On January 22, 1879 the British army had been dealt a stinging defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana, losing over 1,000 troops to a Zulu army of 20,000. In the aftermath of the massacre, as Zulu detachments pursued those fleeing the battle, 4 regiments of warriors encountered a British outpost at a medical mission at Rorke’s Drift.
The detachment there consisted of engineers detailed to repair a bridge over the Buffalo River, a cavalry unit, Natal militia and regular infantry there to guard the supplies. Some time after noon, two British refugees from the disaster at Isandlwana brought the news to Rorke’s Drift and the officers in charge had to decide whether to retreat — a dicey proposition moving in daylight through enemy territory, burdened by hospital patients — or to fortify the camp and resist the Zulu force they had been told was coming their way. They decided to stay and fight, a decision which caused the native horse and infantry to desert, leaving about 150 men to face 3-4,000 Zulus.
These Zulu regiments had not fought at Isandlwana, only served as a reserve force, and they may have been looking for a little action, because their commander disobeyed orders. Instead of sweeping past the post to block reinforcements, they attacked the outpost. There they discovered that the British had created high walls out of grain sacks. In 12 hours of hand-to-hand combat the hospital was set on fire and the patients there murdered in their beds, hundreds of Zulus were killed by British rifle fire, and the red-coats suffered 17 dead. On January 23, the Zulus withdrew.
To celebrate the bravery of the men at Rorke’s Drift, and to distract public attention from the defeat at Isandlwana, 12 Victoria Crosses were awarded. Cinematic treatments of the battle and its prelude are Zulu and Zulu Dawn, both well worth watching.