Rorke's Drift, a 140 years on!
The disaster at Isandhlwana put the British garrison at Rorke’s Drift under immediate threat. Not only was it a strategic river crossing but a quarter of a mile south of the Buffalo river the mission station of the Rev Otto Witt had been converted into a small military hospital, accommodating just under forty patients. There were about 130 British troops at the Drift, of whom 98 were B Company, 2nd Battalion 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment commanded by Lieutenant G Bromhead. The senior officer present was Lieutenant J R M Chard of the Royal Engineers, who was supervising the river crossing. Early in the afternoon of 22 January, when news of Isandhlwana reached Rorke’s Drift, Chard and Bromhead urgently discussed whether they should evacuate the place. It seems to have been Acting Assistant Commissary J L Dalton, previously of the 85th Regiment, who convinced them that if they retreated with the hospital patients and a convoy of ox-wagons they would certainly be overwhelmed by the Zulus and the only hope was to stay and fight. The hospital was a single-storey stone building with a thatched roof. A second stone building, 35 yards to the east, was used as a store. Almost adjoining this to the east was a small cattle kraal. These three structures were now turned into a defensive position by linking them with northern and southern walls built with mealie bags (sacks of Indian corn), biscuit boxes and two wagons, thus creating a stockaded enclosure. As the Zulus approached, the native contingents deserted. The defenders meanwhile constructed a further barricade out of two-foot high biscuit boxes. This ran from the north-west corner of the storehouse to the northern wall, effectively dividing the compound into two. The first attack by the Zulu force of some 4,000 men came at about 4.30pm. The initial assaults were launched against the hospital at the west of the compound. Chard was forced to order a retreat behind the biscuit-box wall into the eastern half of the compound. This left those defenders still in the hospital cut off. At 6.45pm the thatch was set on fire. Astonishingly, and in conditions of great heroism, twenty-four men managed to escape. The cattle kraal also had to be abandoned. All that remained were the storehouse and compound in front of it. Sometime after 7pm, Chard began the construction of a redoubt of mealie bags within this compound as a final refuge. Although fighting continued until 4am next morning, against all the odds the defenders managed to hold out. At 8am Lord Chelmsford and the remains of his column arrived having marched from Isandhlwana. The British had lost 17 dead with 9 wounded. It is thought that over 500 Zulus died in the battle. For their valour in defending Rorke’s Drift, Bromhead recommended six men of B Company, 2nd Battalion 24th Regiment for the VC. Chelmsford himself added the names of Chard and Bromhead to the list. Surgeon Major J H Reynolds was subsequently awarded the VC for his part in the action and public pressure led to awards being made to Acting Assistant Commissary J L Dalton and Corporal F C Schiess. Rorke’s Drift has the distinction of being the single action for which the most VCs have been awarded (11) and also for which the most have been awarded to one regiment (7). The Reverend George Smith, who was also at Rorke’s Drift, was present at the Investiture on 26 August 1879 of Surgeon Major J H Reynolds VC and Lieutenant E S Browne VC by Col R T Glyn CB, late 24th Foot, at Pinetown Camp, Natal, on the final parade of 1/24th prior to departure from S Africa. A report of the Investiture in The Natal Mercury was critical of the fact that Smith’s part in the action had received no ‘expression of Royal favour’.