Anglo-Zulu War: Battle of Rourke's Drift

Battle of Rourkes Drift
Defense of Rourke's Drift by Alphonse de Neuville. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Rourkes Drift - Conflict:

The Battle of Rourke's Drift was fought during the Anglo-Zulu War (1879).

Armies & Commanders:

British

  • Lieutenant John Chard
  • Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead
  • 139 men

Zulus

  • Dabulamanzi kaMpande
  • 4,000-5,000 men

Date:

The stand at Rourke's Drift lasted from January 22 to January 23, 1879.

Battle of Rourkes Drift - Background:

In response to the death of several colonists at the hands of the Zulus, South African authorities issued an ultimatum to the Zulu king Cetshwayo requiring that the perpetrators be turned over for punishment.

After Cetshwayo refused, Lord Chelmsford assembled an army to strike at the Zulus. Dividing his army, Chelmsford sent one column along the coast, another from the northwest, and personally traveled with his Centre Column which moved through Rourke's Drift to attack the Zulu capital at Ulundi.

Arriving at Rourke's Drift, near the Tugela River, on January 9, 1879, Chelmsford detailed Company B of the 24th Regiment of Foot (2nd Warwickshire), under Major Henry Spalding, to garrison the mission station. Belonging to Otto Witt, the mission station was converted into a hospital and storehouse. Pressing on to Isandlwana on January 20, Chelmsford reinforced Rourke's Drift with a company of Natal Native Contigent (NNC) troops under Captain William Stephenson. The following day, Colonel Anthony Durnford's column passed through en route to Isandlwana.

Late that evening, Lieutenant John Chard arrived with an engineer detachment and orders to repair pontoons.

Riding ahead to Isandlwana to clarify his orders, he returned to the drift early on the 22nd with orderes to fortify the position. As this work began, the Zulu army attacked and destroyed a sizable British force at the Battle of Isandlwana. Around noon, Spalding left Rourke's Drift to ascertain the location of reinforcements that were supposed to be arriving from Helpmekaar.

Prior to leaving, he transferred command to Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead.

Battle of Rourkes Drift - Preparing the Station:

Shortly after Spalding's departure, Lieutenant James Adendorff arrived at the station with news of the defeat at Isandlwana and the approach of 4,000-5,000 Zulus under Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande. Stunned by this news, the leadership at the station met to decide their course of action. After discussions, Chard, Bromhead, and Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton decided to stay and fight as they believed that the Zulus would overtake them in open country. Moving quickly, they dispatched a small group of Natal Native Horse (NNH) to serve as pickets and began fortifying the mission station.

Constructing a perimeter of mealie bags that connected the station's hospital, storehouse, and kraal, Chard, Bromhead, and Dalton were alerted to the Zulu's approach around 4:00 PM by Witt and Chaplain George Smith who had climbed the nearby Oscarberg hill. Shortly thereafter, the NNH fled the field and was quickly followed by Stephenson's NNC troops. Reduced to 139 men, Chard ordered a new line of biscuit boxes built across the middle of the compound in an effort to shorten the perimeter.

As this progressed, 600 Zulus emerged from behind the Oscarberg and launched an attack.

Battle of Rourkes Drift - A Desperate Defense:

Opening fire at 500 yards, the defenders began inflicting casualties on the Zulus as they swept around the wall and either sought cover or moved onto the Oscarberg to fire on the British. Others attacked the hospital and northwest wall where Bromhead and Dalton aided in throwing them back. By 6:00 PM, with his men taking fire from the hill, Chard realized that they could not hold the entire perimeter and began pulling back, abandoning part of the hospital in the process. Showing incredible heroism, Privates John Williams and Henry Hook succeeded in evacuating most of the wounded from the hospital before it fell.

Fighting hand-to-hand, the one of the men cut through wall to the next room while the other held off the enemy.

Their work was made more frantic after the Zulus set the hospital's roof on fire. Finally escaping, Williams and Hook succeeded in reaching the new box line. Throughout the evening, attacks continued with the British Martini-Henry rifles exacting a heavy toll against the Zulus' older muskets and spears. Refocusing their efforts against the kraal, the Zulus finally compelled Chard and Bromhead to abandon it around 10:00 PM and consolidate their line around the storehouse.

By 2:00 AM, most of the attacks had ceased, but the Zulus did maintain a steady harassing fire. In the compound, most of the defenders were injured to some degree and only 900 rounds of ammunition remained. As dawn broke, the defenders were surprised to find that the Zulus had departed. A Zulu force was spotted around 7:00 AM, but it did not attack. An hour later, the tired defenders were roused again, however the approaching men proved to be a relief column sent by Chelmsford.

Battle of Rourkes Drift - Aftermath:

The heroic defense of Rourke's Drift cost the British 17 killed and 14 wounded. Among the wounded was Dalton whose contributions to the defense won him the Victoria Cross. All told, eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded, including seven to the men of the 24th, making it the highest number given to one unit for a single action. Among the recipients were Chard and Bromhead, both of whom were promoted to major. Precise Zulu losses are not known, however they are thought to number around 350-500 killed. The defense of Rourke's Drift quickly earned a place in British lore and helped to offset the disaster at Isandlwana.

Selected Sources