Zulu the true story of what happened at Rorke's Drift

Graham Charles Lear
30 min readOct 19, 2018


Some of the Rorkes Drift defenders
Rorke's Drift after the battle
Rorke's Drift Defenders after the battle

49 English 32 Welsh, 16 Irish and one lone Scot the rest of the 139 defenders were Natal irregulars. , They were far from home looking into the abyss and what they were about to do in the next 24 hours would go down in history and into a film many years later. They would be awarded 11 Victoria Crosses the highest decoration for bravery in the British armed forces. They would set a record that has never been broken and in all likelihood never will be broken by being awarded those 11 VCs.

They would face 4,000 terrifying Zulu warriors who had seen their fellow warriors slaughter 1700 British and Natal soldiers just a few hours before they reached the Rorkes Drift outpost where they knew more soldiers were working.

Sergeant Joseph Lenford Windridge

William Tasker.

Privates Robert Cole.

Samuel Parry.

Joseph and Charles Bromwich Brothers

William Jones.

Robert Jones no relation.

Were eight of the soldiers came from the Birmingham area in the Midlands England.


Lieutenant Chard, not the brightest officer in the British Army standing with him is the equally not so bright Army officer Lieutenant Bromhead both would not even be considered for a position as an officer in today’s British Army.

However, standing with those officers was Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne the grizzled smart swagger stick under the arm Warrant Officer that we see in the film except he is not the grizzled tall soldier that we think we know, he is actually just 24 years old and just 5ft 4. Then there is Hook or Hooky as we know him the drunk soldier in the hospital, a soldier that will do anything to get out of work duties whenever the officers back are turned. Except Henry Hook is not a drunk, he is a dedicated professional soldier who was teetotal all his life who came from a Methodist family whose father was a Methodist Minister a god-fearing Hooky.

We see all those men in white helmets and redcoat uniforms don’t we in the film, In reality, white helmets are out of fashion, they are brown and had been stained brown by that drink that all British soldiers love to drink tea. Soldiers are not daft or silly they know that white helmets make pretty good targets.

And there they stand to wait for the inevitable attack. How though did they know they were going to be attacked.

Well Rorkes Drift is only 12 miles away from the main Army camp at Isandlwana and Chard had gone to Isandlwana before the day before slaughter and had been chatting to Dunford who had been left in command by Chelsmford as Chelsmford rode out with over half of the Army to try to get into contact with the Zulu, The records show why he had gone to the main camp, the soldiers at the Drift had been given vague orders to march to Isandlwana. so he had ridden out to clarify the order. Chard was actually having breakfast when news came that sightings of Zulu had been seen and had been given a pair of binoculars to watch their movement.

A typical Zulu warrior that fought at Rorke's Drift
British troops that fought at Isandlwana

Chard while watching the Zulus thinks they are actually making their way to the Rorke's Drift Mission and it's that thought that saves his life as he mounts his horse and rides swiftly back the 12 miles to his men. If he had not done that he would have stayed the day and night and would have been caught up in the fighting the next day and would have died.

Chard gets back to the mission. There he finds a Major Spalding who is in command of the garrison who demands to know who out of both Chard and Bromhead is the senior. They don't know so he walks the short distance into the Station and there he finds the Army list of 1878 and finds that Chard is senior because he is older and he strides back out and tells the waiting officers that Chard is senior and he is in charge while he is away, telling Chard don't worry old chap nothing is going to happen then he promptly rides out to Helpmakaa.

Chard is a little bemused at this point and spends the night worrying. The next day he is writing a letter when suddenly riders approach at speed, they are ten riders one of them is their commander Addendorf who with nine men have escaped the slaughter at Isandlwana Addendorf has had three horses shot from under him such is the ferocity of the battle and escape, He shouts at Chard Its fallen Isandlwana has fallen and we fear the same fate has happened to the General meaning Chelsmford.

Early that morning the men at the mission had heard the sound of cannon fire and had climbed the hills around the Mission to see what was going on. Now the penny drops, Rorkes Drift will be next.

Sketch of Rorke's Drift

Chard orders the Mission to be fortified with waggons and biscuit boxes while this is going on Oto Wit the Missionary who lives at the station along with the Reverand George Smith later known as the Fighting Reverand and two soldiers climb to the top of another hill and they see a formation of hundreds of men with horsemen riding in the front of them. They think it's the Army as Witt watches through his telescope he sees the horsemen have dark faces and it dawns on them that this is not the British army but Zulus who are riding captured horses.

They race down the hill and the fighting Reverand is shouting HERE THEY COME THICK AS GRASS AND BLACK AS HELL. Witt sees his mission being turned into a small fortress and is distraught. He mounts his horse and he rides out with his family. The Fighting Reverand and the two soldiers who went up the hill are relieved to see what the men have done to the Mission.

Chard then goes down to the river and with men ties the pontoons into the middle of the river then sinks the cables so they are of no use to the Zulus, they then make their way back to the mission where they see a steady stream of men who have escaped the slaughter passing the mission. Many stop to tell of the slaughter and are quickly sent on their way Chard and Bromhead may be dim but they are not that dim that don't know that when soldiers hear of what happens when the Zulus get hold of you it can sap morale so they men are sent on there way quickly.

100 horsemen appear they also have escaped the slaughter and they turn around to confront the fast approaching Zulus, they are confronted by 3,500 Impi, they put up a token firefight then retreat back to the mission where they tell Chard and Bromhead that its no use they are going to be overrun. By this time the garrison has swelled to 400 fighting men, however, the 100 riders tell Chard they are not stopping to help and begin to ride out. When the company of NNC see the riders ride out their nerve breaks and they flee. 400 suddenly becomes 150 and it's not surprising that the remaining men fire their rifles at the fleeing soldiers shooting at least one man in the back. His body would be recovered the following day,

They are now on their own and they have a big problem. They have fortified the mission for 400 men, it's now shrunk to just 150, not enough men to man the perimeter where they had put up barricades so they now have to shrink the Perimeter which they start doing. While they are doing this they can hear the Zulu chanting their battle cries and drumming their Assegies on their shields as they approach the Mission.

It's now 4.30 pm and the Zulus now attack, it's hot and it's only going to get worse The Zulus storm the barricades and are repulsed time and time again with rifle and bayonet, it’s hot and bloody work and many Zulus die or are wounded. The British are also being wounded and being killed those that are wounded behind the barricades load the rifles for the men fighting.

On and on it goes, then the Zulus make a breakthrough, they get at the hospital and break in they begin to kill the patients in there Henry Hook is in the hospital at the time and he begins to fight for his life and the lives of the men in the hospital. They begin a fighting withdrawal from the hospital and are then rescued. and the Zulus are thrown back

By this time night is closing in and the Zulus set fire to the roof of the Hospital. The British now quickly make a final defence in the centre of the Station. They have been fighting continually for twelve hours without respite and are tired hungry thirsty and take what respite is offered, they gulp water down their throats dry from the heat, the dust and worry of what's to come. The Zulus are also tired and thirsty and they also withdraw to a safer position and throughout the night sporadic firing continues from both sides. It's a myth that the Zulus only have spears they too also have rifles some a lot older than they have always had, however, they now have rifles taken from the slaughter at Isandlwana and they are using them like they have done all day. Luckily they are not good riflemen but they have done damage with them, as 17 men of the garrison lie dead some from the bullet others through the famous Assegai a spear used for either throwing or stabbing at close quarters.

Daylight is now fast approaching and the men now know it won't be long before the mission is overrun and in all probability are now resigned to all dying, they have done more than their best to survive but they know one more attack and it's over so they prepare for one more last stand.

It's another myth that they line up behind a barricade two lines in front one kneeling the other standing with a further line hiding behind ready to give the Zulus the shock of their lives like the film portrays. There was never a last stand like that. The truth is that the Zulus just withdrew from the battlefield as daylight approached they had seen the relief column led by Chelmsford just a few miles away and had decided to leave the field.

Two hours later the column reached the Mission to find the men tending to the wounded and resting. Every man had sustained a wound of some kind some serious some not so serious. As in many aftermaths of battle, soldiers will be in shock, some will be talking ten to a dozen reliving in their minds the battle and what they have had to do. others will just be sitting quietly. The latter was how they found Chard and Bromhead the two officers who would be later be decorated with the VC. Chard was sitting quietly not saying anything. Bromhead had gone down to the river and was sitting watching the water run. He was shaking a little, neither in reality, had ever expected to have to fight in a battle in South Africa and here they are both were in the middle of South Africa just survived one of the worst day and night of their entire lives. Both Officers would never be the same again. If this had happened today both would have been treated for PTSD. In 1879 you just got on with life no matter what you had done or had seen.

What about our hero's Sergeant Joseph Lenford Windridge, Privates Robert Cole and Samuel Parry the brother's Joseph and Charles Bromwich, William Jones, Robert Jones from Birmingham. Well, they all survived.

William Tasker, born in 1846, joined the army as a 20-year-old. was wounded by a spear but fought on. After the battle, he left the Army and returned to Birmingham. He married and raised a family. At the age of 42, William Tasker died.

Joseph Lenford Windridge also left the army. He became a clerk and he also married. He had eleven children, six died of the disease tuberculosis. He lived a quiet life. Then in 1886, he suffered a stroke, He died at the age of 60 in 1902

Joseph Bromwich also left the army he had been married to Betty before his exploits in South Africa and he returned to her and they opened a shoe repair shop in the Aston area of Birmingham in 1916 two years into world war 1 he died at the age of 60. There is no record of what his brother Charles did or when he died.

Robert Cole was one of the men in the hospital wing at the Mission when the Zulus attacked. He was suffering from a high fever, we don't know what the fever was but Malaria could have been the cause of it. He managed to get out alive but wounded slightly by a spear. He returned home and settled again in Aston. He died in 1888 at the age of 40.

We don't know what happened to the rest of the eight unfortunately perhaps one day someone will uncover what they did after they returned to England.

We do know what happened to a few others as there were 11 Victoria Crosses awarded.

We will start with Lieutenant John Chard VC

Chard was thought to be a dull-witted man by all account. However, at Rorke's Drift, he took command of the situation admirably. It was down to him that they made the last stand fortifications that they could retreat to when the Zulus broke through the Western end of the Mission.

Chard out of uniform

Chard like many soldiers had smoked all his life at the age of 49 he died from tongue cancer. Chard had never married so it fell to his brother the Reverand Chard who lived at the rectory at Hatch Beauchamp, Somerset to look after him. I find Chard much-maligned he was undoubtedly a dull man a slow man even, however, his bravery at the Drift cannot be questioned but that's what happened. For years after the battle, Colonel Evelyn Wood could be seen and heard spreading rumours that Chard had exaggerated what he had done at the Drift. All nonsense of course but Chard did not help the case when Queen Vitoria invited him for an audience with her only for him to forget to go. All it did was prove to many that he was indeed a dull-witted idiot. The Queen as the saying goes was not amused and he was never again asked to attend court.

Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead VC

Lieutenant Bromhead was different He came from a long line of family soldiers who had fought in the American war of Independence, his father had fought at Waterloo and he himself had actually been part of the Ninth Cape Frontier War. We don't know if he had fought in that war though. Bromhead was actually was in command of the 2nd Battalion 24th Regiment of Foot at the Drift before Major Henry Spalding put Chard in command because of seniority. Bromhead though was in the thick of the fighting. He was seen using his rifle, his Revolver and was seen in hand to hand combat a true warrior in every sense of the word. He survived the breaching of the perimeter by the Zulus where many of his men were wounded and it's this action that might have contributed to his battle lethargy after the battle was over. Bromhead went on to serve in India and Burma and took part in a few more battles where he was promoted to Major. Finally, in India, he lost his last battle. Typhoid did what scores of Zulus could not do he died from it in 1891 at the young age of 45.

Bromheads grave in Allahabad, India

Corporal William Willson Allan VC

Allan was one of those characters that anyone who has served knows only too well. A soldier who reached the rank of Sergeant who then threw it all away by being a troublemaker and a drunkard. A hard man in every respect, a fighter who would pick a fight in an empty room if given the chance. He had been made up to Corporal while in South Africa so he must have been a competent soldier when he was not fighting other soldiers when drunk. It was Allen that opened up a communication line to the hospital when it was surrounded and being attacked by the Zulus. Then if that was not enough when the last soldier in the hospital had been evacuated he stayed behind covering their evacuation to safety even though he had been severely wounded. Even then when he could no longer fight men saw him crawling around handing out ammunition. Allan managed to avoid any more combat for the rest of his life although he did manage to get his Sergeant stripes back. He was sent back to England as an Army instructor. He died in Monmouth, Wales, in 1890 losing his last battle to Influenza. Allen, when he died, had not yet reached fifty years of age.

Corporal William Willson Allan VC

Private Fredric Hitch VC

Private Fredric Hitch was a character in every sense of the word. He could not read or write and throughout his life was always dogged by bad luck. He joined the Army at the age of 22 to get stability in his life. It was his bad luck that the moment he joined the Regiment it was ordered to go to South Africa. Hitch found himself stationed at Rorke's Drift. It was here that Hitch with Allen opened up the communication line to the hospital and kept it open fighting off dozens of Zulus. Like Allen, he was wounded. and he demanded a revolver and to be propped up so he could continue to shoot Zulus has his life ebbed away. Hitch did not die but was so badly wounded that his short time in the Army came to an end. He was invalided out of the Army and given a £10 a year pension. He found he could not exist on that money so he took up various jobs as a handyman. Unfortunately, that did not last long he fell off a ladder and was injured taken to hospital he woke to find his VC that he always wore had been stolen. He asked the Army to supply him with another one which they did but they made him pay for it. Eventually, he moved to London where he managed to buy two horses and a carriage and he becomes a taxi driver. He traded them in and bought a Motor. However, it did not last long. In 1913 he died at his home at the age of 59 He was buried with full military honours near his home in Chiswick. Many London cabbies attended his funeral, and the Fred Hitch Gallantry Award for cab drivers remains is still awarded today.

Private Henry Hook VC

Hook was actually a cook, the last person you would think who would be awarded the VC. He too was found in the hospital when the Zulus attacked. Despite finding himself alone with Private Williams he and Williams fought a brutal hand to hand battle with the Zulus. By all accounts, there were so many dead Zulus in the vicinity where both these men fought that the room was awash with blood. He was discharged from Army life and came back to England only to find his wife thinking he had died had married again. The only work he could find was as a servant eventually he found better work at the London Museum. He died in 1905 of the disease tuberculosis.

Jones left of the photo. The soldier next to him looks like its Hook

Private Robert Jones VC

Jones was also in the hospital wing and again with another soldier Private William Jones fought the Zulus to a standstill. William broke through the outer wall so that men could escape while Robert fired time and time again at the Zulus trying to get at them. Robert’s body was stabbed four times by spears and he was shot once. Both of them saved six men but Robert was forced to watch as Sgt Maxfield was stabbed to death with spears. Maxfield was the last man they were trying to get out and they failed. It would haunt Robert for the rest of his life. He settled back in England and got a job as a farmhand. Throughout his life after South Africa back in England, he had nightmares and succumbed to depression. One day he could take no more and borrowed his employers shotgun on the pretence of shooting crows. Instead at the age of 41 leaving behind a wife and five children he shot himself.

Private William Jones VC

See Private Robert Jones VC no relation for what he did at the Drift. We take up his story as he is discharged from military life. It's a story of poverty. He was discharged in 1880 and found work as a jobbing actor even working in the famous Buffalo Bills roadshow. The roads show even enacted Rorke's Drift. However, he fell on hard times and resorted to selling his VC. That money did not last long and in 1910 he was forced into one of England's workhouses. Three years later we find William dead and the body of William Jones VC has been buried in a pauper’s grave an unfitting end for a decorated war hero.

Private John Williams VC

Now, this soldier is a bit of a puzzle or a mystery if you like. He was actually the last of the Rorke Drifts VC holders to die and unlike most of them, he died rather quite old having seen one of his sons killed in World War 1 and with another World War just a few short years away. He died in 1932 at the age of 75. The mystery, however, is that Williams was not his actual name but the name he signed up with. His real name was John Fielding, and no one knows quite why he signed up with the name Williams. All we can do is speculate that he had either committed a crime and was on the run or that he was running away from something else, perhaps from woman trouble with an irate husband trying to catch him. We just don't know. However, what we do know is that when it came to being brave he was one of the bravest men in the compound fighting with Hook to save men trapped. His funeral was actually filmed in 1932.

Surgeon James Henry Reynolds

Surgeon James Henry Reynolds VC

If Williams was the last to die, Surgeon James Henry Reynolds was the next to the last to die just eight months before Williams in 1932. Reynolds was the oldest 88 years of age when he drew his last breath and because of his age he had seen and been in more wars and battles than most of us could name. He was the Mission head doctor and could be seen running to any soldier wounded to drag him back into the small room he was using so that he could treat the soldier. Time and time again he ran into the thick of the fighting to do this at his side was his faithful fox terrier, Dick. In 1896 he retired and lived out the rest of his life in peace.

Assistant Commissioner James Dalton VC

Assistant Commissioner James Dalton VC

Now Dalton is an interesting character. Dalton was sent to the weakest defensive position which was the corner of the hospital building. That position was exploited by the Zulu’s who mass assaulted that corner. Dalton single handily fought off that assault by picking off the Zulu’s as they attacked with his rifle, as an excellent marksman the Zulu’s dropped one by one when one did get through unnoticed and was about to spear a soldier Dalton casually picked him off. In the initial report for awards, Dalton was missed off the list. It was only when word got around of his exploits at the Drift that Senior officers took another look. When they looked and interviewed the soldiers and officers they saw that he indeed was worthy of the VC and one year later with the help of the public he was awarded the medal. Rumours though persisted for years that Dalton who was an enlisted man who through sheer hard work had dragged himself to officer level had been snubbed for the award for actually having the audacity to be an officer when you had to come from the right family and have connections which of course he did not have. Dalton decided to stay in South Africa and try his luck in a gold mine all was going well until the night of the 7th January 1887. He went to bed, went to sleep and never woke up, he died at the age of 53.

Then there was Christian Ferdinand Schiess VC

Schiess was Swiss and had fought with the French Army until joining the Natal Native Contingent in South Africa. He became the first foreign national to be awarded the VC. He was 22 years of age and like many others at the Mission was in the hospital with minor injuries to his feet when the Zulus attacked. Nevertheless, he scrambled out of his bed and made his way to the line of mealie bags to fight next to his comrades when the defence was about to be breached he climbed on top of the mealie bags and killed three of the Zulus who had managed to get on top single handily in close-quarter combat. It was this that he was awarded the VC. However, after he was discharged from the Natal Native Contingent he could not find work and became a Vagrant living on the Streets in Capetown. Living on the streets he became malnourished and was one step from the grave when the Royal Navy who had orders to locate him found him. They asked him if he would like a passage to England and he accepted. However, as they sailed to England Schiess died at the age of just 28 and was buried at sea.

What happened to the others players.

Chelmsford who had split up his forces and whose fault it was that the Zulus slaughtered the men at Isandlwana got off scot-free from being blamed. He and his column had to pass through the slaughtered men is must have been a sight that none of them would ever forget. Men would have been stripped to the waist or at least had their tunics ripped open so that the Zulus could gut them not because of some belief as an act of savagery but to release the soul. Many Zulus did act in a savage manner by taking the jawbone of a fallen soldier for a prize. Chelmsford would have seen all that and he had twelve miles to think up an excuse to absolve himself of all blame.

Chelmsford did think up an excuse that would absolve him of the blame that was his. Dead men can tell no tales and he put all the blame on Col. Durnford

Queen Victoria was actually a very good friend of Lord Chelmsford and she granted him an audience with her when he came home. She like everyone in the United Kindom was intrigued at what had happened. On one hand, Britain had suffered one of the worse military defeats at Isandlwana at the height of British power, on the other hand at Rorkes Drift 150 men had defeated 4,000 Zulu's the same Zulu’s who had taken part in the slaughter at Isandlwana and they had done it in style losing only 17 men and everyman left standing had been wounded. They had done Britain proud as the saying goes, so why should she not want to know the whole story and after all who better to tell her the story but her very good friend Frederic Augustus Thesiger 2nd baron of Chelmsford, she had known him for years Frederic would tell her the truth she could trust Freddy with her life. Well, Freddy could be trusted to protect his Queen with his life that was the code he lived by for all his life, but he was not about to tell her that it was his fault. Although Victoria had heard rumours that did not sit well with her. So she asked him outright. We have what he said written down by her in her journal that she kept.

'Ld. Chelmsford said no doubt poor Col. Durnford had disobeyed orders, in leaving the camp as he did… Ld. Chelmsford knew nothing, Col. Durnford never having sent any message to say he was in danger… This much is clear to me: viz. that it was not his fault, but that of others, that this surprise at Sandlwana took place… I told Ld. Chelmsford had been blamed by many, and even by the Government, for commencing the war without sufficient cause. He replied that he believed it to have been quite inevitable; that if we had not made war when we did, we should have been attacked and possibly overpowered.’

We can see from what she had written that Ld. Chelmsford had indeed shifted the blame onto Dunford he had told her a pack of lies.

There is proof that Dunford had sent riders to Chelmsford to tell him to turn back post haste as the Camp was about to be attacked. He actually had two warnings that the camp was about to be attacked and he ignored both. He said, Dunford, disobeyed orders to defend the camp, no such order was given and why should the camp be defended anyway other than the usual defensive positions that go when an Army is out in the field, Chelmsford forgets that he was riding out with most of the Army taking with him most of the Gatling guns and artillery to bring the Zulu to battle on his terms which means he thought the Zulu Impi was miles away. If he thought the camp needed defending it would mean he had got it wrong and the Zulu were massing to strike the camp and he should never have left the camp as he did so why was that not picked up?

The sad truth was the fact he had got it wrong and now he was busy covering up mistakes. Officers who could have told the truth were sent to other parts of the Empire so that they could not be sent for. He told blatant lies. He even blamed the shortage of ammunition as a cause for the defeat which is nonsense because when talking to the Queen he mentioned that the war with the Zulus was a defensive war. In other words, we were there and the Zulus did not like us being there so attacked us, Well they did not like us being there because far from us being there defending Natal we were there to conquer the dam place, to put the Zulus to the sword, to dethrone King Cetshwayo and put our officials in charge. You don't go to conquer the land with a shortage of ammunition you go in mob-handed with as much ammunition that you need and then some, so he told two blatant lies to the Queen to cover up his mistakes.

The truth of the matter is that the British Government under Benjamin Disraeli did not want to be there in the first place but when push came to shove they backed the invasion because in those days they sent out people from the Colonial department to sort out problems one of those men was a certain Sir Bartle Frere, it was him that started this whole episode. When the Government heard what he was up to they gave him implicit instructions not to start a war.

‘We cannot now have a Zulu war, in addition to other greater and too possible troubles’, wrote Sir Michael Hicks Beach, the colonial secretary, in November 1878. He was referring of course to the trouble with Russia and the threat to Constantinople and Afghanistan.

However, Sir Bartle Frere exaggerated the threat by the Zulus and when the Government of the day refused to sanction war he took the matter into his own hands in December 1878 by presenting the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, with an unacceptable ultimatum. This required, among other things, the disbandment of the Zulu Army, and the war was the inevitable result. The dye was cast Frere got the war he always wanted and the Government sent out 5,000 men under the command of Lord Chelmsford fully stocked to wage a modern war with the latest weapons of the day.

It was to that background the men at Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift and I have to say at this point Nyezane and Eshowe, Khambula, Hlobane, Khambula, Gingindlovu fought so valiantly against an equally valiant foe the Zulu.

This belt was taken off a soldier at Isandlwana and given as a prize to King Cetshwayo
Pair of Gatling guns used in the Zulu war
Zulu shield
View at Rorke's Drift. You can see in the distance the small mountain where the battle of Isandlwana took place. It's around twelve miles away.
British Army helmet that was worn either at Rorke's Drift or Isandlwana. You can see that it was once white but it has been stained a light brown
Part of the River at the Drift
River at the Drift. From this angle, we can't see the Mission
This the battlefield at Isandlwana. From this photo, you can see the graves of the soldiers who died. They were put into the ground where they died. So it gives the reader a good idea of how the battle was spread out
Another view of the battlefield and the graves
Isandlwana battlefield and graves

Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift were the opening battles of the Zulu war. It was a shock to both the Government and the Public in the UK that what was considered in those days savages could inflict such a defeat on a modern military force. However, the Zulu were a proud nation and they were not the angels we might think they were. They were a Warrior people who knew the art of war very well indeed. They were not averse to conquering lands by force and they were very good at it. They were well-disciplined very brave and by the time the British had landed with their army of 5,000 men Cetshwayo, the Zulu King had purchased tens of thousands of firearms with ammunition. However, the problem was the fact they were old and the Zulu had no time to actually train with them properly as the European army's had. That meant they could not be used as an effective weapon on the modern battlefield of the day.

However, they did put them to good use throughout the Zulu war and they were not just the spear throwing, jabbing warriors that are portrayed by many people.

Well disciplined the Zulu warriors were formed in regiments by age, their standard equipment the shield and the stabbing spear. The formation for the attack, described as the ‘horns of the beast’, was said to have been devised by Shaka, the Zulu King who established Zulu hegemony in Southern Africa. The main body of the army delivered a frontal assault, called the ‘loins’, while the ‘horns’ spread out behind each of the enemy’s flanks and delivered the secondary and often fatal attack in the enemy’s rear.

The Zulus captured some 1,000 Martini-Henry breech-loading rifles and a large amount of ammunition at Isandlwana. Some of these rifles were used at Rorke’s Drift. Most of the British that died at the Drift, few though they were, were shot rather than stabbed, although every soldier at some point received either a deep stab wound or a graze. From this, we can see the Zulu getting into close combat with every defender.

In recent years there has been some concern at what the relief column did to the Zulu who had been wounded and had been left on the field of battle at the Drift. Many say it was a war crime. However, we have to remember that at the time there was no such thing as a war crime and it was usual for the wounded to be put to death in places like Africa by both. And we have to remember that the relief had seen their friends mutilated beyond recognition so they were in no mood to be merciful. No person was spared at Isandlwana if they did not get away they were killed on the spot. At the time the British Army used young boys as young as 11 as drummer boys and medical helpers. They would also be used to mark out the range for the rifles and also to hand out Ammunition.

A drummer boy of the British Army

There are accounts written by survivors of what was going on in the battle here are a few.

The Rev Owen Watkins wrote as follows:
‘He addressed them and told them their lives depended on obedience and keeping together, and that any man who strayed from the ranks was doomed. If it was God’s will and they would obey, he would bring them through into Natal. They pledged their word to abide together with him that day for life or death. But he must, if possible, get ammunition. He saw an ammunition wagon and noticed the Zulus were too busy in the tents to bother about this wagon. He rode up with his men and found no one there but a little drummer boy who sat on top of the wagon and said he was in charge. Simeon asked him to give him and his men a packet of cartridges each, just to help them defend themselves. But the little boy informed them that this ammunition belonged to the 24th Regiment, and as long as he was in charge no one else should have any of it. He felt the boy was obeying orders and respected him. Then he saw there was a loose lot of cartridges lying in the grass around the wagon. Men who had come for cartridges were in such haste to fill their belts that they dropped many on the ground. So Simeon and his men each picked up a few and put them into their belts.

Simeon’s heart went out to the boy who was sticking to his post of duty. He told him the battle was lost, the camp was in the hands of the enemy, the fighting all over, and, indeed, his was the only body of men holding together. He begged the boy to leave the wagon, and he would take him in front of the saddle, and as long as he had a life he would defend him. The boy was surprised and hurt that anyone could think he would desert his post. His officer had placed him there, and no one should move him out while he had a life. With a very sad heart, Simeon had to leave him there. Brave young soul! I salute thee, for it is souls like thine, which have won the Empire!

Like all the boys the young lad died at his post refusing to leave it and like the men, he was gutted.

One more account

When the Invasion began, the Army’s morale was high, Isandlwana changed all that. Those soldiers
who returned to the camp and witnessed the terrible carnage were shocked to the core. The dead had not just been killed but ritually disembowelled and
brained. Not a living creature had been spared. Men, little drummer boys, horses, oxen and even pet dogs; all had been butchered. The effect on the
soldiers was profound and the shock waves spread throughout the Army. The Zulus became imbued with almost superhuman qualities. They could swiftly
cover large distances and then charge without fear until they overran their foes, who could expect no mercy. After Isandlwana, the British soldier’s fear
and hatred of the Zulus led them to become ruthless in their pursuit of defeated warriors and prisoners were rarely taken.

May 24, 1879.
A very pathetic bit of private news of poor little MacDowell. He was sent by the General to tell them to strike the tents, and was urging on the ammunition to the front, and encouraging the bandsmen to carry it when a Zulu shot him. A good and not painful end — God bless him! The Capt. Jones who told this, said also that one little bugler killed three big Zulus with his side-arms before he fell!.

A press report after the battle noted that two drummer boys had been mutilated while still alive, although experts disagree on whether the boys were dead or alive when the mutilations took place (the report did bring to an end the practice of taking drummer boys in the field with their regiments).

I would like to quote from James W Bancrofts book The Zulu War, 1879 Rorke’s Drift “The dead on the battlefield at Isandhlwana was treated with disgusting savagery.
They were disembowelled, and their entrails scattered amongst the debris. Some men were decapitated and their heads placed in a gruesome ring. But one sight more than any other sickened the men who visited the battlefield. The Zulus had seized five band-boys, and either tied them to wagons by their feet and slit their throats or hung them on butchers hooks by their chins, sliced them up, then cut their privates off and put them in their mouths.”

In those days I would say revenge would have been so sweet after seeing the gore a few hours before they reached the Drift and they would have gone out of their way to find and kill any Zulu who they could find. After all, many of the relief would have had friends who they had known for years or who had joined at the same time. who they had been talking to just a day or two before.

War is savage inhuman and bloody even today where there are rules and laws. In the 1800s it must have been far worse. So I am blaming no one on both sides for what they did.

In the coming months after both those battles, there were more bloodshed and more gore and more acts of bravery by both sides. This story is far from over and we will be looking at more battles in a short while.



Graham Charles Lear

What is life without a little controversy in it? Quite boring and sterile would be my answer.