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Zulu Part 2: Clawed By The Wild Beast At Rorke’s Drift

After suffering an enormous defeat at Isandlwana, the British Redcoats began preparing to make a heroic stand at Rorke's Drift...

As gun shots echoed around the hills, men garrisoned back at Rorke’s Drift Mission, a hospital and store house, wondered what was happening on the other side of the Tugela River. 

They could hear what they guessed was their commander, Lt Gen Chelmsford, chasing down and forcing a fight on the Zulus. (For more, click here for part 1 of this article).

Curious, three men, Surgeon Reynolds, the outpost’s Swedish missionary Otto Witt, and the column’s padre George Smith, climbed up Shiyane Hill nearby.

At the summit, they squinted through a telescope, trying to discern what was happening.

Their view of the battle was blocked by a hill named Isandlwana, jutting sharply out of the surrounding terrain.

Isandlwana Mountain (image: Rob)

Eventually, black troops could be seen emerging from behind the rock, dressed in Army uniforms.

These were surely the Natal Native Contingent (NNC), that had accompanied the 24th Regiment of Foot in Chelmsford’s column into Zulu territory.

Clearly, the battle had gone well then, as it had only taken a few hours. Perhaps these men had been sent back to resupply from the stores at Rorke’s Drift?

But then the three men on Shiyane noticed an anomaly.

The two officers on horseback leading the NNC troops were also black… the NNC only had white officers.

Zulus looking north observe the British at Rorke's Drift from Shiyane Hill (image from 'Rorke's Drift 1879' by Ian Knight © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

The Zulus who’d overrun and killed 1,300 troops at Isandlwana were simply wearing some of the dead men’s uniforms.

Some had also taken their state-of-the-art Martini Henry rifles, and would be using them to shoot at any white men they encountered.

Down at the garrison, news of the catastrophic defeat had already reached 31-year-old Royal Engineer Lieutenant John Chard (portrayed by Stanley Baker in the 1964 film 'Zulu').

He’d been on the way to Isandlwana with a handful of engineers, ordered back at the last moment while his men had gone on and been killed.

His mind must have raced at the shock of going from repairing ferries to taking charge of a soon-to-be-besieged outpost.

He had 33-year-old Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (played by Michael Caine in the film) on hand, a man of impressive military pedigree, with a grandfather who’d served in the American Revolutionary War, and a father who’d been at Waterloo.

Bromhead himself commanded the 95 men of B Company, of the 2/24th Regiment of Foot, but it would have to be Chard who controlled the garrison – he’d received his commission first. 

As the two men talked things over, it became clear they could not outrun the Zulus, so they started organising a defensive perimeter.

Using grain sacks like sand bags, they formed an outer wall connecting the hospital, storehouse, and cattle enclosure (kraal).  

A diagram of the site

As terrifying as it must have been to be facing the prospect of a Zulu attack right after their comrades were slaughtered at Isandlwana, Bromhead and Chard’s men were actually better off than they realised.

The British had lost at Isandlwana because they had neglected to build defensive positions, leaving them open to being overrun by vastly more Zulus who relied on close-combat to win battles.

Also, unbeknownst to the British, King Cetshwayo had warned his men not to cross over into British held Natal, and then not to attack a British stronghold.

In 1838 a Zulu army had been shot to pieces trying to breach a Boer wagon-circle, and the lesson learnt and passed on by Cetshwayo was: 

"Don’t put your faces into the lair of a wild beast, or they will get clawed." 

But high on adrenaline and eager for glory, the 3,500 men of the iNdulyengwe, uThulwana, iNdlondlo, and uDloko amabutho (Zulu companies) did not heed him. However, Cetshwayo's orders at least did mean that the Redcoats weren't about to be stampeded by the more than 20,000 Zulu warriors left over from the Battle of Isandlwana. 

Zulu king Cetshwayo (left) and Dabulamanzi kaMpande (right), commander of the Zulus at Rorke's Drift

At the outset, it looked like Bromhead and Chard might be joined by Natal Native Horsemen who’d fled the battle earlier in the day, but the officer in charge was not able to control his men.

Still shaken by what had happened, and out of ammunition, they fled at the sight of the Zulu train charging towards them, a civilian with them calling out as he passed:

“Here they come, black as hell and thick as grass!”

Worse still, this triggered the NNC in the garrison to flee as well.

In ‘Rorke’s Drift 1879: Pinned Like Rats In A Hole', Ian Knight states:

“B Company were particularly infuriated by the sight of their white NCOs and officers going with them, and fired a few shots after them, dropping one of the NCOs in front of the hospital.”

Chard had gone from a garrison of three or four hundred to one consisting largely of B Company, himself, and the wounded men in the hospital – 150 all told.

He immediately tightened up the barricade, ordering a second layer of defences built within the first using biscuit boxes. 

As a lookout on the hospital roof signalled the Zulu approach, Reverend Witt also thought better of staying, and rode off; Chaplain Smith might have gone too, had his horse not been stolen. 

The Zulu approach to Rorke's Drift (image from 'Rorke's Drift 1879' by Ian Knight © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Meanwhile, the Zulus had been getting closer, and were now visible, advancing behind cover, with their shields up.

At 500 yards Chard ordered his men to fire.

They did. They cocked the leavers on their Martini-Henry’s to eject the spent cartridges, reloaded, then closed the breach again.

450 yards... the men fired more accurately, the heavy rounds sending the warriors they struck tumbling backwards.

But they kept coming, and coming, until at 50 yards a crossfire from behind the grain sacks and buildings eventually stopped them.

The Zulus quickly regrouped and dashed for the hospital, ignoring the rifle rounds that flew at them because of pre-battle rituals which encouraged them to think the bullets would not harm them.

But when they engaged in hand-to-hand fighting, the bayonets that were poked at them did make them flinch.

A charge behind Lieutenant Bromhead and Colour-Sergeant Frank Bourne drove them off.

But this initial assault by the iNdluyengwe on the hospital was just a taster of more to come.

The uThulwana, iNdlondlo, and uDloko amabutho, led by Prince Dabulamanzi made up the main body.

Seeing how close the iNdluyengwe had got to breeching the hospital, they attacked en masse, as well as sending their riflemen to hide amongst rocks and pour fire on the British from another direction. 

Anglo-Zulu War
The Rorke's Drift hospital as it stands today (image: Rob)

Luck was with the British though, as they were able to pour concentrated fire on the Zulus as they tried to get into the hospital, slaughtering many.

Meanwhile, although the Zulus had some Martini Henry’s from dead men at Isandlwana, most of their firearms were hopelessly out of date and range.

And with the sun behind the British, they could see and hit the Zulus far more easily.

One man, Private Dunbar, is reported to have fired nine shots in a row and hit a Zulu with every round.

However, the sheer number of Zulus meant that some of their shots also found their targets.

One man, Corporal Lyons, was wounded while leaning over the barricade to get a better aim, then his comrade Corporal Allen was struck while attending to him.

Another, James Dalton, was hit on the other side of the garrison, as was Corporal Scammell, one of the NNC men who’d stayed.

Dragged to the veranda of the storehouse, where Surgeon Reynolds had set up a makeshift casualty station, Scammell clawed his way over to Lieutenant Chard.

The officer had picked up a Martini-Henry and didn’t have any spare ammo. Scammell handed over his.

The British repulsed more waves, but they were taking casualties, and that risked leaving gaps the Zulus would eventually breach.

The Redcoats were driven off the hospital veranda and pulled back slightly, while 20 patients and six able-bodied men continued to fire at Zulus through holes in the hospital walls.

There were, though, so many Zulus that they just kept coming, eventually smashing through a door at the back of the hospital.

14 of them were apparently shot by a Private Joseph Williams before he was yanked outside and speared to death.

As it happens, the hospital was so cavernous that many in adjacent rooms were unaware the Zulus had got in.

The first clue was the smoke that started filling the building – the Zulus had set it on fire! 

A 3D map showing the hospital fire and the eventual withdrawal behind the biscuit boxes - British movements are shown by red arrows and Zulu by blue (image from 'Rorke's Drift 1879' by Ian Knight © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Despite this, the Zulus bravely kept coming, and a desperate melee erupted within as they attempted to push their way through doors.

Defenders held them shut, and smashed holes in walls they could fire through on one side of a room and through which they could escape on the other.

According to Knight:

“When the hole was big enough, the patients were pushed and pulled through one by one, until at last the man defending the room sprinted after them. Then the whole process began anew in the next room”.

Further forward in the hospital, two privates, Beckett and Waters, had utilised Reverend Witt’s large wardrobe, using it for cover.

The bodies of several Zulus by now lay in front of it.

As smoke built up, the pair realised they had to make a run for it, and Beckett dashed for the veranda outside, hoping to make it behind the biscuit box barricade, to which the British had now pulled back.

Unfortunately, he crossed paths with and was speared by a Zulu, collapsing in the long grass.

Seeing this, Waters wrapped himself in one of the reverend’s black cloaks from the wardrobe and, hidden by the darkness that had by now fallen outside, slipped out unnoticed.  

The barricades at Rorke's Drift (image from 'Rorke's Drift 1879' by Ian Knight © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

He rushed over to the cookhouse, believing it to be occupied by fellow Redcoats.

Stepping inside, he instead found himself standing right behind a group of Zulus firing through the windows at the British behind the main barricade.

Silently, Waters took a handful of soot from the cooker, spread it over his face, and went outside and hid in the darkness.

He, and several others from the hospital, were able to survive this way, unmolested, until the morning.

Remaining patients were evacuated by being passed through a small window at the back of the hospital, before being rushed across the now unoccupied yard.

The Redcoats fired from behind the biscuit box barricade, trying to cover hospital evacuees by shooting down any Zulus that ran at them.

On the other side of the garrison, the Zulus were putting pressure on the storehouse, swamping and trying to get through or around the external walls, as they had at the hospital. 

Bromhead took command of the area as part of a seven-man team, but fire from the Zulus was so fierce (one soldier’s brains were blown out all over his comrades) that only the Lieutenant and one man came out uninjured. 

The Defence of Rorke's Drift by Lady Butler (1880)

The battle raged all night, Chaplain Smith, in Witt’s place, doing his bit to keep the men in line, and on task:

“Don’t swear boys, and shoot them.”

Zulus didn’t normally fight after dark as doing so was thought to be an ill omen, and, quite apart from anything else, coordinating attacks was very difficult.

But the fire from the hospital illuminated the British position for them, and several were tempted to rush the barricades, getting shot down in the process.

In frustration, the Zulus began to harass the other side, less well lit up by the hospital fire.

The stone kraal (cattle enclosure) that had been abandoned on the other side allowed the Zulus to sneak up close, but the British were positioned behind a high barricade, allowing them to pour fire down at close range on the Zulus once they were discovered below. 

Zulu
A painting of Rorke's Drift depicting many separate incidents happening similtaneously

Although they were succeeding in holding the Zulus back, the incessant firing was gradually tiring the British:

“Most of them had suffered cuts and knocks, or had burned their fingers on the barrels of their rifles, which had grown almost red-hot with the constant firing. Many had badly bruised shoulders from the heavy recoil of their rifles.”

Many soldiers had an answer to that:

“When it became too painful to fire from the right shoulder, they had swapped arms, until their left shoulders also became bruised. Finally, they had simply rested their rifles on the barricade, held them at arm’s length, and fired away, hoping to discourage the Zulus by the volume of their fire rather than the accuracy.”

Zulu return fire continued to harass the British until 4:00 am, before dying out.

It’s a good thing it did.

When the sun came up, the stench of burning flesh emanated from the hospital over a scene of utter devastation.

Examining the company ammunition supply, Chard found only 900 rounds left out of 20,000.

Zulu corpses littered the ground, especially right in front of the biscuit box barricade, in all manner of positions, flung about by the heavy Martini-Henry rounds.

But hiding amongst the bodies was one Zulu warrior who was completely unhurt. He popped up and fired a single shot from his musket at the astonished Redcoats, before fleeing into the bush.

At 7:00 am, a group of Zulus appeared on a hill overlooking the garrison.

It was a tense moment, Chard knew that both his men and their ammunition supply were largely spent.

But the Zulus did not charge - instead, they went back the way they had come.

They were already outside the bounds of both Zululand and what Cetshwayo had said was acceptable territory on which to engage the British.

And they’d been ‘clawed by the wild beast in a lair’ the king had warned them to stay out of. 

The Zulu warrior amabutho at Rorke's Drift (image from 'The Zulu War' by Angus McBride © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Fittingly, their line of retreat crossed paths with that of the Commander of the British forces, Lt Gen Chelmsford.

His column, also low on ammunition and weary of a fight, had just spent the night at Isandlwana and awoken to find the corpses of the men they’d known littering the battlefield.

Both sides, separated by only a few hundred yards, passed without initiating battle.

When he reached Rorke’s Drift, Chelmsford expected to find another camp littered with British corpses.

Instead, there were only 15 dead and eight wounded from the battle, the rest of the garrison were spent but very much alive. (Two more men were mortally wounded).

In contrast, 1,500 Zulu bodies lay strewn about, almost half the force that had attacked the outpost.

For an attack that had been carried out by what was effectively a citizen militia, this was a huge loss to the Zulu kingdom. They’d learnt their lesson, and would not be coming back to the mission. 

The events at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift also influenced British actions going forward.

Further north, Cpl Gutherie of the 90th Light Infantry remembered his CO’s response to the news:

“When Col Wood heard (by messenger about the defeat at Isandlwana), he thought of his own small camp, 3 days in rear of him. He ordered a return march at once and marched night and day until he got to camp.”

In the end, the shock of defeat would make British commanders less complacent and more open to innovation.

The Anglo-Zulu war would rage for several more months, but the British would eventually win it.

Wood and Gutherie saw combat at Khambula on March 29, an action that proved a great example of British military organisation.

During the Napoleonic War, bunching troops up too much had proved costly when they were pounded by well-coordinated, well-placed artillery. 

At Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, the British had learnt the opposite lesson: That tighter formations worked better against an enemy reliant on hand-to-hand fighting.

They also made sure to make use of laagers, defensive positions formed by waggons and other supplies. 

The Battle of Khambula, March, 1879 (image from 'British Infantryman Versus Zulu Warrior' by Ian Knight © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Infantry squares, several ranks deep and supplemented with artillery or Gatling guns at the corners, proved deadly to the Zulus.

During the final battle of the war, at the Zulu capital of Ondini (or oNdini), the British poured rocket, small arms, and artillery fire so heavily on the enemy, it proved to be an assault not just on his army, but on his senses.

One Zulu, Sofikasho Zunga, remembered:

“There was one great roar of big guns. I could see flames of the guns and smoke from them, and also the flames of ‘paraffin’ (rocket) that I saw at Khambula. We soon broke and ran, there was such a roar of guns we were utterly bewildered. One shot went close to my head and I fell down and thought I was dead. I saw one (warrior) whose head was struck right off next to me and his body stood up shivering with arms clenched until it fell.”

Another Zulu summed up the position of his people:

“What could we do against you English? You stand still, and only by turning something round (i.e. the handle of a Gatling gun) make bodies of our warriors fly to pieces; legs here, arms there, everything. Whouw! What can we do against that?”

King Cetshwayo was exiled after the battle, first to Cape Town, then London, but the war correspondent and feminist writer Florence Dixie wrote in support of him.

He was returned to the throne in 1883. It was, after all, also advantageous to the British at that point. The Zulus left behind had broken into two factions that were at war with each other by 1882.

But, aided by Boer mercenaries, another chief attacked Cetshwayo and he later died, either from injuries or poisoning. 

Chelmsford went on to receive numerous promotions, dying at the age of 77 in 1905.

The men of Rorke’s Drift were greatly honoured, having both fought bravely and done so much to bolster British pride following the terrible defeat at Isandlwana.

11 of them received the Victoria Cross, and five the Silver Medal for Distinguished Conduct. 

Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne went on to become a Lieutenant Colonel and died in 1945 at the age of 91, the longest surviving British participant of the battle. 

Lt Bromhead (left), Lt Chard (centre) and Frank Bourne (right)

Bromhead and Chard were the real celebrities though. Singled out by Queen Victoria, they were invited to come and dine with her.

She was, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, very impressed with Chard’s unassuming and modest character.

A habitual pipe smoker, he would get cancer in later life and, despite an operation to remove his tongue, died at age 49 in 1897.

Bromhead, unfortunately, was on a fishing trip and missed the invitation, but the Queen sent him a picture of herself instead. He continued to serve the empire and died of typhoid fever while posted in India in 1891. He was 45. 

Meanwhile, the diamond mine the British had wished to incorporate into their territory in South Africa turned out to be one of the world’s richest deposits. 

For more on Isandlwana, read 'Isandlwana 1879: The Great Zulu Victory', 'Rorke's Drift 1879: Pinned Like Rats In a Hole', and 'British Infantryman Versus Zulu Warrior' by Ian Knight, and 'The Zulu War' by Angus McBride. For more on military history, visit Osprey Publishing.