• An African battle remembered
    January 16,2013
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    At this time of the year in 1879 an action took place in South Africa that resulted in the awarding of more of Britain’s highest military honor — the Victoria Cross — than in any other single action. It was fighting between British soldiers and Zulus at a place called Rorke’s Drift. The word “drift” was used to indicate a ford across a river. Years before, a trader named James Rorke had established a trading post at a crossing into land owned by the Zulus, who came to trade there. They called it “Jim’s Place.”

    For reasons not altogether honorable the British in South Africa had declared war against the Zulus in 1879, and a force under a general named Lord Chelmsford had crossed into Zululand at the drift, leaving a small garrison behind. Chelmsford also left a supply force under a mountain named Isandlwana and pressed further into the territory. The supply force accidentally surprised a large force of Zulu warriors, who attacked in overwhelming numbers and wiped out the detachment.

    Meanwhile the major in charge of the garrison at the drift felt the need to go to a nearby town to speed up some troops he knew were coming to reinforce Chelmsford. The major determined that a lieutenant of engineers named John Chard had seniority and said: “Technically you’ll be in charge in my absence, but nothing will happen and I’ll be back before dark.” Soon after the major left, the garrison began to hear distant gunfire from the direction of Isandlwana, and observers saw a Zulu force that had been on the flank of the attack but not actually engaged in the fighting, moving forward toward the drift. Chard and others began to put up barriers around the buildings at the drift which had been used by a missionary named Otto Witt.

    In a short time refugees from the massacre began to come rushing by, with the erroneous information that Chelmsford’s entire column had been wiped out. The major in charge of the garrison, heading toward the drift, met dozens of refugees who told him even the garrison at the drift had been killed, so he returned to the town to help it prepare for the Zulu attack that was expected. So it was left to Chard and an infantry lieutenant named Gonville Bromhead to prepare for the attack by thousands of Zulus who had shown up to plunder “Jim’s Place.”

    A movie entitled “Zulu” about the attack at Rorke’s Drift created quite a sensation when it first came out, but it contained a number of inaccuracies. For one thing, it made no mention of the major in charge of the garrison, but instead had Chard and Bromhead argue about who was to be in charge. Then it depicted the missionary and his daughter preaching peace and urging against fighting the tribesmen. Actually, the missionary had sent his wife and daughter away long before, as not being suitable to live with a garrison of soldiers. And as soon as the Zulu force made its appearance the missionary himself departed in a hurry.

    Another inaccuracy deals with a private named Henry Hook. The film makes him a malingering patient in the garrison hospital. Actually Hook was assigned there to help defend it from the impending attack. When the Zulus burst into the building Hook made a heroic performance by moving most of the patients to safety, cutting holes in walls from room to room in order to avoid the warriors raging outside.

    Fighting continued intermittently for most of the evening and night, but finally slackened and Chelmsford’s force arrived the next morning, having viewed with horror the remains of the supply force slain at Isandlwana. The return caused the Zulus to retreat and the garrison’s survivors cheered those who arrived in their stead.

    There were a couple of reasons why so many awards were given out. Chelmsford seems to have wanted to play up the defense at Rorke’s Drift to help offset the disaster at Isandlwana. Also, the South Africans felt for quite a while that the soldiers at Rorke’s Drift had been the only ones who kept the Zulus from staging a major plundering invasion of the territory. As it turned out, the British government considered the entire South Africa affair something of a sideshow, being much more interested in opposing the Russians in Afghanistan.

    The best account of Rorke’s Drift is by a British author named Ian Knight. He not only detailed the fighting but told something about the subsequent lives of those who won the Victoria Cross there. Chard returned to England and charmed Queen Victoria with his account of the fighting, complete with drawings to show how it developed. Bromhead was posted to India and died of cholera there a dozen years later.

    Henry Hook bought his way out of the army at Gibraltar, returned to London and took a job at the British Museum. He also opened a shooting gallery and taught marksmanship to Army recruits. But thoughts of the battle haunted some of the others and affected them the rest of their lives.

    Knight’s account is replete with illustrations, including reproductions of paintings made when the Rorke’s Drift action became famous. It is an interesting illumination of a long-ago piece of British history.



    Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.
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