The Battle of Rorke’s Drift in 1879 is one of history’s most famous last stands, and inspired the song Rorke’s Drift, from Sabaton’s 2016 album The Last Stand. During this short but intense battle, 150 British and colonial soldiers – including several wounded field hospital patients – successfully defended Rorke’s Drift mission station in South Africa from up to 4,000 Zulu warriors.
In 1879 the British Empire went to war in Africa, wanting to annex the Zulu Kingdom, which covered a large area in the south of the continent. The war lasted just five months, and despite beginning with a significant victory for the Zulus at the Battle of Isandlwana, it finished with British victory and the end of Zulu rule in the region.
The famous Battle of Rorke’s Drift, when just over 150 British and colonial troops spent a terrifying night defending their garrison against up to 4,000 Zulu warriors, happened just two weeks into the war.
Rorke’s Drift itself was a mission station, named for James Rorke – an Irish Merchant who once ran a trading post there. It lay on the border of the Zulu Kingdom and the British Colony of Natal (in modern day South Africa), and British troops set up camp there at the start of the war, turning two bungalows on the site into a supply depot and hospital. When the troops marched to engage the Zulus in the Battle of Isandlwana, a company of soldiers (B Company), under Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, was left behind to run the garrison.
Isandlwana was a disaster; the British Army’s first invasion of Zululand met with humiliating defeat at the hands of an indigenous force who mostly used spears, not guns, and killed more than 1,300 of the 1,800 invading British.
When the soldiers did not start returning to the station as expected, the Major in charge, Henry Spalding, rode out to organise reinforcements – leaving Lieutenant John Chard, who had been sent back from Isandlwana as surplus to requirements, in command. Two survivors from Isandlwana then appeared with news of the defeat and the revelation that part of the Zulu Impi (army) was heading for the station. Chard, Bromhead, and other officers at the garrison decided the best option was to dig in and defend it, rather than risk moving hospital patients through open country. They used sacks of corn and biscuit boxes to create a crude defensive perimeter, knocked firing holes through the walls of the site’s buildings and barricaded the doors with furniture.
As preparations were nearing completion, a group of cavalry on retreat from Isandlwana arrived and offered to take position on a hill near the station in the direction the Zulus would be coming from. They added their numbers to between 100 and 350 foot soldiers from Natal who had been ordered to remain at the garrison to support B Company. At this point there were several hundred men in the vicinity of Rorke’s Drift, including “walking wounded” in the hospital, and Chard felt his force was sufficient to stave off the coming threat.
But the Zulu force was much larger than feared, comprising 3,000 to 4,000 reserve troops who had not even seen combat in the previous day’s battle and were fresh and fit. The cavalry on the hill engaged the first of the Zulus but, tired and running low on ammunition, they fled. On seeing this, the soldiers from Natal and their commander also turned and ran, leaving B Company and the hospital patients alone. Some members of B Company were so angry that they fired after the deserters, killing one of them.
With the defending force now down to just over 150 men inside the garrison, Chard ordered a hasty reorganisation of the defences to create a fall-back position for the defenders, and at 4.30pm the first group of 600 Zulus attacked. With few guns, the Zulus resorted to crouching under the defensive wall, trying to grab the British rifles or stab and slash with their spears. In places they climbed over each other’s bodies to try to drive the British off the wall, but were driven back.
- Read more about Lieutenant John Chard’s life here.
After some time, it was clear the wall could not hold under the sheer volume of attackers, so Chard began pulled his men back toward the inner perimeter and the hospital. A melee ensued, with Zulus grabbing for the British rifles whenever they were put through the firing holes, or trying to fire their own weapons through them into the hospital. At some point the hospital roof was set ablaze. As the entrance to each room in the hospital gave way, the defenders would hack their way through the wall to retreat into the neighbouring room, pulling the hospital patients through with them. Eventually they made it through to the other side and made a break across the yard to the fall-back barricades.
The Zulus kept up their assault long into the night. The attacks began to subside after midnight but did not cease fully until 2am. By then, the garrison had lost 14 men, with 10 others suffering serious wounds. They had fought for 10 hours and had just 900 rounds of ammunition remaining from the 20,000 that had been stored at the mission.
Fortunately, when dawn broke, the Zulus were gone; for them it had not been a planned raid but an opportunistic one. As the garrison began picking up the pieces from the night before, another Impi of Zulus suddenly appeared and they rushed to man their positions again. These Zulus, however, had been on the march for days and were carrying wounded comrades, and they left the way they had come. An hour later another group of soldiers appeared and the positions were manned again – but these turned out to be the relief force from the next garrison.
Eleven of the defenders of Rorke’s Drift were awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military honour for bravery. It was the most ever awarded for a single action by one regiment. Some commentators suggested it was a way of drawing the British public’s attention away from the embarrassing defeat at Isandlwana the preceding day, however many more have challenged that assumption, with the battle capturing popular imagination and inspiring generations of artists and authors. The most famous depiction of Rorke’s Drift in popular culture is the 1964 film Zulu, produced by Stanley Baker and starring a young Michael Caine.