THE BATTLE OF RORKE’S DRIFT, 22ND – 23RD JANUARY 1879
British forces invaded Zululand on 11 January 1879. During the morning of 22January, reports began to reach Major Spalding, the officer commanding Rorke’s Drift, that Zulus had been seen in the vicinity of Isandlwana. Spalding was aware that two companies of the 2nd 24th were overdue at the drift from Helpmekaar, some 15 mile distant, so he rode to Helpmekaar to ascertain their location. He left instructions for Lieutenant Chard, the most senior Imperial officer present, to take charge.
During the afternoon a message was brought to the drift that the Zulus were approaching the Mission Station. It was realized by Chard and Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, commanding a company of 2/24th left as a garrison that, with some thirty injured or sick soldiers in the hospital, they could not escape. Assisted by Commissary Dalton, they began to prepare the position for defence by stacking heavy sacks of mealie corn and biscuit boxes around the position. Helping them were three hundred blacks under the command of Captain Stevenson. This officer fled with his NCOs and workforce as the Zulus approached and did not take part in the battle.
One of the fleeing NCOs, Corporal Anderson, was shot in the back by a 24th defender; Anderson is buried in the cemetery along with the other soldiers killed in the action. The defended area included the hospital and the store; the defenders were now reduced to 139 men, including the Reverend Smith and Surgeon Reynolds with his 35 patients. The Zulus appeared in force at about 4 p.m. and repeatedly attacked in successive waves until after dark, when they set fire to the hospital’s thatched roof. During the following hours the soldiers occupying the hospital were forced, room-by-room, through the building until they reached the high window facing the British position. One by one, the wounded were lowered to the ground, under constant fire from the Zulus. Corporal Allen and Private Hitch, both already wounded, nevertheless successfully ferried the wounded to safety. The hospital was then abandoned to the Zulus.
By firing the thatch the Zulus inadvertently illuminated the area for the defenders who were able to keep them at bay until dawn; by then the British had fired 20,000 Martini-Henry rounds and repelled numerous hand-to-hand assaults with the bayonet. The Zulus withdrew at dawn when they saw Chelmsford’s force approaching the drift. The battle of Rorke’s Drift is famous, not only for the ferocious action taken by the defending officers and men, but for the recognition of their bravery by the award of eleven Victoria Crosses, seven of which went to the 24th Regiment, the most ever awarded to one regiment for a single action.