In January 1879, a British force commanded by Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand. The army was split into three columns. Chelmsford led one column himself, which crossed the Buffalo River at Rorke's Drift mission station to seek out King Cetshwayo's Zulu army.
But Chelmsford had underestimated the Zulus' speed of movement and fighting ability. On 22 January 1879, 20,000 Zulus launched a surprise attack against Chelmsford’s camp at Isandlwana. The camp had not been prepared to resist attack and the troops were dangerously strung out. The majority of the 1,700 British troops there were killed.
The Zulus then pressed on to Rorke's Drift, where the British had established a depot and hospital.
Dabulamanzi kaMpande (1839-86) led the Zulus at Rorke’s Drift. He was King Cetshwayo's half-brother, and had commanded the Undi Corps at Isandlwana.
His men were formidable warriors. They were courageous under fire, manoeuvred with great skill and were adept in hand-to-hand combat.
Although the Zulus had some old-fashioned muskets and a few modern rifles, most of their warriors were only armed with shields and spears. All the same, they were renowned for their use of the short assegai spear; it was named the 'iklwa' after the sound that was heard as it was withdrawn from a victim's body.
The Zulu warriors also carried a shield made of oxhide, an ‘ishilunga’. The shield and spear together were deadly when used with careful co-ordination in close combat.
Survivors from Isandlwana reached Rorke’s Drift with news of the approaching Zulus. Lieutenants John Chard and Gonville Bromhead met with Assistant Commissary James Dalton of the Commissariat and Transport Department to decide whether they should retreat or defend the station.
Dalton argued that their small force, travelling in open country and burdened with hospital patients, would easily be caught by the fast-moving Zulus. So it was agreed that they would stay and fight.
They set about building improvised barricades from ‘mealie’ (maize) bags, biscuit boxes and crates of tinned meat. The buildings were also loop-holed for defence
The Zulu army arrived at Rorke's Drift at 4.30pm. They spent the next 12 hours continuously storming the British defences.
But they were unable to reach the men behind the barricades with their spears. Many warriors were shot down at point blank range. And the bayonets of the defenders repulsed any who did manage to climb over.
British soldiers who were too badly wounded to shoot, reloaded guns and distributed ammunition to those who could still fire. Many of the Zulus who had firearms were poor shots.
As battle raged, the Zulus set fire to the hospital, burst in and began to kill the patients with their spears. But they were fought off with bayonets. The surviving patients were rescued after soldiers hacked holes in the walls separating the rooms and dragged them through and into the barricaded yard.
As night fell, the British withdrew to the centre of the station where a final defence had been hastily built. After 12 hours of combat, they succeeded in fighting the Zulus off.
After the disaster at Isandlwana, the stand at Rorke’s Drift was a welcome boost to British morale. But it had little effect on the Zulu War as a whole. The conflict continued for several months until the Zulus were finally defeated in July 1879 at the Battle of Ulundi.
King Cetshwayo was later hunted down and captured, the Zulu monarchy was suppressed and Zululand divided into autonomous areas. Civil war followed, and in 1883 the British returned Cetshwayo to his throne in an unsuccessful attempt to restore order. His powers had been greatly reduced and he died the following year.
In 1887 Zululand was declared British territory. It became part of the British colony of Natal ten years later.
Corporal Christian Schiess (1856-84) was born in Burgdorf, Switzerland and raised in an orphanage. He later settled in South Africa and joined a British colonial unit, serving throughout the Zulu War.
Schiess displayed great bravery at Rorke’s Drift. He fought off the Zulus throughout the night, despite having been wounded in the foot a few days previously. He became the first Swiss national to be awarded the Victoria Cross and the first man serving with South African forces to be decorated with the supreme British award for gallantry.
Despite his heroism, Schiess struggled to find work after the war and ended up living in poverty. In 1884 he became ill on a sea voyage to England and died.
The heroism at Rorke’s Drift, rather than the defeat at Isandlwana, passed into British folklore. The artists Lady Elizabeth Butler and Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville both contributed to this by quickly producing highly popular paintings of the battle. Butler’s ‘Defence of Rorke’s Drift' (1880) was shown at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1881, attracting a ‘great crush’ of onlookers.
Chard: 'The army doesn't like more than one disaster in a day.'
Bromhead: 'Looks bad in the newspapers and upsets civilians at their breakfast.'
Stanley Baker and Michael Caine as Lieutenants John Chard and Gonville Bromhead in Zulu, 1964
Public fascination with the battle has continued through books, films and video games. It gained worldwide fame through the film 'Zulu' (1964), starring Stanley Baker, Michael Caine and Jack Hawkins. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who would later become a politician in South Africa, played the role of his great-grandfather King Cetshwayo!