Greatest Battles - Rorke's Drift
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There have been many great battles through out history, where the few have some how managed to hold off the many. The battle at Rorke's Drift was one of the British Army's finest hours. The British went into the Zulu War of 1879 very confident, after all, this was the British army going against, what they perceived, as a a bunch of savages. They thought that this was just an exercise in routing some natives but this all changed when the Zulu sent 20,000 warriors, called Impi, against their camp at Isandwana and their army of 1,500 soldiers were massacred. It seemed the Zulu were way more powerful and disciplined than the British had ever imagined. This was old meeting new. The British had a modern army but the Zulu were exceptional warriors who learned very fast, could travel twice as far in a day and fight without much food or sleep. They used the tactic that had been successful for them in the past, it was called ;the horns of the buffalo'. They would attack in a frontal assault and the two ends of the line would close in, surrounding the enemy. The defeat at Isandwana was to be the last time a modern army was defeated by natives with primitive weapons.

When the battle at Isandwana was over the Zulu now had modern weapons, the British weapons. Some decided to wipe out the rest of the British soldiers who were stationed at Rorke's Drift in an old Swedish Mission station. Rorke was a ferryman that had drowned in the Buffalo River, the mission was named after him. It is said that the Zulu king never sent his warriors against the mission, that over 4,000 warriors, flush with victory, decided to accomplish the task on their own and some of them were very well armed with the British rifles that had just captured. The British contingent numbered just over 100 men, this would be an easy task for them, just slaughter the British in a few minutes and then move on, or so they thought. This time it was the Zulu who underestimated the British. The Zulu king felt that it would be a mistake to cross the river and that is why he never ordered the attack.

The Zulu decided to charge the camp. They had to cover about 450 to 500 yards of open terrain before reaching the camp. The British defense was withering fire that exacted a very high toll on the attackers. They had built up barricades of bags of mealie and put soldiers into both the mission buildings covering the line of fire. The Zulus kept pushing on regardless of their causalities which were high, but they couldn't sustain the attack and after reaching about 50 yards from the camp had to retreat. Somehow the British had survived the first attack even though they were out numbered 40 to 1. The British tactic was a murderous cross fire from the buildings that accompanied the firing from behind the sacks. One of the buildings was a hospital.

The hospital building had been attacked by the Zulu and there were only six soldiers stationed there not counting a few patients. The highest ranking soldier was a private. There was a sergeant that was a patient but he was out of his mind with fever. In the fight for the hospital the occupants were even more greatly outnumbered than the rest of the defenders since they were cut off and had to fight on their own. Almost all the fighting in the hospital was hand to hand. It was truly an uneven battle. Six soldiers plus a few patients against hundreds of Zulu.

After they had fought off several waves of Zulu the British began taking off the roof of the storehouse. It was thatched and the Zulu had tried to set it on fire several times. Then Lt. John Chard, the commanding officer, ordered the walls of the hospital to be torn down so the Zulu couldn't use them for cover. He then sent out a patrol to collect weapons and they were astounded to find Zulu bodies everywhere. Just around the station there were almost 400 dead Zulu. But that was not all the Zulu dead. At least 600 Zulu had died before they gave up the attack. An armed detachment under Lt. Col. Russell had arrived to reinforce the defenders. The British had only 17 dead.

Left: Victoria Cross
Right: John Chard Medal

Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the soldiers in this battle. It is important to remember that since 1856 when the Victoria Cross was first begun only 1354 have been awarded. This was truly a battle of heroic proportions. The battle had lasted two days but for the men fighting in it, it was a life time. Today there is a British medal named the John Chard Medal for bravery.

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