The Brave Defence of The Mission Station at Rorke’s Drift

Rorke’s Drift is situated 46 km southeast of Dundee and is the place of certainly one of the most well-known conflicts in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. The area in and around Rorke’s Drift is unspoilt and relaxing. Irishman James Rorke had originally set up a trading post almost 1 mile from the drift (crossing point) on the Buffalo River and was known to the Zulu warriors as KwaJimu (Jim’s place). Later, a mission station had been established by the Reverend Otto Witt of the Swedish Missionary Society. Witt built up a little church, mission house and livestock kraal at the foot of a rugged hill which he called Oskarberg.
Lord Chelmsford, had ‘requisitioned’ Rorke’s Drift prior to his traversing of the Buffalo River. He employed the house as a hospital and the chapel as a storehouse. All through the battle it was used as a medical facility. The defence of the mission station of Rorke’s Drift quickly followed the British Army’s loss at the Battle of Isandlwana earlier on the morning on 22nd January 1879. The devastating Zulu attack on Rorke’s Drift came rather close to defeating the little garrison, and the British accomplishment is held as without doubt one of history’s best defences. The 11 VCs given for valour at Rorke’s Drift are more than for any other military action of all time.

As Lord Chelmsford, the commander-in-chief of the British military in Natal, crossed into Zululand on 11th January 1879, his forces set up camp on the other side of the Buffalo river, 10 miles to the east, underneath the mountain at Isandhlwana. Three columns crossed into Zululand, from the Lower Tugela, Rorke’s Drift and Utrecht respectively, their goal being Ulundi, the Royal capital of the Zulus. On 9 January 1879 the middle column under Lord Chelmsford appeared and made camp at Rorke’s Drift.

On the morning of 22 January 1879, the main Zulu impi launched an attack on the British camp at Isandlwana. Lord Chelmsford had taken part of his force off in an alternative direction searching for the Zulu army. Hopelessly outnumbered, the British and local forces were slaughtered by the Zulu warriors with only close to 50 men get away alive. The remainder of the 1,000 strong force died. Later on that day, over four thousand zulu warriors commanded by Dabulamanzi attacked the small garrison of the 24th Regiment at Rorke’s Drift. These Zulu warriors had not been involed in the fighting at Isandlwana and wanted to prove their courage in battle. Cetshwayo had explicitly directed his Zulu warriors from crossing the Buffalo River which acted as the border between Natal and Zululand. Irrespective of this order, the Zulus grabbed the weapons off the bodies of the British dead and made for Rorke’s Drift. It was manned by 97 ready troopers, housed 36 wounded, 14 valuable natives, 5 officers and two lieutenants, one of which was new to the region. The Battle of Isandlwana was arguably the most humiliating defeat in British colonial heritage and only hours later that day, at Rorke’s Drift, 139 British troops defended their position against an intensive assault by more than 4,000 warriors.

Something that is nearly always disregarded is that the Battle at Rorke’s Drift could actually have concluded in the same devastating way as Isandlawana, but for one particular critical factor: Rorke’s Drift was a depot, so the British troops who defended it were able to make use of a near limitless source of ammunition. It is believed that somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 rounds were fired in the course of the defence of Rorke’s Drift, the overwhelming majority of the rounds having missed their targets entirely and so, conservatively speaking, each and every 25th shot fired by the men of Rorke’s Drift led to an ultimate Zulu death, and each 50th shot was a kill shot. The British knew the Zulu warriors were on their way however they elected to stand and fight. Wounded men would had to have been laden onto horse-drawn wagons and Zulus would quickly have engaged them in the open. Instead, they opted to fight on ground of their choosing.

Together with having numbers that crushed a force five times bigger hours earlier, the Zulu warriors also had the Martini-Henry rifles captured off the British dead, presenting them an even larger advantage against the British.

Henry Hook plus 5 other privates were instructed on the afternoon of 22nd January to defend approximately 30 patients not able to be transferred away from the temporary hospital at Rorke’s Drift . Defensive lines were constructed connecting the 2 complexes â?? the hospital and the store room. Inside this border, an additional line of defence was built between the two structures and this was significant during the battle. The Zulus attacked the hospital setting fire to the roofing. Hook and others struggled for several hours, actually digging through walls and eventually getting virtually all out of the hospital and over to the inner defensive line near the store. Wave after wave of warriors with spears and rifles crashed against the makeshift lines of defence at Rorke’s Drift. The conflicts raged all night and by morning the British defences still held strong and the Zulu warriors in the end withdrew.

Following seeing the aftermath of Isandlwana, Chelmsford believed that Rorke’s Drift had fallen and it was only the sound of cheering from the garrison convinced him . eleven VC’s were awarded to the defenders of Rorke’s Drift. Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne was among five men to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the unusual honour of a commission. Having said that, his army pay was his only money had he believed he could not financially afford to become an officer thus declined the offer. Fittingly, he was the last survivor of Rorke’s Drift to pass away on 8th May 1945 â?? VE Day. Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Edward Bourne OBE, DCM was 91 years old.

Rob Atherton
www.RobAtherton.com

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