RORKE's DRIFT (Against All Odds)

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Martini Henry rifles, but were eventually overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers. The majority of the defenders, including nearly all the British troops, were killed.
Cetshwayo had ordered his troops not to cross the Buffalo River into Natal he wanted to fight a defensive war to show he was not the aggressor. But he had reckoned without his half brother, Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande, who was in command of the largely unused Zulu army reserve. Determined not to miss out on the action, Dabulamanzi ignored Cetshwayo’s orders and led up to 4,000 warriors in what he thought would be a lightning raid across the border. The mission station at Rorke’s Drift stood squarely in their path.

The Rorke’s Drift garrison consisted of ‘B’ Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th 2nd Warwickshire) Regiment, under Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, plus a contingent of native troops and some Royal Engineers, commanded by the senior officer on the day, Lieutenant  John Chard. At about 1pm they heard distant firing, but weren’t particularly concerned.
Private Fred Hitch, who would later be awarded a Victoria Cross for his actions recalled: “We did not expect any fighting that day, and were occupied in our usual duties, little thinking that a horde of Zulus – the pick of the Zulu Army, in fact – were marching on us, determined to kill every man at our little post.” However, fugitives from Isandlwana soon brought news of the catastrophe there and warned the garrison that the Zulus were on their way. Chard, Barmhead and Assistant Commissary Dalton of the Commissariat and Transport Department held a meeting to decide what to do. They agreed that it would be suicide to attempt to retreat encumbered by a number of sick soldiers, they would easily be caught by the fast moving Zulus and chose to stand and fight. Soon the garrison was hard at work, cutting defensive loopholes in the walls of the buildings and improvising barricades from bags of maize and boxes of biscuits. A party of Natal Native Horse who had survived Isandlwana were deployed to delay the enemy advance but, as the Zulus came into sight, they broke and fled. Panic spread to the native infantry within the defences and they too made themselves scarce, reducing the garrison to around 150 men.

At about 4.30pm, the Zulus made their first attack as 600 men of the iNdluyengwe regiment rushed forward into a hail of fire. Lieutenant Chard described their bravery: “We opened fire on them, between five and six hundred yards... The men were quite steady, and the Zulus began to fall very thick. However, it did not seem to stop them at all, although they took advantage of the cover and ran stooping with their faces very close to the ground. It seemed that nothing would stop them, and they rushed on in spite of their heavy loss to within 50 yards of the wall.”
The weight of fire was so great that the attackers could get no closer and they veered round to attack the front of the hospital. By now, the main Zulu force had arrived and, for the next five hours, launched a succession of attacks, notably against the hospital. They also attacked the barricades, but their spears were unable to reach the men behind them. Many Zulus were shot at close range, and those who did manage to climb the barricades were quickly bayoneted. In fact, the main worry the defenders had was bullets. Zulu riflemen had climbed the Shiyane Hill to the south of the station, and from there they opened a heavy fire down into the yard below.

Fortunately for the defenders, the Zulus were poor shots and many of their firearms were antiquated. Even so, a number of soldiers were killed and wounded, forcing Chard to order his men to abandon the yard and pull back behind a barricade of biscuit boxes.
At around the same time, the Zulus redoubled their efforts to storm the hospital. Setting fire to its thatched roof, they finally burst in. A desperate struggle took place in its smoke filled rooms as a few  soldiers fought the Zulus off with off with their long bayonets, and hacked holes in the partition walls so that surviving patients could be dragged out into the barricaded yard and carried to safety. By now, it was getting dark and the British had withdrawn to a narrow berimeter in front of the storehouse, where a redoubt had been built out of maize bags for a final stand. The hospital blazed brightly, but this worked to the defenders’ advantage as it denied the Zulus the cover of darkness. Finally, at about 10pm, the Zulu attacks began to slacken, although shooting continued until just before dawn. First light revealed a scene of utter devastation. Dead and dying warriors lay in heaps at least 400 were counted but to the defenders’ relief the Zulus had withdrawn.

At around 7am, a large body of Zulus appeared south east of the station, forcing the exhausted redcoats to stand to once again, but they soon moved off. The reason for this soon became clear: Lord Chelmsford was arriving with the remains of his central column. Despite the overwhelming odds, Rorke’s Drift had survived.

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