As with any
historical subject as emotive as the Defence
of Rorke's Drift, it is inevitable that myths will spring up,
either as the result of a desire to hide the truth, or simply as
a mis-representation of what actually happened. Rorke's Drift has
suffered from this over the past, in both favourable and unfavourable
ways. 'Zulu', the 1964 film starring Sir
Stanley Baker as Chard and Sir Michael Caine as Bromhead, propagated
and in some cases orignated many of these myths - although it goes
without saying that the film does not suffer as a result!
In a time where
films such as U-571
rewrite history (it was, in fact, the British who captured the Enigma),
it is important to remember that in many cases, scripts are re-written
and created from scratch to suit the audience of the day. The real
history comes from source material that can be verified, and it
is only such material that can be used to form opinions and generate
Below you will
see a number of popular myths, with various people's comments.
The Defence of
by John Young
Did the men
at Rorke's Drift break into a stirring rendition of 'Men of Harlech'
to counter the Zulu chants? Well, not quite. Ian
Knight, renowned historian of the period has this to say:
all seen the marvellous movie, where the heroic Welsh garrison at
Rorke's Drift match the awesome Zulu war-chants with a stirring
rendition of Men of Harlech. Come on Ivor, sing something they know
wasn't quite like that. In fact, the county designation of the 24th
Regiment in 1879 was the 2nd Warwickshires; they didn't change their
title to the South Wales Borderers until 1st July 1881 - almost
exactly two years after the war had ended. True, the Regimental
Depot had been established at Brecon, in South Wales, in 1873, and
from that point there was a small but significant increase in Welsh
recruits in the ranks. In fact, however, recruits for the regiment
- like every other battalion in the British army - were signed on
at recruiting depots across the country, and the 24th consisted
of men from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The most that
can be said is that the Welsh connection had, by 1879, led to a
rather higher proportion of Welshman in the ranks than was common
elsewhere. Nevertheless, even the most optimistic search of the
regimental roll can find only 19 men of B Company, 2/24th, with
any sort of Welsh connection - out of a total strength of more than
80. Of course, there were detachments of numerous other units -
including Colonial Volunteers - present at the battle, making a
total garrison of about 145. So the Welsh contingent comprised no
more than 15% of the total.
I'm sorry to say, sang Men of Harlech; the regimental march in 1879
was The Warwickshire Lads."
There have been
some accounts (primarily David Charles of Fugitive's Drift) where
it was said that 'Men of Harlech' was sung as the men of the 3rd
column crossed the river at Rorke's Drift on the their way into
Zululand, however this has not been verified, and as Ian quite rightly
points out, as far as history is concerned, the artistic license
used in the film Zulu is purely speculation.
all that of course, it still makes excellent viewing in the context
of the film Zulu, and in recognition of this fact, we have put a
version of the song on this site:
to the Royal Regiment of Wales' Band singing "Men of Harlech"
on the 120th anniversary of the battle of Rorke's Drift (2.68MB)
was recorded in the church at Rorke's Drift and if you listen carefully,
you can hear the emotion that this rendition evoked.
will need an MP3 player to hear this file.
at Rorke's Drift
the film 'Zulu' makes a point of suggesting
that the 24th Regiment, and in particular 'B' Company, was mainly
Welsh. In fact, the Welsh constituted only 11% of the 24th. Regt.
at Rorke's Drift. Although the regiment was then based in Brecon
in South Wales and called the 24th. Regiment of Foot (later to be
the South Wales Borderers), it was formerly the Warwickshire Regiment.
Many of the defenders had never been to Brecon.
Of the 24th
Regt. at the defence, the numbers (Source: 'The Noble 24th. by
Norman Holme), 49 were English, 18 Monmouthshire,16 Irish, 1
Scottish, 14 Welsh and 21 of unknown nationality. 'This is a
Welsh regiment, although there are some foreigners in it mind'.
in use by the Zulus at Rorke's Drift
It is a commonly
held belief that after the Battle
of Isandhlwana, the Zulu's removed the Martini-Henry rifles
from the bodies of the dead British soldiers and took them to Rorke's
Drift. It was here, they say, that the Zulus used the British Army's
own rifle against it's own men. Again, the primary source for this
myth is the film 'Zulu'.
This, put simply,
could not have happened as it was impossible for the Zulu regiments
attacking Rorke's Drift to have used Martini-Henrys for the simple
reason that they had formed the reserve at Isandlwana; they did
not take part in the attack, and certainly did not have time to
loot any rifles there before advancing on Rorke's Drift.
fact, powerful though the image of a 'warrior nation' armed only
with spears is, the truth - as usual - was far more complex. The
Zulu army was already in possession of many thousands of firearms
before the Anglo-Zulu War began. These had been obtained from white
traders. Most were weapons which were 20 or 30 years old - long
since obsolete in European armies - and they were often in poor
the Zulus at Rorke's Drift had possessed Martini-Henrys, they would
have caused far more damage to the British garrison, as these weapons
were much more powerful and accurate than the weapons they actually
The sheer chronology
and geography would have made it impossible for the weapons from
Isandhlwana to be used at Rorke's Drift, however there is evidence
supporting the fact that these weapons were used at Khambula (29th
March 1879) against the British by the Zulus.
Zulu salute the brave men of Rorke's Drift
What a fantastic
end to the film 'Zulu' this is, and it seems to seal the movie into
that hallowed vault of 'Movie Classics'. But did it happen? No,
it didn't. The truth about this noble gesture was that both side,
both the Zulus and the British were so battle-weary after a long
night of bloody, hand to hand combat, that when the Zulus saw Lord
Chelmsford's column coming along the route from Isandhlwana the
next day, they retreated from the post.
It is also true
to say that the post could not have held out much longer, as ammunition
was running dangerously low and the strength of the men had been
severely sapped. Had relief not arrived that morning of the 23rd,
it is arguable whether the story would have ended as it did.
is true that the opening battles of the war - Isandlwana, Rorke's
Drift and Nyezane - did give both the British and Zulu a new-found
respect for each other's fighting capabilities. But the aftermath
of Rorke's Drift was a good deal less romantic. When the battle
was over, the garrison and relief column went over the field, and
shot or bayoneted all the wounded Zulu they found there."
Do you have
a myth you would like clarified? Mail
us for more information.