Wednesday 18 May 2011

ABC Wednesday R is for Rorke’s Drift

Rorke’s Drift was a small mission station sited near a ford on the Buffalo River. The river formed the boundary between the Zulu kingdom and the British colony of Natal in South Africa.

The Battle of Rorke’s Drift was fought on 22nd January, 1879 during the Anglo-Zulu War. Earlier that same day during the Battle of Isandhlwana a humiliating defeat had been wrought on 1,000 British infantrymen. Though outnumbered, they were well armed with Martini-Henry breech-loading rifles while the Zulu warriors were carrying Assegai spears and shields made from animal hide.

The mission at Rorke’s Drift had belonged to a Swedish missionary, Reverend Otto Witt. The British army had turned the church into a store and Witt’s house into a hospital. At the time of the Zulu attack the mission was garrisoned by 139 British troops, supported by a small number of African and colonial troops and 4 civilians, including the missionary. 

The British commanders were Lieutenant John Chard and Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead. They were faced by around 4,000 Zulu warriors led by Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande.

In the late afternoon the Zulus launched their first assault from the hill above the drift but were unable to reach the men behind the hastily constructed outer barricade of mealie bags and the inner wall of biscuit boxes. They were repulsed at point blank range by rifle fire. Several more unsuccessful attempts were made to breach the British defences but eventually the Zulus were successful in setting fire to the hospital, whereupon they forced an entry and began stabbing the patients. The men in the hospital fought off the warriors, finally using bayonets once their ammunition had run out. 

Realising that their only hope of salvation lay in escape from the burning building and the onslaughts from the Zulus, Private Henry Hook held them at bay with his bayonet while Private John Williams used his bayonet to break through the wall into the next room, allowing him to haul patients through and then out of a window to a place of greater safety behind the barricades. It was not possible to rescue all the men.

Fighting continued throughout the night, the Zulus making repeated attacks on the defences. Both sides fought courageously. British soldiers who were too badly injured to continue shooting, contributed to the effort by reloading rifles and supplying ammunition to those still standing. Eventually, the British were confined to a small area around the storehouse.

At 4:00 am the Zulus withdrew. Although they appeared on the hill again at 7:00 am no further offensives were launched and they turned and left. It is thought that they had seen British reinforcements approaching. Zulu casualties from the battle were around 500 including 350 fatalities. The British garrison suffered 17 deaths and 10 wounded.

Though Victorian Britain was stunned when news of the inexplicable defeat at Isandhlwana reached them, the victory of a small number of men at Rorke’s Drift against apparently overwhelming odds was astounding and restored faith in the British army. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defendants of Rorke’s Drift.

The film ‘Zulu’ is a colourful and dramatic recounting of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift. Below are two clips from it.

This meme is hosted by the Remarkable Denise Nesbitt and her Really good team. Click here for more Rs.


  1. I remember the film well, it's just incredible!

  2. Zulu is my favourite movie. I never tire of it!
    Jane x

  3. When I first read the word "Zulu" inyour post I immediately thought of Michael Caine! Some associations never faid!
    Great post - as ever.
    Thanks so much
    Denise ABC Team

  4. Never saw this movie, didn't know the history at all. Interesting.
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  5. Hi Janice — I was in the middle of a scholarly treatise comparing the British in Africa to the Romans in Europe (opinions only, absolutely no research) when my browsing program went "poof" so I guess that shows how much my opinions are worth.
    I adore Michael Caine, especially with Sean Connery in "The Man Who Would be King" — a completely unscholarly opinion in response to your R post.
    — K

    Kay, Alberta, Canada
    An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

  6. very interesting entry for R day!
    I've never seen the film, though!
    Thanks for sharing;o)

    Hope you are having a nice and happy week****

  7. Great post and great film clips. I just love visiting your posts. Thank you.

  8. Very good movie...what a horrible battle. Again, your History Lessons are so interesting and written so well.

  9. I also have never seen that movie, but I am not going very often to a movie theatre and then, battles are not so my taste, lol !
    You should see the Waterloo battle field now ! It's full of tourists from all over the world !
    I feel on holidays when I go there, lol!

  10. I really enjoy posts with content, posts that have something to say. Thanks.

  11. Very interesting. I'll look for the movie - excellent post...


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