One of my favorite actors is Sir Michael Caine, Englishman and all-around cool guy. In his first major film role, he plays Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead in the movie Zulu (MGM, 1964). Zulu tells the story of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift during the Zulu Wars in South Africa. Rorke’s Drift stands out as one of the most prominent battles of the South African campaign for the British Army; the victory restoring the prestige of the British forces in Africa after their surprise defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana.
Rorke’s Drift also stands out as the one battle with the most Victoria Crosses awarded for a single engagement. It’s also a prime example of what a well-trained, well-drilled, and disciplined unit can do against a much larger force.
Though the British were armed with modern Martini Henry repeating rifles they were still heavily outnumbered with only 150 some odd British versus the over 3000 Zulu tribesmen lusting for battle. Also, the Zulus were armed with more than just spears and shields. Shaka Zulu understood the need for firearms and had been stockpiling muskets and antiquated rifles in case of hostilities with the British. There were so many rifles that most of the British casualties had been shot vice stabbed.
But with the setting established, let us delve into the battle. In the morning of 22 January 1879, the British 24th Regiment of Foot clashed with warriors of the Zulu nation at Isandlwana. The Zulus routed the Brits in a bloody fight, their rear guard chasing down survivors as they ran to the British outpost at Rorke’s Drift in Natal. At 1530 hours, survivors of the earlier battle arrived and informed the commanding officers Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead that the Zulu Undi Corps was approaching. Understanding that there was no hope for reinforcements before the Zulu vanguard arrived, Chard ordered the creation of a wall built from leftover ration crates. He then fortified the outpost with his own meager force of engineers, Bromhead’s B Company, 24th Foot, and the few survivors from Isandlwana.
At 1630 hours, the Undi Corps arrived and began attacking the southern portion of the wall that Chard’s men had built from supply crates and ration boxes. They would spend the five-and-a-half hours trying to hold the cattle corral, hospital, and store that made up the former trading post. As night fell, the Zulus became more determined. Their continued assault against the hospital on the western end of the post caused the heaviest casualties. At 1800 hours, Chard made the decision to withdraw his men from the hospital.
At 2200 hours, Chard brought his men defending the cattle corral back into the fortified yard. With ammunition reserves running low, Chard and Bromhead dug with the men they had left. They continued is pitched battle for the next four hours, the Zulu offensive finally slacking-off around 0200 hours. The British suffered a steady stream of harassing fire for the rest of the night.
As dawn broke on 23 January 1879, the weary soldiers were greeted with a sea of bodies, the Zulu forces having retreated in the night. At 0700 hours, a new corps of Zulu warriors was spotted approaching and the British took up arms once again. The fatigued Zulus could see the approaching British reinforcements, and soon departed. At 0800 hours, reinforcements arrived, relieving Chard and Bromhead and their men.
In the aftermath of the attack, it was discovered that the British had only lost seventeen men while killing 350 Zulus. Both Bromhead and Chard were awarded the Victoria Cross along with nine other British troopers, their heroism having won the day.
For a full account of the battle (with pictures), follow the link here: The Battle of Rorke’s Drift