This week: Rorke’s Drift

The Defence of Rorke’s Drift, by Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, Lady Butler. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The successful defence of the South African mission station known as Rorke’s Drift remains one of the most celebrated engagements in UK military history.

On the night of 22 January 1879, a force of just over 150 British and colonial troops attached to the 24th Regiment of Foot held off an estimated 3-4,000 Zulu warriors during more than 12 hours of bitter, hand-to-hand fighting that would result in the award of 11 Victoria Crosses – the highest number ever received for a single action by one regiment.

The heroic events of that night, as related in the 1964 film Zulu, took place just a few hours after the Battle of Isandlwana – at which a force of about 1,800 well-armed British, colonial and native troops was also heavily outnumbered by a Zulu army (this time around 20,000 strong) carrying mainly traditional assegai iron spears and cow-hide shields.

Despite the obvious similarities between the two engagements, however, the results in terms of British losses were very different: while Rorke’s Drift was famously defended at the cost of just 17 lives, Isandlwana turned into a massacre that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,300 troops on the British side.

This week on The Past, we take a closer look at Rorke’s Drift, to see how this seemingly miraculous victory was achieved – and to understand why things were so different at nearby Isandlwana. In the latest issue of our sister magazine Military History Matters, Chris Peers, the author of a new minute-by-minute study of the fighting, analyses the extraordinary endurance displayed by the mission-station garrison, and asks: why did the Zulus lose?

We also delve into the MHM archives to bring you a deeper understanding of the Zulu War: we visited the Rorke’s Drift Museum in Kwazulu-Natal to see how the battle is remembered today; we celebrated Archibald Forbes, the highly decorated foreign correspondent who brought news of the conflict to British readers; we looked at Isandlwana itself, to reassess the greatest defeat of the Victorian colonial wars; and we recalled the decisive role played by the 17th Lancers regiment at Ulundi, the Zulu capital and the site of the last major battle of the war.

And finally, we continue the Rorke’s Drift theme with our latest quiz, which this week is designed to test your knowledge of last stands and victories against the odds. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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