Battle reports from Rorke’s Drift

I’m sure many readers are familiar with the 1964 film ‘Zulu‘.  It’s a fictional depiction of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, which took place immediately following the British defeat at Isandlwana during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.  Here’s one of the battle scenes from the film.

Despite some historical inaccuracies, if you haven’t seen the film, it’s well worth watching (the entire movie’s available on YouTube at present).  I’ve visited the battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift several times.  They’re a study in contrasts . . . verdant vistas of African scenery, haunted by the ghosts of men long dead.  It’s a strange feeling to walk there.

Anyway, what brought on this post was a visit to the Web site of the South African Military History Society.  While there, I came across the after-action report of Lieutenant John Chard, who commanded the garrison at Rorke’s Drift and was one of eleven soldiers to be awarded the Victoria Cross after the battle.  It makes interesting reading, stripping ‘literary license’ from events and recounting them in bald ‘officialese’.  Here’s a brief extract.

We had not completed a wall two boxes high when about 4.30 p.m. 500 or 600 of the enemy came in sight around the hill to our south and advanced at a run against our south wall. They were met by a well sustained fire, but notwithstanding their heavy loss continued the advance to within 50 yards of the wall, when they met with such a heavy fire from the wall, and cross fire from the store, that they were checked, but taking advantage of the cover afforded by the cook house, ovens &c kept up a heavy fire. The greater number however without stopping, moved to the left around the hospital and made a rush at our N.W. wall of mealie [i.e. corn] bags, but after a short but desperate struggle were driven back with heavy loss into the bush around the work.

The main body of the enemy were close behind and had lined the ledge of rock and caves overlooking us about 400 yards to our south from where they kept up a constant fire, and advancing somewhat more to their left than the first attack, occupied the garden, hollow road and bush in great force.

Taking advantage of the bush which we had not time to cut down, the enemy were able to advance under cover close to our wall, and in this part soon held one side of the wall, while we held the other, a series of desperate assaults were made extending from the hospital along the wall as far as the bush reached, but each was most splendidly met and repulsed by our men with the bayonet, Corpl. Schiess N.N.O. greatly distinguishing himself by his conspicuous gallantry.

There’s more at the link.  Here’s a photograph of some of the survivors of the battle.

A larger image, plus some of the survivors’ names and other details, may be found here.  Other after-action reports from the battle that may be of interest include the recollections of assistant army chaplain George Smith, and a transcript of a radio interview given by former Colour Sergeant (later Lieutenant-Colonel) Frank Bourne in 1936.

Today, 133 years after the battle, the heroism of those involved – on both sides – continues to amaze me.  The British forces were outnumbered at least 20 to 1, perhaps by double that proportion, yet they prevailed with amazingly small losses under the circumstances.  The Zulu forces pressed home their attacks with spear and shield for hour after hour, in the face of murderous point-blank rifle fire that cost them at least 350 fatal casualties (perhaps as many as 800-900, according to some reports that claimed many injured Zulus were executed after the battle) and wounded an unknown number.  To give you some idea of the intensity of the fighting, the 150-strong garrison began the battle with about 20,000 rounds of ammunition available for their single-shot Martini-Henry rifles (which were of roughly comparable performance to the Springfield Model 1873 rifles and carbines used by the US 7th Cavalry under Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876).  They had only about 900 rounds remaining at the end of the fight.

Heroes indeed!



  1. Zulu has long been one of my favorite films, and for the reason you mention: incredible bravery on both sides. (How long, I pretend to hear you ask? I have it in both VHS and DVD.)

    It also presents a good study in defensive preparation and tactics, if one is willing to do some research to fill in the inevitable holes created by artistic license.

    For those with an interest in more on the Zulu nation, The Washing of the Spears is a good start.

  2. I heard once that in during the Zulu war the British suffered a defeat because they could not open the ammunition boxes fast enough. They had wooden boxes full of ammo with four screws to screw down the lid. However each company (or some large group of soldiers) was only issued one screwdriver. I can't find this story on the web. Have you heard of this?

  3. @Anonymous: Something like that is alleged to have happened at the Battle of Isandlwana. However, it appears to be largely a myth constructed in an attempt to explain away a disastrous British defeat. For more information, I highly recommend these three articles:

    Firepower and Firearms in the Zulu War of 1879:

    3 Popular Myths of Isandlwana:

    The Martini-Henry Rifle and the Anglo-Zulu War, 1879:

    All three effectively debunk the myth.

  4. Love your post. Didn't know how close they came to running out of ammo. Every time I watched that movie I started pricing Martini-Henry rifles. And I can't help but think about how handy even one Maxim gun would have been.

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