Rorke's Drift Tour

The Defence of Rorke's Drift

22nd and 23rd January 1879

When No 3 Column crossed the Buffalo River into Zululand, Major Henry Spalding remained in command at Rorke's Drift. Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead's B Company 2nd/24th was left behind to guard the ponts, Commissariat Store and Column Field Hospital. Lieutenant John Rouse Merriott Chard RE was at Rorke's Drift commanding the working party at the ponts and surveying the site for a fort.

At noon on 22nd January 1879 Major Spalding left Rorke's Drift and headed towards Helpmekaar. After consulting his copy of the Army List he appointed Lieutenant Chard as the temporary commander as he was the more senior.

About 13:00 hrs cannon fire was heard from the direction of Isandlwana. Soon fugitives from fighting began to appear. At the mission station Lieutenant Bromhead became aware of the approaching horsemen and sensed that something was amiss. One of the riders rode up to him and blurted-out, "The camp is taken by Zulus!". Commissariat Dunne who was with Lieutenant Bromhead peered across the river and saw a number of the Natal Native Horse riding towards Natal.

Rorke's Drift mission station

The Rorke's Drift mission station.

Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne, the SNCO at Rorke's Drift, recalled: " ... back at Rorke's Drift we knew nothing of this disaster, although my Sergeants and I on our hill above it could hear the guns and see the puffs of smoke. But an hour later, at two o'clock, a few refugees arrived and warned us of what to expect. One man whispered to me 'Not a fighting chance for you, young feller.' "

At the ponts Lieutenant Chard also became aware something was amiss when two white horsemen appeared at the Zulu bank asking to be ferried across. One of the horsemen was Lieutenant James Adendorff and he broke the dire news to Chard that the Isandlwana camp was lost. Lieutenant Vaine, the other rider, went on to Helpmekaar with the news while Lieutenant Chard and Lieutenant Adendorff made their way to the mission station.

When Lieutenant Chard arrived at the mission station he saw that preparations had already begun. A hurried officer's conference followed and it was Assistant Commissariat James Dalton that galvanised them into action. As he put it: "Now we must make a defence!" the only option should the Zulus attack being fight and not flight.

At about 15:30 hrs 100 or so horsemen of the Natal Native Horse, who had fought at Isandlwana, rode up and their commander Lieutenant Alfred Henderson placed them at Lieutenant Chard's disposal. Chard ordered Henderson to deploy his men as mounted screen to protect the approach from Fugitive's Drift. ¾ hour later the crackle of musketry was heard from their position and soon the black horsemen were galloping past. Lieutenant Henderson paused as he rode up and told Lieutenant Chard that his men would no longer obey orders and he could not convince them to stand and fight. As he rode off Captain Stephenson's detachment of the Natal Native Contingent bolted; Captain Stephenson and his NCOs being among those in the lead.

Privates Henry Hook, Robert Jones, William Jones, John Williams, Joseph Williams and Thomas Cole were sent off to the hospital to guard the patients. Trooper Henry Lugg, a patient in the hospital, heard Bob Hall, the meat contractor of the Natal Mounted Police, call a warning as he too rode by: "Here they come black as hell and as thick as grass!"

At 16:30 hrs Private Hitch, who was on top of the thatch roof of the commissariat store keeping a look-out, cried out that the enemy was in sight; 500 to 600 of them came around the Oscarberg hill at a run to attack the south wall. The defenders opened fire at about five to six hundred yards. Private Dunbar dropped a chief on horseback; the defenders stood fast and soon the Zulus began to fall in ever increasing numbers. The Zulus then made use of the abundant cover; running stooping with their faces near the ground they came on; it seemed as if nothing would stop them. Despite their heavy losses they got to within 50 yards of the wall before being halted by fire from the store building, mealie bag wall and the hospital.

I would highly recommend this guide to anyone contemplating visiting the battlefields!

Bill Cainan, former Curator of the Museum of The Royal Welsh

The 24th Regiment
Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift

Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift

by Lieutenant Colonel Ian R Gumm

Former Officer Commanding
B (Rorke's Drift) Company
2nd Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Wales

"There have been a number of battlefield guides produced over the last decade along with countless volumes describing the actions on that fateful day in January 1879. However, there have been a distinct lack of publications that combine both in a short, but comprehensive and succinct manner. Ian has done just that with this guide. It is very readable and has taken note of all of the latest publications."


This first initial charge had been made by the iNdluyengwe; following them were Prince Dabulmanzi's Undi Corps who came on without pausing. Some took up positions on the Oskarberg and began to shoot down into the defences; others made their way further to the left to occupy the garden, hollow road and bushes in front of the hospital.

The Zulus attacked the hospital and along the northern side of the defences again and again. Again and again the British defenders fought them off with bayonet and rifle fire. The Zulus simply melted away to hide in the grass then rise again as one to charge. On and on it went. All the time the Zulu rifles on the hill sent their balls of lead into the backs of the defenders. Luckily for Lieutenant Bromhead and his men the Zulu fire from the Oskarberg was largely inaccurate, but still it took a toll.

About 18.00 hrs the Zulus threatened to get over the biscuit box barricade, but Lieutenant Chard seeing the wall threatened ran across with a few men and was soon joined by Lieutenant Bromhead with a couple more. The Zulu assault was tenacious, but again repulsed.

Assistant Commissariat Byrne was killed whilst giving water to Corporal Carl Scammell of the NNC. Corporal Christian Ferdinand Schiess, despite having been wounded in the foot ten days before, crept along the wall to dislodge the Zulu who had shot him. This Zulu had been shooting better than most and Corporal Schiess succeeded in killing him and two more before returning to the inner defences.

The Zulus then set fire to the roof of the hospital. Private Hook was driven out of his room retiring via a partition door into the next room where there were several patients, as a desperate room by room battle began to get the sick and wounded out. Private John Williams came into the room that Henry Hook was guarding and began making a hole in the partition. All the whilst the Zulus tried to enter, but Private Hook kept them at bay; he shot and bayoneted several, and soon there were four or five lying dead at his feet. A Zulu seized his rifle and tried to drag it away, whilst they struggled he slipped in a cartridge and pulled the trigger − the muzzle was against the Zulus breast and he too fell dead at Henry Hook's feet. John Williams had by then made their escape hole and as soon as all the patients except Private John Connolly, who had a broken leg and could not move, Henry Hook also went through the hole dragging Connolly behind him. Private Hook then stood guard at the hole whilst Private John Williams made another through the partition into the next room.

In another room Private Robert Jones saw the Zulus coming in through a door. He and Private William Jones held them back as the wounded climbed through a hole in the wall to reach the safety of Lieutenant Chard's defensive square. In their final room Henry Hook guarded the hole whilst John Williams helped the patients through a window into the defences.

Private Robert Jones defending the hospital door

Private Robert Jones defending the hospital door.

With the fighting in the hospital over, the defence of the biscuit box wall and parapet continued. As darkness fell the light from the burning hospital began to play in the defenders favour. Every quarter of an hour or so the Zulus would make a rush to get into the defences accompanied by yells. The defenders would let them get close, and then fire a volley — sometimes two. The Zulus would fall back, rally and come on again. Eventually the defenders were forced to retire to the middle wall of their defences. Several more vigorous assaults were attempted, but the light of the burning hospital greatly assisting the defenders. The Zulus eventually got into the stone build kraal and the defences had to pull back into their inner defences in front of the Commissariat Store.

The defence of Rorke's Drift

The defence of Rorke's Drift.

A little after midnight the fire slackened and although the Zulus made a number of feint attacks they didn't press any home. As dawn approach the defenders anxiously waited for daybreak fully expecting the attacks to be renewed. At daybreak, however, all but one of the Zulus was nowhere to be seen; he fired a single shot before running off in the direction of the river.

The morning after

The morning after.

As the sun rose the carnage around the Commissariat Store and hospital became visible. Hundreds of Zulus lay dead all around. In the lull the defenders ventured out of their defensive position to bring in the water cart. They set about increasing the strength of their defences in preparation for the renewed attacks that must surly come. Then at around 07.00 hrs a large body of the Zulus appeared on the hills to the south west. The expected attack did not however materialise, the Zulus just remained on the hill waiting and watching.

Colour Sergeant Bourne later recalled: "The attack lasted from 4.30 pm on the 22nd to 4.00 am on the 23rd — twelve exciting hours — and when daybreak occurred, the enemy was out of sight. About 7 o'clock they appeared again to the south-west. But help was at hand; Lord Chelmsford with the other half of his original force was only an hour's march away."

Lord Chelmsford's column came in sight about 08:00 hrs and the Zulus on the hill melted away.

The relief at Rorke's Drift

The relief at Rorke's Drift.

In his despatch dated 27th January 1879 Lord Chelmsford wrote: "To our intense relief, however, on nearing the Buffalo River the waving of hats was seen from the inside of a hastily erected entrenchment, and information soon reached me that the gallant garrison of this post, some 60 of the 2nd Battalion 24th Regiment, under Lieutenant Bromhead, and a few Volunteers and Departmental Officers, the whole under Lieutenant Chard, RE, had for 12 hours made the most gallant resistance I have ever heard of against the determined attacks of some 3,000 Zulus, 370 of whose dead bodies surrounded the post.

The loss of the garrison was 13 killed and 9 wounded."

I would highly recommend this guide to anyone contemplating visiting the battlefields!

Bill Cainan, former Curator of the Museum of The Royal Welsh

The 24th Regiment
Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift

Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift

by Lieutenant Colonel Ian R Gumm

Former Officer Commanding
B (Rorke's Drift) Company
2nd Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Wales

"There have been a number of battlefield guides produced over the last decade along with countless volumes describing the actions on that fateful day in January 1879. However, there have been a distinct lack of publications that combine both in a short, but comprehensive and succinct manner. Ian has done just that with this guide. It is very readable and has taken note of all of the latest publications."


The Victoria Corsses Awarded at Rorke's Drift

Eleven VCs were awarded at the defence at Rorke's Drift making this the greatest number of VCs awarded in a single action.

Lieutenant John Rouse Merriott Chard RE and Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead 24th Regiment

"For their gallant conduct at the defence of Rorke's Drift, on the occasion of the attack by the Zulus on the 22nd and 23rd January, 1879.

The Lieutenant-General commanding the troops reports that, had it not been for the fine example and excellent behaviour of these two Officers under the most trying circumstances, the defence of Rorke's Drift post would not have been conducted with that intelligence and tenacity which so essentially characterised it.

The Lieutenant-General adds, that its success must, in a great degree, be attributable to the two young Officers who exercised the Chief Command on the occasion in question."

Corporal William Wilson Allen and Private Frederick Hitch, both 24th Regiment

"It was chiefly due to the courageous conduct of these men that communication with the hospital was kept up at all. Holding together at all costs a most dangerous post, raked in reverse by the enemy's fire from the hill, they were both severely wounded, but their determined conduct enabled the patients to be withdrawn from the hospital, and when incapacitated by their wounds from fighting, they continued, as soon as their wounds had been dressed, to serve out ammunition to their comrades during the night."

Corporal Christian Ferdinand Schiess, Natal Native Contingent

"For conspicuous gallantry in the defence of Rorke's Drift Post on the night of the 22nd January, 1879, when, in spite of his having been wounded in the foot a few days previously, he greatly distinguished himself when the Garrison were repulsing, with the bayonet, a series of desperate assaults made by the Zulus, and displayed great activity and devoted gallantry throughout the defence. On one occasion when the Garrison had retired to the inner line of defence, and the Zulus occupied the wall of mealie bags which had been abandoned, he crept along the wall, without any order, to dislodge a Zulu who was shooting better than usual and succeeded in killing him, and two others, before he, the Corporal, returned to the inner, defence."

Private John Williams and Private Henry Hook, both 24th Regiment

"Private John Williams was posted with Private Joseph Williams, and Private William Horrigan, 1st Battalion 24th Regiment, in a distant room of the hospital, which they held for more than an hour, so long as they had a round of ammunition left: as communication was for the time cut off, the Zulus were enabled to advance and burst open the door ; they dragged out Private Joseph Williams and two of the patients, and assagaied them. Whilst the Zulus were occupied with the slaughter of these men a lull took place, during which Private John Williams, who, with two patients, were the only men now left alive in this ward, succeeded in knocking a hole in the partition, and in taking the two patients into the next ward, where he found Private Hook.

These two men together, one man working whilst the other fought and held the enemy at bay with his bayonet, broke through three more partitions, and were thus enabled to bring eight patients through a small window into the inner line of defence."

Private William Jones and Private Robert Jones, both 24th Regiment

"In another ward, facing the hill, Private William Jones and Private Robert Jones defended the post to the last, until six out of the seven patients it contained had been removed. The seventh, Sergeant Maxfield, 2nd Battalion 24th Regiment, was delirious from fever. Although they had previously dressed him, they were unable to induce him to move. When Private Robert Jones returned to endeavour to carry him away, he found him being stabbed by the Zulus as he lay on his bed."

Surgeon Major James Henry Reynolds, Army Medical Department

"For the conspicuous bravery, during the attack at Rorke's Drift on the 22nd and 23rd January, 1879, which he exhibited in his constant attention to the wounded under fire, and in his voluntarily conveying ammunition from the store to the defenders of the Hospital, whereby he exposed himself to a cross-fire from the enemy both in going and returning."

Assistant Commissary James Langley Dalton, Commissariat and Transport Department

"For his conspicuous gallantry during the attack on Rorke's Drift Post by the Zulus on the night of the 22nd January, 1879, when he actively superintended the work of defence, and was amongst the foremost of those who received the first attack at the corner of the hospital, where the deadliness of his fire did great execution, and the mad rush of the Zulus met its first check, and where by his cool courage he saved the life of a man of the Army Hospital Corps by shooting the Zulu, who, having seized the muzzle of the man's rifle, was in the act of assegaing him.

This Officer, to whose energy much of the defence of the place was due, was severely wounded during the contest, but still continued to give the same example of cool courage."

Last updated: 13th December 2018