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It was 140 years ago today, on 22nd January 1879, that Lieutenant John Chard was writing a letter home when he was disturbed by two men riding into his camp at the Rorke’s Drift Garrison in Zululand, South Africa. The two men were survivors from Isandlwana, where 1700 British soldiers had been killed by an army of 20,000 Zulu warriors. The men carried news to Rorke’s Drift of the Zulus who were now on their way to Chard’s garrison.

There were two Lieutenants at Rorke’s Drift, the only senior officers, John Chard and Gonville Bromhead. After receiving the news of the approaching Zulus, the two men met with Assistant Commissary James Dalton of the Commissariat and Transport Department. In essence, they had to decide if they should retreat or defend the station. If they decided to stay and fight, they would ultimately face an army of 4,000 formidable and experienced Zulu warriors, both courageous under fire and more than adept at hand-to-hand combat. The garrison had only 150 men with which to form a defense. It was decided that a force of men marching across open country, laden down with supplies, would not stand a chance against a fast moving Zulu army. So plans were made to defend the garrison.

Barricades were setup with wooden chests, large biscuit boxes, tinned supplies and anything else to hand that could form a barricade with which they could defend themselves. The Zulu army arrived at Rorke’s Drift at 4.30pm and promptly attacked. The Zulu warriors continuously stormed the British defences, but were unable to reach the men behind the barricades with their short assegai spears. Brave Zulu warriors were shot down at point blank range and the long bayonets affixed to the British soldier’s rifles repulsed any who did manage to climb over the barricades.

At one point, the Zulus managed to set fire to the hospital and bursting in they began to kill the patients with their spears. But they were fought off by a small force with fixed bayonets. and at the same time other soldiers managed to dig holes in the walls of the hospital and rescue surviving patients. After 12 hours of continuous fighting, it was estimated that 400-600 Zulus lay dead on the battlefield with only 17 British killed, though almost every man in the garrison had sustained some kind of wound.

By eight in the morning, the Zulus began to turn and walk away from the beleaguered garrison, to the astonishment of the British soldiers. It wasn’t long after that the soldiers saw a relief column of mounted infantry making their way towards them. The battle of Rorke’s Rift was over.

Eleven Victoria Crosses and five Distinguished Conduct Medals were awarded to survivors of Rorke’s Drift, including Corporal Christian Schiess who was awarded the supreme British award for gallantry. Born in Switzerland, Schiess settled in South Africa and joined a British colonial unit. Schiess had been wounded days earlier, in the foot, but despite his injury he displayed great bravery by fighting off Zulus through the night. He became the first Swiss national to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

Copyright Tom Kane © 2019

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