had just missed the glory of washing their spears in British blood at Isandlwana but their idunas now launched “the horns of the buffalo” to encircle the defenders at Rorke’s Drift. The native horsemen deserted the British along with many of the European levies. This brought down the number of men that would hold the mission from 650 to 154, of which more than twenty were in the hospital and out of combat.
Lieutenant Bromhead VC
Thus, the men were forced to reconfigure the mealie-bag walls in order to defend the mission with fewer men. Less than an hour and a half from when preparations began, lookouts spotted Zulu stalking below rock ledges as thousands of other warriors formed on a rise. The first assault broke from cover at about 700 yards with the right horn heading for the wagon and mealie-bag barricade. The left horn went around the hospital to another shorter wall.
Lieutenant Chard VC
The British riflemen did not fire in synchronized volleys-the situation demanded independent fire. Although firing commenced at 600 yards, British firepower began demanding its due at 400 yards. As the attackers continued to surge forward with the protection of some cover, thirty British riflemen commanding the short western wall were each loading and firing Martini-Henry rifles every eight or nine seconds.
Even all this firepower that included Private William Dunbar (reputed to have shot eight or nine Zulus with eight or nine shots) could not drive the enemy to the ground. When the attackers closed to 200 yards, however, punishing fire commenced from the loopholes in the hospital and several other positions. A salvo at fifty yards crashed into twenty or thirty black-shielded iNdluyengwe and the shattered Zulu right flung themselves headfirst to the ground.
The survivors from the right now joined up with the Zulu left. The British were unable to bring their deadly firepower to bear due to a lack of loopholes and a rocky terrace that provided the Zulus cover close to the barricade in front of the hospital. About twenty-five men within the hospital compound now took the full brunt of a Zulu assault launched from a little over twenty yards in many places.
Stepping back from assegais thrusts even as they got off their first shots, the defenders prepared for close quarter combat at the barricade. Martini-Henrys are over four feet long and the ‘lunger’ bayonet adds twenty-two inches. It took one second to drop the lever and eject a spent casing without ever dropping the bayonet point from the ‘on guard’ position. If two or three seconds were available, a man could reach for a cartridge with his right hand and thumb it into the opened breach. Snapping the lever up closed the breach and cocked the weapon that was braced in the left hand.
The Zulus clambering over the wall depended on their shields to take the thrust of the bayonets. The Zulu cowhide shield could deflect bayonets but provided no protection from the British heavy caliber bullets, especially with three British officers, expert shots with Martinis standing behind the line of enlisted men. Other expert marksmen at the officers’ side also provided a second line of defense. The Zulus fell back and fresh warriors took their place and again the British extracted a heavy toll.
Dalton and Bromhead, two officers that organized the defense, set an example in the thick of battle that imparted ferocity to their men commensurate with that of the highly motivated Zulus who tried to grab rifles from the hands of the furiously lunging red-coated defenders. One Zulu wave after another crashed into British defenses with ubiquitous cries of ‘uSuthu!” Dehydration was intense as the hot sun lowered in the sky; the British purchased their lives by working bayonets without respite.
In between each Zulu assault, the impi wore down the defenders with constant close range musket fire that matched British firepower in quantity of lead thrown at the barricades, albeit less accurate firepower than the British brought to bear. The Zulus augmented these close quarter firefights with poorly aimed “sniper” fire from 350 yards out. Although few Zulu marksmen accurately understood how to sight their weapons, the Shiyane marksmen’s threat was serious within the confined area between the two buildings.
At this point retreating to the inner perimeter would have resulted in abandoning the hospital compound. When the compound was finally abandoned, groups of Zulu riflemen were able to enter the gaps in the wall. The men were forced again and again to charge from their position of cover to clear the compound, shooting, stabbing and full of adrenaline, with Bromhead leading from the front.
Chard ordered a retreat in order to contract the overextended perimeter, leaving the hospital “a British island in a Zulu sea.” At 6:00 PM, a line of British riflemen walked slowly backwards, peeling back the defenders on the barricades as they retreated to the new perimeter. Heavy suppressive fire prevented the Zulus from interfering. One hour remained before sundown as thirty British defenders within the hospital were thus stranded outside the new perimeter. Although there was a supply of ammunition within the new perimeter, Chard had inadvertently left the water cart near the hospital.
The defenders within the hospital were calling for ammunition, however, and Dr. James Henry Reynolds grabbed some cartridge packets, ran out of a gap in the biscuit box wall and through a gamut of gunfire to the hospital and then ran back again to the astonishment of Chard and his band of brothers manning the barricade. Enemy firepower was increasing as the Zulus began to occupy better positions within the former perimeter. Several men entered the area and engaged the enemy gunmen in an intense firefight that claimed the lives of British soldiers and not a few Zulu. Bouts of hand-to-hand combat continued to rage in a test of British nerve and endurance. Acts of heroism and courage redounded on both sides of the walls as bullets flew and brain matter and bayonets exploded through the air.
The hospital had to be abandoned after fighting stormed from one room to the next and the attackers lit the roof on fire. One of the defenders, Private John Waters, hidden in the hospital utility room in order to defend the disabled patients (others had left them behind) shot a number of Zulus in the back with his Martini-Henry.
From the time the fighting commenced at about 4:30 PM, the Martini-Henry breechloaders began to heat up. One peculiarity of the Martini rifle is that the wood on the stocks quickly becomes almost as hot as the barrels. Soldiers wrapped the stocks in cloth. Nevertherless, by evening, hands were burned. Continuous firing took its toll on the men’s shoulders, too. The recoil increased as the rifling in the barrels became fouled. Casings also became stuck in the breech due to fouling and failed to eject. Every shot could require prying the casing out with a pocket knife!
The Zulus attempted to light fire to the storehouse in order to force a conclusion to the intense battle before daylight. At 9:00 PM the British ceded another wall and concentrated their deadly firepower within their last bastion of defense. Despite further assault waves, the Zulus began to lose some of their motivation for the fight.
Nevertheless, the British prepared for a renewed onslaught in the morning. The impi chanted as the idunas exhorted the men to press forward into the darkness. The close-range flash of British muzzles awaited each new rush from the Zulu ranks. The British had been fighting for five exhausting hours and sensed that at dawn they would go down fighting in a massive attack. All of the British forces in Natal would be forted up, making hope for reinforcements nil.
Beginning with 34 boxes of .450-inch Boxer cartridges, the British were down to six boxes. With the rounds in their pouches, the soldiers had 100 rounds per man or 12,000 total. In five hours the men had used 25,000 rounds or 42 rounds an hour per man- excellent fire control! Another way of looking at it- the men had about two and one-half hours remaining before British fire came to an end at Rorke’s Drift. During the lull during the midnight hours, Bromhead organized a successful sortie to regain the water cart. The last shots were fired just before dawn.
Less than eight miles away on the Buffalo River, amid the carnage of Isandlwana, Lord Chelmsford’s despondent troops were preparing to slog through the stench of rotting corpses and feelings of overwhelming grief and shame to relieve the men at Rorke’s Drift. Men, mules, horses, oxen and dogs had been stabbed and were decomposing. Mutilated remains of animals and redcoats and dead Zulu, ripped open sacks of rice, flour and meal and piles of spent casings demonstrated the resolve of the redcoats to gamely fight until the last man fell.
At Rorke’s Drift, Chard and Bromhead’s men found the Zulus absent from the battlefield and immediately began preparing for fresh waves of Zulu by clearing fields of fire and improving their barricades in the dawn’s first light. Piles of Zulu bodies, especially around the hospital, made clear that the Martini-Henrys had earned their grim pay. Dr. Reynolds examined the wounded men and administered comfort to the dying. Fifteen men were dead and two more died that day of their wounds. At least one hundred firearms dropped by dying Zulus (as many as 4,500 casualties, according to some estimates), provided evidence of how the Zulus were armed.
The defenders spotted a large group of Zulu moving into position on a hill and waited to see what would happen next. Even as the men at Rorke’s Drift waited, a British column was making its way from Isandlwana between Zulu regiments as the remaining Zulus moved away from the mission station.
GOC Chelmsford debriefed Chard and Bromhead. Arriving companies surveyed the mission station in amazement. Needless to say, the survivors of Rorke’s Drift rarely needed to purchase their own drinks anywhere within the British Empire for the rest of their lives.
Eventually the blame for Isandlwana had to be assessed. General Officer Commanding Chelmsford, tried to shift the blame to Colonel Durnford but eventually became the focus of blame himself. Historians have created vast tapestries depicting blame games that play out following debacles like Isandlwana but, for purposes herein, we will hold to our purpose of pulling out the inner moral truth displayed by the 150 men at Rorke’s Drift.
The Boers had long ago developed a method of dealing with Zulus that was standard doctrine for all British forces; i.e., to form up into a box, with wagons circled and a 360 degree line of fire.
Complacency brought on by over-confident leadership and a failure to understand innovations in Zulu warfare lulled the Redcoats at Isandlwana into the spreading out the British companies; the companies became separated from each other.
Compare the 858 dead out of a British force comprising a total of 1,200 men to the minimal numbers of men that lost their lives at Rorke’s Drift. Attacked by at least 12,000 Zulus (24,000 may have been in the vicinity of Isandlwana) only 60 Europeans survived the massacre that unfolded in the shadow of Isandlwana Hill.
In conclusion, the qualities of resolve and keeping one’s head in the face of doom are exemplified by Lieutenant Bromhead, Bourne (the most senior man in the company after Bromhead), Chard and the stolid Welshmen that made up approximately 40 percent of the 2nd Battalion. Every man at Rorke’s Drift was a hero because the B company of the 2nd/24th fought together as a unit and endured by continuing to stand.