Skip to comments.Zulu:The Battle of Rorke’s Drift: 22-23 January 1879
Posted on 01/23/2005 9:39:11 AM PST by ijcr
We've all seen the marvellous movie'Zulu', where the heroic Welsh garrison at Rorke's Drift match the power of the awesome Zulu Impis.
The Two Armies
By the middle of the nineteenth century Great Britain held two colonies in southern Africa, the Cape Colony and Natal. These stretched from the southern tip of the continent (the Cape) upwards along its eastern coast (Natal).
In the interior of the region were two independent Boer republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. Among these European enclaves were the remnants of the original African nations, the strongest of which was the Zulu kingdom, just north of Natal.
First Day Preparations
In the morning of 22 January, Chard received orders for his unit of engineers to report to the Central Columns 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.
The Battle Begins
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.
The Hospital and Perimeter
In the lore of the Battle of Rorkes Drift the fight for the hospital has gained almost epic status, a veritable battle-within-a-battle. This is understandable for several reasons. One is that the occupants of the hospital fought alone, cut off from the rest of the garrison, without even an opportunity to replenish ammunition.
Indeed, the absence of interior hallways or doors meant that they were initially cut off even from each other. Another is that with only six non-patients to mount a defense, the odds against them were even greater than for their comrades (the David and Goliath factor). Also, the blue-collar natures of the defenders all were privates, without so much as a single NCO is appealing to many.
There was a sergeant present, Robert Maxfield of the 24th Regiment, but he was a patient, delirious with fever, and thus unable to make any kind of contribution. The cramped conditions guaranteed that much of the combat would be hand-to-hand, which captured the imagination of the public. In addition, the time bomb of the burning roof greatly added to the sense of urgency. All in all, the use of the word epic in describing this portion of the battle is more than understandable.
Rorke's Drift, as it looks today, with the hospital in the top left and the church (was storehouse) on the right.
Aftermath and Casualties
At 05:00 Chard sent out patrols to assess the situation and collect Zulu weapons. He also ordered the thatched roof of the storehouse removed (the Zulus had tried mightily but unsuccessfully to ignite it) and the walls of the hospital torn down to prevent the Zulus from using them as cover should they return.
The garrison was astounded. Zulu bodies were everywhere. They counted over three hundred fifty around the station. This is not an accurate reflection of Zulu casualties, however, since bodies were found for weeks afterward on the Shiyane and along the Zulus route home, where many of their wounded had obviously expired after the battle. Most estimates of Zulu dead run from five to six hundred, which seems more reasonable.
More British soldiers(1,400) were killed by the Zulu warriors armed with spears and animal skin shields in one day, than fell 20yrs later in any battle in the Boer War using the latest weaponry -in a war that lasted three years.
Frederick Hitch, VC, 1856-1913 . During the Zulu War, he served with the 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions during the engagement at Rorke's Drift. Hitch was medically discharged from the army as a result of his injuries received in the battle, and worked the remainder of his life as a taxi driver in London. Note the Martini MkIII Infantry Rifle to his left.
Mark I and II Infantry Rifles, and Cavalry Carbine MkI's would have been the most prolific weapons on the British side during the 1879 Anglo Zulu War. The large, heavy .45 caliber bullets of the Martini-Henry inflicted horrific wounds on the attacking Zulus, and many who limped off the battlefield with bullet wounds died an agonizing, painful, slow death.
At Isandlhwana and Rorke's Drift, it is presumed that volley firing commenced at a range of about 400 yards. At this range, the volley firing cut large swaths into the advancing line of Zulu warriors.
Considering bullet weight and velocity, it is probable that many rounds fired from 200 yards or less went through one Zulu Warrior, and possibly onto a next, severely wounding or killing him as well.
It is estimated that between 20,000 and 25,000 rounds were fired during the defense of Rorke's Drift, the vast majority of the shots having missed their targets altogether.
Per Lt. Chard's report, the number of Zulu dead buried by the British was 351. It is estimated that another 300 Zulus died later as a result of wounds sustained during the battle. So, conservatively speaking, every 25th shot fired by the defenders of Rorke's Drift resulted in an eventual Zulu death, and every 50th shot was an outright kill.
thanks for posting that. I must have seen that movie over 20 times and I still never get tired of watching it when it comes on the tv.
"Short Chamber" round with a .577 Snider base necked to .45in. Containing an 85 grain charge behind a 480 grain bullet this cartridge greatly extended the range of British infantry.
If you go to one of the many web sites containing lists of the awards of the Victoria Cross, you will see that the info on Private Hitch is nothing like the way he was protrayed in the film. He was not a malinger or trouble maker but a pretty adverage soldier. Also, James Henry Dalton, Acting Assistant Commissary officer, was not the prissy man he was depicted in the film. In fact, he was a retired British Army sergeant with considerable combat experience and was instrumental in organising the defense of the perimeter and constructing the barricades. Check out www.imdb.com.
Zulus, thousands of them!
I've long wondered why the movie, "Zulu" hasn't become a victim of political correctness. It may be my imagination, but it does seem to get shown on TV during Black History Month.
I'm mildly surprised it got filmed at all, considering that it was shot in South Africa at the height of apartheit with South Africa Army soldiers as extras.
I saw this on the BIG screen when it first came out, a major EPIC film, when Hollywood still knew how to make them without inserting politics.
The movie people always have to add a little artistic license no matter how good the actual story is. One of the things though that I wasn't aware of from the movie but picked up from this article is that they were actually carrying out bayonet charges in addition to all of the other fighting they were doing. That's some real brass
Perhaps because it was basically "Historically Correct", and Politically correct meant nothing.
No, it was Michael Caine's Hitch. "Hitch your not dead. I've seen you."
Men of Harlech stop your dreaming
Can't you see their spear points gleaming
See their warrior's pennants streaming
To this battle field
Men of Harlech stand ye steady
It cannot be ever said ye
For the battle were not ready
Stand and never yield
From the hills rebounding
Let this war cry sounding
Summon all at Cambria's call
The mighty force surrounding
Men of Harlech onto glory
This shall ever be your story
Keep these fighting words before ye
Cambria (Welshmen never) will not yield
I think the movie is actually pretty complimentary to the Zulus. Not that something like that has ever stopped the PC crowd from fussing over something where they think they can get attention for themselves. Aside from that, the movie actually got Chief Buthelezi, who is the modern day leader of the Zulus, to participate in the filming. Maybe that has something to do with the lack of protests, although I don't think Mandela and his people are very favorably disposed towards the Zulus.
Shame on you! It wasn't Lieutenant Bromhead (Cain) who said that. It was Color Sergeant Bourne!
Michael Caine, as Gonville Bromhead: (receives nod from Leftenant Chard, cooly wipes sweat from brow): "At one hundred yards, volley fire, present . . . FIRE!"
What we will, of course, never see is the real outcome of both of these battles, when several weeks later Chelmsford took a whole new column of 8,000 men (this time, not dividing it) straight for Ulundi, and forced Cetczyawo (sp) to attack him in the open field with 20,000 warriors.
The British formed square, had Gatling guns and cannons interspersed along the lines, and had plenty of ammo.
No Zulu got within 30 yards of the British square. It was as devastating defeat for a non-western army as has ever been experienced.
Yah, "Hookie" was the malingerer, and Hitch was another guy. Dalton was made out to be kind of gay in the movie, though.
Caine played Gonville Bromhead, the Lieutenant, not Hitch.
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