Around 8 o’clock on the morning of 23 January 1879, a column of tired and dispirited British soldiers was marching towards the ‘drift’, or river crossing, that would take them out of Zululand and back to friendly territory in Natal.
Their poor state of morale was understandable: they had spent the night camped among the dead on the battlefield of Isandlwana, where on the previous afternoon a battalion of British infantry, 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot, along with hundreds of African auxiliaries and other supporting troops, had been annihilated by a Zulu army (or impi).
The British commander Lord Chelmsford, who had believed that the Zulus would never attack rifle-armed regulars in the open and would be swiftly defeated if they did, had been proved spectacularly wrong. Now he was approaching his forward supply base, a former mission station on the Natal side of the Mzinyathi (or Buffalo) River known as Rorke’s Drift. It had been left in the hands of a single company from the 2nd Battalion of the 24th.
The chances that anyone had survived must have seemed very low: Chelmsford knew that after their victory at Isandlwana a force of Zulus 3,000 or 4,000 strong had moved in the direction of the post, and the previous night his men had seen the sky in that direction red with flames.
But, as the mounted advance guard splashed across the river and climbed the slope towards the mission station, they could see that the buildings were still standing, and on the damaged roof of one of them was a figure waving a flag. He was soon identified as a British soldier, and a cheer from the approaching column was answered by another from within the post.
Somehow, against odds of between 30 and 40 to one, the defenders had held their position. Naturally, this small success, coming as it did in the immediate aftermath of the disaster at Isandlwana, was seized on in the Army and by the Government in London as a propaganda coup. Eleven Victoria Crosses were subsequently shared out among the tiny garrison, and the two lieutenants in charge, John Chard and Gonville Bromhead, were invited to meet the Queen.
A few weeks later a cartoon in Punch magazine celebrated the two officers with the words ‘You have saved not only a colony, but the credit of Old England!’
Anatomy of a ‘miracle’
The praise was certainly deserved, but it does no disservice to the memory of the defenders of Rorke’s Drift to look closely at exactly how their seemingly miraculous victory was achieved.
Undoubtedly, the British soldiers were brave and disciplined, but so were the Zulus. Prince Dabulamanzi, who commanded the attackers, seems not to have exercised much control over them once the fight began, but this was always going to be a soldier’s battle, and the Zulus were well drilled in their army’s traditional tactics.
The attackers were drawn from four senior regiments of the Zulu army, the uThulwana, iNdlondlo, uDloko, and iNdluyengwe. They had formed the reserve at Isandlwana, so were relatively fresh. Three of the regiments bore the white shields that denoted married veterans, while the uThulwana was the nearest thing the Zulus had to a guards’ regiment, in which their king Cetshwayo himself had once served.
Before the war, Cetshwayo had made strenuous efforts to equip his men with firearms, and among the wealthier married units perhaps half the men in the ranks had acquired one. So the Zulus not only outnumbered the British, but – on paper at least – they outgunned them by a factor of as much as 20 to one.
So the decision to attack Rorke’s Drift may have seemed less momentous to the Zulus at the time than it does with hindsight. Dabulamanzi was a half brother of King Cetshwayo, and although he did not hold a formal command in the army he found himself, by virtue of his royal blood, the senior officer with the reserve at Isandlwana.
By about 2pm on 22 January, it was becoming obvious to the men in the four regiments that they would not be committed to the fighting before it was all over. To these hardened warriors, it was intolerable that the younger men of the other regiments should monopolise all the opportunities for loot, glory, and royal favour that were reserved for men who had distinguished themselves in battle.
They clamoured to be led against the enemy, and Rorke’s Drift, as the nearest surviving British outpost, was an obvious target. No doubt the Zulus were also well aware that it was a supply base, and likely to be well stocked with food, weapons, and gunpowder.
The post was organised around two solidly constructed buildings, a hospital and a storehouse, and in the hours before the attack Chard – a Royal Engineer – had loopholed the buildings and linked them together with barricades of mealie (or maize flour) bags and boxes.
Even these improvised defences would give determined defenders a great advantage against the lightly equipped warriors, but in the euphoric aftermath of their stunning victory at Isandlwana it is unlikely that anyone expected to meet much resistance. Dabulamanzi, who had a reputation for recklessness, probably did not take much persuading.
Cetshwayo had prohibited any advance across the Mzinyathi into British-held Natal, but the prince no doubt expected that his disobedience would soon be forgiven if it brought another victory.
The outcome, however, was very different. By 4 o’clock the following morning, the Zulus had been forced to retreat from Rorke’s Drift, leaving at least 350 dead on the field (around one in ten of the men engaged), taking with them many more seriously wounded. The British dead numbered only 17.
The four elite regiments had been defeated by a single British company, their commander was in temporary disgrace, and the survivors had to return home empty-handed to endure the mockery of their comrades.
So what had gone wrong? It is, of course, a well-known military maxim that you should not fight the way your opponent fights best, but this was a mistake which Dabulamanzi made twice over at Rorke’s Drift.
Ever since a disastrous defeat at Ncome (Blood) River in 1838, when a Zulu impi had dashed itself in vain against a Boer force protected by a ring of laagered wagons, both sides had understood that African spear-fighting tactics were ineffective against fortified positions. But at Rorke’s Drift, the prince had little choice but to take the risk.
With Chelmsford’s column still at large, there would not be time for a blockade to starve the defenders into submission. In any case, his warriors – who had missed the chance of glory at Isandlwana – were eager for the hand-to-hand fighting that was the route to honour and advancement in their society. With their superiority in numbers, they had little reason to fear the outcome once they engaged the enemy at close-quarters.
Musket versus Martini-Henry
But there were serious deficiencies in the Zulu equipment, which made any crude calculation based on numbers misleading. Their firearms were acquired from traders who dealt mainly in obsolete cast-offs from European armies, or cheap guns made specifically for the African trade in cities like Birmingham, which were notorious for their poor quality.
Both types were smoothbore muzzle-loaders not significantly different from those used at Waterloo, and were so inaccurate that beyond a hundred yards or so there was very little chance of aiming at and hitting an individual man.
In many cases, the old flintlocks had been replaced by percussion caps, which slightly increased the speed of reloading and reduced the chance of misfires, but provided no improvements in range or accuracy.
Furthermore, their owners seldom received any instruction in the use of the sights or the estimation of range. They strove instead to increase the hitting power of their guns by using excessive charges of powder, which merely increased the recoil and so reduced accuracy still further.
By contrast, the British were equipped with the modern Martini-Henry rifle, which had been introduced in 1871. This weapon was a breech-loader firing brass cartridges, and could not only be reloaded many times faster than a muzzle-loader, but had an effective range at least six times as great. What was more, it inflicted greater damage on the target .
The Martini-Henry Rifle
In contrast to the round balls fired by the old smoothbores, the ‘bottlenecked’ Boxer cartridge designed for the Martini-Henry tapered from the bottom, allowing a large charge of powder to propel a relatively small bullet at very high velocity. The resulting flat trajectory made the Martini far more accurate and harder-hitting than anything seen on the battlefield before.
Tests in 1870 gave an average deviation of slightly more than a foot at 500 yards, and at 100 yards the bullet would go through more than 14 inches of elm planks. Lieutenant Chard noted the terrible wounds that it had inflicted on the Zulu dead after the battle.
In the tests, a skilled marksman managed 20 shots a minute, though 12 was considered more realistic for the average soldier under battle conditions. The Zulus had been accustomed to advance with their shields held at an angle in the hope that musket balls fired by their opponents would glance off, but the shields were no obstacle at all to the Martini-Henry and merely provided the British soldiers with a highly visible aiming point.
In the initial daylight attacks on Rorke’s Drift, Zulu sharpshooters were deployed on a rocky ledge which ran along the side of Shiyane Hill, about 400 yards from the south side of the mission station. From there they could support the attacks of their comrades by firing down at the exposed backs of the defenders lining the barricades on the far side of the post.
But at that range the chance of scoring any hits with their old muskets was very low, while the shooters, whose position was betrayed by clouds of smoke every time they fired, made ideal targets for the Martini-Henrys.
A handful of the Zulus may themselves have carried Martini-Henrys picked up from the battlefield at Isandlwana, though this is debated. Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne recalled hearing the distinctive report of the rifles, but it seems that their new owners were unable to make effective use of them, since the British casualty reports make no mention of the distinctive wounds inflicted by the Martini-Henry’s .45-calibre bullets. Being unaccustomed to their flat trajectory, the Zulus would probably have fired too high and overshot the post altogether.
Most of the British casualties were caused by fire from much closer range, as the Zulus fought to break into the position from the north, but even here the defenders decisively outshot them. Around nightfall, some of the attackers set fire to the roof of the hospital, which at the time consisted only of thatch, but this apparent vulnerability in fact worked to the advantage of the defenders, as the light of the flames deprived the advancing warriors of the cover of darkness.
The ineffectiveness of Zulu firepower is demonstrated by their inability to prevent the evacuation of the patients from the burning hospital, despite them having to cross an open yard a few feet of the advanced Zulu positions.
It is not possible to ascertain the exact cause in all cases, but about 19 of the defenders were killed or wounded by bullets during the battle, while Zulu losses from the same cause must have been at least 20 times that number.
Spear versus bayonet
‘They seemed to have a great dread of the bayonet.’Private Fred Hitch, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot
The real aim of Zulu tactics, however, was to engage the enemy at close-quarters with their spears. They had never met their match in this type of combat since the 1820s, when the founder of the Zulu kingdom, Shaka, had reformed the training and equipment of his armies to make them specialists in hand-to-hand fighting.
By means of ferocious discipline, he obliged the warriors to charge regardless of losses, combining frontal attacks with wide enveloping sweeps that surrounded the enemy and resulted in his complete annihilation.
Since Shaka’s day, throwing spears had been reintroduced and supplemented with muskets, but the ultimate goal of every Zulu warrior remained the decisive blow delivered with cold steel. Unfortunately for them, this was also a tactic at which the British infantrymen excelled.
Private Frederick Hitch believed that it was only the reluctance of the Zulus to face their bayonets that saved the post from being overrun: ‘It was not until the bayonet was freely used that they flinched the least bit… they seemed to have a great dread of the bayonet…’.
Their fear was not surprising, because this was the first time the Zulus had encountered an enemy who outclassed them at this type of combat. The Martini-Henry rifle was designed to mount a 22-inch bayonet, which when attached to the barrel formed a weapon with a reach of around six feet, considerably longer than that of the Zulu spears. Wielded in two hands, it also had sufficient weight to go right through the thin cowhide shields.
Several features of the Rorke’s Drift position accentuated this advantage. A rock step almost the height of a man ran along the front of the position, and when it was surmounted by a row of mealie bags it proved impossible for the Zulus to climb it without exposing themselves to a bayonet thrust from above.
In the close confines of the hospital, the defenders found it possible to stab their assailants one by one as they struggled to break through the narrow doorways. Private Hook killed five or six in succession in this way.
In the close fighting along the barricades, even the officers’ revolvers came into action to deadly effect. The revolver was so inaccurate at anything beyond point-blank range that it was normally considered only as a weapon of last resort, but in this sort of combat its rate of fire more than compensated for this disadvantage, so that even this weapon decisively outclassed the Zulu muskets. Several survivors, including Hitch, noted the good service performed by Lieutenant Bromhead’s revolver at a crucial point on the perimeter.
The Zulus did eventually capture the hospital, but Chard withdrew his men to a smaller perimeter formed of a barricade of biscuit boxes around the storehouse, where the frontage they had to defend was substantially reduced and easier to hold.
So the Zulus were at a disadvantage not only in the firefight, but even where they had expected to win easily, at close-quarters. It is to their credit that their morale survived the shock of this discovery, but in pressing home their attacks regardless they merely increased their own casualties.
Zulu Spear Tactics
Until the early 19th century, the peoples of southern Africa had been accustomed to skirmishing with spears thrown from a distance, an indecisive method of fighting that inflicted few casualties and usually led to the defeated party retiring more or less intact.
Shaka equipped his men with large cowhide shields and short spears with heavy blades intended for stabbing rather than throwing (though he did not personally invent the latter, as is sometimes claimed).
The spear, the famous iklwa, had a blade between 12 and 18 inches in length and was mounted on a shaft of about 30 inches. When fighting against spear-armed opponents, in contrast to the British soldiers, the shortness and handiness of this weapon was an advantage in a close-quarters mêlée.
Shaka allegedly taught a drill which involved the offensive use of the shield to knock an opponent’s guard aside, followed by a spear thrust to the armpit. This may not always have worked as intended in the confusion of battle, but it did give the Zulu warrior the confidence to close and decide the issue in hand-to-hand combat.
Could things have happened differently? It seems to have been the Zulu view after the battle that the attack on Rorke’s Drift was unnecessary and foolhardy, and that the hammering they received was no more than they deserved.
John Laband, in his recent book The Fall of Rorke’s Drift, has explored an alternate history scenario in which the Zulus manage to overpower Lieutenant Bromhead at a critical point and break into the post, forcing the surviving garrison to evacuate.
So desperate was the fighting on several occasions that this seems quite plausible: a lucky shot bringing down a British officer, or an exceptionally agile and courageous warrior leaping the barricade while the defenders were occupied elsewhere, quickly supported by his comrades, might have turned the whole course of the battle.
Victory in a soldier’s battle like Rorke’s Drift requires luck. This the defenders certainly had, especially as neither of their officers was hit, despite exposing themselves continually to enemy fire at very close range. But ultimately – as Colour Sergeant Bourne is made to remark at the conclusion of the film Zulu – Rorke’s Drift was a victory of the Martini-Henry rifle and the bayonet, in the hands of men trained and willing to use them. •
Chris Peers has written widely on African colonial warfare. His books include The African Wars: warriors and soldiers of the colonial campaigns, published by Pen & Sword, and Warrior Peoples of East Africa, published by Osprey. His latest book, Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana, 22 January 1879: minute by minute, has recently been published by Greenhill Books.
Images: Wikimedia Commons.