The Battle of Rorke’s Drift is one of the most famous engagements in British military history. I’ve made a number of films about the battle over the years which you can find on this website and on my YouTube channel, but for this film I wanted to do something different – Drone shots of the site and also a chronology of the battle.
These timings and explanations are based on those given in Chris Peers book Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift minute by minute…A book I purchased recently and really enjoyed.
22nd January 1879, as the Battle of Isandlwana is finally drawing to its bloody climax, the battle of Rorke’s Drift is just about to begin.
3:10 p.m. Lieutenant Chard of the Royal Engineers, resting in his tent overlooking the Buffalo river sees two men galloping towards him from the direction of Isandlwana.One of them is Lieutenant Gert Adendorff of the NNC, who tells Chard that Isandlwana has fallen and the garrison has been massacred.
While they are still talking a messenger arrives from Lieutenant Bromhead over at the mission station, asking Chard to come at once.
3:20 p.m. And Lieutenant Bromhead is holding an urgent conference with Surgeon Reynolds, Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton and the other officers. Bromhead has already ordered the wagons to be loaded but Dalton, a former NCO in the regular army talks the officers out of abandoning the post – realising that they would be easy pickings for the Zulus if they were caught in the open.
At 3:30 p.m. the defenders begin to fortify the mission station. Luckily the place is full of stores which will make excellent barricades. Bags of mealie meal and biscuit boxes are used to build barricades that link together the corners of the hospital and the storehouse. The locally recruited black troops of the NNC are instrumental in getting this completed.
3:45 p.m. Otto Witt who owns the mission station is horrified at the damage being done to his house and furniture. Worried about his family who he has left thirty miles away at Msinga, he decides to leave while he still can.
At 4:00 p.m. Lieutenant Henderson and about a hundred African troopers arrive at Rorke’s Drift. They are survivors of Durnford’s force that was heavily involved at Isandlwana. Chard asks Henderson to observe the Zulu advance and if possible to slow it down. They ride off around the southern flank of Shiyane mountain and soon disappear.
Fifteen minutes later there is the sound of firing behind Shiyane Hill, and moments later Henderson’s troopers come galloping back. The native horsemen nearly out of ammo have, understandably given the day they have had, lost their nerve.
As the mounted trips leave, the local NNC levies, most of whom have never considered themselves to be combat troops, drop what they are doing and follow them. The white officers and NCOs of that unit also run away and the Redcoats, angered by this, open fire killing Corporal Anderson who becomes the fist fatality of the battle – killed by his own side.
At 4:20 p.m. Private Hitch climbs on to the roof of the store house and sees the skirmishers of the iNdluyengwe regiment just beyond the flank of Shiyane Hill.
The iNdluyengwe – the youngest of the regiments involved in the Zulu attack at Rorke’s Drift begin to advance. They sweep across the south side of the mission station and around to the north opposite the front of the hospital
4:50 p.m. The Zulu commander, Prince Dabulamanzi’s other three Zulu regiments are now beginning to arrive on the scene – they are all composed of older men, and their advance across country has been slightly slower. Their leading elements follow the iNdluyengwe round the shoulder of Shiyane Hill. They immediately launch a succession of ferocious attacks against the wall of mealie bags on top of the rocky ledge on the north of the position. There is desperate hand to hand fighting.
5:30p.m.The men defending the hospital verandah are forced to evacuate this section of the perimeter and fall back. Fortunately Lt. Chard has constructed a short wall of mealie bags linking the north-west corner of the hospital to the main defensive line, and this becomes the new front line. The withdrawal though gives the Zulus the opportunity to get right up to the front of the hospital.
By 6:00 p.m. the fight by the hospital is looking hopeless for the defenders. Chard realises that it is only a matter of time before the Zulus break in and orders the defenders to retire to a line of biscuit boxes which cross the main yard linking the north wall with the corner of the storehouse.
This means abandoning the hospital…But there is no way to warn or to help those still inside…including the sick and wounded whose chances of survival now look bleak. But given the scale of the Zulu attack Chard’ has no choice but to contract the perimeter and order the men to fall back.
At around 6:30 p.m. The Zulus attempt to set the hospital alight by throwing burning spears into the thatch and forcing the defenders to evacuate the building. But the thatch is still damp from recent rains and only slowly begins to smolder.
7:10 p.m. While the brutal fight for the hospital is still raging, Chard orders the construction of a ‘redoubt’ out of two piles of mealie bags which have been left in the yard next to the storehouse. This extra defensive position gives the men top cover and a place for a possible last stand. Building the redoubt is dangerous work and Commissary Walter Dunne takes the lead, constantly exposing himself to enemy fire.
7:20 p.m. Private Alfred Hook has been defending his position in the hospital alone for some time…with the roof now burning and the enemy beating down the door he is forced to withdraw through an internal door. The injured isiGqoza warrior of the NNC who he had been with is unable to stand up from his bed and is stabbed to death.
Hook finds himself fighting desperately. He defends a small door way for some time. Hit in the head with a spear he barely notices, though the wound will bother him for the rest of his life.
The last survivors of the hospital now try to evacuate the wounded through a window on the east side of the building. It’s now half past 7 and only one soldier is left behind – the delirious
Sergeant Maxfield, who, mad with fever, resists all attempts to move him. He is stabbed to death.
The fight for the hospital was now over.
7:40 p.m and the reduced perimeter is much easier to defend… but it has a vulnerable point at The corner on the right of the biscuit-box barricade. The Zulus, understanding this, launch a series of charges at this exposed spot.
Lt. Bromhead along with Hitch and five other soldiers are there. It’s a desperate fight and most of the defenders are soon wounded. The rocky ledge is now providing shelter for some of the attacking warriors and so an NNC corporal, originally from Switzerland,
named Ferdinand Schiess, spots the danger and decides to deal with it. He surprises the enemy by crawling along the wall and then attacks them with his rifle and his bayonet – clearing the danger. This is an act that will see him eventually awarded a VC.
8:00 p.m. By now it is almost completely dark. The hospital roof is burning which casts a flickering light across the east western end of the battlefield making it impossible for the Zulu warriors to advance unseen.
By 8:30 p.m. Most of the Zulus have begun to gather at the eastern end of the post and commence a series of attacks against the cattle kraal. The redcoats fall back in stages but are covered by fire from the new redoubt.
9:30 p.m. And the Zulu attacks keep coming but they are slowly petering out due to exhaustion and the high casualty rate.
At 10:00 p.m. The Zulu izinduna have rallied their men once more and send them forward in a last serious attempt to capture the mission station. The British are finally forced to fall back from the cattle kraal but their weight of fire in such a small area finally breaks the resolve of the attackers and they are forced to break off the attack, leaving scores of their dead behind.
10:15 p.m. And while the battle isn’t over it seems that the Zulu willingness to launch their suicidally brave frontal assaults has finally ran out. Sparodic firing continues until after midnight.
The next morning, the 23rd January 1879 at 8:15 a.m. The column from Isandlwana, lead by Lord Chelmsford, approaches the mission station, they are delighted to find that Rorke’s Drift is still in British hands. A terrible 24 hours is finally over for the British army.
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