Zulu War: Rorke's Drift...

Chookie

Ad Honorem
Nov 2007
7,628
Alba
#1
Before I give my analysis of the battle it might be instructive to consider the film which has largely defined the public perception of the Anglo-Zulu War.

OK, in the past we have discussed war films, bad, good and indifferent and decided that Zulu falls into the “good” side of the equation. While I agree with this, there were on the other hand some really outstanding inaccuracies. Before discussing the battle, lets dispose of the most obvious of these untruths:-

The sing-off – never happened. Oh, it might have if there had been more than 25 or 26 Welshmen between the garrison (B company of the 2/24th Warwickshire Regiment, later to become the South Wales Borderers) and the 35 hospitalised soldiers.

The drunken missionary – wasn't even present, nor was his daughter. In point of fact, Otto Witt left rather quickly when the first reports of a Zulu army came in.

Seniority - Chard and Bromhead didn't have this conversation – they didn't need to – the issue had been addressed by Major Henry Spalding (Chelsmsford's officer in charge of supplies and communications) who was nominally in command at Rorke's Drift. He wasn't mentioned in the film, but why would he be? He wasn't there for the battle...

The cattle stampede – actually happened, but not as shown in the film. The Zulus stole them back.

Private Henry Hook – depicted in the film as a malingering Drunk, wasn't he was a teetotaller and the hospital cook.

The large, well-built, grizzled Colour-Sargeant – just wasn't. Colour-Sargeant Frank Bourne was only 5 foot 6 inches tall (and less than 25 years old).

Anyways that's enough of the film criticism. On with the nasty stuff.....

This nasty stuff will commence by pointing out some of the anomalies between “Zulu” and army records. Lieutenant John Chard had barely managed to pass out of the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich in 1868. He had never heard a shot fired in anger, and according to reports he wasn't a very good engineer. In his personnel file, one superior officer recorded that he was “a most useless officer, fit for nothing”. Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead was also the subject of similar comments from his superiors. Notably by Colonel Degacher, his commanding officer who called him a “hopeless soldier” and remarked on his “unconquerable indolence”.

When news of Isandhlwana reached Rorke's Drift, preparations were made (by Chard and Bromhead) to abandon the depot and retreat. To where doesn't seem to have been considered, nor would it have been of any point. Retreating from a semi-fortified position by ox-train (which on a good day, on level ground, with no rivers to ford or hills to climb, might attain the great speed of two miles per hour) with more than thirty hospitalised patients and around 100 effectives, is to my mind something which far surpasses idiocy. The Zulu were far more mobile but, not to get into respective rates of advance, lets just say the Zulus could cover more than three times this distance in the same time.

The first intimation of the disaster at Isandlhwana was the arrival of Leiutenatnt Adendorff of the 1st/3rd Natal Native Contingent and a trooper of the Natal Carbineers. They informed Chard who had ridden up to Isalndlhwana looking for order and had already seen the Zulus moving around, that the camp (Isandlhwana) had been taken by thousands of Zulus, that scarcely a man had escaped and that the rest of the column had “probably shared the same fate”. After hearing this Chard went back to the pontoon bridges, which to be fair was what he was there for. Even so, this was pointless as Chelmsford had detached Chard's company of Royal Engineers to accompany his column, in fact the order which reached Chard said “The party of R.E. Now at Rorke's Drift are to move at once to join the Column under the charge of the NCO.” Where was the sense of this? The Royal Engineers had been sent build pontoon bridges over the Buffalo River, not go on a road trip at the Generals convenience.

Returning to the proposed abandonment of Rorke's Drift, James Dalton, the Acting Assistant Commisary (a civilian) appears to have been the only one thinking clearly. It was he who pointed out the pointlessness of running (slowly) from a position which could be fortified. It was he who came up with the idea of using the mealie bags as defensive works.

That's the British in place..........Here come the Judge....(sorry, I meant Zulus)...

The Impi which attacked Rorke's Drift hadn't been involved in the attack on Isandlhwana and it was feling left out. While Cetshwayo had ordered his regiments not to invade Natal, the regimental commanders (the Indunas) had tactical command and could respond to local conditions. [Instead of using Zulu terminology such as Impi and Amabutho, I'll use common Western terms (battalion and brigade)] (Note for US readers: UK Brigade = US Regiment)

The Zulus commanded by Prince Dambulamanzi (Cethswayo's younger brother), principally the uNdi brigade and the iNdluyengwe battalion had been part of the right horn at Isandlhwana but had no part in the fighting, but they were looking for a fight, so Dambulamanzi let them attack Rorke's Drift. Cetshwayo had given orders not to enter Natal, so why did they? The original commander, Chief Zibhebhu, had been slightly wounded so his place was taken by Dambulamanzi. He had no military authority beyond being the King's brother, he wasn't an experienced general, and he admitted later that he was angry at missing out on the glory at Isandlhwana.

The Zulu numbers were estimated to be between 4,000 and 5,000 but this can't be confirmed.

I'm not going to get into the blood and guts of the action as the film did a far better job than I could. But what do I conclude from all this? Simply that although the Battle of Rorke's Drift was essentially nothing more than a border skirmish, it came at a very opportune time as it distracted – to some extent anyway – from the more important events at Isandlhwana. Not to mention it made the cover-up much easier.

A final comment here comes from Sir Garnet Wolesley, who had, on 11th September, 1879, invested Bromhead with the VC. “I have now given away these decorations to both the officers who took part in the defence of Rorke's Drift, and two duller, more stupid, more uninteresting even or less like Gentlemen it has not been my luck to [meet] for a long time.” Not exactly an endorsement, is it?
 
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Edratman

Ad Honorem
Feb 2009
6,601
Eastern PA
#2
Re: Rorke's Drift...

A final comment here comes from Sir Garnet Wolesley, who had, on 11th September, 1879, invested Bromhead with the VC. “I have now given away these decorations to both the officers who took part in the defence of Rorke's Drift, and two duller, more stupid, more uninteresting even or less like Gentlemen it has not been my luck to for a long time.” Not exactly an endorsement, is it?
Nice job Chookie, although I will try and forget this because the movie is one of my favorites.

The evaluations and Wolesley quotation are fabulous.

This puts quite a human face on extraordinary heroism.
 
Aug 2010
16,159
Welsh Marches
#3
Re: Rorke's Drift...

Most interesting, thank you. I suppose if you get into a scrape like that you have to put as good a show as you can, even if you are dull, stupid, uninteresting and ungentlemanly!
 
Jul 2010
7,575
Georgia, USA
#4
Re: Rorke's Drift...

I would say Sir Wolesley was a tad peevish. Probably because Chelmsford, the British poster boy for Gentlemen Officers, was made to look the fool by the Zulus. Hard luck, old boy.
 

Chookie

Ad Honorem
Nov 2007
7,628
Alba
#5
Re: Rorke's Drift...

I would say Sir Wolesley was a tad peevish. Probably because Chelmsford, the British poster boy for Gentlemen Officers, was made to look the fool by the Zulus. Hard luck, old boy.
Chelsmford was hardly a "Poster boy", nor was he made to "look a fool" by the Zulus -he did that himself at Isandlhwana when he displayed his total unsuitability for command, his arrogance and his almost awe-inspiring incompetence.

Chelmsford would have been relieved at once when the news reached London except for cronyism. He was a great favourite of both the ruling clique at Horse Guards and the Queen.
 
Aug 2010
16,159
Welsh Marches
#6
Re: Rorke's Drift...

Wolseley furthermore was a brilliant and highly professional officer, who would hardly have looked up to someone like Chelmsford, even if he was gentleman enough to give him credit in public that he did not deserve. I suspect that his judgement of the two officers quoted above was pretty shrewd!
 
Jul 2010
7,575
Georgia, USA
#7
Re: Rorke's Drift...

Got it. Really didn't know about Horse Guards and Queen. Still, it doesn't change my opinion. Arrogance, incompetence, unsuitable by all means, yes. But I do think the Zulus had just a little bit to do with that defeat. So, given the cronyism who was made the scapegoat? Or was there a separation of a few years before things were really looked into? Sorry for the slow answer... lightning storm break.
 

Chookie

Ad Honorem
Nov 2007
7,628
Alba
#8
Re: Rorke's Drift...

The scapegoat they settled on was Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony Durnford. He was, very conveniently, dead.

Yes, the Zulus had a great deal to do with the result at Isandlhwana but they only had short stabbing spears. The British had .45 calibre rifles and seventy rounds per man, a couple of field guns and a rocket tube. How could a modern European army lose to spear-toting savages? (Ask Mussolini).

The orders Chelmsford issued before he went walkabout should be studied in military colleges......
 
Jul 2010
7,575
Georgia, USA
#9
Re: Rorke's Drift...

Thanks, Chookie. I was fumbling around looking for the name of the ranking Netal Contingent officer who died with the column figuring he would suffer the judgement. Still haven't got it. Time has a way of washing away some stains. Has Col. Durnford benefited from any modern reassessment?
 

pablo668

Ad Honorem
Apr 2010
2,187
Perth, Western Australia. or....hickville.
#10
Re: Rorke's Drift...

The scapegoat they settled on was Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony Durnford. He was, very conveniently, dead.

Yes, the Zulus had a great deal to do with the result at Isandlhwana but they only had short stabbing spears. The British had .45 calibre rifles and seventy rounds per man, a couple of field guns and a rocket tube. How could a modern European army lose to spear-toting savages? (Ask Mussolini).

The orders Chelmsford issued before he went walkabout should be studied in military colleges......

I think the advance into Zulu territory is studied in military colleges, probably as a way NOT to advance into enemy territory. I believe he divided his force into three seperate columns, one of which was slaughtered at Isandlhwana.

So they didn't have 'Concentration of force' for one.

I've heard or read elsewhere that there were problems with the quatermaster in doling out the ammo, which seems retarded, but there it is.

The British were outnumbered and didn't have a good defensive position from which to make their superior firepower more effective. I think that the Zulus did actually have some firearms, old muskets for what it's worth.

Full credit of course has to go to the Zulus for the astute generalship under which they fought and their bravery.
 

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