To Rorke’s Drift I

Painting of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift by Alphonse de Neuville which took place in Natal during the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. De Neuville based the painting on eyewitness  accounts and it depicts several events of the battle occurring at once. Defenders depicted in the painting:
Lieutenant John Chard (to the right at the barrier in pale breeches with rifle)
Corporal Scammell of the Natal Native Contingent incorrectly shown in the uniform of the 24th or Corporal William Allen (handing cartridges to Chard)
Corporal Ferdinand Schiess (wearing a bandoleer and stabbing a Zulu at the barrier with his bayonet)
Chaplain George Smith (bearded man handing out cartridges from a haversack)
Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton (sat in foreground with a wounded shoulder)
Surgeon James Reynolds (attending to Dalton’s wound)
Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (stood in the centre  of the painting pointing to his left)
Private Frederick Hitch (stood behind Bromhead)
Private Henry Hook (carrying Private John Connolly on his back away from the burning hospital)
Assistant Commissary Walter Dunne (to the left holding a biscuit box)

Any British soldier on foot at Isandlwana was doomed. Only those scouts who had managed to keep hold of their horses had any chance of reaching the Tugela River and with little doubt, many of the survivors, with the exception of Lieutenants Coghill, Melvill and Curling, left Isandlwana before the main battle got under way. Based upon information from his spies, Cetshwayo had ordered the Zulu army to concentrate on red-jacketed soldiers in the mistaken belief that only they were the imperial troops. The majority of the survivors were wearing blue jackets, including Coghill and Curling. The 24th’s officers had a choice of regimental jackets to wear in the field so there is no special significance in Coghill and Curling’s jackets being blue, other than the fact that Zulu warriors may have paid them less attention. It may have saved their lives on their desperate ride along the fugitives’ trail from Isandlwana to the safety of Natal.

The surviving disciplined troops still in camp, those under Durnford and some of the 24th Regiment, probably no more than 200 men in all, made a hopeless but gallant stand in the area of Isandlwana wagon park. Durnford and his men were forced into a back-to-back struggle next to Black’s Koppie, the small hillock next to the camp’s wagon park; all died making their final stand. The 24th’s survivors similarly fought against overwhelming odds that increased with every moment. The last few soldiers then tried to effect a fighting retreat following the earlier fugitives. A few individuals managed to get as far as a mile to the rocky ledges overlooking the Manzimyama stream but all were cut down and died in the attempt. An unknown number of other fugitives were killed in the Buffalo River under the hail of Zulu gunfire or spears. Curling later wrote to his mother:

I saw several wounded men during the retreat, all crying out for help, as they knew a terrible fate was in store for them. Smith-Dorrien, a young fellow in the 95th Regiment, I saw dismount and try to help one. His horse was killed in a minute by a shot and he had to run for his life, only escaping by a miracle.

The NNC and auxiliaries who had managed to flee Isandlwana fared no better. Those that reached the riverbank found themselves trapped against the raging torrent of the Buffalo River, now 100 yards across, fast-flowing and dangerously swollen from the torrential rain of the previous week. Several hundred tried to make a stand against the overwhelming Zulus but to no avail as they were no match for them as they caught and systematically killed them. In the midst of this slaughter the last of the escapers, including Coghill, Melvill and Curling, independently reached and swam cross the raging river, though of these three, only Curling would survive to write an illuminating but terrible account of what he had witnessed that day.

At the small Rorke’s Drift garrison, just 5 miles further upstream, and out of sight from the dramas witnessed by Curling, most of the soldiers were lazing in the sun, unaware that a 4,500-strong Zulu force was heading in their direction. To a number of observers on the top of the Oscarsberg behind the camp, a long Zulu column could be seen in the distance, slowly approaching from Isandlwana. They were led by Prince Dabulamanzi, a half-brother of the king, and included the uThulwana, iNdlondlo and uDloko ibutho. They had crossed the river about 3 miles below Rorke’s Drift and, once across, divided into several raiding parties. One group advanced along the Natal bank and moved onto the plateau behind Rorke’s Drift, where they rested and took snuff before closing in on the mission station. At the river crossing point the king’s younger brother, Prince Ndabuko kaMpande, had urged his uMbonambi warriors to join Dabulamanzi’s force crossing into Natal. Because of their casualties, or because they were reluctant to cross into Natal, they declined and returned to plunder Isandlwana.

Whether or not Cetshwayo had ordered his generals to stay out of Natal is open to conjecture. Addressing his assembled army only days earlier, the king had ordered his army to drive the British back, if necessary, to the Drakensberg mountain range well into Natal. It must also be remembered that only three hours earlier, the whole Zulu army had attacked Isandlwana, a defended camp and in direct contravention of the king’s orders. The Zulus’ decision to enter Natal is perfectly understandable as the Zulu reserve had not been called upon to participate in the battle and faced national derision for missing the action. Their potential ignominy would have been offset by them swiftly crossing into Natal, where they could murder a few farmers and their workers and by seizing food, burning farms and plundering cattle. With this in mind, it becomes apparent that the small mission station at Rorke’s Drift was not necessarily an objective; few Zulus even knew of its existence. They would certainly not have been aware that it was defended by a company of British infantry and, had they known, it is unlikely they would have considered it an obstacle after the earlier Zulu victory at Isandlwana. Indeed, once across the river, the Zulus divided into four raiding parties, which suggests that they were free-ranging and unaware of the mission station. It was one of these groups moving several miles into Natal that intercepted Major Spalding’s Relief Column marching from Helpmakaar to strengthen the garrison at Rorke’s Drift. The Zulus’ very presence forced the column to retire back to Helpmakaar, even though they were close enough to hear gunfire and see smoke rising from the mission station. Another group of Zulus went south and then inland, while others followed the river northwards towards Rorke’s Drift, where they came across an abandoned farm belonging to an absent local farmer, Edward Woodroffe, which they burnt to the ground. Still following the course of the river, this column continued towards Rorke’s Drift.

The two buildings at Rorke’s Drift were originally built by a border agent named Rorke, but had recently been purchased on behalf of the Swedish Church for occupation by a Swedish missionary, the Reverend Otto Witt. Witt’s stone-walled and thatched house, now converted by the soldiers into a temporary hospital, included three rooms. Adjacent was another similar-sized building, once used as a church and meeting house, now being used as a commissariat store. These two buildings were 20 yards apart and not connected. With Lord Chelmsford’s instructions to fortify camps during the British invasion in mind, Commissary Dalton had already fortified and entrenched the site together with its two buildings, the bulk of the work having been completed by 11 January.

The tiny Mission Station was overlooked on its south side, at about 200 yards distance, by a hill, the Oscarsberg, so called in honour of the King of Sweden. The terrain around the buildings was broken with clumps of bush, gulleys, caverns and boulders, giving excellent cover to the advancing Zulus. To the south-west of the hospital stretched thick bush, through which a wagon track and garden had been cleared. This scrub and a taller clump of trees, along with the garden wall, gave shelter to the first Zulus to approach the Mission Station, just as the Oscarsberg and a group of outbuildings did to the south side of the two buildings. With less than an hour’s warning of the pending Zulu attack, Dalton used additional stores to reinforce the previously built protective wall around the two buildings. These stores were ready for moving to Isandlwana and therefore luckily at hand and in some abundance – sacks of mealies (Indian corn), bags of flour and potatoes, biscuit boxes, and such other materials as were readily available.

Enclosing the right-angle of the hospital and running in front of the bush and garden, along the top of a broken ridge that fell steeply for about 6 feet, was a barricade of mealie bags about 3 feet high. This, the first line of defence, was continued from the left of the hospital to the commissariat store, which was fortunately divided by a shallow ravine from the broken ground of the Oscarsberg. Besides these defensive lines, both buildings were loopholed and barricaded. In the hospital a guard of four men was stationed along with all the sick fit enough to stand and use a rifle. Some of the rifles had recently been patched up for service with tacks and strips of hide, rifles that were probably as damaged as their users.

The first Zulu scouts were from the iNdluyengwe, whose main force was working its way along the riverbank towards the drift looking for plundering opportunities. Having detected the Mission Station, the warriors gathered about 500 yards from the two buildings to assess the situation. They then advanced at a slow run, darting behind their shields to confuse the soldiers’ aim. In the midst of the initial attack, one of the two mounted Zulu chiefs, Prince Dabulamanzi’s deputy, was shot from his horse.

The Zulus were skilled at hunting but had received no training for warfare against an enemy armed with accurate rifles. Instead they were indoctrinated with a lifetime of parade-ground rituals, which included imitating giya tactics, and they therefore approached the British position using the only tactic known to them. They made a number of prancing attacks at the slow run, showing they cared nothing for the slaughter awaiting them, and each time they would advance, then halt for a moment, and then advance again quietly, but running quickly, taking advantage of every bit of cover. Local Zulu folklore suggests they attacked in a very deliberate manner, more akin to their traditional dancing, by prancing and high kicking as they attacked. It is Zulu belief that the Zulu chiefs had expected to surprise the camp and that their melodramatic approach would scare the British into fleeing back to Natal. Instead the soldiers opened fire at about 200 yards. Numbers of Zulus fell at once; the battle for Rorke’s Drift had started.

By using this tactic, many Zulus got to within 50 yards of the first barrier until organized volley fire forced the surviving attackers to retreat and take refuge among the many boulders littering the lower slope of the Oscarsberg. The remainder hesitated, broke ranks, and the greater number scattered to their left and occupied the garden and orchard, where there was plenty of cover. As more Zulus arrived, many took refuge behind a long 5-foot high garden wall directly in front of Witt’s house, now being used as a makeshift hospital, and crept to within 20 yards of the British wall of mealie bags. With darkness falling, the Zulus made several attempts to charge the British perimeter but failed to make any headway due to the steep incline capped with a 4-foot high wall of boxes. From British accounts, supported by Zulu folklore, it appears that the first Zulu assaults were initially conducted by single groups of twenty or so warriors who repeatedly attacked the end room of the hospital.

A few got up close to the two buildings by hiding behind the nearby field oven and kitchens, which had previously supplied the small garrison. Others came on in a continuous stream, gradually encircling the two houses. Only a handful of the Zulus had Martini-Henry rifles, weapons that had earlier been taken as loot from Isandlwana. These warriors were stationed on the hillside and kept up a continuous but highly inaccurate fire on the garrison just 200 yards distant and below them. This sporadic fire occasionally caught the soldiers in their backs as they were guarding the garden side, and five men were thus shot dead. Had the Zulus been good marksmen the whole garrison’s position would have been untenable. But they were untrained in the use of the weapons and were further hindered by darkness, and so they fired wildly and badly for the most part, as if the noise had as much effect as the bullets.


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