Shortly before four o’clock in the sweltering hot afternoon of 22 January 1879, a small group of British and colonial troops, packed into a mission station on the border of Natal and the Zulu Kingdom, had the news they dreaded. Earlier that day, a British column, advancing into Zululand, had been annihilated at Isandlwana. Now there was nothing between the enraged Zulus and the little mission station at Rorke’s Drift, which had been turned into a makeshift hospital for the purposes of the war.
Some officers wanted to pull out and ride for safety, but Assistant Commissary James Dalton argued that they were bound to be slowed down by the wagons of sick and wounded, which meant the Zulus would inevitably overtake and destroy them. Instead, Dalton told his men to put up makeshift barricades of biscuit boxes and corn sacks. “Now,” he said grimly, “we must make a defence”.
So they waited. And at last, as the first specks appeared on the horizon, one of the look-outs yelled the famous words: “Here they come, black as hell and thick as grass!” To modern ears the line may sound shocking, reminding us that the British were, after all, invaders. To the men at Rorke’s Drift, however, those words must have sounded terrifying. Barely 150 British and colonial troops, many of them frightened and exhausted, were packed into the mission station, their red uniforms stained with dust and sweat. Surrounding them were an estimated 4,000 Zulu warriors, many armed with rifles as well as their short, lethal assegais. Rarely had any British force found itself up against such overwhelming odds.
What happened next became one of the most celebrated struggles in the history of the empire. All night the battle raged, much of it concentrated around the low hospital building. Time and again the Zulus charged, repelled only by volleys of lethal rifle fire and bloody bayonet work.
“Such a heavy fire was sent along the front of the hospital that, although scores of Zulus jumped over the mealie bags to get into the building, nearly every man perished in that fatal leap,” recalled one British defender. Another, Colour Sergeant Bourne, could not disguise his admiration for his opponents’ courage. “To show their fearlessness and their contempt for the redcoats,” he recalled, the Zulus “tried to leap the parapet, and at times seized our bayonets, only to be shot down. Looking back, one cannot but admire their fanatical bravery.”
Slowly but surely, weight of numbers began to tell. Room by room the attackers advanced through the hospital, the British desperately pulling back, dragging terrified patients with them. At one stage the defenders were forced to hold off the Zulus through a narrow door, while Privates John Williams and Henry Hook earned Victoria Crosses for their bravery in saving eight patients under fierce Zulu fire.
By ten o’clock that night the hospital and the cattle kraal had been abandoned, and the defenders were packed into a little bastion around the storehouse. The British had fought for ten hours; most were wounded. But by now the Zulus were themselves losing heart – and they were running out of ammunition.
At two in the morning their attacks began to slacken; by four o’clock, even the volleys of gunfire were dying down. And when dawn broke at last, the British were astonished to see that the Zulus had gone. They left the field littered with their dead and wounded. All in all, they had lost at least 350 men, to the defenders’ 17.
Rorke’s Drift became one of the supreme symbols of imperial heroism. To Victorian readers, the image of a handful of plucky British troops holding off thousands of Zulus was an inspirational lesson in courage and self-sacrifice. Some 50,000 Londoners bought tickets to see Alphonse de Neuville’s giant canvas ‘The Defence of Rorke’s Drift’ (pictured), while Queen Victoria paid a large sum for Lady Butler’s painting on the same theme.
Above all, the battle was immortalised in the classic film Zulu (1964), starring Stanley Baker and Michael Caine. As so often, the film played fast and loose with the facts: the British never sang ‘Men of Harlech’; the Zulus never saluted them with a song praising their bravery; and the film fails to show the British executing Zulu prisoners after the battle. Almost a century on, the myths of empire died hard.
Dominic Sandbrook’s is the author of is State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970–1974 (Allen Lane). He is a frequent guest on Radio 4’s Saturday Review.