January 22 is the anniversary of one of history’s most infamous battles – Rorke’s Drift. I became enamored with this battle after a veteran on my newspaper route in high school recommended I watch the movie, Zulu. Yes, I know the movie has a number of inaccuracies, but it was compelling. It harkens to the Alamo, but in this case the Texicans would have won. At Rorke’s Drift, on 22 January 1879, 150 British soldiers successfully defended the outpost from almost 4000 Zulu warriors. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded for the battle, more than any other single engagement.
The prelude to the battle was a disaster for the British Army. At Isandlwana scant miles from the outpost, the 24th Regiment of Foot suffered a staggering defeat and were slaughtered. The small detachment at Rorke’s Drift were alone in hostile territory, horribly outnumbered by an emboldened enemy fresh from a victory. The outpost was exposed, surrounded by hillsides. On paper, defeat appeared inevitable.
The British troops formed a defensive perimeter around the outpost, using the buildings, fences and barricade of mealie bags. The Zulus were armed with spears and captured rifles, but the defenders had firing discipline and steely resolve. Sweltering in their brilliant red uniforms, the British (and a handful of Natal troops) repulsed wave after wave of attackers. To this day, it remains a victory of pride and honor for the British Army.