21 December 1847 – 1 November 1897
The Battle of Rorke’s Drift was a battle in the Zulu War. The defence of the mission station of Rorke’s Drift immediately followed the defeat of a large British column of 2,000 men at the Battle of Isandlwana earlier that morning on 22 January 1879, and continued to the following day, 23 January. One hundred and thirty-nine British soldiers successfully defended their garrison against an intense assault by four to five thousand Zulu warriors. The overwhelming Zulu attack on Rorke’s Drift came very close to defeating the tiny British garrison, and the British success is held as one of history’s finest defences.
The defence of Rorke’s drift was commanded by John Chard, a junior Royal Engineer officer, who was at the drift [a river crossing point] to improve the state of the ferry pontoons, and to plot the layout of defensive trench works. As an Engineer, Chard would not normally be involved in combat, but being the senior officer present the responsibility fell to him.
By skillful use of the cover provide by the mission station buildings and a variety of improvised defence works, made of overturned ox-wagons and sacks of grain, the defenders were able to beat off wave after wave of attacks, often involving hand-to hand fighting. Eventually the Zulu losses were too great, and the attacking force departed. The defenders lost 15 dead and 15 wounded, whereas 370 Zulu bodies were counted after the battle. The Zulu wounded were carried off when they departed.
Chard had inspired the defenders to stand and fight overwhelming odds, and did what had to be done, despite never having been in combat before.