Battle of Rorke's Drift - Anglo Zulu War of 1879 South Africa
The Battle of Rorke's Drift (22/23 January 1879) was a gallant defense by a small garrison force of 152 British soldiers, part of the Centre Column, against seemingly overwhelming odds of between 3000 and 4000 Zulus. The British were to award 11 Victoria crosses to defenders, the most ever in a single action in the history of the British Army.
Anglo Zulu War of 1879:
In January 1879 the British invaded KwaZulu in South Africa, without the sanction of the Home Government, in a war brought about by the misguided policy of "Confederating" Southern Africa under the direction of the Governor-General Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere. The fiercely indepedent AmaZulu people refused to lay down their arms and accept British rule over the Sovereign Kingdom.
The British General Officer Commanding, Lord Chelmsford, despite having abundant military intelligence on the Zulu, had a misconceived idea of the fighting prowess of his enemy. The result was that on 22nd January a British force of seventeen hundred strong, was attacked and only some four hundred men, of whom only some eighty Europeans, survived at a place called Isandlwana. (Isandhlwana)
The Battle of Rorke's Drift:
Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande commanded an impi, the Undi 'corps' of 4,500. His men had played little part in the action at the Battle of Isandlwana, but goaded on by his men, and despite the orders of his brother, King Cetshwayo kaMpande, not to cross the Buffalo River into Natal, he chose to attack the British supply base close to a river crossing known as Rorke's Drift, which the Zulu called KwaJimu.
Looking up towards the hospital building, with some of the original ledge still visable. The post was established in a trading store-cum-mission station that consisted of a dwelling house and a chapel, both sturdily built of stone. The house was doing temporary duty as a field hospital, the chapel was full of stores and there were only 104 men who were fit enough to fight.
The command of the post had passed to Lieutenant Chard of the Royal Engineers, when Major Henry Spalding of the 104th Regiment left on the morning of the 22nd January. Commanding a company-strength was Lieutenant Bromhead of the 24th Regiment.* James Langley Dalton, a volunteer serving as an Acting Assistant Commissary and a former Staff Sergeant, ordered the construction of barricades connecting the two buildings with sacks of corn, and an inner barricade with biscuit boxes.
When the Zulus attacked, wielding their short stabbing assegais, they were unable to reach the men behind the barricades and they were blasted by rifle fire at point blank range. Most of those who did mount the breastwork were repulsed by the bayonets of the defenders. Some of the Zulus were armed with rifles, purchased from unscrupulous traders, but they were not trained marksmen and the British soldiers were able to pick them off at long range.
After a number of unsuccessful attacks the Zulus set fire to the hospital, burst in and began to spear the patients. A private named Alfred Henry Hook, a Gloucestershire man, kept them at bay with his bayonet while his friend John Williams hacked holes in the wall separating one room from another and dragged the patients through one by one, the last man had dislocated his knee. Williams had to break the other to get him out of a window and into the yard where the barricades offered some protection.
Fighting went on all night in the fitful glare from the blazing hospital as the Zulus made charge after charge on the barricades. Both sides fought with desperate courage. A patient from the hospital, a Swiss born adventurer Christian Ferdnand Schiess, stabbed three Zulus in quick succession after he had clambered over the breastwork. In the yard Surgeon James Henry Reynolds tended to the wounded, oblivious to the life and death struggle going on all around him. Those too badly hurt to shoot propped themselves up as best they could and reloaded the guns, and re-supplied ammunition to those who were still on their feet.
When dawn came at last, the Zulus drew off taking their wounded with them and leaving at least 351 dead around the barricades. Later Lord Chelmsford arrived on the scene with a column of British Soldiers.
Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead were both awarded the Victoria Cross, as were the redoubtable privates Alfred Hook, Frederick Hitch, Robert Jones, William Jones, Corporal Allen, James Langley Dalton and Pte. John Williams. Surgeon Reynolds got the Cross for tending the wounded under fire; and the Swiss volunteer Christian Schiess - the first to a soldier serving with South Africa forces.
At Rorke's Drift, eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded. Seven to the 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot, one to the Army Medical Department, one to the Royal Engineers, one to the Commissariat and Transport Department and one to the Natal Native Contingent.
There may possibly have been more VC's awarded but the posthumous VC was only started in 1905, among the first recipients in 1907 were Lts Melvill and Coghill who were killed whilst saving the colours from Isandlwana on the 22nd of January 1879.
Another VC winner on the 22nd of January 1879 was a Private Samuel Wassall from Birmingham. He rescued a comrade who was drowning in the Buffalo River during the retreat from Isandlwana.
Private William Griffiths, who won his VC in 1867 at Little Andaman Island, died at Isandhlwana, won his VC in 1867 at Little Andaman Island and is burried in an unmarked grave on the Isandlwana battlefield.
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