Sgt. Henry Gallagher of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot, who was from Thurles, County Tipperary, paced up and down behind the red-clad soldiers looking over the mealie bag fortifications at Rorke’s Drift. He lifted his helmet and wiped the sweat off his brow as he noticed lookout Pvt. Frederick Hitch on the roof of the storehouse. Hitch scanned the horizon for the Zulu warriors that they believed were coming as the late afternoon sun began to sink in the sky on January 22, 1879.
(Below: A drawing of Rorke's Drift, looking south, made by Lt. Chard after the battle.)
Around 1 p.m. the soldiers had heard the sound of rifle and cannon fire coming from the area of Isandlwana to the northeast, where, unknown to them, a force of well over 1,000 British soldiers was being nearly wiped out by a Zulu army of an estimated 20,000. Around that time, they also noticed that a partial eclipse of the sun began, peaking around 2 p.m. The more superstitious among them must have wondered if it was a sign of some kind of calamity. As the terrified survivors of Isandlwana began to arrive a little after 3 p.m., those fears seemed correct.
For over an hour, the soldiers at Rorkes Drift, on the Natal-Zululand border, had watched survivors from what they now knew was a disastrous defeat at Isandlwana stream by. One rider fleeing Isandlwana told them, “You will all be murdered and cut to pieces.” Another shouted uncontrollably, “Good God, the camp is taken, and they are coming here!” One told Dr. Reynolds that, as he put it, “No power on earth could stand against the enormous number of Zulu coming against us, and the only chance for us all was immediate flight.” Others didn’t stop at all. One simply shouted, “They’re coming,” as he rode on.
(Below: Battle of Isandlwana by Charles Edward Fripp (1854-1906)
None of the individual refugees from Isandlwana offered to stay and help the 240 or so men, counting the Natal Native Contingent (NNC), who were manning the post to resist the Zulu army that was coming. One force of about 100 members of the Natal Native Horse had stopped and offered help and had just confronted the approaching army in the distance. But they had fired a few shots as a skirmish line and then rode south toward Helpmekaar. Their commanding officer, Lt. Henderson, stopped briefly to apologize at his inability to halt his men, but then he too rode off.
As the Natal horseman rode off, the nerve of the NNC men failed them and some 100 or more of them dropped their weapons and ran as well. With an untold number of the enemy approaching, but surely several thousand at minimum, the British defense force had just dwindled from well over 300 to about 140. Panic can be contagious on a battlefield, but for the moment, at least, the defenders of Rorke’s Drift held fast.
Somewhere around 4:30 pm, Pvt. Hitch called down to Gallagher, who relayed his warning to the officers in charge, “Here they come, as thick as grass and as black as thunder.” Hitch had only seen about 600 Zulus. There were another 3,000 or so on their way.
The men behind the mealie bags (bags filled with maize) of the makeshift “fort” lowered their Martini-Henry rifles and picked out a target in the mass of rapidly approaching Zulus. Now they heard for the first time that day, but not the last, the Zulu’s deep-throated war cry, “Usuthu! Usuthu! Usuthu!” roll over them and the drumming of their spears against their shields roared like approaching thunder. Sweaty hands on those lethal rifles perhaps trembled a bit as the spearheads of the approaching Zulus glittered in the sun. One of the most famous small-unit battles in military history was about to begin.
The Battle of Rorke’s Drift, in large part because of the very successful 1964 movie, “Zulu,” has become one of the most famous battles in history. Many think most of the British soldiers there were Welsh, based perhaps based on the Welsh song sung during the movie, “Men of Harlech,” which never actually happened during the battle, and on the fact that the regiment would be renamed the South Wales Borderers in 1881. In truth, the number of Welshmen at Rorke’s Drift was perhaps 32, and like all regiments of the time, it had a large number of members who were Irish born or born of Irish parents.
In the mid-19th century, about 40 percent of the British army was Irish, but that had been declining. By 1878, about 22% of the army, around 40,000 soldiers, was Irish. Of the 140 men at Rorke’s Drift, 18 were born in Ireland and 4 others had Irish parentage. There were several others with Irish names.
Another Irish connection to the battle was the former trading post where it was fought, which was established in 1849 by Irishman James Rorke. Rorke, himself a former soldier, had died in 1875 and was buried under the hill to the west of the outpost, Shiyane, that the Zulu used during the battle to shoot down on the British. At the time of the battle, the outpost was occupied by Swedish missionary Otto Witt. Rorke had been there so long that the Zulu called the outpost Kwajimu, “Jim’s Land.” The home that Witt had turned into a church had been converted into a hospital by Irish-born Surgeon-Major James Henry Reynolds, in anticipation of the casualties from their invasion of Zulu Land.
The 35-year-old Reynolds (right) was a graduate of Trinity College from Dun Laoghaire, County Dublin. He had joined the army in 1868 and served in India, where he was cited for his good work during a cholera epidemic. Transferred to South Africa, he had taken part in the Cape Frontier War of 1877-78.
When the column of General Lord Chelmsford departed on their ill-fated march to Isandlwana, Reynolds bade farewell to two good friends, Surgeon-Major Peter Shepard and Lt. Edgar Anstey. Anstey left his little fox terrier, Dick, with Reynolds for safekeeping. Dick apparently bonded with Reynolds immediately, as it was said to have followed him around throughout the battle. Rorke’s Drift would turn out to be far less than “safe,” but still would prove safer than Isandlwana. Both Shepard and Anstey would perish there.
The commanding officer of the men of B Company, 2nd Battalion, of the 24th regiment, was 33-year-old Lieutenant Gonville ‘Gunny’ Bromhead, while the commander of the outpost was Major Henry Spaulding. But Major Spaulding left Rorke’s Drift in the early afternoon to ride south looking for reinforcements that were late in arriving. Before he left, he checked the Army List and found that engineering officer Lt. John Chard, who was there building a bridge on the Buffalo River, outranked Bromhead. Thus, through “time in grade,” Bromhead ended up being 2nd in command at Rorke’s Drift to Chard. Spaulding told Chard that he was in command, “but, of course, nothing will happen.” Surely, it was one of the most errant predictions in military history.
Bromhead (left), though not born there, had significant Irish connections. Three of his four grandparents were Irish. His family tree included Frenches of Galway and Roscommon, Woods of Sligo, Lynches of Galway, and Dillons of Roscommon. This was the same branch of the Dillon family as the founder of Dillon’s Regiment of the Irish Brigade of France. Bromhead is portrayed by Michael Caine in the movie, ”Zulu.”
Another important figure of the battle, indeed, the man without whom there may have been a massacre somewhere south of the Rorke’s Drift rather than a battle at Rorke’s Drift, was 45-year-old, redheaded acting assistant commissary, James Langly Dalton. He had two other Irishmen working under him, 25-year-old Cork man Walter Dunne, and 21-year-old Louis Byrne, who was the son of a prominent Irish ship owner.
Dalton was born in London of Irish parents from Longford or Westmeath. He had first enlisted in the army in 1849. He had years more experience than the officers in charge and also had a valuable experience in fighting native African forces during the Cape Frontier War of 1877-78.
He was at the supply depot at Ibeka when it was surrounded by Xhosa forces that far outnumbered the British. When they used supplies at the depot to construct defensive fortifications, the Xhosa withdrew.
When word arrived of the disaster at Isandlwana, with dozens of routed survivors insisting they should all flee, Bromhead called a conference with Dalton, Reynolds, and Dunne. Chard was still at the river, bring in the men who were there.
Retreating certainly would have seemed the prudent action, but Dalton pointed out that with the sick and wounded in tow on wagons, the fleet-footed Zulu would likely run them down in the open and easily overwhelm them. He advised fortifying the post using their grain bags and biscuit boxes as they had done at Ibeka. Bromhead agreed, and they got their men and the NNC working on building walls of mealie bags. When Chard returned, he concurred in the decision to stay and resist, though in truth it was probably too late to do anything else by then.
(Below: A group of Zulu warriors, probably taken in the late 19th century.)
If all 20,000 or more Zulus had arrived in Rorke’s Drift, no amount of preparation would have made a difference, but that was not the case. Only about 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu warriors crossed over the Buffalo River to attack “Jim’s Land.” The Zulu War began after the British sent Zulu King Cetshwayo an ultimatum that he rejected, as they knew he would, with demands including the disbanding of his army. But when he sent his army out to attack the invading British army, he instructed them not to cross the river into Natal.
Since the days of Shaka Zulu, their armies had used an attack plan called L’npondo Zankhloma, the “the horns of the buffalo.” They moved forward with the “chest.” As they attacked the “horns,” usually made up of the younger warriors, as they had to move fast, would move around to the left and right. Behind the “chest” would be the “loins,” who were in reserve. The “loins” were usually made up of older veterans.
At Isandlwana, the men of the “loins” had barely been able to get into the battle before it was over. They were commanded by Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande, who was the half-brother of the king. The prince and his men were disappointed at having missed the bulk of the fighting and wanted to “wash their spears” in the blood of the enemy. Thus, as the bulk of the Zulu forces remained north of the Buffalo River, the prince defied his brother’s order and led his force of several thousand warriors toward Rorke’s Drift.
Though Pvt. Hitch saw approaching Zulus coming from the north who were “as thick as grass,” the first assault was by a smaller portion of them that swung around Shiyane and attacked from the south. “On they came at the same slow, slinging trot, their heads forward, their arms outspread, the bodies poised in a sort of aim at our mealie circus, and all in dead silence. Here and there a black body doubled up . . . writhing and bouncing in the dust, but the great host came steadily on,” Dr. Reynolds recalled.
But shortly this first attack by perhaps only 600 or less was turned back by the power of the hard-hitting, breech-loading Martini-Henry rifle (below). A trained infantryman could fire about 12 rounds a minute, about 4 times the rate of fire of earlier muzzle-loading rifles. It was the automatic weapon of its day.
The main body of the Zulu force soon arrived, however, and the sheer numbers of them were going to assure that many reached the makeshift walls of the “fort” when they attacked in mass. How in the world were they going to possibly win the hand-to-hand fighting that would ensue? The traditional close-in weapon of the Zulu was the Iklwa (right), a short, thrusting spear invented by the famous chief, Shaka. It was only two feet long, however. The 49-inch Martini-Henry rifle, with its 21-inch bayonet attached, had a much longer reach.
(Below: The socket bayonet of the Martini-Henry Rifle)
In a one-on-one confrontation, the soldiers had a huge advantage in reach of their thrusting weapon. One of the Zulu who had participated in the pursuit and killing of the last surviving members of the 24th at Isandlwana recalled that the warriors stood off and killed most of these last survivors with muskets or throwing spears because any Zulu who moved forward and attempted to stab one of the soldiers with the Iklwa was soon “fixed through the throat or stomach and fell.” This was one of the major factors in the holding of Rorke’s Drift.
The Zulus we not only armed with spears, however. They had firearms, though most of them were obsolete muskets. Many Martini-Henry rifles had been captured at Isandlwana, but the men of the “loins” had not been on the field yet to obtain them. None of the gunshot wounds of the British were later found to have been from Martini-Henry rounds. After the repulse of the first attack, some of the warriors with firearms made their way up onto Shiyane. From there they could fire down on the British. Though their long-range fire would not be very accurate, it was effective in harassing them. Sgt. Gallagher directed the suppressing fire on them. The Zulu also had muskets spread out in their ranks in the attacking formations.
(Below: Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande)
With the entire force of Zulus now on hand, the full-scale attacks began against the northern side of the compound around 5 pm. There was no stopping them short of their walls this time, and the hand-to-hand fighting at the walls began. A key factor in the battle was a ridgeline on the north side, upon which they built part of this wall. That made it very hard for the Zulu to get on top of the wall there. Each time some of them got over the wall in another spot, a reserve force of soldiers from the south wall, which wasn’t under attack, met them with charged bayonets and drove them back.
One of the first men killed was Irishman Louis Byrne, who took a bullet through the head as he brought water to wounded corporal named Scannel, of the NNC. The Zulu would be beaten off, retreat to the cover of the bushes, trees, and the stonewall in front of the northern wall, reorganize and come on again and again. But each time the effectiveness of Martini-Henry’s stopping power and the British bayonets would drive them off again.
The Zulu soon realized the hospital was a blind spot in the makeshift fortification that allowed them easier access to its walls. By 5:30 pm it was becoming clear they could not defend the entire perimeter for much longer. But Chard had planned for this eventuality and constructed what became known as the “biscuit box wall” from the corner of the storehouse on the south wall across to the north wall, creating a much smaller front to defend.
Around 6 p.m., Chard gave the order to retreat to this smaller “fort.” This gave them the advantage of defending a smaller front with their limited numbers, and the storehouse gave them some cover from the snipers on Shiyane Hill, but it also meant the hospital was now outside that perimeter. The Zulu were not able to occupy the inside of the old perimeter, however, as the power of the Martini-Henry’s could sweep that area of any Zulu who entered it.
All through this fighting, Dr. Reynolds was moving around the compound bringing the seriously wounded to a makeshift aid station near the storehouse. When he had no casualties to attend to he moved along the walls passing out ammo. Seeing the men in the hospital were now isolated, Reynolds grabbed some ammo and moved through this “no-mans’ land” to resupply them.
(Left: Dr. Reynolds and "Dick" in a detail from Alphonse de Neuville's "Defense of Rorke's Drift.")
Alone in that attempt, he became the prime target of those Shiyane Hill snipers. He took a bullet strike on his helmet, which left a hole in it but miraculously caused him no serious injury as he safely arrived at the hospital. And all this time the little terrier, Dick, followed the doctor around, occasionally barking at the Zulus. Perhaps his defiance inspired some of the soldiers. Both doctor and dog returned unharmed.
As this went on, the men left in the hospital fought desperately for their lives and the lives of the sick and wounded there. With hundreds of Zulu assaulting the doors and windows on the south and west walls, and the thatch roof now set on fire, the defenders were digging holes in the walls to retreat slowly back toward the eastern wall and possible escape. Privates John Fielding had enlisted as John Williams to keep it secret from his father. His parents were from Cork City. He and Hook worked in concert through this living hell of fire, smoke, and thrusting spears to move those patients who were able to move from room to room and finally exited through a window on the east side.
One patient they could not save was Irish-born Pvt. Garret Hayden, whose mutilated body was found outside the hospital after the battle. Corkman William Horrigan was one of the defenders who also died there. Dublin-born Henry Turner was among the patients who were successfully evacuated.
Fielding and Hook got their surviving patients into the east room that had access to the compound through a high window. There they found privates William and Robert Jones (not related) barely holding off the Zulu. The two Jones, totally out of ammo, had been reduced to leaning into the door there on the south side of the building. But the Zulu had begun hacking the door to pieces with their spears. Fielding got the patients out the window, as the other three held off the Zulu with their bayonets. Once everyone had exited into the compound, they still faced a hellish trip to the biscuit wall. Zulus were firing over the north and south walls that they now had to pass between to get to the biscuit box wall.
(Below: The evacuation from the hospital in a detail from Alphonse de Neuville's "Defense of Rorke's Drift.")
In all, some 20 men, including Fielding, survived that hospital death-trap. As the last of them were moving across the compound, Pvt. Michael McMahon of the Medical Corps, a Limerick native, went over the biscuit wall and ran out to help the invalids. One of the patients, Private Roy, recalled that “there were about 30 Zulus chasing us.” They looked back in horror, but “the men in the fort shot them all down.” Amazingly, a few survived by slipping out the southern or western sides of the building during the confusing hand-to-hand fighting and hiding in the darkness until the morning.
Inspired by this contraction by the British, the Zulu must have thought victory was near, and now, as the sun began to set, attacked the smaller fortification with renewed vigor. The corner of the northern wall and the biscuit box wall became the focal point of the attack. Spear and bayonet dueled over and over across the wall, with the threat of disaster always appearing near, but the bayonet each time holding the line. Lt. Bromhead commanded the holding of that key position into the night.
It was there that John Fagan was killed. And the valiant Dalton, whose counsel had been so valuable before the fight and courage so inspiring during it, took a Zulu bullet in the shoulder and went down. “His quickness and coolness had been the means of saving many men’s lives,” Chard later said. Reynolds now worked hard to save Dalton’s life. Meanwhile, Chard had put Corkman Water Dunne to work building a smaller, higher redoubt built inside this area from which men could fire into the enemy over their comrade's heads and which might also serve as their “last-stand” position. Reynolds had Dalton dragged into it.
As the attacks continued into the darkness, the Zulus burning of the hospital turned into a boon to the defenders. As it burned, it illuminated the countryside, allowing the defenders to target the ensuing Zulu attackers much earlier than would have been possible in full darkness.
The Zulu now attacked from all sides, determined to wipe out these infuriating redcoats. But the smaller perimeter allowed the British to defend with a nearly impenetrable bayonet wall, and the Zulu could bring less of their large force to bear on the smaller compound. The men on the walls were backed up by the men in the redoubt, rapidly firing over their comrade's heads into the mass of Zulus. They fired so many rounds, so quickly, that Sgt. Gallagher, who was in the redoubt, and had to wrap a piece of cloth around his red hot gun barrel to avoid burning his hand.
The defenders were holding their own, but Chard saw that their ammo was beginning to run low. How much longer could they continue to resist? On the other side, however, exhaustion was beginning to sap the Zulu’s morale. Between the mid-day assault at Isandlwana and their 16-mile march to Rorke’s Drift, they had eaten very little. This reserve force also included many older men. Their energy was waning, but they were not ready to give up.
(Below: "The Defense of Rorke’s Drift" by Elizabeth Southerden
Thompson 1846 – 1933. It depicts Louis Byrne being hit near the center.)
As the night went on the war chants of “Usuthu! Usuthu! Usuthu!” continued to fill the air, along with the loud rumble of spear shafts on shields as they continued their assaults, always hopeful that the next one would succeed. But the chants and rapping on the shields had become less intense, and each attack still ended with only more of their friends dead on the field.
Finally, around 10 p.m., the Zulu assaults clearly began to lose their former enthusiasm and strength. But the soldiers had a problem. They were very low on water and becoming dehydrated. One soldier was said to have “cried like a child, fought like a lion and swore like a demon” as they got more and more dehydrated. During one lull in the fighting, a group of soldiers, Pvt. Hook and a few others, perhaps, including Fielding, ran the 25 yards to the burning hospital and dragged in a water cart. This was a huge boost to their morale at a time when the Zulu morale was collapsing.
After midnight there was still some firing into the “fort” and some feigned attacks, but no more assaults on the walls. With silence descending except for an occasional shot, the moaning of the hundreds of wounded Zulu on the field must have sent a shiver up the spines of those on both sides. As morning dawned, the little garrison still held, but their ammo was down to about 20 rounds per man. As the sun came up, it appeared that the Zulu had slipped away during the night.
Chard had his exhausted men working hard to get their fortifications back into shape, not yet sure it was over. At 7 a.m., a large group of Zulu appeared on a hill near Shiyane. The defenders stood to their post again and stared each other down for an hour. The defender's faces were black with powder residue; their uniforms were filthy and nearly all of them were bleeding from some sort of wound. Many had black and blue bruises on their shoulders from hundreds of Martini-Henry recoils. Some of their bayonets were bent, twisted, or just broken off. Could they withstand another assault?
(Left: The lead elements of Chelmsford's column arriving at Rorke's Drift, from The Illustrated London News.)
Luckily, they would not have to answer that, as around 8 a.m., the vanguard of Lord Chelmsford’s retreating column arrived and the Zulu disappeared. The totally spent defenders of Rorke’s Drift could finally relax. Some cheered and a few cried in relief. Walter Dunne walked about and marveled at how many of the dead Zulu were “in rows as if literally mown down” but most of the soldiers were lost in thoughts of how it was possible they were still alive. Dunne then busted open some ration boxes and fed the survivors bully beef for breakfast; a breakfast few of them only 18 hours earlier thought they would be alive to eat.
Amazingly, just 17 of the defenders had been killed, mainly from gunshot wounds. Another 15 were wounded enough to be treated, and 8 were seriously wounded, like Dalton, but would survive. All figures of how many Zulu died are estimates. The figures vary from around 350 to possibly as much as 700. The men of Chelmsford's column, who had just left the scenes of carnage at the Isandlwana battlefield, seeing many friends mutilated, likely killed most of the wounded Zulus on the field.
When the word of the disaster at Isandlwana reached the British government, the incredible victory against what would seem nearly impossible odds at Rorke’s Drift was the antidote to that sad news. Though it was a small battle by historical standards, it has become one of the most famous in history. That is in no small part due to the movie, “Zulu.” It was also in some ways similar to two other famous small unit actions, “Custer’s Last Stand,” but with the outnumbered soldiers this time holding out against the indigenous force, and the Alamo, with the “fort” this time being held.
Eventually, 11 Victoria Crosses would be awarded to the men who defended Rorke’s Drift, the most ever for a single regiment action. Four had Irish connections: Dr. Reynolds, Lt. Bromhead, Acting Assistant Commissary Dalton, and Pvt John Fielding (Williams). Dunne was also recommended for a VC, but it was denied. Sgt. Gallagher carried around a different sort of mark of the battle for the rest of his life: a black stain on his right side of his nose and his cheek from constant blowback of black powder from the breach of his Martini-Henry.
The actions of Great Britain concerning indigenous peoples in their colonizing of various parts of the world have quite rightly been condemned in recent years. Their actions regarding the Zulus would certainly deserve that condemnation. Still, the tenacious defense of Rorke’s Drift and the courage of the men who defended it, cannot be denied. Though far better armed, they had faced the visually terrifying odds of more than 25 to 1, and somehow maintained their discipline and pulled off one of the most unlikely victories in military history.
Though the movie portrays Chard and Bromhead as the biggest heroes of the battle, many who have studied the battle have since said that James Dalton was the real hero of Rorke’s Drift. Several months later, after the final victory over the Zulu at Ulundi, the 24th was marching through Maritzburg. It happened that Dalton was there, recovering from his severe shoulder wound, and was on the side of the street among a crowd cheering on the returning soldiers.
“Why, there is Mr. Dalton, cheering us! We ought to be cheering him; he was the best man there,” said one of them. The soldiers then pulled him into line with them to receive the cheers of the crowd with them. Given the feeling of brotherhood that soldiers develop for each other after living through an action like Rorke’s Drift together, he may have felt more honored by those young men at that moment than he did when later receiving his Victoria’s Cross.
(The full version of Alphonse de Neuville's "Defense of Rorke's Drift.")
"A Bloody Night: The Irish at Rorke's Drift" by Dan Harvey
"Zulu Rising" by Ian Knight
“Isandlwana : How the Zulus Humbled the British Empire” by Adrian Greaves
"The Story of the Zulus" by Jame Young Gibson
The movie, “Zulu” free online (Video)
(Right: A Zulu warrior painted by Lt. William Whitelock Lloyd, Co. Waterford. He was a member of the 24th Regiment, but did not take part in the action at Rorke's Drift.)
Zulu weapons used in the slaughter of British troops at the infamous Battle of Isandlwana set to fetch £100,000 at auction
Sgt. Henry Gallagher .. Thurles, County Tipperary
Custer's Last Irishmen: The Irish who fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn
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