The defence of Rorke’s Drift is one of the most famous battles of the Anglo Zulu War and followed directly after the greatest Zulu victory of the war, at Isandlwana.
James Rorke built his home and trading store at the base of Shiyane Hill close to the Buffalo River. Traders and hunters passing through the area crossed the river at a drift on Rorke’s farm and so it became known as Rorke’s Drift.
When Rorke died in 1875 the farm passed to a Swedish missionary, Otto Witt, who set about establishing a mission on the site. In preparation for the invasion of Zululand, Lord Chelmsford commandeered the buildings and the Witt family was sent to Pietermaritzburg.
On 11 January 1879 General Lord Chelmsford lead the main force of the British army across the Buffalo (Mzinyathi) River and left a small garrison, numbering about 390 men to guard supplies in the commissariat store and the hospital with its 35 patients.
On the afternoon of 22 January, two survivors of the battle at Isandlwana arrived with the news that the British camp had been overrun and the Zulu army was on its way to Rorke’s Drift. On hearing this, 250 men of the Natal Native Contingent deserted and fled in the direction of Helpmekaar.
This left just 139 men and the 35 hospital patients at the small outpost. Lt. John Chard set about building defences between the buildings using boxes of biscuits, bags of mealies and two wagons. The Zulu force under command of Prince Dabulmanzi, brother of King Cetshwayo, arrived at about 10pm that night.
What followed was an epic story of defence and courage resulting in the awarding of 11 Victoria Crosses. By the time the Zulu attack withdrew at 4 am the following morning 17 British soldiers had been killed and about 500 Zulu warriors had fallen. Of the 20 000 rounds of ammunition in the stores, only about 600 remained at the end of the battle.
Today none of the original buildings remain but their position, like those of the defence lines, are marked by stones in the ground.