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Battle of Rorke's Drift (22–23 January 1879)

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Battle of Rorke's Drift

Rorke's Drift, known as kwaJimu ("Jim's Land") in the Zulu language, was a mission station of the Church of Sweden, and the former trading post of James Rorke, a merchant from the Eastern Cape of Irish descent. It was located near a drift, or ford, on the Buffalo (Mzinyathi) River, which at the time formed the border between the British colony of Natal and the Zulu Kingdom.

Battle of Oscarberg or Shiyane ?

The Oscarberg, called by the Zulus Shiyane ("The Eyebrow"), is the name given by the Reverend Peter Otto Holger Witt to a large hill 350 yards to the southeast (and rear) of the two buildings which formed the trading post at the Battle of Rorke's Drift (1879). The post was established by the British in 1845,Witt wrote from Greytown in January 1878 to inform his superiors that he had bought 3 044 acres of land very near to the Buffalo River, south-east of Dundee, and thus within walking distance of Zululand. He did not veil the fact that he had exceeded by £800 the limit of £1 000 which the CSM had imposed in giving him power of attorney, but he sought to propitiate the assumed anger of the committee members by emphasising that the land included buildings worth at least £500. Witt also explained that a ferry on the Buffalo River was included in the price and that the CSM could earn at least £100 annually carrying passengers on it when the river was in flood. Less exuberantly, Witt admitted that, given the international tensions in southern Africa, the proximity of the site to Zululand might be a mixed blessing and that the immediately previous owner, a man named Robert Surtees, had been willing to dispose of the property because he feared impending hostilities and renamed by the Swedish missionary Witt "Oscarberg" (or sometimes "Oskarsberg") after the reigning King Oscar II of the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway.


The British provoked the Anglo-Zulu War by presenting to the Zulu King Cetshwayo an ultimatum consisting of deliberately impractical and insulting list of conditions. The inevitable war, intended to subjugate the Zulu Kingdom and to extend British imperial control in southern Africa, began on 11 January 1879, when the 5,000-strong main British column invaded Zululand. Lord Chelmsford, a favourite of Queen Victoria, had been appointed commander. He showed arrogant disregard for the military capacities of the Zulu army. 'If I am called upon to conduct operations against them,' he wrote in July 1878, 'I shall strive to be in a position to show them how hopelessly inferior they are to us in fighting power, altho' numerically stronger.' This dangerous mixture of self-confidence and contempt for their foes infected the whole British force. But their misjudgement came to rebound on them badly... Chelmsford split his force into three columns. Chelmsford led the central column himself, crossing the Buffalo / Umzinyati River at Rorke's Drift mission station to seek out King Cetshwayo's Zulu army. But the British had underestimated their opponents' speed of movement and fighting ability. On 22 January 1879, 20,000 Zulu warriors launched a surprise attack against Chelmsford's camp at Isandlwana. Underprepared and dangerously strung out, the majority of the 1,700 British soldiers there were killed. By 3pm, the Zulus had captured the camp despite suffering heavy losses. The culmination of Chelmsford's incompetence was a blood-soaked field littered with thousands of corpses. Of the original 1,750 defenders - 1,000 British and 750 black auxiliaries - 1,350 had been killed.

The Battle of Rorke's Drift (1879), also known as the Defence of Rorke's Drift, began when a large contingent [one regiment?] of Zulu warriors broke off from their main force during the final hour of the British defeat at the day-long Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879, diverting 6 miles (9.7 km) to attack Rorke's Drift later that day and continuing into the following day. They were led by Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande(1839-86) who was King Cetshwayo's half-brother and had commanded the Undi regiment 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 they had some old-fashioned muskets and a few modern rifles, most were armed only with shields and spears. Around 150 British and colonial troops defended the station against attacks by 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu warriors [source? verifiable?]. The massive but piecemeal attacks by the Zulu on Rorke's Drift came very close to defeating the much smaller garrison, but were consistently repelled. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders, along with a number of other decorations and honours.

Dabulamanzi kaMpande's forces arrived at Rorke's Drift at 4.30pm. During the following twelve hours they repeatedly attempted to storm the British defences, held mainly by soldiers of the 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment. The Zulu attackers were unable to reach the soldiers behind the barricades by throwing their spears. Once they were within range of the fortifications they came under heavy fire from the British guns. Nonetheless, Zulu warriors repeatedly stormed the station. Those who succeeded in climbing the barricades often were shot at point-blank range. As the battle raged on, British soldiers who were too badly wounded to shoot were tasked with reloading guns and distributing ammunition to those who could still fire. Zulu attackers managed to breach the outer defences, the British pulled back into the hospital, where combat at close quarters continued among small groups of men, which later served as grounds for some of the medals bestowed upon the British soldiers (see below). As night fell, the British withdrew to the centre of the station, where a final defence had been hastily built. They eventually succeeded in fighting the Zulus off [did they? or did the Zulu force leave when it saw Chelmsford's column approaching?].

Word of the disaster of Idsandlwana reached Britain on 11 February 1879. The British public was dumbstruck by the news that 'spear-wielding savages' had inflicted the worst defeat ever upon the well equipped British Army. Chelmsford, the queen's favorite, had other powerful supporters in London—not least Prime Minister Disraeli—who could parry criticism for his embarrassing tactical blunders. Meanwhile Lord Chelmsford was urgently burying all the evidence that could be used against him. He had, in any event, another weapon to use against his critics - that of Rorke's Drift. By propagandizing the defense as an act of heroism that testified to British character he—and the generals and politicians that supported him and colonial policy in South Africa—could obscure the crushing defeat of Isandlwana. 'We must not forget,' Disraeli told the House of Lords on 13 February, 'the exhibition of heroic valour by those who have been spared.' Within days of Rorke's Drift, Chelmsford was urging the speedy completion of the official report because he was 'anxious to send that gleam of sunshine home as soon as possible'. When it finally arrived, he added two names to the six recommended Victoria Crosses - the names of lieutenants Chard and Bromhead. Many of their fellow officers were amazed by these two additions. One senior officer wrote: 'Bromhead is a great favourite in his regiment and a capital fellow at everything except soldiering ... He had to be reported confidentially as hopeless.' Another described Chard as 'a most useless officer, fit for nothing'.

In truth, the real hero among the British soldiers at Rorke's Drift was Commissary Dalton. It was Dalton who persuaded Chard and Bromhead to remain at Rorke's Drift when their first instinct had been to abandon the post. 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. It was also Dalton who organised and inspired the defence. 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. But Dalton, an ex-NCO, came from what the elite of the British Army considered an inferior class, and so his contribution was ignored for almost a year. He was eventually awarded a VC after intensive lobbying by the press - but not until January 1880, by which time the celebrations had died down.

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 Anglo-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, where the British Army employed the Gatling gun against the defenders of the Zulu capital. King Cetshwayo was later hunted down and captured, the Zulu monarchy was supplanted by British-appointed chiefs each ruling over semi-autonomous chiefdoms—a classic case of the strategy of divide and rule. In 1887, Zululand was declared a British territory, and became part of the British colony of Natal ten years later.

Victoria Cross Recipients

  • Lieutenant John Rouse Merriott Chard, 5th Field Coy, Royal Engineers
  • Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead; B Coy, 24th (The 2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot (2nd/24th Foot)
  • Corporal William Wilson Allen; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
  • Private Frederick Hitch; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
    • citation “It was chiefly due to the courageous conduct of Private Frederick Hitch and Corporal William Allen that communication was kept up with the hospital at Rorke’s Drift. Holding together at all costs a most dangerous post, and raked with enemy rifle fire from behind, they were both severely wounded. But their determined conduct enabled the patients to be withdrawn from the hospital. After their wounds were dressed, they continued to serve ammunition to their comrades throughout the night.”
  • Private Alfred Henry Hook; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
  • Private Robert Jones; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
  • Private William Jones; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
  • Private John Williams; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
    • citation:Private John Williams was posted with Private Joseph Williams, and Private William Horrigan, 1st Battalion 24th Regiment, in a distant room of the hospital, which they held for more than an hour, so long as they had a round of ammunition left: as communication was for the time cut off, the Zulus were enabled to advance and burst open the door; they dragged out Private Joseph Williams and two of the patients, and assagaied them. Whilst the Zulus were occupied with the slaughter of these men a lull took place, during which Private John Williams, who, with two patients, were the only men now left alive in this ward, succeeded in knocking a hole in the partition, and in taking the two patients into the next ward, where he found Private Hook. These two men together, one man working whilst the other fought and held the enemy at bay with his bayonet, broke through three more partitions, and were thus enabled to bring eight patients through a small window into the inner line of defence.
  • Surgeon-Major James Henry Reynolds; Army Medical Department
    • citation:For the conspicuous bravery, during the attack at Rorke's Drift on the 22nd and 23rd January, 1879, which he exhibited in his constant attention to the wounded under fire, and in his voluntarily conveying ammunition from the store to the defenders of the Hospital, whereby he exposed himself to a cross-fire from the enemy both in going and returning.
  • Acting Assistant Commissary James Langley Dalton; Commissariat and Transport Department
    • *Dalton was approximately 46 years old, and an acting assistant commissary in the Commissariat and Transport Department (later Royal Army Service Corps), British Army during the Anglo-Zulu War when he was awarded the VC for his actions on 22 January 1879, at Rorke's Drift, Natal, South Africa. His citation in the London Gazette of 17 November 1879 reads: For his conspicuous gallantry during the attack on Rorke's Drift post by the Zulus on the night of the 22nd January 1879, when he actively superintended the work of the defence, and was amongst the foremost of those who received the first attack at the corner of the hospital, where the deadliness of his fire did great execution, and the mad rush of the Zulus met with its first check, and where, by his cool courage, he saved the life of a man of the Army Hospital Corps, by shooting the Zulu who having seized the muzzle of the man's rifle, was in the act of assegaing (thrusting an assegai into) him. This officer, to whose energy much of the defence of the place was due, was severely wounded during the contest, but still continued to give the same example of cool courage.
  • Corporal Christian Ferdinand Schiess; 2nd/3rd Natal Native Contingent
    • citation: For conspicuous gallantry in the defence of Rorke's Drift Post on the night of the 22nd January, 1879, when, in spite of his having been wounded in the foot a few days previously, he greatly distinguished himself when the Garrison were repulsing, with the bayonet, a series of desperate assaults made by the Zulus, and displayed great activity and devoted gallantry throughout the defence. On one occasion when the Garrison had retired to the inner line of defence, and the Zulus occupied the wall of mealie bags which had been abandoned, he crept along the wall, without any order, to dislodge a Zulu who was shooting better than usual and succeeded in killing him, and two others, before he, the Corporal, returned to the inner defence

In 1879 there was no provision for the posthumous granting of the Victoria Cross, and so it could not be awarded to anyone who had died in performing an act of bravery. Private Joseph Williams, B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot, was killed during the fight in the hospital and was mentioned in despatches that "had he lived he would have been recommended for the Victoria Cross".

Distinguished Conduct Medal

  • Sgt Frank Bourne, DCM, in 1905
  • Gunner John Cantwell; N Batt, 5th Brig Royal Horse Artillery (demoted from bombardier wheeler the day before the battle)
  • Private John William Roy; 1st/24th Foot
  • Colour Sergeant Frank Edward Bourne; B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
  • Second Corporal Francis Attwood; Army Service Corps

Rev Peter Otto Holger Witt

Donald Morris wrote of Witt in The Washing of the Spears, His wife and three children had left several days earlier in a wagon with a single native retainer to
make their way to friends in Durban, and they were, he knew, at the Umsinga Mission Station. In
his excited imagination, nothing stood between them and a bloodthirsty Zulu impi but the Buffalo
River and a few miles of open country. Abandoning the last claim to his homestead on the spot,
he turned and fled up the track to Helpmakaar to find his family.
He also added, “ Witt was never popular in Natal”. To be fair to Morris, when writing this he
knew nothing of the Hammar letters and naturally relied on a cross-selection of accounts,
including Witt’s, when putting his synopsis together

( in documents here   )



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