Gateway to the Classics: The Boy's Book of Battles by Eric Wood
The Boy's Book of Battles by  Eric Wood

Isandhlwana And Rorke's Drift

A Story of Tragedy and Heroism

At the end of 1878, Cetewayo got into trouble with England, and as he refused to make reparation for certain offences, war was declared, and on January 12th a British army crossed the Tugela and met and forced the Zulus back at Inyezane.

On January 10th the centre column of the British force, under Colonel Glyn, had encamped at Rorke's Drift, on the right bank of the River Buffalo. Two days later a portion of the army moved off to reconnoiter, found the enemy at Sirayo, and put them to flight. On the 20th Lord Chelmsford and Colonel Glyn led the greater part of their force on to Isandhlwana, leaving two companies of the 1st battalion of the 24th Regina and two of the 2nd battalion to hold Rorke's Drift. Isandhlwana had been chosen because there was plenty of fuel in the neighbourhood, besides which it was a fairly strong position.

To the west the hill is precipitous, but on the east it slopes down gradually to a watercourse. "At both ends are ridges or spurs that connect it with the smaller undulations of which the more level part of the landscape consists. Over its western ridge passed the track from Rorke's Drift. On the immediate right was a kopje, or group of small hills, and others, covered with huge grey boulders, were seen rising in succession away to the Buffalo River. To the left of the camp, at a mile's distance, a long ridge ran southward, and towards the east opened an extensive valley."

On the 21st Chelmsford sent out a couple of parties under Major Dartnell and Commandant Lonsdale to attack the Zulu chief Matyana, who was in a good position about twelve miles from Isandhlwana. Dartnell had with him mostly mounted Natal Volunteers and Police, while Lonsdale's force was composed of two native battalions, which were by no means to be depended upon. Dartnell decoyed Matyana from his position, but found him so overwhelmingly strong that it was considered advisable to fall back to where Lonsdale was awaiting him and send for reinforcements.

As soon as the Commander-in-Chief received the news of the Zulus' strength, he ordered the 2nd battalion of the 24th, the mounted infantry, and four guns to be ready for the march in the morning, and at daylight the column, commanded by Chelmsford himself, moved off to join Dartnell.

In order to strengthen the camp, Colonel Durnford, who had been lying between Rorke's Drift and Isandhlwana, was ordered to move on to the latter place, bringing the Basuto horse and the rocket battery. Pending the arrival of Durnford, the camp was left in the hands of Lieutenant-Colonel Pulleine, who had with him six companies of the 24th, about eighty mounted men, two guns of the Royal Artillery, and four companies of the Native Contingent.

An hour or so after the main army had left the camp, outposts rode in to report that the enemy were approaching from the north-east, less than a mile away. Without loss of time, everything was put in battle order, and by the time this was done Durnford arrived with his reinforcements, and took over command of the camp.

The guns had been placed in position on the left of the camp, the Native Contingent had been sent off to the hills on the left, and the remainder of the troops waited for the coming of the foe.

Though they knew it not, for the reports which kept coming in from the outposts contradicted each other, the little body of men were slowly but surely being surrounded by the enemy. Durnford, however, took the precaution of sending out a troop of the Natal Native Contingent to bring up his baggage-guard, sent out Captains Barton and Shepstone to take up position on the hills to the left, and he himself with two troops and the rocket battery rode off to the left front. The rocket battery could not keep up with the mounted men, and was soon left behind, but Durnford went on for about five miles, and then fell in with a large body of Zulus. A dozen men deep, they pressed on towards the little party, firing as they came. Man after man of the British force dropped, and Durnford at last saw that his only hope was to fall back on his rocket battery, and there make a stand. So, inch by inch, his troops retreated, pouring in a heavy fire as they went, and making their way back in good order.

The battery was reached; but too late! All around it lay the dead gunners, and a goodly number of Zulus. With startling rapidity the foe had fallen upon the battery, surrounding it so that escape was impossible, and rushing upon the gunners with cruel ferocity. Hand to hand they fought, but the British were appallingly outnumbered, and at last not a man of them remained alive; rifles and assegais had done their work.

Thus did Durnford find the battery; it was ominous of what was to come. Still back and back he fell, followed by the Zulu horde, who, with battle-shouts ringing through the air, pressed forward to complete the work they had begun.

Meanwhile, what of Chelmsford?

About nine o'clock in the morning, while the column was on the march away from the camp, an orderly rode up and reported that the Zulus were advancing on the camp. A couple of officers, deputed to view the camp from the top of an adjoining hill, reported that all was quiet, and the army marched forward again, driving Zulus before them.

It was a tragic mistake. As events proved, the retirement of the Zulus before the army had been part of a prearranged scheme to lure Chelmsford away from the camp, but at last the general noticed the mass of Zulus gathering on the plain behind him, and determined to fall back, leaving part of his force encamped. He still did not realise the necessity for hurrying, and so the march back was rather leisurely.

At about half-past three, however, when Chelmsford was still some six miles away from the camp, a solitary horseman was seen riding as fast as his jaded horse would carry him.

"The camp is in possession of the enemy, sir!" he cried as he approached, and the story he had to tell sent consternation throughout the force.

Returning to the camp, he had been staggered to hear a shot ring out, and to feel a bullet whiz past his head. Looking up, he caught sight of the Zulu who had fired upon him, and then—then, going in and out of the tents went men in red uniforms—but with black faces, blood-dripping assegais in their hands. In a moment the officer grasped the situation, wheeled his horse round, and flew like the wind, dozens of bullets singing past him, but all missing their mark. He was going to warn Chelmsford, who, unless warned, must undoubtedly fall into the trap which had been cunningly laid for him.

On receipt of the news, Chelmsford immediately sent back and ordered the guns and the 24th to come up. It was six o'clock when they arrived, and then the little force, travel-worn from marching under a broiling sun, battle-worn from fighting the Zulus in their path, commenced their sadly late march on camp.

"Men," said Chelmsford as the soldiers shouldered their rifles and fell into step, "whilst we were skirmishing in front the Zulus have taken our camp. There are ten thousand in our rear, and twenty thousand in front. We must win back our camp to-night, and cut our way back to Rorke's Drift to-morrow."

"All right, sir, we'll do it," was the answer, followed by a ringing cheer which boded ill for Cetewayo and his hordes.

Night came on, and they were within half a mile of the death-strewn camp. The guns immediately opened fire; no answering shots came. The British were dead; the Zulus were gone.

And Isandhlwana—what of Isandhlwana, the tragedy spot of the Zulu war?

After finding the corpse-surrounded battery, Durnford had fallen back step by step until he reached a donga (or stream) about half a mile from the camp, and there, reinforced by about forty Natal Volunteers, he made his last great stand.

The Zulus had formed their line of attack in their usual manner, that of a half circle, the left horn of which faced Durnford, and the right attacked Cavaye, Mostyn, and Younghusband, drove them back, and so pushed on to the road leading to Rorke's Drift, thus effectually cutting off the direct line of retreat from Isandhlwana.

On came the Zulus at Durnford's devoted little force. The two guns flung out shells which whistled through the air and swept through the crowding horde, as a scythe sweeps through the gold-touched corn; and hundreds of Zulus bit the dust. Still they came on, heedless of the death-dealing shells; heedless, too, of the bullets the infantry scattered amongst them; heedless, also, of the case-shot which, when the blacks were at close quarters, the guns poured in upon them.

"Fire away, my boys!" cried Durnford; and the boys fired till their rifles became jammed and ammunition ran short. Then men were sent to the camp for more, but never brought it, and at last Durnford gave the word to fall back on the camp.

The Native Contingent had fled, and the camp was held by the 24th and the remnants of Durnford's horse. Well nigh ammunitionless, they kept the fight going as well as they could while the enemy held off; but suddenly with a shout that curdled the blood, the Zulus slung their rifles, poised their assegais, and dashed in on the camp through the gap left by the cowardly Native Contingent.

The British line kept steady, dropping in their volleys; dozens of the Zulus crumpled up, but the rest carne on through the hail of bullets, bang into the ranks of the doomed men. So sudden had been the rush, that but few of the soldiers had time to fix their, bayonets.

They clubbed their rifles instead. And then—confusion!

Mostyn's and Cavaye's companies of the 24th were killed to a man; Younghusband's managed to fall back on a ridge to the left, where, back to back, they faced the surging foe, faced them till they had not a shot left, and then, fixing their bayonets, charged. They charged as did the men of old, but they charged in ones and twos, and fought the foe hand to hand, fought from the wagons, fought them on the ground; and died like valiant men.

Meanwhile, in the centre of the camp the fight was going on with just as little hope. The guns had been limbered up, useless because of the thronging Zulus; the gunners were assegaied to a man. Trampling horses, stabbing blacks, clubbing whites, mingled together in a scene the like of which has seldom ever taken place. "Kill the white men!" yelled the Zulus. "Hurrah!" cried the British, whole companies of whom fell where they stood, refusing to turn their backs on the foe.

Those who did  try to escape, pressed on with their faces to the foe, hewed their way through with bayonet, sword, and butt of rifle. To reach Rorke's Drift and Helpmakaar was their object now; some sought Rorke's Drift by the track which they had come; others tried to get to Helpmakaar by crossing the Buffalo River. The former found their way blocked by the foe, and were slaughtered on the spot. The latter, mounted and foot, were hotly pursued by the Zulus, who, fleet of foot, quickly caught up the unmounted men and assegaied them before they reached the river. As for the horsemen, many were shot as they attempted to swim across, and but few of them managed to reach Helpmakaar, some miles in the rear of Rorke's Drift.

So the carnage, the massacre went on, the 24th standing their ground like stones, piling up the Zulus around them, but with ever-diminishing ranks.

Colonel Pulleine, realising that all was lost, thought of the colours; the honour of the regiment was at stake, the colours must be saved.

"You as senior officer," he said to Lieutenant Melvill, "will take the colours and make the best of your way from here."

With a shake of the hand he dismissed Melvill on his perilous journey, turned to the men around him, and cried:

"Men of the 24th, here we are, and here we stand to fight it out to the end." And to the end they fought it out.

Melvill, obeying orders—though who knows, he might have wished to stay and fight to the finish?—took the colours, cased in their waterproof covering, and setting spurs to his horse dashed through the foe, followed by Lieutenant Coghill and Private Williams. Off in the direction of the Buffalo they tore, fighting their way through by sword and revolver.

They reached the river almost by a miracle, plunged in, Melvill still gripping the precious colours. Williams was swept away by the current and drowned, but Coghill reached the further bank in safety. Turning to see how Melvill fared, to his horror he saw that the latter's horse had been carried away, and that, cumbered with the flag, he too was being gradually swept down the stream.

Another officer was also in the water helpless. Back into the river went Coghill to their aid—his horse was shot as soon as he entered the river—but ere he could reach Melvill the colours had been carried away by the current. Panting and blowing, struggling against the stream, the three men managed to reach the further side and then set out on foot.

Up the adjoining hill they tore, but behind them came the Zulus in a pack. Exhausted, the three men turned and faced their foes. They could go no further. Two of them only had revolvers; the third was weaponless. The Zulus were within twenty yards now; the revolvers spoke—two Zulus died. They spoke again—two more black fiends bit the dust. And so, with their backs to a rock, the heroes stood—and died.


"Melvill, setting spurs to his horse, dashed through the foe."

Later their bodies were found—pierced through and through, from the front, and the Queen's colours they had tried so hard to save were picked up down the river.

The tragedy of Isandhlwana was over; Durnford lay dead, surrounded by scores of his valiant men and hundreds of Zulus. Over eight hundred soldiers of the Queen died that dreadful day, while the colonial volunteers had suffered a no less terrible loss.

To such a scene did Chelmsford return. He had left a camp filled with hale and hearty men; he came back to find it tenanted with their mutilated corpses.

About three o'clock the same day a couple of horsemen dashed down to Rorke's Drift, were ferried across, reported the disaster at Isandhlwana, and warned Lieutenant Chard, in charge of the pontoon across the river, that the Zulus were advancing on Rorke's Drift.

The messengers were Lieutenant Alendorff, of the Native Contingent, and a Natal Carabineer. The latter dashed off to give the warning at Helpmakaar; the former stayed to bear his share of the fighting at Rorke's Drift; every man was going to tell.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Bromhead, in command of the garrison in Rorke's Drift, had also received tidings of the coming of the Zulus. The first idea was to fall back on Helpmakaar, but after consultation it was decided to fortify the place and hold it against the Zulu hordes, and so for a while check their advance into Natal.

A Swedish mission station, a quarter of a mile away from the Drift, had been turned into a military depot. The church was now a storehouse; the missionary's house a hospital; there were also a couple of stone kraals, and a cookhouse, and in front of the post was an orchard.

As soon as it was decided to hold the station, the work of fortifying it was begun. With the force at his command Bromhead knew that it was useless to attempt to hold it all, and the outer kraal was left outside the line of fortifications. But the inner kraal, just to the right in front of the storehouse, was included. The hospital and the storehouse were loop-holed and barricaded, the windows barricaded with mattresses and blankets, and, as the two buildings were about thirty yards apart, a barricade connecting them was made of mealie bags, wagons, biscuit-boxes, and meat-boxes. This improvised wall was but four feet high, though it proved of priceless value to the heroic little band.

The pontoon guard was called in, and at 3:30 p.m., an officer and about a hundred of Durnford's Native Horse, who had managed to escape from Isandhlwana, appeared on the scene. They were sent off to act as outposts, but on the appearance of the enemy fled like the cowards they were, as also did Captain Stephenson and a detachment of his Native Contingent—followed by a volley from the disgusted defenders of the Drift.

At half-past four the foe came on. Five or six hundred of them swooped round a hill and dashed down upon the mealie bag wall, on the south.

Within the little fort were a hundred and thirty-nine men, thirty-five of them being sick and in hospital, where half a dozen men were stationed to guard it and to attend to the sick.

The Britishers were ready, and as the Zulus hove in sight let fly at them a heavy fire which bowled over man after man. Not a shot was wasted; not a man bungled his job, but, steadily and coolly, each picked off his man. So pitiless was the hail, so sure the aim, that when within fifty yards of the wall the Zulus broke their ranks, scampered away in all directions, and took cover in ditches, behind bushes and in caves—wherever shelter was to be found. Then, reinforced by over two thousand of their comrades, they surrounded the fort, for a while contenting themselves with firing volleys at short range.

Then they were up and at it again, this time swooping down upon the north-west wall below the hospital. Down they came, and down they went, for the fire of the defenders was fast and furious, and again the rush was broken—but only for a time, for, rallying together, the Zulus made a determined dash which carried them up to the parapet.

Then a fierce hand-to-hand conflict took place; on one side a great mass of Zulus, on the other a determined little knot of British fighting for dear life.

And how they fought! Few though they were, they wielded their bayonets with force and usefulness; rifle-bores spat forth their leaden messages; clubbed rifles crashed into many a Zulu skull, while all around fell native assegais, and Zulu bullets sang, and the deadly broad-bladed bangwana flashed.

Boldly daring were the Zulus—perhaps numbers made them so; they even grabbed the bayonets and wrenched them from the rifles.

Boldly daring, too, were the defenders—British pluck made them so; they leaped upon the parapet, and bayoneted Zulus who ventured near.

But the numbers of the attackers were too overwhelming to allow of the defence of the somewhat lengthy line of the wall, which, besides being attacked in front, was exposed to a fire from the Zulus on the hill lying to the south.

Fortunately, a biscuit-tin entrenchment had been erected from the corner of the store to the mealie-bag wall on the north, and about six o'clock the order was given for the men to retire behind this. Step by step they went back, potting at the Zulus who climbed on the parapet as their foes retired, and then, with a rush, they were through the gap which had been left.

Like a devouring wave the Zulus crossed the parapet and prepared to rush across the enclosure. But the fire from the Martinis was hot—so hot that the enemy were compelled to fall back for a while.

The result of the retreat to the inner enclosure was that the half-a-dozen men left to guard the hospital were now all alone, face to face with an overwhelming horde of natives. All during the fight the Zulus had concentrated on the hospital, and many were the stirring charges which Bromhead led against the attackers. Some of the patients left their beds and took part in the defence, but there were some who could not do so.

These men handicapped the defenders; but the latter were there to guard them and to save them if possible, and right bravely did they fight, But one idea obsessed them; they must reach the inner entrenchment, thirty yards away. To go out by the door, where the Zulus were pressing in large numbers, was to court disaster. From their quickly-made loopholes the British picked off the natives as they rushed towards the devoted little place; but fire though they did till their arms ached, and their rifles scorched the hands that held them, they could not keep the Zulus off. Presently they reached the walls, set fire to the thatched roof, and so made things decidedly uncomfortable for the defenders.

The building was divided into several rooms, partitioned off from one another by walls made of mud bricks, and the connecting doors had been barricaded. Privates Hook and "Old King Cole"—a cheery soldier loved by his comrades—had charge of a small room containing one patient. Cole set off after a while to join the defenders at the parapet; a shot met him as he issued from the door and doubled him up. He had fought his last fight.

The leaping tongues of flame and the dense clouds of smoke made the room untenable, and Hook at last had to abandon it—and also the native patient whom it was impossible to save.

Hook passed from his room into the next, where he found nine sick men who needed his help. Hardly had he entered than Private John Williams rushed in through a hole he had knocked in the wall, with the news that the Zulus were swarming all over the place, having broken down the door. Williams and Private Horrigan had bravely held their room for over an hour, but at last the Zulus had burst in the door, and hauled three men out and slaughtered them on the spot.

Hook and friends now found themselves in a tight corner; the door was barricaded and the Zulus were hacking and shooting at it in the effort to break through. Williams quickly set to work with a navvy's pick to make a hole in the wall big enough for a man to get through, while Hook stood guard over the door. By this time the Zulus had effected an opening, but as only one man at a time could get through Hook was able to hold them at bay. But it was stiff work; there was scarcely time to load, and many a time Hook almost lost his rifle, which the Zulus seized and tried to drag from him. But Hook was more than a match for them; quick as lightning he wrenched his rifle back, slipped in a bullet and let fly point-blank; and Zulu after Zulu went down. And all the time Williams was hacking away at the wall, or dashing off to cut down a Zulu who tried to get through the hole by which he had made his way into the room. At last the hole was made. Williams pushed and dragged eight of the sick men through the hole, and the time had come for Hook to leave the door.

But there was still one man to be saved—and he had a broken leg. Hook, around whom the assegais were falling thick, and who had been piling up the dead in front of him, suddenly rushed for the hole, slipped through, grabbed the wounded man, and pulled him through without any ceremony—and broke his leg again in the doing of it! But the man was saved.

So did they go from room to room, fighting at the doors and holes like fiends, but always with success, and always managing to make their retreat, though now and again an unfortunate wounded man had to be left to the "mercy" of the butchering Zulus. At last they reached the end room which looked out on to the inner entrenchment they were so anxious to enter.

Meanwhile in another room Privates William Jones and Robert Jones were having a battle royal with the Zulus at the back of the hospital. They had eight patients to care for, and they fought like lions until seven of these were removed to the end of the hospital. Then Robert dashed back to fetch the eighth—Sergeant Maxwell—but he was too late; the Zulus were hacking and stabbing at him as he lay on his bed.

The brave defenders now left the hospital; thirty yards away was the entrenchment, and that thirty yards was being swept by the bullets of the Zulus, who, however, were kept off by the heavy fire of the men behind the biscuit tins. One by one the wounded dropped out of the little window, bruised and maimed by their fall; some ran as best they could; some crawled, some were carried by the courageous defenders; Most of them reached the entrenchment, though some were caught by spears and bullets.

Meanwhile the storehouse had been as pluckily defended, and one would like to recount the deeds of heroism performed there; Commissary Byrne met his death while ministering to a wounded man; Commissary Dalton, badly wounded in the right shoulder, and unable to use his arm, still directed operations at the parapet; Chard and Bromhead encouraged by deed and word the men who were fighting for life; wounded privates served out ammunition; and every man of the gallant little band performed glorious deeds of courage.

The wounded were placed behind a redoubt formed by mealie bags, behind which also marksmen were placed to keep up a fire on the attacking Zulus, whose onset became so fierce that Bromhead had at last to reduce his stronghold still further, drawing his men off from the outer wall of the stone kraal, leaving him only the inner wall, the storehouse, and the redoubt.

Here they kept up their stubborn resistance. Time after time the Zulus charged—only to be withered up by the terrific fire poured in upon them. Night had fallen by now, but the light from the flaming hospital was all in favour of the defenders, who were able to take good aim, though half-a-dozen times the Zulus got to the barricades—breaking through them. But with bayonets fixed, with ringing cheers that British soldiers give when they are in a tight corner, the red-coated, blue-trousered heroes charged them, and every time hurled them back dispirited and discomfited, leaving many of their warriors dead, and leaving the defenders with twisted bayonets and broken butts.

Their reception of the charges worried the Zulus, who could not pluck up courage enough to try it any more, so for several hours the fight resolved itself into a duel between musket, assegai, and rifle.

With the going out of the hospital fire, however, the Zulus relaxed their fire, and by four o'clock it had ceased altogether, and the battle-worn, smoke-covered, blood-bespattered defenders heaved a sigh of relief. They could thank their own brilliant courage which had held the enemy at bay—and, indeed, had sent them over the hills and far away.

But they took no idle risks; they quickly patrolled the neighbourhood, collected the arms of the fallen natives, and strengthened their position lest the attack should be renewed ere help could come to them. At last the signallers flagged the message that Chelmsford was coming.

Isandhlwana had been a disaster; but Rorke's Drift had been a glorious episode in the story of British arms. But Chelmsford had been full of anxiety for the fate of the little post, and as soon as morning broke, had set out with the troops still left him. They pressed on with all speed, fearful of what their arrival should show them. It showed them the British flag waving triumphantly over the gallantly held post; it showed them red-coated men moving amidst the ruins; it brought them the sound of a ringing cheer.

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