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  • Day29

    Rorke's Drift

    January 28, 2016 in South Africa ⋅ ☀️ 5 °C

    North Uthungulu, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
    Thursday, January 28, 2016

    Later the same day, came the second devastating attack. The right horn of the Zulu battleplan, did not engage in the fighting at Isandlwana. I should explain that the Zulu like to attack in a buffalo formation, with a central head and chest and left and right horns to envelop the enemy preventing escape. In this case the right horn failed to close sufficiently, hence allowing the 55 to flee to the river. It should also be explained that in Zulu culture only single men are allowed to fight and until they have bathed their spear (assegai)) in enemy blood they are unable to marry. As a consequence this section of Zulus were champing at the bit to prove themselves and so their leader disobeyed the King's orders and crossed the Buffalo river with the intention of attacking the small hospital garrison remaining at Rorke's Drift.
    At the time, Rorke's Drift consisted of a small white painted missionary station and large separate church/store house and kraal, which Lord Chelmsford had requisitioned as a field hospital and storage for ammunition, large sacks of melee flour, the dreaded Army biscuits that were the soldiers staple food, ( cardboard consistency I understand, wet, dry, hot or cold!), bully beef, plus other essentials. As a consequence there were less than 100 fighting men, several of whom were already injured, some very seriously ill men, with two field officers, the engineer Lt Chard, Lt Bromhead and a very experienced commissariat of stores James Dalton, (who quickly helped develop a plan of defence). Perhaps understandably, none of the 55 escapees headed to the mission to help, but one did send a message to say that the Zulus were crossing the river and to be ready!!
    The men of Rorke's Drift faced an impossible position with 4500 Zulu warriors bearing down on them and somehow managed to erect defences around their tiny pocket battlefield using melee bags and biscuit tins to a height of 8ft. One thing they did have of course, was a massive store of ammunition, some 27,000 rounds. By the time the fighting was over, there were only 660 rounds left!
    We walked around the mission building that was rebuilt virtually identically afterwards, except there are now many more doors and windows. Even so, they are tiny, hot, claustrophobic rooms even without the stench of disease and death. It became all too apparent how impossible a trap the men inside were caught in as the battle progressed and the men's courage and resolve in the face of overwhelming odds reduced me to tears.
    The Zulu gathered on the hill behind the station late in the afternoon and began their battle preparation of war cries, foot stamping and shield thumping, working themselves into a frenzy. Colour Sergeant Bourne walked to every man with a hand on their shoulder exhorting them to 'Mark your man and wait until you see the whites of their eyes!' The Padre George Smith would not shoot being a man of God, but continually supplied the ammunition with the cry 'Don't swear boys, for Gods sake don't swear, just shoot!' Chard and Bromhead positioned themselves to lead their men and they waited. Eventually the Zulus threw themselves down the hill on to the barricades and were shot down by the score. The men of the 24th foot grimly defended their position as best they could. Lt Bromhead led bayonet charge after bayonet charge, but gradually the outer defences were breached and they were beaten back to the second line of defence and their battlefield was no bigger than a tennis court. Night fell quickly, as it does in these parts and now they could not even see their enemy. Enter stage left a little terrier called Pip. One of the fallen officers at Isandlwana had left him in the care of the surgeon Major Reynolds and he raced up and down the line barking at the next Zulu to hurl himself at the barricade. The line held. However, the Zulu had managed to set fire to the thatched roof of the mission and did finally break into the courtyard. The soldiers had to retreat to the small section around the kraal where a third line of defence had been constructed and carried on fighting. The hospital now stood alone with the exception of the few brave orderlies and the heroic cook who fought the Zulu from room to room dragging their charges through holes hacked in the wall to one corner of the building. Men died under horrific circumstances on both sides. The thatch was now on fire, so smoke was an additional factor, but at least there was a little light! A tiny window 8' off the ground was enlarged by Pte Hook (the cook) and two badly injured soldiers rushed from the kraal to catch the seriously ill soldiers as they were dropped from the window. They then carried them to the kraal time and time again under continual attack, before Hook the last man escaped the building. His fingers were now worn down to the bone, his finger tips never to recover. The fight retreated to the area around the kraal.
    The martini rifle is heavy with a kick like a mule and these small men (there was not one over 5'4") had been firing and reloading continuously for hours. The barrels were red hot and glowed in the dark according to Zulu reports and the men's hands and faces were burned with the recoil. They tore the pockets off their red tunics to enable them to continue firing and still the Zulu threw themselves forward. Bear in mind that the temperature was 45 degrees during the day and had dropped little at night and these men, in Army tradition, had donned their wool uniform to fight. There would have been no time for a gulp of water either if they wanted to survive. All this time their small wiry little surgeon was treating the wounded in the open against the wall of the storehouse, which afforded him a small degree of shelter. This is the first example of a surgeon operating on the battlefield and of course he had virtually no supplies.
    As dawn starts to break, all of a sudden the Zulu fall silent. Their scouts could see Lord Chelmsford's relief column approaching in the distance. Lt Chard orders his men to stop firing and they watch silently as the Zulu gather as many of their dead as they can and melt away into the hills, with respect on both sides. When Chelmsford's men reached the the defenders of Rorke's Drift these gallant soldiers had no voice left to cheer.
    There were 11 VCs awarded that day, the most ever in a single battle and that is of course not counting those of Lts Melville and Coghill. This was a fight to the death and it would do us good to reflect on the immense bravery on both sides.
    We were taken on this visit by Douglas Rattray, one of David's sons and I think it is fair to say he is clearly a chip off the old block. He led us around the battle site and made the actions of that day come alive almost 137 years later. It was an intensely emotional afternoon both for Doug and us, his horribly enthralled audience. It is virtually 9 years to the day since his father was murdered by thieves in front of his wife Nicky and we all had need of the handkerchieves by the end; the ladies openly and the gentleman more surreptitiously.
    In keeping with family tradition, Doug is a first class lecturer and human being.
    This is a visit and experience that will live with us for the rest of our lives.
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