On January 22, 1879, a mission station in Natal, South Africa was conducting business as usual. At 2pm in the afternoon, a Major Spalding departed the station in order to find out why the 1st company of the 24th Regiment of Foot had not arrived in the two days after they were expected. Another officer, Lieutenant John Chard, of the Royal Engineers was present and he rode his horse down to the Buffalo River to oversee the work on a bridge.
Shortly after 3pm, two officers from the Natal Native Contingent, specifically Lieutenant Vane and Lieutenant Adendorff, arrived at the Buffalo River. They brough dire news from the nearby British military base at Isandlwana, where over a thousand British soldiers had been defeated by an army of thousands of Zulu warriors. The officers also stated that a wing of a Zulu impi was en route to the mission station at Rorke's Drift to seize it.
Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead and Assistant Commissary Dalton discussed the matter and decided that their forces would remain in place and defend the mission station. Their justification was that a column of British soldiers and wagons loaded with wounded from the mission station could easily be caught up with by the Zulu Warriors. The officers returned to the mission station, where they began making preparations. The soldiers there were called to arms and ordered to construct fortifications at once.
The Zulu force approaching the mission station at Rorke's Drift consisted of three Zulu regiments: the uDloko, uThulwana, and inDlu-yengwe. The total number of warriors in these regiments was estimated at four thousand, vastly superior in number to the 350 soldiers at the mission station. They were also in possession of a large number of rifles, mostly consisting of flintlock muskets. The British, on the other hand, were armed with breech-loading Martini-Henry rifles, which utilized metal cartridges.
At the mission station, a defensive perimeter of biscuit boxes and mealie bags was constructed around all of the buildings, including a hospital. This made for a large perimeter and Lieutenant Chard compensated by creating a perimeter down the middle of the first perimeter to necessitate a retreat. Soldiers inside of the buildings cut loopholes into the walls, allowing them to fire without much threat of harm.
Chard, as the commanding officer, found himself outnumbered, but with a force that he judged sufficient to face the enemy. His 350 soldiers included B Company from the 2/24th, a company from the Natal Native Contingent, and a group of mounted natives under the command of Lieutenant Vause. At 4pm, James Reynolds, the mission station's surgeon, Otto Witt, a Swedish missionary in charge of the mission, and Reverend George Smith came down from Oscarberg, a nearby hill, bearing the news that the Zulu forces were less than a minute away. At this news, the mounted Natives under Vause fled the base, followed quickly by the members of the Natal Native Contingent. Several of the outraged British soldiers opened fire on the fleeing natives, disgusted by their cowardice.
After the departure of the natives, Chard was left with only 140 men, less than half the original number. Only 80 of those people were in fighting condition, with about 30 in the hospital. With a much smaller force on his hands, Chard ordered the remaining soldiers to evacuate the hospital and construct a new line of fortifications through the post. Shortly after the departure of the natives, a lookout, Private Fredrick Hitch, reported that between four and six thousand Zulus were approaching. Almost immediately, 600 Zulus ran to attack the south perimeter.
Seeing the approaching natives, Sergeant Henry Gallagher shouted, "Here they come, as thick as grass and as black as thunder!" The British soldiers opened fire at a range of 500 yards, quickly picking up pace. The Zulus surrounded the south wall, with some retreating to the hill to return fire. At this point, more Zulus struck the northwest wall and hospital, facing heavy melee combat with the British soldiers. The height of the perimeter wall was too high for the Zulus to climb, and most were forced to crouch behind it, scrambling for rifles or attempting to spear the British on the other side. A small number were able to climb and breach the wall, but the British made short work of them using their bayonets.
At this point, some of the bullets fired by Zulus with rifles started coming closer to the British. Corporal Schiess was struck in the leg and Commissary Dalton was struck in the shoulder. Privates Keefe, Byrne, Cole, Scanlon, Fagan, Chick, and Corporal Scammel were also shot by the Zulus on the hill. By 6pm, casualties had thinned the perimeter at the north wall such that Chard was forced to recall troops to the yard and the hospital. As the hospital was overtaken, Privates Williams, Horrigan, Adams, as well as two other wounded patients were killed by the Zulus. 9 of the remaining 11 soldiers and patients in the hospital were able to escape from the central room by breaking holes into the walls of the various rooms until they were inside the perimeter again.
As dusk approached and the sun went down, the Zulus continued assaulting the perimeter, only to be pushed back by the British soldiers. By 2am, the Zulu advances had stopped, although the Zulus continued firing rifles at the perimeter and throwing their assegai spears. By 4am, the attacks had stopped completely and Chard was able to assess the damage. Fifteen of his soldiers were dead, eight seriously wounded, and the rest carried minor wounds. The ten hour battle had taken its toll on the men, but they remained vigilant in expectation of another Zulu advance.
As the sun rose, it was clear that the Zulus had fled the battlefield in the night. Over 370 Zulu corpses littered the field and Chard issued patrols to gather weapons from the corpses. At 7am, a new impi of Zulu warriors appeared and the British lined the perimeter again. However, the Zulus were far too exhausted to attack since they had run for six days and not eaten for two of those days. The impi departed the same way it had come. At 8am, British reinforcements under Lord Chelmsford arrived to buffer the defensive force at the mission station. The Zulus never returned, however, and 11 of the defenders were awarded Victoria Crosses for their valor.
This event was dramatized in the 1964 film "Zulu", starring Michael Caine as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead and Stanley Baker as Lieutenant John Chard.