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
indepedent AmaZulu people refused to lay down their arms and accept
British rule over the Sovereign Kingdom. 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 Europeans, survived at a place called Isandhlwana.
Dabulamanzi kaMpande commanded an impi, the Undi 'corps' of 4,500.
His men had played little part in the action at Isandhlwana,
but goaded on by his men, 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
Looking up towards
the hospital building, with some of the original ledge still visable.
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 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
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, 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.
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
"The British flag still waved over the storehouse"
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.
In 1879 the regiment that fought at Rorke's Drift was the 24th (2nd
Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot. The 24th Regiment later became the
South Wales Borderers in 1881 and in 1969 was amalgamated with The
Welch Regiment to form the present Royal Regiment of Wales. However,
the regimental depot of the 2nd Warwickshire's was based in Brecon,
therefore a Welsh influence was very strong.
written by John Young,
Chairman, Anglo-Zulu War Research Society. Illustration also supplied
by John Young