Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Rorke's Drift - a book review

Rorke's DriftRorke's Drift by Michael Glover
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The successful defense of the fortified mission at Rorke's Drift on the border between Natal and Zululand Jan 22-23, 1879, was immortalized in the movie Zulu, starring Michael Caine. The battle in which about 140 men, mostly British regulars, of whom 39 were hospitalized, successfully held off some 4000 Zulu warriors, received far more attention than several other examples of British military valor in face of insurmountable odds.

The author attempts to explain what happened and why, drawing on a number of sources on the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and British politics at the time in this concise 146 page book. The Anglo-Zulu War is usually presented from a South African perspective, which is relatively simple, in that the defeat of the Zulus ensured the safety of both Boer and British settlers in the four colonies of Cape Town, Natal, Orange Free State and Transvaal. The book lacked only a few more maps and one or two more chapters detailing the second campaign to be an excellent condensed history of the war.

Britain did not want the colonies, considering them a costly nuisance that they were stuck with, gold and diamonds not yet having been discovered. The Dutch had established Capetown in 1652 and over the next two hundred years, Dutch, German and Huguenot settlers gradually expanded out into the country. Britain took it from the Dutch and kept it after the Napoleonic wars. When they tried to enforce British laws on the Boers, abolishing slavery and arresting whites for murdering Blacks, the Boers packed up and left on the Great Trek, establishing the other three colonies. Public opinion in Britain forced the government to annex them to protect the Blacks from the Boers. The Boers' attitude was "Then the British can protect us from the Blacks". Which required soldiers AND budget expenditure. There were not enough soldiers to defend the colonies; a few thousand regular foot and no cavalry.

The British Army was a mess, to say the least. The Crimean War, in which the Charge of the Light Brigade was the least of the problems had exposed how badly in need of reform it actually was. Leadership was not the real problem, it was organizational management. Different parts of the army reported to different Ministries and Treasury parsimoniously squeezed every farthing of expenditure before approving it. Attempts were being made at reform but as is usual in the military, change was resisted as the greatest enemy. Wolseley who had the ear of the establishment in London, was in charge of reforms, promoting those in his inner circle and poisoning the wells of those who were not.

The Zulu nation had come together in the early 19th century under Dingiswayo. Shaka succeeded him and by 1825 the Zulu warriors struck terror into the hearts of Whites and Blacks alike, massacring everyone in sight, including his own people until he was murdered. By the 1870's Cetshwayo had established a kingdom, Zululand, with capital at Ulundi, bordered by Natal, Transvaal, Orange Free State and the Atlantic, with an army of 40,000 warriors, armed with short, stabbing sears, (assegai) and cowhide shields.

If they decided to go raiding in force, they could wreak havoc in the thinly settled colonies. Cetshawyo did not want trouble and preferred a negotiated settlement with the British but whether he could or would control his army was the question in the minds of the Whites. He was sent an ultimatum which he could in no way accept; the intent was to trigger a war and defeat him. Cetshwayo, in rejecting the ultimatum, said he would not invade Natal but if the British army crossed into Zululand he would fight. They did and he did.

Chelmsford, a good officer, respected by his men, was in charge of the military expidition. His problem was how to invade Zululand without leaving Natal totally defenseless against a Zulu army that traveled light and could cover 50 miles a day. London had VERY reluctantly agreed to send him two battalions of infantry and two companies of engineers who would arrive December 1978. There were also 9,000 poorly armed natives and 1100 mounted colonial troops for a total of 18,000 men, 1,000 wagons, 10,000 oxen.

Chelmsford crossed the majority of his troops and supplies, including 220 wagons, at Rorke's Drift (ford) on the Buffalo River, setting up a base camp and hospital in the mission buildings, leaving a large qualtity of bagged mealie (corn) and boxes of biscuit, with about hundred men to guard the ford until reinforcements arrived. He reached the conical hill called Isandlhwana on January 20, where he made camp and sent out scouts in force. In mud and rain, it had taken 10 days to move 10 miles. The wagons were to be unloaded and sent back for more supplies.

Early the morning of January 22, the scouting parties from the south east sent back word of large numbers of Zulus and requested troops to go on the attack. Chelmsford took half his troops leaving roughly 1000 men to defend the camp and headed about 10 miles east.

The Boers had warned Chelmsford to laager the wagons and fortify the camp. In December 1838, 500 Boers stood off some 15,000 Zulu warriors from the safety of their circled wagons so they knew where of they spoke. But laagering is a particular difficult job and the rear of the camp was assumed to be secured by the hill behind them and the number of men left to defend it large enough. The rear was not secure; the camp for 4500 men was too big.

Into this mix, throw a loose cannon named Durnford, in command of native infantry and about 300 mounted native cavalry. His instructions from Chelmsford were to re-enforce the troops at the camp. Instead he took off to the North East and ran into the entire Zulu Army of 20,000 men who promptly charged. Th ecamp commander had to scatter his troops to try to rescue Durnford. From there it was just a matter of time. As long as the troops held together and had ammunition, their front firing line kept the Zulus at bay but their flanks were unprotected and they were over run. Of about 1700 men, only three or four hundred mounted men escaped.

If you have seen the movie Zulu Dawn, they had it backwards of course. Burt Lancaster's Durnford is made out the hero and Peter O'Toole's Chelmsford the villain.

Two of the survivors came by Rorke's Drift and told of the disaster, warning that 4000 Zulus were on their way. These were the reserves who had not "washed their spears" and were itching for glory. The two men in charge of the station, Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead had time for the troops to make barricades of the mealie bags and biscuit boxes. The re-enforcements never arrived and any troops which were not British regulars ran or galloped as fast as they could to escape, leaving about 100 able bodied men. The attack came at about 5:00 pm and lasted most of the night. The Zulus were brave but badly led and took serious casualties, breaking off the attack in the early morning.

England was aghast at the Isandlwana massacre. Nothing like it had happened since the retreat from Kabul in 1841. The government and Wolseley were desperate to blame Chelmsford who was not one of the inner circle, to keep their own mismanagement of the South African situation out of it. However he got his report to Queen Victoria who came down firmly on his side. To this day he has his supporters and detractors. The courageous defense of Rorke's Drift gave the government just the opportunity they needed to shift attention away from the disaster, so they spun it mercilessly.

For further details and good maps, see Wikipedia which has a very detailed series of articles on the Military History of South Africa. Start with the Anglo-Zulu War and follow the various links.

View all my reviews


  1. that is extremely interesting - as you pointed out winning nations always spin history to their best advantage. I know little to nothing about African history but I did see Zulu Dawn. The movie about Africa I enjoyed most was Ghost in the Darkness.
    So many books
    So little time
    the Ol'Buzzard

    1. Zulu is a better movie. I want to see Ghost in the Darkness.
      An overview of African History would be Africa, a biography of the continent by John Reader. The best history of the Boer War would be Thomas Pakenham's The Boer War. Yes, so many books, so little time.


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