RORKE’S DRIFT – SEQUENCE OF EVENTS
8am Lieutenant Chard rode to Isandlwana to confer with the senior Royal Engineer officer Lieutenant MacDowel RE and to ascertain his orders. MacDowel had already left with Chelmsford so Chard was instructed to return to Rorke’s Drift, he breakfasted at the officers mess of the 1/24th Regiment before returning to the Drift. Meanwhile, Zulus were seen on the Nqutu plateau that overlooked the British camp, but this event caused no concern in the camp. On hearing of the vedette report that a large party of Zulus was moving NW across the Nqutu Plateau, Chard started back to Rorke’s Drift, arriving at noon.
2pm Major Spalding left for Helpmekaar to speed the relieving companies to the Mission Station. Lieutenant Chard was given temporary command of the small Rorke’s Drift garrison but took no action. He was probably convinced by Major Spalding who told him that ‘nothing would happen’. Chard then went to his tent at the river to have lunch and to supervise the security of the ferry ponts. From the top of the Oskarsberg Hill behind the Mission Station distant rifle fire was heard and the first Zulus were seen crossing the Buffalo River. The reports were quickly relayed to Lieutenant Bromhead at the Mission Station.
3 – 3.15pm At the Drift Lieutenants Vane and Adendorff reported the defeat at Isandlwana to Lieutenant Chard. They then carried Chard’s orders to Lieutenant Bromhead to prepare the Mission Station defences before riding on to Helpmekaar. At the Mission Station, Commissary Dalton (a former British Army sergeant) organized the construction of defence walls of bags of Indian corn (mealies) and boxes of biscuits and with two wagons built into the south wall.
3.30pm With the defences nearing completion, Chard returned to the Drift and ordered his men to retire with the water cart and tools. It was this water cart that Chard left outside the final defensive position at the Mission Station and had to lead a bayonet charge to recover it. Lieutenant Henderson with a large party of Durnford’s Horse appeared and was ordered to guard the ferry crossing.
4.30pm Back at the Mission Station, Chard ordered six men to guard the hospital. Reserve ammunition was to be made ready and bayonets fixed. A lookout was posted on the ridgepole of the store. Colour Sergeant Bourne took a skirmishing party to hold off the advancing Zulus.
5pm Lieutenant Henderson and the Native Horse reported that the Zulus were approaching the Mission Station and then departed whereupon Captain Stevenson and his Native Contingent deserted. The effective strength of the garrison was reduced from 450 to 139 (including 35 sick). Men were taken from the line to construct a wall between the perimeter and the corner of the store, this became the famous wall of biscuit boxes that provided the second and final line of defence.
5.30pm The Zulus appeared on the terraces of the Oskarsberg as Bourne and his men retreated back to the Mission Station. The initial attack on the south of the defences was contained and the leading Zulu ranks were pinned down by rifle fire. When the Zulus were in sufficient strength, their main attack was diverted to the west of the hospital and along the thinly held north-west wall. Zulu sniping from the Oskarsberg began.
6pm In desperate hand-to-hand fighting, the defenders were forced to retire from the hospital into the yard.
Hospital 6.20pm to 7.15pm Private Cole (suffering from claustrophobia) and Privates Howard, Beckett and Waters fled the hospital; Cole, Beckett and Private Adams were killed, Howard and Waters survived the night by hiding amongst dead Zulus. At 6.45 pm the thatch was fired. John Williams smashed a hole through an inner wall whilst Joseph Williams and Horrigan held the Zulus at bay. John Williams pulled three patients through the hole before the Zulus burst in; they killed the remaining patients in the room. The two Privates Jones helped four patients to escape through the burning hospital’s end window into the courtyard between the two buildings.
It will be remembered that Major Spalding, the Officer Commanding Rorke’s Drift, had earlier ridden to Helpmekaar to speed up the overdue reinforcements. He was nearing Helpmekaar at about 3.30 p.m. when he encountered the two companies of the 24th marching to Rorke’s Drift. Spalding accompanied them to the steep pass and went on ahead together with a Mr. Dickson of the local Buffalo Border Guard. As they descended the pass, they began seeing the first native fugitives from Rorke’s Drift; puzzled, they rode on until they met the first fugitives from the Mounted Infantry. All told the same story; Isandlwana had fallen to the Zulus and Rorke’s Drift was about to suffer the same fate.
Uncertain of the best course of action, Spalding rode on until he gained a low crest; from his vantage point he could see the Mission Station in flames. He and Dickson then saw a large group of Zulu skirmishers approaching; the Zulus came on to within 100 yards and then began to form into their traditional encircling attack formation whereupon Spalding and Dickson retreated back to the marching column, now only one mile distant. Spalding was in a dilemma; should he proceed to relieve Rorke’s Drift or return to Helpmekaar? On reaching the column, Spalding was informed that Zulu raiding parties had been seen approaching the pass they had just descended; in the light of this information, Spalding decided to retreat. He ordered the column to ‘about turn’ and the two companies, along with all their wagons, laboriously turned round and began the ascent of the pass. There can be little doubt that the defenders at Rorke’s Drift, even in the failing light, had seen the approaching column, indeed, Spalding reached a position less than two miles from Rorke’s Drift before he retreated; this would have placed the marching column less than three miles from Rorke’s Drift. Due to its size and associated dust from the marching men, wagons and oxen, the relieving force would all have been comparatively easy to see at that distance, especially by the attacking Zulus.
Within the British position, Allen and Hitch, regardless of their wounds, continued to supply ammunition around the perimeter; it was now about 10.30 p.m. and still the attacks came. Then the glow from the hospital fire began to dwindle and, as it did, the Zulus enthusiasm for close combat showed the first signs of waning. By midnight the battle had transformed from a constant Zulu attack into a series of isolated but determined attacks; this change in Zulu tactics enabled the British to anticipate more accurately the direction of each attack, each being repulsed with the same vigour that had characterized the whole British defence.
7pm until midnight The Zulus continue to attack in intermittent waves. Private Hook was the last to leave the hospital, probably about 9p.m. Chard and Dunne, assisted by four soldiers, then began the task of converting the two large pyramids of bagged maize into an oblong redoubt. The purpose of their endeavours was to construct a final position for the wounded and, if the final wall was surrendered to the Zulus, the few survivors could occupy the redoubt. Chard supervised the work and in ten minutes their final position was ready. Access to the core of the pile was by a narrow entrance that could be sealed from the inside; the wounded were then placed inside the new position and Chard detailed marksmen to occupy the upper rampart. This gave them an elevated field of fire, which, with the dying glow of the hospital building, enabled them to pour several volleys into the massed Zulu ranks now pressing up against the final wall of boxes and mealie bags
Meanwhile, the Zulus had begun to concentrate on the one remaining building still defended by the British, the storehouse. Corporal Attwood of the Army Service Corps had defended a window in the building throughout the action and now performed the vital task of shooting at the warriors trying to fire the thatch above him. Until the end of the battle, he held his position and kept the Zulus from firing the roof. Nevertheless, the pressure of hand-to-hand fighting continued unabated and eventually the British holding the outer wall of the cattle kraal were forced to retire, first to an intermediate wall which divided the kraal and then finally behind the wall which actually joined on to the storehouse. This was to be the final British position; there was nowhere else to go and there could be no further retreat.
Midnight until 4 a.m. Apart from minor skirmishes, the Zulus make no more concerted attacks against the position.
4am The Zulus retire for the first time. Fighting ceases.
6am The Zulus reappear, the defenders ‘stand to’, but the Zulus then retire toward the Drift.
8am The Mission Station is relieved by Lord Chelmsford and remnants of his Central Column. Chelmsford realizes that there were no survivors from Isandlwana and hears at first hand the accounts of the defenders. He remains at Rorke’s Drift for a matter of hours before riding on to Pietermaritzberg with his staff officers.
10 a.m. onwards The clearing up begins; the position is gradually fortified as it was believed the Zulus would return to attack the survivors. The wounded are tended to and plans are made for the collection and cremation of the 351 Zulu bodies found in and around the Mission Station.