Chelmsford and his men came up soon after to find 15 of the garrison dead and two more mortally wounded and barely 70 men still on their feet. For their parts in the battle, 11 men, including Chard and Bromhead were awarded the Victoria Cross.
This is the story of an event unique in the annals of British military history. There has been in the past, many epic struggles before it, as there have been since. But for sheer courage and grim determination in the face of overwhelming odds and a ferocious and frenzied army 20 times the strength of the British force, the defence of Rorke’s Drift has no equal.
The Victoria Cross, a decoration established by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and deliberately made from base metal thus ensuring no intrinsic value, to recognize acts of outstanding valour in the face of the enemy, is the highest honour which can be awarded in Great Britain. For a Company let alone a Regiment, Battalion or Army, to be awarded one VC in battle is a great honour, but for a Company of 100 men to be awarded eleven VC’s for one battle is totally unique by a very long way.
In the late 1770‘s Britain set out to impose peace on Southern Africa, unsettled by perpetual clashes between ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’. Two nations posed particular problems: the Transvaal Boers and their traditional enemies the Zulus. At first, both seemed incapable of challenging the British supremacy in the area. The Transvaal, poverty stricken, was annexed with deceptive ease in 1877. The Zulus were dismissed as savages and, it was thought, would offer no resistance. Yet in the space of two years, the British suffered devastating humiliations at the hands of both nations. The Zulu regiments were victorious at Isandhlwana in 1879 and ironically the vengeance rapidly exacted by the British removed the Zulu threat to the Boers and paved the way for further disaster.
The sun, rising over the green hills of Zululand on a late January morning in 1879, illuminated the crest of a strange, sphinx shaped hill called Isandlhwana. As the shadow line receded to the lower slopes, the light exposed the ruin of what less than a day before had been a bustling military camp. The sooty white smear across the base of the hill resolved itself into the charred remnants of hundreds of tents, flanked by a looted jumble of splintered wagons.
Chelmsford had left ‘B’ company of the 2/24th, Royal Regiment of Wales, under Lt. Gonville Bromhead - who was partially deaf - to guard Rorke’s Drift with the Natal Natives and 84 Europeans. Another 36 men were hospital patients in the 11 rooms of the crude mud-brick-and-thatch farmhouse which with a stone storehouse now crammed with mealie -bags and biscuit crates, formed the tiny mission station the troops had commandeered.
Late the previous after noon two exhausted riders had reached the Drift , where Lt. John Chard, Royal Engineers , was working on the banks. They gasped out the news about Isandlhwana, and, before riding on to safety added that a wing of the Zulu ‘impi’, 4000 strong who had taken no part in the battle, was heading for the outpost, and some had rifles. Chard rushed back to find Bromhead already alerted, trying to load the sick into wagons.
Chard, who was senior to Bromhead, saw that the garrison, encumbered by wounded could not get away and would have to stay and fight.
Using the stored bags and crates, his men ran a low wall around the buildings incorporating the two wagons into the back wall to save time. Cross-walls were built as second lines of defence. It was too late to get the sick out of the farmhouse. Men were posted to defend it and loopholes knocked into the walls.
The Zulus meanwhile had forded the fast-flowing Buffalo River by linking arms and charging the current in line, so that the force of those behind carried the leaders across. They then broke into a run and emerged from a hill into the sight of those at the mission station. At the last moment with the Zulus upon them, a company of the Natal Natives and another company of mounted natives who had escaped from Isandlhwana fled, leaving Chard with fewer than 90 hale men to defend his skimpy, extended ramparts.
The Zulus attacked towards sunset, and the ensuing battle was to last until the early morning hours, as wave after wave of Zulus threw themselves at the walls. Chard had opened his ammunition crates before the fight started, and the Chaplain, George Smith, worked to bring load after load of cartridges to the hard-pressed defenders, exhorting the men with Biblical phrases and sternly reproving every blasphemy he heard.
The attacks soon forced Chard to abandon the perimeter walls of mealie bags and biscuit -tins and withdraw behind the second line of defences. This left the hospital building totally exposed tot the Zulus, who dashed forward and flattened themselves against the walls, out of reach of the rifle fire from the narrow loopholes. While the men inside reloaded, the Zulus fired through the holes or threw themselves against the barricade doors. The front of the building could clearly not be held for long.
The front of the building could clearly not be held for long. According to one of the defenders Private Henry Hook, ‘To talk of a hospital gives the idea of a big building, but this hospital was a mere shed or bungalow, divided into rooms so small you could hardly swing a bayonet in them’. It was not ideal ground to fight on. The patients had been placed on improvised beds made by raising planks a few inches off the bare floor. Only a handful were still lying helpless on them, but as it grew dark each room must have been very gloomy, claustrophobic and littered with obstacles to hamper movement.
The Desperate and Courageous Defence of the Hospital
The Zulus broke in first through a a door in the western end of the building, where a defender, Private Joseph Williams, succeeded in killing 14 of them before he was overcome. The details of Williams’ death are unclear, since he appears to have fallen outside the building or leant too far outside and was pulled out by an attacker where he was set upon and speared to death. At the front too once the main body of defenders had fallen back there was nothing to stop the Zulus rushing the veranda, and forcing their way in through the front doors. It is possible that two or three patients were over-run and killed in the rooms on this side.
Such were the conditions however, that most of the defenders were unaware of what was happening outside their own rooms. The sound of Martini-Henry fire echoed and boomed around the walls, and there was a constant roar from outside , where the steady crackle of musket-fire, the cries of the wounded and the rattle of weapons blended with the deeper roar of the war-cry ‘Usuthu!. No sooner had the Zulus reached the building than they set fire to the roof. The thatch was damp from days of intermittent rain but the rooms gradually filled with dense choking smoke.
Private Hook recalled that he had been posted in a room overlooking a hill together with Private Cole. There was just one patient in the room, an auxiliary from the Natal Native Horse wounded in action with a heavily bandaged leg. The battle had no sooner begun than Cole declared he could no longer stand the cramped conditions, and went outside; he emerged onto the veranda during one of the Zulu attacks and was promptly shot dead. The patient in Hook’s room called for him to take off the bandages but Hook found it impossible to do anything but fight and blazed away as hard as he could. Hook’s room was connected to another by a flimsy door and when it became too full of smoke for him to bear, he rushed through. He was unable to take the patient with him and years later he recalled the sound of tearing bandages as the Zulus broke in and the man attempted to escape
Hook was now in a room with several patients. The Zulus were trying to break through the door he had shut behind him, and all who were able fired away or jabbed at them with their bayonets. Suddenly above the din Hook heard Private John Williams shout out “The Zulus are swarming all over the place”. John Williams had been in another rom when the Zulus broke in but had had time to knock a hole in the mud-brick wall of the interior wall into the room where Hook was now fighting. This room had no door other than the one through which Hook had entered and the only method of escape was to employ the method successfully use by Williams to knock a hole through the wall. ‘These shoddy inside bricks proved to be our salvation’ Hook declared later, the defenders had at least one pickaxe and that together with their bayonets were used to hack at the wall. Whilst this was going on at least one man had to hold back the Zulus, which was dangerous work, Hook himself was struck on the head by a flung spear which, had it not been deflected by the peak of his helmet would have caused serious injury.
When the hole was big enough, the patients were pushed or pulled through one by one , until at last the man defending the room sprinted after them. Then the whole process began again in the next room.
While this deadly game of cat and mouse was going on through the rooms at the back of the hospital a number of defenders elsewhere in the building escaped as best they could. In one, two privates, Beckett and Waters, had defended themselves from the cover of a large wardrobe. Waters had been wounded twice but between them they had killed several Zulus, whose bodies now lay on the floor. Miraculously they were not discovered. As the room filled with smoke from the burning roof Beckett resolved to slip away.
He dashed outside and across the veranda hoping to reach the cover of the scrub outside but blundered into a Zulu who stabbed him through the stomach as he passed and Beckett managed only a few more steps before collapsing in the long grass. Waters meanwhile stayed inside for as long as he dared then wrapping himself in a long black cloak he found in the wardrobe he fled. It was dark by this time, and the Zulus were no doubt distracted by the fighting around the storehouse. Waters crept round the side of the hospital unnoticed and worked towards the cookhouse at the rear of the post. This was only a few yards from the storehouse where the bulk of the defenders were holed up.
When he entered the cookhouse, to his horror he found it to be full of Zulus engaged in firing at the garrison. He was unnoticed entering behind them, however. Waters reached out, grabbed a handful of soot from an oven and smeared it over his face and hands then crouched in the shadows covering himself with the cloak. Astonishingly he was never discovered and survived to join the main garrison the next morning. Indeed the number of British soldiers who survived the night outside the perimeter seems positively bizarre
In the hospital meanwhile, Hook and his party had worked their way through to the rooms at the eastern end of the building. At one point a private names Connolly, who had a broken thighbone and was to large to fit through the holes, had to be dragged through forcibly “his legs got broken again” admitted Hook “but there was no help for it”. Curiously Connolly too opted to take his chances out in the darkness on his own, rather than try to get back to Chard’s redoubt. Waiting for a quiet moment , he pulled himself up on some mealie-bags squeezed out through a window, then, unable to walk, pushed himself forward with his hands, feet first, Remarkably he too survived.
The remaining patients faced an equally terrifying ordeal. The only way out of the building was through a small window which opened into the centre of the yard. But the yard had now been abandoned, and was effectively no-mans-land. The defenders had to pass the patients out into the darkness, where they dropped to the ground and had to scramble as best they could across the yard to the sanctuary of the biscuit-box wall opposite. Although fire from the barricade kept the yard free of Zulus, the warriors none the less kept crouched along the veranda and behind parts of the front wall, firing and throwing spears at short range. Not everyone made it.
Trooper Hunter of the Natal Mounted Police was confused for a second or two as he emerged from the window , dazzled by the glare from the burning roof and the noise. As he stood looking which way to run, a particularly bold warrior sprinted across the open and speared him through the kidneys. The Zulu was shot dead seconds later, but Hunter was killed. Another man, Sergeant Maxfield, of the 24th, was lying delirious in bed, and had struggled with his rescuers so much that they had left him till last; when they went back for him, they were too late, and watched in horror as the Zulus burst into the room and killed him. Yet, for the most part, the majority of the patients made it across the exposed area safely, and eager hands helped them behind the barricade.
Outside the hospital the battle surged on by the light of the burning roof. Overused gun barrels glowed in the dark, their heat firing off rounds before the defenders had time to pull the trigger. The men lost all count of the charges and all sense of time. They existed in a slow eternity of noise and smoke and flashes, of straining black faces that rose out of the darkness, danced briefly in the light of the muzzle blasts then sank back out of sight. It was after midnight when the rushes began to subside, and after 2 o’clock in the morning when the last charge was over. The Zulus abandoning direct assault, settled down under cover, behind their own dead, behind rocks, or behind the old perimeter barricades, while those with rifles sniped away by the light of the burning hospital. Two hours later the, the hospital fire finally flickered out and the Zulu gunfire died away with it. Darkness and a strange uneasy silence descended over the battle-scene as both sides waited for dawn, still and hour and a half away.
As dawn broke, the men, their eyes reddened, their hands blistered and black with powder, strained to see their enemy. From the smouldering ruins of the hospital, across the scattering of bags and tins, 500 Zulu dead were stiffening in the grey light. But the Zulu regiments had departed. Exhaustion had set in; the warriors had not eaten since leaving Ulundi four days before. The previous day alone, they had run five miles to
Almost one thousand oxen, mules and horses, lay stiffening in the wreck of the wagon park and in and about the carnage, scattered in sprawling clumps through the tentage and wagons and lying in bloody rows below them, were the bodies of close to 1,400 soldiers. The fierce onslaught of 20,000 Zulu Impis on the 2000 British defenders of the camp at Isandlhwana was over with disastrous results.
The Zulu nation too had suffered fearful losses - at least 2000, “An assegai had been thrust into the belly of the nation ” said Cetshwayo, King of the Zulus. When he heard the news. When Lord Chelmsford and the main body of the British Army who had been away from the camp searching for the main Zulu army returned to the camp he was scarcely able to credit what had happened. He was further dismayed by distant rifle fire and conflagration across the river in Natal - the outpost at Rorke’s Drift was under attack.
The doors and windows had been sealed off with mealie bags and biscuit boxes and the building had remained secure during the first rush. The defenders -six able-bodied men and around 20 armed patients - had a good field of fire from behind the window loopholes, but the Zulus came on in such numbers that the were at last able to get close enough to run right up to the outside walls. Pressing themselves flat against them, they grabbed at rifles as they poked through, spoiling the aim and trying to wrench off the bayonets or thrust their own firearms through to the inside.
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