Rorkes Drift historical timeline
22 January 1879. Zulu army defeats British forces camped at Isandhlwana. Reserve forces under the command of Prince Dabulamanzi cross into Natal.This was to gain glory and plunder. He was trying to remove the shame of being used as the reserve at the earlier battle. His command was due to his half brother being king, rather than any tactical ability.
Daybreak. Lt Chard, confused by ambiguous orders, after consultation with Maj Spalding heads to Isandhlwana to confirm his orders. On arrival at Isandhlwana is given new orders. Supervise the ponts and keep the road between Rorke's Drift and Isandhlwana in good order.
Noon. Chard arrives back at the Drift. Has a brief discussion with Maj Spalding about the Zulus seen advancing on the camp at Isandhlwana but no action is taken at this time. 12:30 pm Sounds of gunfire can be heard in the direction of Isandhlwana. The garrison assume that this is Lord Chelmsford defeating the Zulus. Revd Smith, Witt and Surgeon Reynolds, having nothing to do that afternoon take a telescope and ride to the summit of the Oskarsberg to see what is happening. They can see three columns coming from the direction of Isandhlwana but they thought they were returning Natal Native Contingent.
2:00 pm Maj Spalding, Officer Commanding Rorke's Drift leaves for Helpmeekar to find out the reason for the delay in the arrival of D and G Company. Before leaving he enquires which of the two officers is senior, they are unsure who holds seniority. After consulting the Army List tells Chard "I see you are senior, so you will be in charge, although, of course, nothing will happen, and I shall be back this evening, early". Chard returns to supervise the work party carrying out repairs at the ponts.
2:30 pm Lts Vane and Adendorff of the NNC arrive at the crossing and inform Chard of the defeat at Isandhlwana. At this time Chard receives a message from Bromhead confirming the defeat, via a messenger from Capt Essex and requesting his return to the Drift. Chard has Adendorff carry a message back, he will return after collecting his work party and equipment. On seeing the riders approach the Drift, Surgeon Reynolds returns to the Drift to see if they need medical assistance.
3:00 PM Bromhead is making preparation for a fighting retreat to Helpmeekar, using the wagons to carry the injured. At this point Commissary Dalton intervenes. Dalton was by far the most experienced member of the military present having previously retired with the rank of staff sergeant in 1871, then rejoining the military in 1877 as a Commissary Officer. While technically junior to Bromhead, Bromhead acknowledges his greater experience. Dalton has already started making preparations to defend the Drift. As he pointed out, a fighting withdrawal of 12 miles to Helpmeekar would not be possible. They would be moving at the speed of the slowest man, as there would not be room on the 2 wagons for all the injured, they would be limited to the roads and there was steep winding section of road to cover. The Zulus could use the easier paths and harass them until they had sufficient numbers to attack. They would also be abandoning a large amount of supplies and ammunition that would be used against them. They would only have to hold out for several hours, as Maj Spalding was due to return by nightfall with D and G companies. Dalton's advice convinces Bromhead to stay and fight. Bromhead orders a 4 ft high perimeter built, the work to be supervised by Dalton. Readily available are the 200 lbs mealie sack and the hundredweight boxes of meat and biscuits. Where possible this follows the edge of the 5ft high rocky ledge to Drift sits on. While the wall is being built Dalton orders the external doors to the hospital be barricaded and loopholes made in the walls.
3:30 PM Witt and Smith return from the Oskarsberg, on finding out the situation Witt remounts and heads of to Helpmeekar. Smith also decides that it would be better to leave, only to find both his horse and native groom missing. He stays and helps rather than risk the journey on foot. At about this time Chard returns and assumes command. After a brief meeting he approves the decision to stay and like Bromhead lets Dalton get on with the work.
4:00 PM The perimeter wall is complete, standing at about 4ft; this added to the drop of 5ft on the other side should afford sufficient protection. Knowing the British soldiers desire for strong drink, Sgt Windridge gives orders that anyone touching the casks of medical rum in the storehouse are to be shot. Chard returns to the crossing to recover the work party along with their tools and water cart. He also intends to moors the ponts in the middle of the river, thus denying their use to the advancing Zulus. Lt Henderson with a large party of Natal Native Horse arrives at the ponts and are ordered to guard them by Chard.
4:20 PM Chard returns to the Drift. The first Zulu skirmishers approach the ponts. After a brief exchange of fire, the NNH retreat past the Drift in the direction of Helpmeekar. On seeing this the NNC along with their white officers break and flee. Chard orders a dividing wall made using a line of biscuit boxes, thus creating a fall back line. C/Sgt Bourne supervises the opening of the ammunition boxes and ensures that a supply system is in place to keep the defenders stocked. Bourne is then directed to take a skirmish party out to help discourage the approaching Zulu and give the defenders more time to prepare. The Zulu scouts return to the main force with the news of a small, weakly defended British position. This is exactly what Prince Dabulamanzi is looking for, orders are given and the traditional "Buffalo Horns" battle formation is set in place. At this point the Zulu do not know that they are expected, and that the defenders have had time to prepare. In the hospital, all of the "Walking wounded are issued a rifle and ammunition, the doors and windows barricaded. Possibly due the to intense activity it is overlooked that the room have only one exit and that by sealing themselves in they would be trapped in their rooms.
4:30 PM The first of the Zulus are sighted by Pte Hitch on lookout. Approximately 600 Zulus quickly advance towards the south defences. Holding their shields away from their body so as to put off the aim of the soldiers, they are able to get within 50yds of the wall. They are forced back into cover by the crossfire from both buildings. Using all available cover, retreat and reform either behind the cookhouse or in the orchard to the west.
5:00 PM Zulus attack the ledge area in front of the hospital. The attack is driven back by a mix of volley fire and close combat. Although the Zulus preferred hand to hand fighting, they were at a major disadvantage as they were fighting over the equivalent of a 9ft barrier and having much less reach with their spears than the rifle / bayonet. The main force of the Zulu appears on the Oskarsberg. Zulu marksmen take up positions in the rocks, but are at best poor shots. The rest move down and take up positions around the Drift. For the next hour, the attacks are a series of uncoordinated attacks, consisting of attempts to rush the walls. All are driven back.
6:00 PM Daylight starts to fade.Prince Dabulamanzi takes a more active control and orders attack on both the north and south wall in an attempt to overstretch the defenders. One of these attacks nearly breaks through and the order is given to fall back behind the second line of boxes. This effectively cuts off communication with the hospital.
6:30 PM The Zulus mass on the hospital, in an attempt to take the building. Using burning grass tied to spears, try to set the thatch alight, but due to the heavy rains was still damp and slow to burn. Two patients driven by fear try to escape through the doors. One is killed immediately, the other is found the next day dying of his wounds. The Zulus start to slowly take the hospital, room by room. Pte Hook uses his bayonet to break through the wall in an attempt to escape. He meets up initially with Pte Horrigan, Williams John and Joseph. This starts the routine that will save eventually them. Hook defends the entrance with a rifle and bayonet, while Williams breaks open the wall with a pick. They break through two more walls and a small window, high on the wall. As they move through the hospital they help all the injured and defenders to safety. For this action Pte Hook, Jones R, Jones W and Williams John receive the Victoria Cross. On seeing the window being broken open Chard calls for volunteers to help the injured cross the "no mans land", Cpl Allen and Pte Hitch go to help, what is more remarkable is that both were already injured with bullet wounds. For this act of bravery, both receive the Victoria Cross. Covering fire keeps most of the Zulus at bay but Trooper Hunter of the Natal Mounted Police is attacked and killed.
7:00 PM Sunset. The hospital has been evacuated. The thatch roof is ablaze lighting the surrounding area. The final phase of the battle starts, both sides are in trouble. The British are in a small compound consisting of the storehouse, walled off area in front and the kraal to the east. They are surrounded and have limited ammunition. Prince Dabulamanzi's problems were more personal having broken two of the king's orders, first, not to cross into Natal and second, not to attack a defended position. Had the battle gone well he could have possible got away with disobeying the orders but his forces had suffered massive casualties with nothing to show for their bravery. The fire attracts other Zulu skirmishers in the nearby area and the light gives the British marksmen easy targets in the massed ranks of the Zulu.
8:00 PM The Zulus try to set fire to the thatch on the storehouse in an attempt to force out the defenders. If the storehouse were to be taken then they would be completely surrounded at a distance of less than 20 yds. Cpl Attwood has defended the storehouse from a window and continues to do so until the end of the battle. Due to his determination to Zulus are unable to fire the thatch.
9:00 PM Chard orders Commissary Dunne to assist in making an oblong redoubt with the two large piles of mealie bags stacked in front of the storehouse. Without thinking about his personal safety he directs the work from on top of the mound and while attracting steady gunfire is not hit. Chard, Dunne and four soldiers finish the redoubt, access to which was by a narrow entrance that could be sealed from the inside. The wounded are moved into the redoubt and marksmen are detailed to use the elevated position to fire over the walls.
10:30 PM The fire from the hospital starts to die out. The Zulu enthusiasm for hand-to-hand combat has cost them dearly; most of the Zulu casualties were from bayonet wounds. The British are slowly driven from the kraal, first to the inner dividing wall and then out, but at great cost. Allen and Hitch continue to distribute the ever-dwindling ammunition supply.
Midnight The fighting changes into a series of small but determined attacks. This allows the British to anticipate the direction of each attack and repel it. At this point the British have been without water to refill their canteens for over 6 hours. Chard could see the water cart that he had filled earlier in the day in the middle of the compound. Leading an almost suicidal charge of 4 other men, including Hook he was able to recover the cart and bring it to the wall. Although it was to heavy to lift over the wall they were able to siphon out the water using a leather hose into various containers. Had the Zulus recognised what the cart for what it was, they would surely have taken it. They had their last drink of water when they crossed the river 9 hours previously. They had been fighting in the open, with no cover and no water for over 8 hours and had not eaten for nearly 2 days. If the British were exhausted, the Zulu were easily in a worse state. The attacks become more sporadic but they continued to harass the British with rifle fire.
4:00 AM The fire in the hospital finally dies out. At about this time the last Zulu attack takes place. Not knowing if they were using the darkness to preparing for one last big attack, Chard orders his men to remain at their posts.
5:00 AM Dawn. The only Zulus are sight are the dead and the dying. The attacking force has vanished. Chard orders a patrol to flush out any remaining marksmen and put the wounded Zulus out of their misery.
7:00 AM The Zulus are seen on the western slopes of the Oskarsberg. They rest for several minutes and are then seen to head in the direction of Zululand. The British use this time to repair damage to the walls. Additional patrols are sent out to help secure the area. Bourne is reminded of the casks of rum and orders that the spirit be distributed among the defenders. Most surprising was when Hook presented himself for the issue, as he was a known teetotaller "I feel I want something after all that" was supposedly his only comment. Most of the men were so exhausted they simply curled up in various corners or on mealie bags and fall asleep. Guards are posted at the four corners in case the Zulus return. The remaining ammunition is distributed, it amount to less than 50 rounds per man.
8:00 AM Lord Chelmsford's column is sighted by one of the guards but they are unsure as to its identity due to the obscuring dawn mist. Word of the advancing column quickly spreads. Chard calls a "Stand to" in case it is an attacking force. Through frantic use of a white flag, the identity of the column is finally confirmed.
8:30 AM The garrison at Rorke's Drift is relieved.
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