Tourism, Accommodation and Historical Attractions in Natal, South Africa

The Natal Battlefields

The 1879 AngloZulu War - Rorke's Drift

After defeating the British at Isandlwana 5,000 Zulu warriors attack the mission station at Rorkes Drift some six miles away. 125 men manage to hold out overnight against the Zulus.

The Anglo Zulu War of 1879 - Fugitive's Drift

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More VCs are awarded in this action than in any other in Britsh military history.

22nd and 23rd January 1879

The few fugitives from the battle of Isandlwana struggled towards the nearest presence of British soldiers - the mission station at Rorke's Drift.

James Rorke (died 1875) established the station as a trading store at the Buffalo River ford but it had for some years been used as a mission station and now acted as a supply depot and small hospital between the force in Zululand and headquarters at Helpmekaar.

'B' company of the 2/24th regiment believed that store work and attending to patients was not what they had come to believe as 'soldiering'.

he Officer in Charge, Major Spalding, was concerned that two extra companies had not arrived from Helpmekaar and left to find them.

Lt. Chard, an engineer whose job it was to maintain the pontoons across the Buffalo River was left in command and who, incidentally had visited Isandlwana that morning before the battle.

The First Warnings

Despite hearing rifle fire from the direction of Isandlwana, ten miles away, Chard was not overly concerned and inspected the pontoons. Chard's second in command was Lt. Bromhead.

Both men were regarded by their superiors as slow, stupid and as 'plodders', such descriptions possibly accounting for the fact that they were ordered to remain at Rorke's Drift and were not part of the main force.

The two resident clergymen at the station climbed the hill immediately behind it to see Isandlwana but to find to their horror, a strong Zulu force headed their way. By this time, at 2.30 pm, survivors from the disaster at Isandlwana were arriving on their way through to the British fort at Helpmekaar and alerted the station.

The Defences are Thrown Up

Two overturned wagons and 200lb maize sacks were hurriedly employed as a barricade. The patients in the adjoining hospital had to remain while doors were barricaded and loopholes cut through the wall. Smartly, a wall of biscuit boxes was thrown up so that if the hospital fell, men could retreat to the store area.

The First Attacks

A dramatic Victorian representation of the defence of Rorke's Drift.

At about 4.30pm, the Zulus - those that had been held in reserve at Isandlwana - attacked from the hill behind Rorke's Drift. Only at a distance of 50 yards was this rush checked.

The front of the hospital was thinly defended and the Zulus managed to get very close and torch the thatched roof and by 6.30pm isolated the hospital from the store room.

One soldier was pulled through a window by Zulus hanging on to his rifle and cut to pieces while another had to shoot a Zulu at point blank range to avoid a similar fate.

The Hospital Falls

By knocking through internal walls defenders and patients managed to cross the 30 yards to the store.

The blazing hospital provided light by which the defenders could see the direction of any Zulu attack but as the hospital burnt out, the advantage returned to the Zulus.

Eventually, towards midnight, the attackers rushed the cattle enclosure immediately in front of the store and captured it. At bayonet point it was recovered by the defenders.

The Zulus Falter

The psychological advantage seemed then to pass to them and the Zulu attacks petered out. At dawn, two soldiers who had hidden amongst the pile of Zulu dead in the hospital rejoined the others at the store. At 4.30 am, Chard sent out a detachment to despatch wounded Zulu warriors in the vicinity of the post.

By this time, the British were down to a box and a half of ammunition and could not have mounted a serious defence, but the Zulus melted away. Chelmsford was convinced that Rorke's Drift had fallen and only the sound of cheering from the mission station convinced him otherwise.

The British Prevail

Throughout the night, 125 men (including 16 walking sick) had defended the station against more than 4000 Zulu warriors. By the time dawn broke and reinforcementsarrived, 500 Zulus lay dead. The British lost 17 men. That day, the remains of the hospital were pulled down and used for further fortifications.

Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded, more than any other in British military history for a single engagement. Five soldiers also received the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The award of so many decorations was thought by some an attempt to distract attention from the disaster at Isandlwana.

Next: the Zulus finally Defeated at Ulundi

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