After two hours fierce fighting Chard had been forced to fall back on his “retrenchment of biscuit-boxes” and abandon the hospital, and the barricades and yard between it and the storehouse. Over the next hour or two, the few defenders of the hospital, including any of the sick who were capable, carried out their heroic, nightmarish fighting retreat through with the roof burning over their heads. The Mission had been designed to include cell-like guestrooms for travellers wanting a night\'s shelter. For the privacy and security of Revd Witt and his family, these rooms only had outside doors. So, famously, Private John Williams burrowed through the connecting mud-brick walls as his comrades, able-bodied and sick, desperately held the Zulus back with bayonet and bullet. Private Waters, wounded in the arm, hid in a cupboard and then succeeded in melting into the darkness outside, camouflaging himself with what is variously described as Mrs Witt\'s black fur coat, one of the Revd Witt\'s long black cloaks , or the “skirt of a dress”, depending on who is telling the story.

The hospital is now a small museum with evocative displays reconstructing various scenes with life-size figures, including the rear half of Williams in one tiny room and his front half struggling through into the next, and Waters lurking in his cupboard. A diorama gives a nice bird\'s-eye view impression of the entire battle, but it telescopes the time-scale somewhat.

Rorke's Drift Diorama

rorke's drift diorama

The mealie-bag redoubt in front of the storehouse was actually built after the withdrawal behind the biscuit-boxes line, which ran north from the north-east corner of the storehouse to the mealie-bag rampart at the front of the Mission. Fighting was still going on in the hospital but there would have been no (living) “red soldiers” in the area between.The redoubt was probably a less impressive structure than modelled here. Some of the wounded lay in its cover and Chard and Bromhead “kept an anxious watch on all sides” from it in the middle of the night, but it may not have been used much as a firing point. Chard\'s description goes, “we converted two large heaps of mealie bags into a sort of redoubt which gave a second line of fire all around, in case the store building had to be abandoned, or the enemy broke through elsewhere”. According to others, it was built big enough for a few men to hold for as long as they were able in a last stand, and one of its builders felt that he ”was building his own sarcophagus”. In any case, as the fires died down in the hospital a sharpshooter would have had difficulty picking out targets in the darkness of “the dead moon”, and rifles with bayonets, and revolvers were better deployed shoulder-to-shoulder at the parapets. Firepower and the reach of the bayonets, and extraordinary courage and cohesion finally ground the Zulus down.

Outside, the lines of the mealie-bag and biscuit-box ramparts are marked out on the grass with stones. The compactness of the final position alongside the storehouse is astonishing. The difference between the defensive tactics adopted by the British at Rorke\'s Drift and (not) adopted by the British at Isandlwana must have been the most significant contributor to the survival of the former against odds of around 25 to 1 and the destruction of the latter against odds of not much more than 10 to 1 (symmetrically, about one Zulu in ten had a firearm). However, the outcome could have been very different, and more speedily reached, if Dabulamanzi had used the same tactics as Ntshingwayo had earlier in the day at Isandlwana and committed maximum numbers in an initial, mass Impondo Zenkomo (“horns of the bull”) attack, including in his ranks the firepower wasted up on the ledges of Shiyane. I\'d love to see this scenario wargamed, experimenting with different lines of advance and approach manoeuvres. Two rather ordinary junior officers would not have become heroes, and history and Michael Caine\'s movie career would have gone seriously alternate!

Our guide at Rorke\'s Drift was George Irwin, like Joseph at Isandlwana very fluent and knowledgeable, and on the staff of Fugitive\'s Drift Lodge and Guest House.This is a superb base for visiting the Zulu War battlefields, and for enjoying the game and nature reserve it is set in, and excellent South African and Zulu hospitality. Ian Knight\'s Campaign titles on the two battles were a great resource, as was his Essential History, but the powerful narratives and detailed information delivered by our guides on the ground took us to an altogether deeper level of understanding and intensity of involvement. This was the mission of David Rattray, the founder, with his wife Nicky, of Fugitive\'s Drift and renowned for his narrations of the Zulu War. He is still a warm and imposing presence in the dining room of Fugitives\' Lodge.

David Rattray Portrait

david rattray portrait

I wouldn\'t argue with the description of the Rattray style of tour as “thought provoking and emotionally charged”, and that\'s the way I like my military history. My only regret was not having enough time to wander  over both battlefields after the talks, but that's a very good reason for going back!