Wednesday, 22 January will mark the 141st anniversary of the 1879 battle of Rorke’s Drift, one of the most lop-sided battles in military history. It had an unlikely outcome and incredible, almost unbelievable, courage was shown by the soldiers on both sides.
Slightly more than 150 British soldiers defended the trading post, hospital, storehouse, and kraal at Rorke’s Drift (a ford across the Buffalo River). Earlier the same day, 10,000 to 12,000 of King Cetshwayo’s Zulu warriors had slaughtered some 1700 British troops at Isandlawana, about 12 miles from Rorke’s Drift in one of the worst defeats in British military history.
Garrisoned by one small company of Red Coats, some volunteer native Constabulary, and a few support people (a surgeon, his helpers, a cook, and a few others), they were informed of the disaster at Isandlawana in the early afternoon. Quickly realizing they had no means of moving all the invalids to safety in the short time available, they resolved to stay and defend as best they could. No doubt, they expected to be killed.
They prepared as best they could, building barricades of up-turned wagons, furniture, and boxes and bags of “mealie” (corn) intended for shipment. Most of the Constabulary prudently ran away. Estimates vary, but all put the total of defenders between 150 and 180 at the beginning of the battle, some of whom were “walking wounded” from the hospital who could fire a weapon.
An impi (regiment) of Zulus who had arrived too late to join in the battle at Isandlawana had heard of the trading post at Rorke’s Drift and the small number of defenders there. Taking no food or water for what they expected to be a short battle, they ran (ran!) the twelve miles to attack it. Again, estimates vary, but all agree there were between 2,000 and 4,000 attackers.
Arriving at about 4;30 PM, the Zulus, mostly armed with short stabbing spears and buffalo skin shields, a few with muzzle-loading rifles with poor quality gunpowder and little or no marksmanship training, attacked. They had courage and there were thousands of them.
The initial charge was repulsed with losses on both sides. The Red Coats shortened their lines. The Zulus tried attacking the other side of the compound. Though they succeeded in burning down the hospital building, most of the patients were rescued or able to escape. The battle continued into the night.
By about 4:00 AM, the Zulus, who had run the whole twelve miles and still had neither food nor water, were exhausted. They withdrew to rest. About 5:30 AM, a British relief column came in sight. The Zulus had had their fill and left. The British had 17 dead; the Zulus had lost at least 500 (some estimates are much higher, double that or more).
Eleven Victoria Crosses were authorized (there would have been at least one more, but that soldier died and the regulations only allowed the VC to be awarded to living soldiers) along with numerous other medals and honors. This is the largest number of VCs ever authorized for a single battle in British history. Five of them went to Privates. For comparison, the United States has issued about 3500 Medals of Honor since the Civil War; there have only been about 1360 VCs (3 of them were second awards to a previous holder) authorized since 1856.
There was a very fine movie about this battle titled “Zulu.” Released in 1964, it starred Stanley Baker and and introduced an obnoxious young kid we now call “Sir” Michael Caine. Their script was almost entirely based on the almost minute by minute official records kept during the battle. Until recently, it could be watched on Youtube for free, but has been taken down since last year.
I’ll lift a glass for both sides in this one. Amazing.