Accept Defeat? Can a well-armed, well-supplied, well-trained group of 450 men fend off a hoard of badly armed, poorly supplied, untrained aggressors? Could an assembly of less than 500 British regulars defend themselves from 4,000 Zulu warriors? These questions whizzed through the mind of Lieutenant John Rouse Merriot Chard in the afternoon of January 22, 1879. Only minutes earlier he had learned of the terrible British loss at the battle of Islandwala to the Zulu natives – and that the same warriors were headed to his small British outpost at Rorke’s Drift. It was in the middle of the British-Zulu war in southern Africa.
The war began through a border dispute between the native African Zulus and historically invasive Boer settlers. Great Britain sided with the Boers. Escalating from a border dispute into a war that would seal Zulu’s fate, the British-Zulu hostilities had, hours previously, manifested itself in the Battle for Islandwala, in which British regulars had been routed. This news was transported to Lieutenant Chard through the lips of a fortunate survivor of the bloody encounter. Upon learning of his outpost’s peril, Chard had to make a decision: would his forces abandon their unprepared outpost, or defend their territory? After consulting with his fellow junior officers – Quartermaster Bromhead and Assistant Commissary Dalton, Chard decided to defend their encampment and began preparing for battle. The British count at Rorke’s Drift was low – only 450 – about 300 were volunteers, 150 were regulars, and thirty-nine were in the encampment’s hospital.
Hurriedly, the able soldiers constructed a four-foot high wall of 100-pound biscuit boxes and 200-pound mealie (corn) bags around the perimeter of the encampment. The hospital’s residents did not evacuate because its walls constituted part of the garrison’s outer wall and the idea of its capture seemed to spell the end of the camp. Six privates were stationed there to protect the ill inside. Using pickaxes, they formed loopholes on the outer wall so those well enough could shoot at oncoming Zulus. With these preparations, the garrison seemed secure, until the Zulu forces attacked.
It was 4:30 p.m. Chard had posted a local volunteer force outside the garrison to head off the first attack. A lookout spotted approximately 4,000 approaching Zulu forces and within minutes of that discovery, the cavalry stationed ahead of the encampment galloped past, deserting Rorke’s Drift. With remarkable rapidity, the remaining volunteers in the camp fled as well, leaving a stunned Chard with only 40% of his original forces, 110 healthy men (thirty-nine were in the hospital), to defend his station. A different, more terrifying, question now faced the Lieutenant.
Instead of wondering if 450 soldiers could ward off 4,000 opponents, he now prayed that 150 would suffice as the Zulus advanced. The Zulu’s poorly constructed ranks and nonexistent command structure ensured hat they would not immediately overcome the British, but the end of the battle was still in the distant future after their first unsuccessful onslaught. Despite the British having up-to-date Martini-Henry rifles and the Zulus battling mostly with their tribal assegai, a short stabbing spear, the natives’ numbers began to overcome the garrison. At 6:30, the British had to withdraw into their camp and construct another makeshift barrier of biscuit boxes. Unfortunately, the native forces kept coming in waves of warriors until 7:30, when Chard decided it was again time to constrict his borders.
Through this second constraint, the British had to forfeit the hospital, leaving themselves with little land and only a small storehouse to their backs. By a miracle, the privates stationed in the hospital had successfully evacuated almost all the occupants, saving over thirty lives. Finally, in his last withdrawal, Chard backed himself and his men into a pocket protected by previously prepared biscuit boxes, mealie bags, and the storehouse. It was 8:00 at night. As the night deepened, the firing subsided until four o’clock p.m.
on January 23, when both sides fired the last shots of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift. Half an hour later, as dawn stretched her fingers across the eastern horizon, the Zulu army was nowhere to be found. After battling for twelve hours, the Zulus had apparently given up and headed home. Around seven o’clock that morning, to the garrison’s chagrin, another sizable force of Zulus appeared atop a nearby hill, on the outer edge of rifle range. Apparently assessing the battle’s aftermath, the company greatly alarmed the garrison; another attack would seal their fate. Fortunately, the Zulus spotted something on the opposite horizon: reinforcements for the beleaguered British.
In a few minutes, the native forces disappeared and were replaced by 1,000 British back-ups. Chard’s official reports stated that fifteen British died in the Battle at Rorke’s Drift. Later, two more men died through wounds received during the battle. All told, seventeen out of 150 British died. On the other end of the scale, the British reported 350 Zulus dead.
These reports though, did not factor bodies of escaping Zulus found in surrounding areas, thus the realistic death toll was closer to 500 or 600. The proportion of the fallen fallen in the British forces was about 30% while the Zulu’s statistics ranged between at least 30-35%. To return to Chard’s initial question: Can a fortified, stocked, skilled group of 150 men repulse a band of unequipped, ill supplied, disorderly assailants? As proven by his band of British regulars, the answer is unequivocally, “Yes.” The British were victorious, not through their adversaries’ faintheartedness, not through their own personal superiority, and not through better battlegrounds. The Zulu forces were famous for their personal bravery, the idea of racial superiority is generally recognized as false, and the British were fighting in a valley: the worst battlegrounds imaginable. The British won because they: 1) Refused to give up, 2) Stayed in rank and followed orders, and 3) Had far better weapons and tactical strategy than their opponents.
In the end, numbers cannot conquer lead and valiance, on its own, cannot destroy discipline. The British overcame the Zulus on January 22-23 because of they knew how to use their, much more advanced, weapons and refused to accept defeat.