"Men of Harlech" - the Defence of Rorke's Drift

22 – 23 January 1879, a few hours after the Battle of Isandlwana on the border of Natal and Zululand, about 150 British and colonial troops fought for their lives in the defence of the former mission station and now supply depot of Rorke’s Drift against a vast superiority of Zulu warriors under Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande.

“They have shown, in this difficulty—as they have ever shown—the utmost devotion and bravery. Those who have fallen will be remembered, and will be mourned; but we must not forget the exhibition of heroic valour by those who have been spared.“ (Benjamin Disraeli, “MINISTERIAL STATEMENT“, 13 February 1879)

Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler (1846 - 1933): "The Defence of Rorke's Drift" (1880)

The days of merchant adventurers like Raffles, Brooke or Jardine, the white rajahs, tai-pans and tuans, and the time when vast empires could be conquered east of Suez on one’s own initiative, greed, pluck and sheer luck, months away from communication with the next government agency, were coming to an end. Submarine telegraph cables linked the far flung places, North America, Egypt, India, even Australia were connected with the capital and a cablegram from Bombay would reach London in 5 hours with up to 30 words transmitted per minute. A far cry from the old postal service with even military despatches taking a regular 33 days for the same distance. Ironically enough, in his role as chief commissioner of Sindh in what is now southeastern Pakistan, Sir Henry Bartle Frere had founded the modern Indian postal service in 1857. Twenty years later, Sir Henry was High Commissioner of South Africa, one of the few major centres of the Empire that was not yet connected to an overseas telegraph cable and the man could pretty much act like a Roman proconsul of old and dream like one of the empire builders from the earlies. And he had a dream. Uniting the rag rug of British possessions, Boer republics and native states between the Limpopo and the Cape under the folds of the Union Jack and the rule of the White Queen. Nobody else, imperialist die-hards excepted, particularly liked the idea, though. Neither did the Disraeli government in London with it hands full of taking care that the Russians shall not have Constantinople, nor the locals. But with communications from London taking about a month to reach him, Sir Henry thought he had a free hand to create a fact or three. And off marched his commander General Frederic Thesiger, Baron Chelmsford, with the army to establish those facts. The Xhosa of Transkei were the first in 1878 and next in line was the Kingdom of Zululand with 40,000 men under arms, a major obstacle to Frere’s plans. With trumped-up charges and a ridiculous ultimatum ignored by King Cetshwayo kaMpande, a casus belli was established and on 11 January 1879, 7,800 British and allied native troops under Chelmsford crossed the Tugela and Buffalo River from Natal into Zululand to make war on “a bunch of savages armed with sticks", as Frere thought. Unfortunately, the Zulu army was actually composed of the arguably best organised, drilled and disciplined indigenous troops in Africa and a fortnight later, the centre and camp of Chelmsford’s invading army was wiped out by said savages at the Battle of Isandlwana with over 1,300 British, colonial and native troops killed. And Cetshwayo’s younger brother Prince Dabulamanzi and his impi of about 4,000 highly motivated elite warriors didn’t even get the opportunity to wash their spears. A bit miffed, the prince hurried his men to the Buffalo River crossing and British depot of Rorke’s Drift for a bit of a raid into Natal, against the king’s express orders.

From left to right: Sir Henry Bartle Frere, King Cetshwayo kaMpande, Lord Chelmsford (ret.), Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande, Lt John Chard, Lt Gonville Bromhead

It’s about 9 miles from Isandlwana to Rorke’s Drift and early in the afternoon, two survivors from the battle galloped past the strolling Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers, temporary commander of the depot, the hospital and 140 men of B company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Foot, a few Royal Engineers, Medical Corps and army staff usually found in a depot. The two shocked the bemused lieutenant into action with their news of the lost battle and the approaching impi and Chad, his second-in-command Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead and Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton of the Commissariat and Transport Department, an ex-sergeant of the 85th Foot, immediately began their hasty preparations to defend against the Zulu. Thousands of them. With improvised barricades made of boxes and mealie bags the former farmstead, Swedish mission station and now army depot was fortified and about half past four, the vanguard of Dabulamanzi charged. 

Legend has it that the 24th Foot was a Welsh regiment. About one fourth of the men behind the defences at Rorke’s Drift actually was recruited in Wales, the rest were English from the industrial centres around Birmingham and a few Irish and they did not, in all probability, sing “Men of Harlech” to counter the Zulu war chants, especially not long after midnight, when the final attacks on the last defences around the storehouse finally began to slacken. Their regimental march in 1879 was “The Warwickshire Lads" anyway. But there was incredible bravery on both sides, from those who ran into the withering fire of British Martini-Henry rifles, dying in their hundreds trying to carry the barricades and those who held and held again and fought, often enough, in close combat, bayonet against assegai, until their enemy could not go on any longer after a full day of quick marching through the high veldt and eight hours fighting. But the defenders of Rorke’s Drift were finished as well and it’s highly doubtful if they could have held against another attack of Dabulamanzi’s men. They never came. Incredibly enough, only 17 of the defenders were dead and 15 wounded, most of them from rifle fire of Zulu marksmen positioned in the hills around the place. About one tenth of the impi had died and about 500 were wounded. Many of them were killed in the morning by British patrols, probably just like the Zulu dispatched the British wounded at Isandlwana and at 8 a.m., Chelmsford’s relief force arrived on the scene. Honour was restored.

Alphonse de Neuville (1835 - 1887): "The Defence of Rorke's Drift 1879" (1880)

Of the 1,355 often posthumously awarded Victoria Crosses for valour "in the face of the enemy" since the establishment of the highest British military decoration in 1856, eleven were given to the defenders of Rorke’s Drift, the greatest number won by a single unit on one day, even if the reputation and ability of both Chard and Bromhead was questioned by Chelmsford’s cronies. Most of the defenders, including the two officers, suffered in all possibility from what we would call today Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on top of it. However, besides saving their own lives, that of their comrades and relativizing the hammering received at Isandlwana by presumably stick-armed savages, the 140 at Rorke’s Drift saved both Chelmsford’s and Frere’s neck in the eyes of the public howling for their blood and Chelmsford at least had the grace of decisively defeating Cetshwayo at his Royal Kraal of Ulundi in July 1879, ending the Anglo-Zulu War and the independent kingdom of Zululand. He somehow weaselled out of the whole reputation-damaging situation, not least by protection of the Queen himself, while Frere had laid the foundations of what directly ended with the disastrous First Boer War of 1880 and its humiliating defeats for the British. By then however, he was already cashiered and Europe was finally connected with the East Coast submarine cable of the South African Telegraph Company, plugged in at Durban in December 1879.

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