Horns of the Bull: British Tragedy and Triumph at Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift
Rorke's Drift (22-23 January 1879):
22 January 1879 - Zulu reserves sent to attack Rorke's Drift.
8 AM- Lt. Chard rides toward Isandlwana to check on orders, but is warned away by mounted sentries and sees a party of Zulus moving across the Plateau in the general direction of Rorke's Drift. Chard arrives at the Drift at noon; he tells Major Spalding there but no action is taken.
2 PM- Maj. Spalding leaves to speed up relief column being sent from Helpmekaar. Lt. Chard, left in command by Spalding, watches the Buffalo River and soon sees Isandlwana survivors crossing the river and hears distant rifle fire.
2:30 PM- Two lieutenants report the defeat at Isandlwana to Chard, then ride on to Helpmekaar after warning the men at Rorke's Drift.
3 PM- Chard assumes command at the mission station as a defensive wall is built with meelie bags, biscuit boxes, and two wagons.
3:30 PM- Men return from the Drift with a water cart and tools on orders from Chard, who returns with them.
4:30 PM- Chard orders six men to guard the hospital, readies reserve ammunition, and orders men to fix bayonets. A lookout is posted on the ridgepole of the mission store.
5 PM- As the Zulu approach, local defense forces and the native contingent depart, reducing Chard's command from 350 to 139 (30 of them sick in the hospital). Work continues on the improvised wall around the station.
5:30 PM- Initial Zulu attack is from the south; is beaten back by steady rifle fire. New attack comes from west of the hospital along the thinly held northern wall. Zulus armed with rifles commence sniping from nearby hill.
6 PM- Zulu attack continues- British defenders are forced to retire into the yard, weakening the defenses of the hospital.
6:20-7:15 PM- Zulus concentrate attack on hospital; some occupants are killed in their beds, other manage to flee through hole cut in hospital wall. Hospital is on fire, but light from the fire helps British defenders track the movements of the Zulus.
7 PM-Midnight- British fend off wave after wave of Zulu attackers.
23 January 1879- 4 AM- Zulus retire from the battleground.
8 AM- Rorke's Drift defenders are relieved by column under Lord Chelmsford.
Casualties at Rorke's Drift: The British suffered 17 men killed (15 KIA and two mortally wounded) and 10 wounded at Rorke's Drift, of the 139 men present when the battle began (19% casualty rate). A majority of the 17 dead men were killed by rifle fire (only patients in or defenders in the hospital were stabbed to death with the Ikwa). 350 or so Zulu dead were found on the field at Rorke's Drift after the battle-- many wounded warriors were borne away from the battlefield by their fellow warriors (Zulu casualty rate was at least 25%).
Eleven British soldiers were awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions at Rorke's Drift, the most awarded for a single military action in British history. While these men most certainly earned their awards, there also seems to be little doubt that authorities back home in bestowing this bumper crop of awards for heroism under fire were hoping to divert attention from the British disaster at Isandlwana to the British miracle at Rorke's Drift.
Clammer, David. The Zulu War. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1973.
Edgerton, Robert B. Like Lions They Fought: the Zulu War and the Last Black Empire in South Africa. NY: Free Press, 1988.
Glover, Michael. Rorke's Drift: a Victorian Epic. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1975.
Greaves, Adrian. Crossing the Buffalo: the Zulu War of 1879. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson,
Knight, Ian. Great Zulu Battles 1838-1906. London: Arms & Armour, 1998.
Morris, Donald R. The Washing of the Spears: a History of the Rise of the Zulu Nation Under
Shaka and Its Fall in the Zulu War of 1879. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1986.
Snook, Mike. Like Wolves on the Fold: the Defence of Rorke's Drift. London: Greenhill, 2006.
Taylor, Stephen. Shaka's Children: a History of the Zulu People. London: HarperCollins, 1995.
Thomas A. Pearson, Reference Librarian
Special Collections Department
St. Louis Public Library
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