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Popular Myths

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 references.

Below you will see a number of popular myths, with various people's comments.

The Defence of Rorke's Drift
Image supplied by John Young

Men of Harlech

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:

"We've 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

Well, it 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.

And no-one, 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.

Having said 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:

View the song lyrics...

Listen to the Royal Regiment of Wales' Band singing "Men of Harlech" on the 120th anniversary of the battle of Rorke's Drift (2.68MB) This was recorded in the church at Rorke's Drift and if you listen carefully, you can hear the emotion that this rendition evoked.

Note: You will need an MP3 player to hear this file.

Welshmen at Rorke's Drift

Once again, 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'.

Martini-Henry's 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.

Of this, Ian Knight suggests:

"In 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 repair.

If, indeed, 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 had."

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.

The 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.

"It 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."
Ian Knight

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