During the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879, the Battle of Rorke’s Drift or the Defence of Rorke’s Drift, was a significant engagement. Rorke’s Drift mission station on the Buffalo River was used as a staging post for the British invasion force. It had two thatched bungalows that stood about 98 ft or 30 metres apart. One had the role of a hospital while the bungalow on the eastern side was used as a storehouse.

Lieutenants John Chard and Gonville Bromhead of the Royal Engineers commanded a successful British defence at Rorke’s Drift. Under their command on the 22nd of January 1879, a large contingent of Zulu warriors diverted from their main force during the Battle of Isandlwana. The battle played out over a bloody two days, starting with the Zulu contingent diverting some 6 miles (9.7 km) to attack Rorke’s Drift late on the first day.

But what led to the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift?

Stationed here were Chelmsford’s quartermaster general, Major Henry Spalding, a company of the 2nd Battalion 24th Regiment of Foot under command of Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, and a large company of the 3rd Natal Native Contingent (NNC).

It all began in December of 1878 when Sir Bartle Frere, British High Commissioner for South Africa, gave the Zulu king Cetshwayo 30 days to dismantle the Zulu military. When this ultimatum was not met, the British invaded Zululand. In retaliation, the Zulus attacked Isandlwana on 22 January with a force of some twenty thousand impis (Zulu warriors). The British defenders of less than two thousand were outnumbered and some 1300 men lost their lives.

Later on that same day, between 3000 and 4000 Zulu impis fell upon the little more than 150 British and colonial troops defending the station at Rorke’s Drift. The British were fortunately forewarned by survivors of the Isandlwana battle, and held their own, being adequately prepared. The firefight persisted for 12 hours over two days, during which the British troops shot down in excess of 500 Zulu impis. Despite being severely outnumbered, the British garrison successfully repelled the impis and defeat was held off. This incredible defence earned the awarding of eleven Victoria Crosses in addition to several additional decorations and honours.

What is the Victoria Cross?

The Victoria Cross (VC) is one of the highest awards to British soldiers and Commonwealth forces. This almost mythically observed honour requires a proven act of extreme bravery in the presence of the enemy. It was first instated in 1856, and 1358 VCs have so far been awarded. Of these three soldiers won a second VC, one cross was awarded to the Unknown American soldier, 626 were awarded during the First World War, and 181 in the Second World War.

The eleven British soldiers who were awarded the Victoria Cross at the Battle of Rorke’s Drift each have their story.

John Rouse Merriott Chard

Victoria Cross Rorkes Drift

John Rouse Merriott Chard VC (21 December 1847 – 1 November 1897) successfully commanded a small British garrison of 139 soldiers that withstood the attack by Zulu impis numbering between 3000 and 4000 at the Battle of Rorke’s Drift.

Chard arrived at the Colony of Natal on the 5th of January 1879, having been dispatched on 2 December 1878 as a member of the 5th Company Royal Engineers. Lord Chelmsford, commander of the British forces in southern Africa, had called for an additional unit of engineers to help to prepare to attack the Zulu Kingdom. Chard joined a small group of sappers sent to repair and maintain the ponts crossing the Buffalo River that made up the border between Natal and the Zulu Kingdom.

Chard and his group set up camp near the pont crossing on the 19th of January. Three days later, on the morning of 22 January, the sappers received orders to report to Isandlwana, some 10 miles (16 km) to the east. Chelmsford had an advanced camp here that had been set up for his main invasion column, who had breached Zulu territory 14 days before. Chard was instructed to return to Rorke’s Drift, leaving his men who were required at Isandlwana. On his return, he told Major Spalding about seeing a Zulu army approaching the camp. Spalding made the decision to rally British reinforcements en route from Helpmekaar and left an unsuspecting Chard with no combat experience unexpectedly in command of the garrison. While back in his tent at the river crossing, two NNC officers on horseback told Chard about the Zulus massacring the British in camp at Isandlwana. A hastily constructed defensive perimeter was thrown up between the storehouse and hospital at Rorke’s Drift station, using mealie bags. Not long after 4 pm, some 3 hours since Chard had returned from Isandlwana, about three to four thousand Zulu impi could be seen advancing on the station. The NNC troops panicked and deserted their posts, cutting the British numbers by more than half to approximately 140. Chard wasted no time strengthening the inner perimeter, using a barricade of biscuit boxes. British volley fire held the first Zulu onslaughts in abeyance, but the attack was relentless. More so on the perimeter near the hospital which was vulnerable and saw fierce hand-to-hand combat. The British casualties were piling up and Chard ordered a withdrawal to behind the biscuit boxes. This retreat left the hospital defenceless, and the Zulus soon set it on fire. A tall pyramid of mealie bags was erected under Chard’s instructions as a last line of defence and to shelter the wounded. Zulu attacks through the night were foiled by the burning thatch illuminating their forms and exposing them to the British. By dawn, the exhausted Zulus had abandoned the attack before British reinforcements even showed up later in the morning. Chard put casualties at 351 dead Zulus and 17 killed and 10 wounded among the British.

Chard helped to erect a new stone perimeter wall at Rorke’s Drift over several weeks after the battle. With the poor conditions in the camp, he fell ill with a fever and was moved to Ladysmith for treatment. Thereafter he was attached to Colonel Wood’s column for the second invasion of the Zulu Kingdom. After news of his performance reached the war office, he was promoted to captain and brevet major and awarded the Victoria Cross.

Chard was welcomed back to England as a hero after the war and was invited to an audience with Queen Victoria. He saw several overseas postings before retiring as a colonel in 1897 after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died later in the same year in Somerset at his brother’s home. He was laid to rest in the churchyard by the southeast transept of the Church of St John the Baptist in Hatch Beauchamp. Queen Victoria sent a wreath of laurel leaves with a handwritten inscription that reads: “A mark of admiration and regard for a brave soldier from his sovereign”. The Queen had remained in contact with Chard throughout his infirmity.

The church had a stained glass memorial window dedicated to Chard installed in 1899. The Royal Engineers donated a memorial in Rochester Cathedral. The Webley Revolver Chard used at Rorke’s Drift is displayed at the Royal Engineers Museum in Gillingham, Kent, as part of a commemoration of his leadership. The South African military commemorates him with the John Chard Decoration for 12 years of service, and the John Chard Medal for 20 years of service, awarded to members of the Citizen Force. These were instituted by Queen Elizabeth in 1952 and were replaced in 2003 with the Medalje vir Troue Diens and the Emblem for Reserve Force Service.

Gonville Bromhead

Victoria Cross Rorkes Drift

Gonville Bromhead VC (29 August 1844 – 10 February 1891), born in France, he joined the 2nd Battalion 24th Regiment in 1867. On 28th October 1871 he was promoted to lieutenant while serving in the 9th Cape Frontier War of 1878. In 1879 he commanded B Company of the 2nd/24th at Rorke’s Drift. On the 22nd of January, he set about to defend the post together with Lieutenant Chard when news of the Isandlwana battle reached them. It was his encouragement that motivated the British troops to fight the attacking Zulus despite overwhelming odds. His actions earned him not only the Victoria Cross but also an immediate promotion to captain and brevet major on the 23rd of January 1879. On the 4th of April 1883 he was again promoted to the rank of major and went on to serve in Burmah from 1887 to 1889 and India. He died in Allahabad at the age of 46.

William Wilson Allen

Victoria Cross Rorkes Drift

William Wilson Allen VC (c. 1843 – 12 March 1890) teamed up with Frederick Hitch to keep the lines of communication open with the hospital during the battle of Rorke’s Drift. Thanks to their determination, the patients were safely moved from the hospital. This notwithstanding that they had both suffered severe injuries themselves and were unable to actively participate further in the fighting. With their own wounds tended, the two saw to it that the soldiers had ammunition with which to fight through the night of the battle.

Allen joined the 24th Regiment at Aldershot in 1859. At around 35 years of age, he had his rank reduced from sergeant to corporal after being drunk on duty. At the time of earning his Victoria Cross for gallantry in action during the Zulu War, he was serving in the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot in the British Army. This was later to be known as The South Wales Borderers. He later achieved the rank of sergeant for the second time.

Allen succumbed to pneumonia in the 1889–1890 flu pandemic, at the age of 46 on the 12th of March. He was buried in Monmouth Cemetery, Monmouthshire, and the South Wales Borderers Regiment paid for the grave and headstone. His wife Sarah Ann and their seven children were taken care of by a fund set up for that purpose. His Victoria Cross medal can be viewed at the Regimental Museum of The Royal Welsh at Brecon.

Private Frederick Hitch

Private Frederick Hitch VC signed his enlistment forms with a cross because he was illiterate when he joined the army. During the battle of Rorke’s drift he sustained a significant wound to the shoulder but fought on using a pistol given him by Lieutenant Bromhead which allowed him to shoot despite having use of only the one arm. Together with Corporal Allen he went on to defend the hospital and helped the soldiers by giving out ammunition throughout the battle. His wounds saw him discharged from service after the battle. He provided for his eight children by supplementing his annual disability income of £10 by driving a smart horse-drawn cab pulled by his own two horses. He replaced the horse drawn cab for a motor taxi cab which brought in a good income despite his disability. He lived out his remaining years in Chiswick, where he died in 1913 and was buried in the centre of St Nicholas Church, Chiswick. His grave is topped with a helmet and is more a monument than a burial place.

Private Robert Jones

Private Robert Jones VC (c. 1857 – 1898) was 21 when he fought alongside William Jones in the hospital at the battle of Rorke’s Drift. Together they were responsible for helping six of the seven patients in the hospital to safety. Robert Jones survived the battle over two days, suffering four spear wounds, a bullet wound and minor burns of an indetermined number. He was discharged from active service and went on to take up life as farm labourer in Herefordshire. He married Elizabeth Hopkins and together they produced five children. He succumbed to gunshot wounds in Peterchurch, Herefordshire, aged 41 years. His death certificates cites him as temporarily insane when he fatally shot himself with his employer’s shotgun while crow shooting. It was noted that he suffered recurring nightmares after his experiences at close quarters with Zulus in the hospital at Rorke’s Drift station.

William Jones VC

Victoria Cross Rorkes Drift

William Jones VC (16 August 1839 -15th April 1913) fought at Rorke’s Drift at the age of 39 where he joined Robert Jones in defending a ward in the hospital. After treatment at Netley Hospital for chronic rheumatism contracted from the cold and wet nights experienced at Rorke’s Drift station, Jones was discharged in 1880. He received the Victoria Cross from Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. As a civilian, he landed acting parts, among others Hamilton’s Pansterorama. Eventually in 1887 he became a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He was forced to pawn his VC before ultimately settling for life in the Workhouse in Manchester. As one of only a handful of men to survive the battle of Rorke’s and live on to reach his 70’s, he was put to rest in a pauper’s grave in Philip’s Park Cemetery, Manchester. On 2 November 2007, following four years of campaigning, a ceremony for the unveiling of his headstone was held at Philip’s Park Cemetery. His Victoria Cross can be seen in South Wales Borderers Museum, Brecon after it was finally successfully sought out.

Private John Williams

Victoria Cross Rorkes Drift

Private John Williams VC signed up for the army using this pseudonym rather than his real name of Fielding. It is widely assumed that he may have signed up as a runaway, but this is pure conjecture. What is not questionable is his bravery at the battle during which he and Henry Hook evacuated many patients from the hospital. John broke through the walls while Hook held the Zulu impis off at the point of his rifle and bayonet. He went in to attain the rank of Sergeant in the 3rd Volunteer Battalion, South Wales Borderers. In 1914, he volunteered for service and was a recruiting agent throughout the World War One. He married Elizabeth Murphy and they had three daughters and three sons, one of whom died in 1914 while serving his country during the Retreat from Mons. John was the last surviving recipient of the Victorian Cross for the battle of Rorke’s drift to die. He was 75 when he succumbed to heart failure on the 24th of November 1932, in Wales, a full half century after fighting at Rorke’s Drift. He has been honoured by giving his name to a nursing home in Llantarnam, Cwmbran, opposite his burial place, as well as a local J.D. Wetherspoon’s pub, the John Fielding, in which his portrait still hangs.

James Henry Reynolds

Surgeon James Henry Reynolds VC was 34 years old when attending the wounded in the Zulu war as Surgeon in the Army Medical Department (later Royal Army Battlefield Tours Medical Corps). For his unwavering attending of the wounded while under fire, and exposing himself to enemy fire while carrying ammunition from the store to those defending the hospital, he was promoted to Surgeon-Major and awarded the Victoria Cross. He also served in the Irish Land War of 1880 and other wars until his retirement in 1896. He passed away on the 4th of March 1932 and is buried in London’s Kensal Rise Cemetery. His Victoria Cross is on display at the Army Medical Services Museum Aldershot.

James Langley Dalton

Acting Assistant Commissary James Langley Dalton (1833 – ) was just 17 when he enlisted in 85th Regiment of Foot in November 1849. In 1862 he had attained rank of corporal when he was transferred to the Commissariat Corps and went on to be promoted to sergeant in 1863 and then clerk and staff sergeant in 1867. He retired a year after partaking in the Red River Expedition in Canada in 1870 and by 1877 was living in South Africa where he volunteered as Acting Assistant Commissary with the British Force. It was in this position at the age of 46 as acting assistant commissary in the Commissariat and Transport Department of the British Army that he was awarded the Victorian Cross for his contribution at Rorke’s Drift. He rescued a man of the Army Hospital Corps in the heat of the attack by shooting the Zulu who had taken hold of the man’s rifle and was assaulting him with his assegai. Dalton persevered despite being severely wounded during the battle. He was not among the original recipients of the Victoria Cross but was awarded his on the 16th of January 1880 by General Hugh Clifford, VC, at a special parade at Fort Napier.

Dalton died in Port Elizabeth, South Africa and lies in his final resting place in the Russell Road Roman Catholic Cemetery. The barracks in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, bear his name: “The Dalton VC Centre”. Dalton Barracks in Abingdon bear his name having previously been RAF Abingdon. His Victoria Cross is on display at the Royal Logistic Corps Museum in Worthy Down, Winchester.

Christian Ferdinand Schiess

Victoria Cross Rorkes Drift

Christian Ferdinand Schiess VC was a Swiss national and the only VC recipient at Rorke’s Drift to not hail from a Commonwealth nation. He had joined the Natal Native Contingent in South Africa after serving in the French Army. He was in the hospital at Rorke’s Drift at the age of 22 because of injuries to his feet when the battle ensued. He earned the Victoria Cross by climbing the wall of mealie bags and knocking three Zulu attackers off and killing them. He became an unemployed vagrant, begging on the streets of Cape Town when the Royal Navy came upon him, malnourished and affected by exposure, and transported him back to Britain. At only 28 years of age, he died on route to Britain and was buried at sea.