The Battle of Rorke’s Drift (1879), also known as the Defence of Rorke’s Drift, was an engagement in the Anglo-Zulu War. The successful British defence of the mission station of Rorke’s Drift, under the command of Lieutenants John Chard of the Royal Engineers and Gonville Bromhead, began when a large contingent of Zulu warriors broke off from their main force during the final hour of the British defeat at the day-long Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879, diverting 6 miles (9.7 km) to attack Rorke’s Drift later that day and continuing into the following day.
Just over 150 British and colonial troops defended the station against attacks by 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu warriors. The massive but piecemeal attacks by the Zulu on Rorke’s Drift came very close to defeating the much smaller garrison, but were consistently repelled. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders, along with a number of other decorations and honours.
At about 4:20 pm, the battle began with Lieutenant Henderson’s NNH troopers, stationed behind the Oscarberg, briefly engaging the vanguard of the main Zulu force. However, tired from the battle at Isandlwana and retreat to Rorke’s Drift as well as being short of carbine ammunition, Henderson’s men departed for Helpmekaar. Henderson himself reported to Lieutenant Chard the enemy were close and that “his men would not obey his orders but were going off to Helpmekaar”.
Henderson then followed his departing men. Upon witnessing the withdrawal of Henderson’s NNH troop, Captain Stevenson’s NNC company abandoned the cattle kraal and fled, greatly reducing the strength of the defending garrison. Outraged that Stevenson and some of his colonial NCOs also fled from the barricades, a few British soldiers fired after them, killing Corporal William Anderson.
With the Zulus nearly at the station, the garrison now numbered between 154 and 156 men. Of these, only Bromhead’s company could be considered a cohesive unit. Additionally, up to 39 of his company were at the station as hospital patients, although only a handful of these were unable to take up arms. With fewer men, Chard realised the need to modify the defences, and gave orders that biscuit boxes be used to construct a wall through the middle of the post in order to make possible the abandonment of the hospital side of the station if the need arose.
At 4:30 pm, the Zulus rounded the Oscarberg and approached the south wall. Private Frederick Hitch, posted as lookout atop the storehouse, reported a large column of Zulus approaching. The Zulu vanguard, 600 men of the iNdluyengwe, attacked the south wall, which joined the hospital and the storehouse. The British opened fire when the Zulus were 500 yards (460 m) away.
The majority of the attacking Zulu force moved around to attack the north wall, while a few took cover and were either pinned down by continuing British fire or retreated to the terraces of Oscarberg. There they began a harassing fire of their own. As this occurred, another Zulu force continued to the hospital and northwestern wall.
Those British on the barricades – including Dalton and Bromhead – were soon engaged in fierce hand-to-hand fighting. The British wall was too high for the Zulus to scale, so they resorted to crouching under the wall, trying to get hold of the defenders’ Martini–Henry rifles, slashing at British soldiers with assegais or firing their weapons through the wall. At places, they clambered over each other’s bodies to drive the British off the walls but were driven back.
Zulu fire, both from those under the wall and around the Oscarberg, inflicted a few casualties, and five of the 17 defenders who were killed or mortally wounded in the action were struck while at the north wall.