[This is the battle on which the movie "Zulu" was based.]
In January 1879 the British invaded KwaZulu in South Africa, without the sanction
of the home government, in a war brought about by the misguided policy of "confederating"
southern Africa under the direction of the Governor-General Sir Henry Bartle Edward
Frere. The fiercely independent AmaZulu people refused to lay down their arms and
accept British rule. The British General Officer Commanding, Lord Chelmsford, despite
having abundant military intelligence on the AmaZulu, had a misconceived idea of
the fighting prowess of his enemy. The result was that on 22nd January a British
force of seventeen hundred strong, was attacked and only some four hundred men, of
whom only some eighty were Europeans, survived at a place called Isandhlwana.
Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande commanded an impi, the Undi 'corps' of 4,500. His men
had played little part in the action at Isandhlwana. Goaded on by his warriors who
sought loot and glory, and despite the orders of his brother, King Cetshwayo kaMpande,
not to cross the Buffalo River into Natal, he chose to attack the British supply
base close to a river crossing known as Rorke's Drift, which the AmaZulu called KwaJimu.
The post was established in a trading store-cum-mission station that consisted of
a dwelling house and a chapel, both sturdily built of stone. The house was doing
temporary duty as a field hospital, the chapel was full of stores and there were
only 104 men who were fit enough to fight.
The command of the post had passed to Lieutenant Chard of the Royal Engineers, when
Major Henry Spalding of the 104th Regiment left on the morning of the 22nd January.
Commanding a company-strength detachment was Lieutenant Bromhead of the 24th Regiment.
James Langley Dalton, a volunteer serving as an Acting Assistant Commissary and a
former Staff Sergeant, ordered the construction of barricades connecting the two
buildings with sacks of corn, and an inner barricade with biscuit boxes.
When the Zulus attacked, wielding their short stabbing assegais, they were unable
to reach the men behind the barricades and they were blasted by rifle fire at point
blank range. Most of those who did mount the breastwork were repulsed by the bayonets
of the defenders. Some of the Zulus were armed with rifles, purchased from unscrupulous
traders or captured at Isandhlwana, but they were not trained marksmen and the British
soldiers were able to pick them off at long range.
After a number of unsuccessful attacks the Zulus set fire to the hospital, burst
in and began to spear the patients. A private named Alfred Henry Hook, a Gloucestershire
man, kept them at bay with his bayonet while his friend John Williams hacked holes
in the wall, separating one room from another and dragged the patients through, one
by one. The last man had dislocated his knee. Williams had to break the other to
get him out of a window and into the yard where the barricades offered some protection.
Fighting went on all night in the fitful glare from the blazing hospital as the Zulus
made charge after charge on the barricades. Both sides fought with desperate courage.
A patient from the hospital, a Swiss born adventurer Christian Ferdnand Schiess,
stabbed three Zulus in quick succession after he had clambered over the breastwork.
In the yard Surgeon James Henry Reynolds tended to the wounded, oblivious to the
life and death struggle going on all around him. Those too badly hurt to shoot propped
themselves up as best they could and reloaded the guns, and re-supplied ammunition
to those who were still on their feet.
When dawn came at last, the Zulus drew off taking their wounded with them and leaving
at least 351 dead around the barricades. Later Lord Chelmsford arrived on the scene
with a column of British soldiers.
Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead were both awarded the Victoria Cross, as were the
redoubtable privates Alfred Hook, Frederick Hitch, Robert Jones, William Jones, Corporal
Allen, James Langley Dalton and Pte. John Williams. Surgeon Reynolds got the Cross
for tending the wounded under fire; and the Swiss volunteer Christian Schiess—the
first to a soldier serving with South Africa forces.
To this day, the defense of Rorke's Drift holds the record in the British Army for
the highest number of VCs awarded for a single engagement.