Saturday, 22 January 2011

'With some Guts behind it!"

Today is the anniversary of the conclusion of the Battle for Rourke's Drift, 1879.  The battle started the previous day when around 4,500 Zulus under the command of Prince Dabulamanzi kaMapande (the King's brother) attacked the station after the main impi annihilated the main British column at Isandlwana.

Lieutenant Chard directs the Defence of the station, from the movie 'Zulu'
The post was held by some 139 men, (mostly of the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment) but only 104 men were fit to fight. The command of the post had passed to Lieutenant Chard of the Royal Engineers, when Major Henry Spalding of the 104th Regiment left on the morning of the 22nd January. Commanding a company-strength infantry force was Lieutenant Bromhead of the 24th Regiment. James Langley Dalton, a volunteer serving as an Acting Assistant Commissary and a former Staff Sergeant, ordered the construction of barricades connecting the two buildings with sacks of corn, and an inner barricade with biscuit boxes.   

When the Zulus attacked, wielding their short stabbing assegais, they were unable to reach the men behind the barricades and they were blasted by rifle fire at point blank range. Most of those who did mount the breastwork were repulsed by the bayonets of the defenders. Some of the Zulus were armed with rifles, purchased from unscrupulous traders, but they were not trained marksmen and the British soldiers were able to pick them off at long range.

The hospital at the western end of the fortifications became the focus for the fighting. Set on fire and stormed by the Zulus, it became untenable. As many men were extracted as possible, the remaining patients perishing in the flames. Privates John Williams, Henry Hook, William Jones, Frederick Hitch and Corporal William Allen all fighting with bayonets once their ammunition was expended, as they contested every room with the attacking warriors.

The fighting now concentrated on the wall of biscuit barrels linking the mission house with the mealie wall. As night fell the British withdrew to the centre of the station where a final bastion had been hastily assembled. The light from the burning hospital assisted the British in their fire.

Both sides fought with desperate courage. A patient from the hospital, a Swiss born adventurer Christian Ferdnand Schiess, stabbed three Zulus in quick succession after he had clambered over the breastwork. In the yard Surgeon James Henry Reynolds tended to the wounded, oblivious to the life and death struggle going on all around him. Those too badly hurt to shoot propped themselves up as best they could and reloaded the guns, and re-supplied ammunition to those who were still on their feet.

The savage Zulu attacks were resisted until around midnight when unexpectedly the ferocity of the assault fell away. Firing continued until around 4am when the Zulus drew off taking their wounded with them and leaving at least 351 dead around the barricades. By then the British held only the area around the storehouse.  

At 7am a body of Zulus appeared on the hill, but no attack followed. It became apparent that the Zulus could see Lord Chelmsford’s column approaching from the direction of Isandlwana to relive the garrison. The Zulus turned and left.  Soon afterwards the column arrived at the drift and crossed the Tugela, marching up to the mission station. Chelmsford’s delight at finding the garrison alive and still resisting was heavily tempered by his despair at finding that no survivors from Isandlwana had escaped to Rorke’s Drift.

Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead were both awarded the Victoria Cross, as were the redoubtable privates Alfred Hook, Frederick Hitch, Robert Jones, William Jones, Corporal Allen, James Langley Dalton and Pte. John Williams. Surgeon Reynolds got the Cross for tending the wounded under fire; and the Swiss volunteer Christian Schiess - the first to a soldier serving with South Africa forces.  This was is the highest number of VCs to be awarded in a single action.

So this last bit of the movie Zulu might be a bit ahistorical but its top-draw stirring stuff none-theless!


David Crook said...

....its that damn train again....


Don M said...

Great post Taz!

ArmChairGeneral said...

We played some Rorke's Drift this past weekend. I put pics up on my blog. The zulus lost but only barely. Great post. I completely agree with Don.

Tas said...

Thanks Gents!

Ubique said...

Great post, very imformative.


An exploration of debauchery, vice and other reasons to be a man!

An exploration of debauchery, vice and other reasons to be a man!