“First comes the trader, then the missionary, then the red soldier,” the Zulu King Cetshwayo said in 1879 during the Anglo-Zulu War.
The red soldiers indeed came, led by men who envisioned a confederation of South Africa along Canadian lines. Without the sanction of the British government, Lord Chelmsford led 15,000 British troops into Zululand. At the Battle of Isandhlwana, the British camp was overrun by the main Zulu army. Only 400 men out of 1,700 survived.
While this was happening, a force of 4,500 Zulus under Prince Dabulamanzi disobeyed the king by crossing the Buffalo River into Natal, where he attacked a British supply base at Rorke’s Drift, a crossing over the river.
The base consisted of a stone house, converted into a field hospital, and chapel, used for storage. Lieutenant Chard of the Royal Engineers commanded along with Lieutenant Bromhead, whose Company B of 24th Regiment of Foot provided security. In all, 104 men were fit to fight. Acting Assistant Commissary James Langley Dalton ordered barricades of mealy bags constructed for defense.
The Zulus came in strength, outnumbering the defenders 45 to one, and attacked. The Zulus were unable to reach high enough to get at the men manning the barricades, who cut them down with point-blank aimed rifle fire. After several attacks, the Zulus set the hospital aflame, broke inside, and began spearing patients. Private Alfred Henry Hook held them off with his bayonet while another soldier hacked a hole in the wall allowing the other patients to pass through.
The Zulus came again and again while the British fought madly for survival. The wounded sat at their feet and reloaded their guns.
At dawn, the Zulus left after losing 350 men. Lord Chelmsford arrived shortly afterwards at the head of a relief column.
Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead both received the Victoria Cross along with seven soldiers, the base surgeon and a Swiss volunteer. Bromhead and Chard were both promoted to brevet major, and the base became known as Fort Bromhead. After the battle, they found a bottle of beer in a supply wagon wrecked by the Zulus and celebrated their survival.
Click here to read more about the battle.
Below is a review of the classic film ZULU (starring Michael Caine) by a historian: