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Sea of Spears: The Epic Defense of Rorke's Drift



A seemingly endless sea of swift spears and strong shields threatened to wipe away the small band of British and colonial soldiers desperately defending Rorke’s Drift mission station in South Africa on January 22, 1879. Facing 4,000 stout and speedy Zulu warriors, every soldier among the 150-man-strong British garrison, whether sick or wounded, was needed. Over the ferocious 12 hours of fighting that followed, the defenders of Rorke’s Drift would go on to conduct one of the most epic stands in the history of warfare.


The Anglo-Zulu War began when a British force under Lieutenant General Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand in early January 1879. This military movement was part of a plan to extend British imperial influence and power by uniting South Africa under a single British confederation. For this idea to become a reality, the British needed to gain control over Zululand.


Back in December 1878, the Zulu King Cetshwayo had been sent an ultimatum, which included demands that he disband his army of around 35,000 warriors and accept British designs for hegemony in the region. Unwilling to submit to these conditions, Cetshwayo prepared his warrior kingdom for the inevitable clash to come.

King Cetshwayo. (Photo Credit: British National Army Museum)


Cetshwayo’s refusal to reply to the British ultimatum paved the way for Lord Chelmsford to launch the invasion of Zululand in order to enforce British demands. “If I am called upon to conduct operations against the Zulus,” Chelmsford had said, “I shall… show them how hopelessly inferior they are to us in fighting power, although numerically stronger.” Not long after launching his invasion, however, Chelmsford would come to rue those words.


Lord Chelmsford split his army into three columns, leading the central body himself and crossing the Buffalo River at Rorke’s Drift mission station. While the British commander intended to locate the Zulus and bring them to battle, Cetshwayo’s warriors were the ones who would strike the first shattering blow. Under their king’s orders, they were to show no mercy to the enemy standing in their way.


After Chelmsford led part of his force out of his temporary encampment at Isandlwana to pursue the enemy, over 20,000 Zulu warriors launched a surprise attack against his poorly fortified camp on January 22, 1879. In the face of such an enormous onslaught, the roughly 1,700 British and colonial troops present fought off the Zulus for over an hour but were ultimately routed. In what is regarded as one of the worst defeats ever suffered by a modern army against a technologically inferior indigenous force, the majority of the British troops present at the battle were killed. Zulu losses were also high, ranging between 1,000 and 2,500 men.

The Battle of Isandlwana. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Fresh off their victory at Isandlwana, a force of around 4,000 Zulus raced toward Rorke’s Drift, which had been established as a depot and hospital by the British. Led by Dabulamanzi kaMpande, who was King Cetshwayo’s half-brother, the Zulus were determined to inflict another bloody bashing on the Redcoats.


British survivors from the disaster at Isandlwana soon arrived at Rorke’s Drift and brought grim tidings with them. The Zulus were on the way. All that stood in opposition to them was this mission station with a tiny garrison of 150 troops. Under the tenuous circumstances, a pivotal decision needed to be made by the senior leaders at Rorke’s Drift. Should the garrison retreat or stay and fight? Lieutenants John Chard and Gonville Bromhead met with Assistant Commissary James Dalton to determine the matter. As Dalton put it, their small force, which included hospital patients, would be swiftly dismantled by the speedy Zulus in the open country. The men ultimately concluded that the best option available was to stay and fight.


With Lieutenant Chard taking command of the garrison and supported by Bromhead and Dalton, the troops, most of which were soldiers of the 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment, went to work erecting defenses to strengthen their position. Mealie (maize) bags were used to form a wall around the mission station. Biscuit boxes and crates of tinned meat were also utilized for the construction of barricades. Additionally, Chard ordered the men to fortify the buildings with loopholes and additional barriers.


The defenders of Rorke’s Drift gripped their guns tightly as the Zulu army finally reached the mission station at 4:30 p.m. For the next 12 hours, every member of the garrison was engaged in the fight of their lives as the Zulus tried to crash through their defenses. Utilizing cover behind the barricades and armed with their single-shot Martini-Henry rifles, the Redcoats blasted away at the attackers from point-blank range. Although some Zulus wielded firearms, the majority bravely battled on and stared down British barrels and bayonets with their traditional short style spears and oxhide shields.

British soldiers sticking to cover and firing away at the assaulting Zulus. (Photo Credit: BritishBattles.com)


Outnumbered nearly twenty to one, even British soldiers who were too wounded to fire their guns had to push past their pain and exhaustion to support the more able-bodied defenders by reloading weapons and distributing ammunition. Fierce fighting even extended to the post’s hospital, which the Zulus set aflame and breached. Once inside, Zulu warriors cut down some patients with their spears, but British troops succeeded in driving the intruders back with the cold steel of their bayonets. Holes were also hacked in the walls separating the hospital’s rooms so that surviving patients could be dragged out.


Mayhem continued to swirl all around Rorke’s Drift as night arrived. It was at this stage of the fight that the British withdrew to the center of the post. Fighting from this final defensive position, the Redcoats resisted Zulu attacks until around 4 a.m. on the morning of January 23, 1879. Against all the odds, the tiny garrison had beaten back the mighty Zulu horde. Later that day, a fresh British column under Lord Chelmsford arrived at Rorke’s Drift to relieve the exhausted defenders.


In a clash of such prolonged fury and against such a numerous foe, nearly every member of the garrison sustained some type of wound at the Battle of Rorke’s Drift. Seventeen British troops also lost their lives. For their incredible gallantry under fire, eleven soldiers, including Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead, and Assistant Commissary Dalton, were awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration for valor in the British armed forces. More VCs were earned by the troops at Rorke’s Drift than any other single action in British Army history.

Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead (center) leading the defense of Rorke's Drift. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)


For the Zulus, the bloody price of the tenacious attacks against Rorke’s Drift was an estimated 400 dead and another 500 wounded. Some evidence also suggests that elements of the British relief force, enraged that Zulu warriors had set fire to the hospital and killed patients, might have executed hundreds of wounded Zulus that lay around the battlefield.


To this day, the Battle of Rorke’s Drift continues to be remembered as one of the most epic fighting stands in military history. The clash was immortalized in the 1964 film Zulu, which starred Stanley Baker as Lieutenant Chard and Michael Caine as Lieutenant Bromhead. Mangosuthu Buthelezi also played the role of his great-grandfather, King Cetshwayo.

For the British, January 22, 1879 had a catastrophic beginning with the defeat at Isandlwana. That calamity threatened to spread even further as 4,000 Zulu warriors moved on to Rorke's Drift and attempted to crush the post's tiny 150-man garrison. Through a miraculous fighting spirit, the defenders of the mission station overcame the sea of spears that nearly overwhelmed them, turning what beckoned to be a day of defeat into an unforgettable tale of heroic resistance. As Baker famously says in Zulu while playing the role of Lieutenant Chard, "The army doesn't like more than one disaster in a day." In his portrayal as Lieutenant Bromhead, Caine replies, "Looks bad in the newspapers and upsets civilians at their breakfast."


Sources


British National Army Museum: Defense of Rorke's Drift.


British National Army Museum: Restoring Isandlwana.


British National Army Museum: Zulu War.


HistoryHit: 12 Facts About the Battle of Isandlwana.


HistoryHit: 12 Facts About the Battle of Rorke's Drift.


Historic UK: Timeline of the Anglo-Zulu War.


The Guardian: Rorke's Drift Battle was War Crime Scene.