January 22, 1879 4,000+ Zulu warriors, cheered by the stunning victory at Isandhlwana, descended upon the farm of Rorke's Drift in Natal, South Africa. There were British troops therein, a whopping 140 men - 36 of which were in the hospital.

This was essentially the British Alamo, only the Alamo won. The troops fought all day and through the night, only to have the Zulus salute the defenders as warriors and depart.

There were more Victoria Crosses (British Congressional Medal of Honor) awarded at this fight than at any other.

The movie Zulu is the Hollywood version of events, and really quite good. Fairly accurate historically and led by an excellent performance from Michael Caine, in what was his first starring role.

In a nod to subsequent nodes, I amend the above to state that there were more individual Victoria Crosses award at this battle than any other. I also accept that while the film rendition of the Zulu saluting the defenders was a strong visual - I thought I read it somewhere. A cursory search of sources at hand has turned up no supporting reference - so it may be false.

January 22-23, 1879, the Zulus attacked the British South African supply post of Rorke's Drift. The force of the B Company of the 2/24th Regiment were under command of a Major Henry Spalding, whose duties included keeping open the lines of communication and supply; on the morning of the 19th of January, he left the fort to check on reports of native raids, with the famous last words, "You will be in charge, although, of course nothing will happen", spoken to Lt. John Rouse Merriot Chard, an engineer who had been called in to supervise construction of a local bridge.

Of course, following good narrative irony, Major Spalding and his entire force were slaughtered, and the Zulu force advanced against the encampment (all right, 'fort' is a bit of a stretch). Almost the entire 140-man defending force was composed of engineers and wounded; all others had gone along with the dearly departed Spalding. Upon hearing the news of the disaster, Chard ordered the construction of a defensive barricade made of the only supply at hand: several hundred sacks of corn meal, each weighing around 200 pounds.Noticing that all his native contingent had also duly fled and about to panic, he doubled the fort by bisecting the ring with a line of sturdy biscuit boxes, forming a sort of inner wall. Towards evening of the 22nd, only a few hours after news of the disaster arrived, the first Zulu attack came, and was stopped only some 50 yards from the barricades. Two more waves followed during the night, often penetrating the outer ring, including one that almost succeeded, against the weak position of the hospital.By early morning, some 15 British had fallen, surrounded by piles of Zulu dead, with most of the camp in flames.

Relief came in the nick of time; with only a single box of ammunition remaining for the British, they looked out to see the Zulu force withdrawing, having spied a relief force of cavalry coming up over the hills.

Aside from being a remarkable military victory, it was also remarkable for the defeat of hordes of enemy at the hands of engineers. You can see why this made it to the movies.

Corrections to above entries:

There were more Victoria Crosses, 24, given in a single fight at the second Relief of Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny than any other battle. Rorke's Drift, with 11, is the second.

The movie version of Zulu got the broad facts mostly right, but very few specifics. Notably, there was no debate over who was in command between Chard and Bromhead, nor was Hook a thief.

Major Chard was not slaughtered (this had to be a typo). The Zulu attacking Rorke's Drift were the reserves from Isandlwana, and had not been able to participate in that conflict.

Inventory states that there were 20,000 rounds of ammunition stored at Rorke's Drift. After the battle, 900 unspent rounds were counted.

There is no evidence that the Zulu saluted the defenders, nor any that the defenders sang "Men of Harlech" (although it made a damn fine movie). Both sides essentially fought each other to utter exhaustion. Zulu were seen dragging their shields behind them leaving the fight.

Zulu casualties have been estimated at about 600, many of which were wounded on site and died later.

Corrections to ikomaandy's entry:

-Of the 24 VCs awarded at the second Relief of Lucknow, 18 were awarded by ballot to groups. This was as follows:

  • 5 to the Bengal Artillery
  • 4 to the 53rd Regiment
  • 3 to the 90th Regiment
  • 5 to the 93rd Regiment
  • 1 to the 1st Madras Fusiliers

These were awarded thanks to clause 13 of the 1856 warrant, a misguided idea if ever there was one. Needless to say, all VCs at Rourke's Drift were awarded to individuals for their own action.

-900 rounds is about the size of a box of Martini-Henry ammunition that the British used at the time.

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