Sunday, December 22, 2013

Impossible Victory - Rorke's Drift 22-23 January 1879

The majority of military historians, as well as a lot of movie buffs, are very familiar with the 1964 classic adventure film “ZULU”, including the cast of, Stanley Baker, Michael Caine (first significant role), Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi (a graduate of Sandhurst, playing Zulu King Cetewayo), Jack Hawkins, Ulla Jacobsson, Nigel Green, as well as others. Richard Burton gave the initial and  final narration in the movie.

Although taking some of the normally expected liberties of film writers and cinematographers, the movie presents a reasonably accurate reenactment of one of the most famous actions of the British Army at Rorke’s Drift, Natal Province, South Africa, 22-23 January 1879. Both the battle and the movie are extensively chronicled on the internet.

A classic contemporary painting of the Battle of Rorke's Drift
by Alphonse de Neville depicting the majority of the
 principal British participants during the heat of the action

A contemporary photograph of the storehouse taken shortly
 after the battle

The restored storehouse at Rorke's Drift as it stands today

As will be seen later in this blog page, approximately 141 men (All ranks), principally of B Company, 2nd Bn, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot (later the South Wales Borders) fought off approximately 4000 to 4500 Zulu warriors, primarily the InDluyengwe, uThulwana, inDondo and uDloko Regiments, under the command of Zulu Prince Dabulamanzi Kamapande (Induna). The British and Native forces were commanded by Lieut John Rouse Marriott Chard (RE), O.C. and Lieut Gonville Bromhead, 24th of Foot (all but totally deaf), played by Baker and Caine respectively in the movie. Both officers received the Victoria Cross. The following photograph is of the actual Victoria Cross and South African Medal 1879 awarded to Lieut Chard, which temporarily resides on loan at the Museum of the Royal Welsh (Brecon).


The battle stands singular in British military history in that an unsurpassed record number of 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders of the mission station, Rorke’s Drift. While not receiving the VC for his exemplary performance of duty Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne received the Distinguished Conduct Medal and was offered a battlefield commission. He refused the commission because he didn't think that he deserved it. Subsequently he rose through the ranks retiring as a Lieut-Colonel in 1907.

As is the case in any military action, no single factor can be cited for the successful defense. However, the following factors have been identified as major contributors:

The British forces were in a condensed (small area) defensive position. The Zulu forces could only engage a limited number of attackers around the perimeter, which had been hurriedly defended with improvised barricades of mealie bags and heavy biscuit boxes. This precluded the Zulu forces from exercising their decided advantage of mass numbers (a ratio of 45 to 1), which they had just done earlier in the day, annihilating more than 1500 British and Native troops deployed on open ground at the disastrous battle of Isandhlwana.

The British position was sited on a level that was three to four feet higher than the orchard from which the majority of  Zulu attacks were mounted. The following copy of an original source map, drawn by Lieut Chard shortly after the battle, shows the overall disposition and route of the Zulu attack.


The British forces had newly introduced breech-loading .577/.450 cal. Mk II Martini-Henry rifles, and virtually an unlimited supply of ammunition (estimated > 20,000 rounds were expended), and an adequate water supply existed.


Stark comparison of a standard .22 cal.
Long Rifle cartridge and the .577/.450
caliber Short Chamber Boxer-Henry
 cartridge

NATO Standard 7.62mm and 5.56mm
cartridges compared to a .577/.450 cal.
cartridge (same scale)

The Martini-Henry rifle, with fixed bayonet (70.5” overall; 22.5 "of bayonet)), had a significant advantage in overall thrusting length over the standard Zulu assegai (~38”) in close quarters combat .



The British officers commanding, Lieuts Chard and Bromhead, had the advice and counsel of  Lieut Gert Adendorff, 1st/3rd Natal Native Contingent, who was extremely knowledgeable of the Zulu and their military tactics.

One of many interesting aspects of the Zulu War, is that each Zulu regiment had a uniform equally as distinctive as any European army. For an individual like Lieut Adendorff they could be identified just as readily by their shields alone, as the regimental facings, cap badges, or button groupings of the British Army. The senior regiments (older, married) being predominately white, the more junior regiments (younger, unmarried) towards black.



Following is again a copy of another original source document, the roll of personnel present and casualties submitted by Lieut Chard to his immediate senior Col Glyn CB.




A contemporary photograph of the brave defenders/survivors of Rorke's Drift taken a short time after the battle. Although portrayed as a Welsh regiment in the movie, and even though their depot had been established in Brecon, South Wales, in 1873, only about 11% of the men were Welsh.


Suffices to say that the Zulu War and Rorke's Drift in particular, are a widely popular subject for toy soldier collectors and manufacturers. From elsewhere in the blog is the author's representation of the battle using troops made by Imperial Productions of New Zealand. 

The toy soldiers are accompanied by a miniature Victoria
Cross, the South Africa (Zulu) 1879 Medal, a cap badge of
 the South Wales Borderers, a .577/.450 cal. cartridge, an
 oiler and tool for the Martini-Henry rifle, and finally rocks
 from the battlefields at Ishandhlwana and Rorke's Drift.

A series of dramatic still photographs from the movie.





Finally here are two videos, the first being a documentary about the making of the movie, and the second the final climatic scene of the movie.







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