Rorke’s Drift – The Heroic Defence of the Tiny Garrison


Rorke’s Drift lies 46 km southeast of Dundee and is the location of certainly one of the most celebrated battles of the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. The area near to Rorke’s Drift is unspoilt and restful. Irishman James Rorke initially established a trading place around 1 mile from the drift (crossing point) on the Buffalo River and had been recognized by the Zulu warriors as KwaJimu (Jim’s place). Later on, a mission station had been set up by the Reverend Otto Witt from the Swedish Missionary Society. He established a compact church, mission house and livestock kraal at the foot of a rugged mountain that he called Oskarberg.

Lord Chelmsford, had ‘requisitioned’ the property prior to his traversing of the Buffalo River. He utilised the house as an infirmary and the chapel for a storehouse. During the combat it had been employed as a surgery. The defence of Rorke’s Drift rapidly followed the British Army’s defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana earlier on the morning of 22nd January 1879. The devastating Zulu assault on Rorke’s Drift came rather near to defeating the small garrison, and the British accomplishment is held as undoubtedly one of history’s best defensive actions. The 11 VCs awarded for valour at Rorke’s Drift continue to be more than for any other military action of all time.

As Lord Chelmsford, the commander-in-chief of the British military in Natal, invaded Zululand on 11th January 1879, his forces encamped on the opposite side of the Buffalo river, 16km to the east, under the mountain at Isandhlwana. Three columns invaded Zululand, from the Lower Tugela, Rorke’s Drift and Utrecht respectively, their mission being Ulundi, the Royal capital of the Zulu people. On 9 January 1879 the middle column under the command of Lord Chelmsford arrived and made camp at Rorke’s Drift.

On the morning of 22nd January 1879, the main Zulu army assaulted the British camp at Isandlwana. Lord Chelmsford had taken some of his force off in a different course in search of the Zulu army. Hopelessly outnumbered, the British and local forces were slaughtered by the Zulus which saw only roughly 50 men escape with their lives. The vast majority of the 1,000 strong force were killed. Later that day, 4,500 zulu warriors led by Dabulamanzi attacked the little garrison manned by 24th Regiment at Rorke’s Drift. These Zulus had not been involed in the action at Isandlwana and needed to prove their courage in battle. Cetshwayo had explicitly instructed his Zulu warriors not to cross the Buffalo River which was the border amongst Natal and Zululand. Despite this order, the Zulus grabbed the guns off the corpses of the British dead and headed to Rorke’s Drift. It was manned by 97 ready troops, housed 36 wounded, 14 helpful natives, 5 officers and 2 lieutenants, one of which was fresh to the area. The Battle of Isandlwana was arguably the most humiliating defeat in British colonial heritage and only hours later, at Rorke’s Drift, 139 British troops successfully defended their position from an intensive attack by over four thousand Zulu warriors.

Something that is regularly overlooked is that the Battle at Rorke’s Drift may perhaps have resulted in a similar terrible way as Isandlawana, but for just one key factor: Rorke’s Drift was a supply depot, which means the British troops who defended it were able to depend on a huge source of ammo. It’s estimated that somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 rounds were shot throughout the defence of Rorke’s Drift, the vast majority of the shots having missed their targets altogether therefore, conservatively speaking, each 25th shot fired by the defenders of Rorke’s Drift led to an eventual Zulu death, and each 50th shot was an outright kill. The British knew the Zulus were approaching however they decided to stand and fight. Injured men would had to have been laden onto horse-drawn wagons and Zulus would easily have caught them in the open. They decided to fight on ground of their choosing.

Together with having numbers that crushed a force 5 times that size hours earlier, the Zulu warriors now had the Martini-Henry rifles captured from the British dead, presenting them an even bigger advantage against the British.

Henry Hook plus 5 other privates were ordered on the afternoon of 22nd January to protect approximately thirty people not able to be moved from the temporary infirmary at Rorke’s Drift station. Lines of defence were constructed to connect the 2 structures and the hospital and the store room. Inside of this perimeter, an inner line of defence was built between the 2 complexes and this proved significant in the battle. The Zulu warriors attacked the hospital setting fire to the roof. Hook and others struggled for hours, basically digging through walls and in the end getting nearly all out of the infirmary across to the inner defensive line near the store. Wave upon wave of Zulus armed with spears and rifles crashed against the makeshift defences at Rorke’s Drift. The struggles raged all night and in the morning the British defences still held strong and the Zulus eventually pulled back.

Following seeing the aftermath of Isandlwana, Chelmsford believed that Rorke’s Drift had suffered the same fate and it was only the sound of cheering from the mission station persuaded him otherwise. eleven VC’s were awarded to the defenders of Rorke’s Drift. Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne was among five men to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the unusual honour of a commission. Nevertheless, his army pay was his only source of income had he thought he couldn’t financially afford to become an officer hence declined the offer. Fittingly, he was the final survivor of Rorke’s Drift to pass away on 8th May 1945 and VE Day. Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Edward Bourne OBE, DCM was 91 years old.

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