The movie Zulu (1964) tells the story of 4000 Zulu warriors clashing with barely 150 British soldiers. I compare the celluloid version with the accounts from the history books.
The film largely avoids delving into historical context. The opening establishes only a date (January 1879), a place (Natal, South Africa), and the two opposing parties: the British and the Zulu Kingdom. The viewer is told about the Battle of Isandlwana, an engagement that went disastrously for the British and resulted in the loss of 1200 men.
The events of the film Zulu take place within the context of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, which itself resulted from events over the preceding decade.
The Zulus lived in the eastern part of what is now South Africa. Originally one clan among many, the Zulus established a hegemony over the local tribe in the early nineteenth century and went on to found the powerful Zulu Kingdom. Some historians compare this kingdom to the ancient Spartans and it’s easy to see why. Zulu society was strict and militaristic and its men were constantly trained from a young age in the ways of war.
The British meanwhile had had a presence in the region for several decades ever since they took over the Cape of Good Hope from the Dutch. The colony expanded throughout the following decades.
In 1867, the discovery of diamonds in South Africa triggered a rush of immigration. Several years later, the British decided to assert much tighter control over their colony and they embarked on a forceful reorganisation of Southern Africa into a confederacy. This was unpopular plan, especially with the Boer settlers and the Zulu Kingdom, who both rejected the idea. This resulted in a hostile standoff between the three parties.
The British acted first. Once the Boers were neutralised, Sir Bartle Frere, the High Commissioner of South Africa, turned his attention to the Zulus. He talked up Zulu military actions and depicted the Kingdom as a threat to the British. Frere then sent the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, an ultimatum demanding the Zulus disband their armies. As hoped, Cetshwayo refused, giving Frere the excuse he needed to invade Zululand.
In January 1879, the British invaded. At Isandlwana the two sides met in the first major engagement. Due to masterful maneuvering by the highly-disciplined Zulu army, the British forces were overwhelmed and annihilated.
The Two Sides Are Established
After witnessing the shocking aftermath of the Battle of Isandlwana, we’re dropped immediately into an African kraal to view a tribal ritual.
A line of half-naked young Zulu ladies face an equal number of warrior men. The two groups sing and dance aggressively at each other. More senior-looking members of the community surround them looking on. Luckily, someone can explain to us what’s happening here: Reverand Otto Witt, who tells his daughter Margareta that we’re witnessing a mass wedding. All the young women are being married off to the men before them.
Witt is seemingly a man with some influence since he is sitting beside Cetshwayo, the Zulu King no less, and chats with him amiably. He’s negotiating, trying to keep the peace between the Zulus and the Europeans, but little does he know of events at Isandlwana. He soon finds out.
The ceremony is interrupted by a runner carrying news of the Zulu victory. Enthused by the news, the Zulus immediately resolve to destroy the British station at Rorke’s Drift. Witt hurries away with his panicking daughter to warn the men at the outpost.
The people at Rorke’s Drift are unaware of the disaster. In fact, things look peaceful when we join them. The camp consists of little more than a handful of houses beside a river that lazily cuts through a majestic valley. We see the usual fare of camp life: soldiers are drilling, sergeants are strutting and one chap is relaxing by the riverbank idly composing a song.
A few men are building a wooden bridge across the river, although progress is hardly ideal. The man in charge is Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers, a direct, hands-on kind of officer, who thinks nothing of leaping into the water to rescue the bridge when a piece breaks off. It turns out he’s enlisted some men not under his command to help with construction. Their actual commanding officer, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, is not too pleased about this upon returning from a hunting expedition, but expresses it with typical British reserve. It would seem the aloof and aristocratic Bromhead is a rather different character from the rougher, practical Chard.
The placid atmosphere is soon disturbed by the arrival of two riders in the distance.
Reverend Otto Witt may have found himself overtaken by events in January 1879, but the reality is a little different than that depicted on film.
Witt was born in 18481, meaning he was only barely into his thirties by the time of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift. He had come to South Africa a couple of years previously with his wife and infant children to preach the gospel to the godless natives. In 1878 he bought several thousand acres of land near the border of Natal (a British colony) and the Zulu Kingdom. On this site he built a mission station and began spreading the word of God. He barely got started before disaster occurred.
When news of the Battle of Isandlwana reached him, Witt was certainly not attending a Zulu wedding. Although he had met and preached to many Zulus, including more august members of their society like Chieftain Sihayo kaXongo2, I found no evidence that Witt had even met Cetshwayo, let alone made the King a member of his parish (as the film later claims).
In fact, Cetshwayo was rather opposed to Christianity. Several years earlier, at his coronation, he went so far as to declare the missionaries in the region persona non grata and forbade his subjects to convert without his explicit permission3. On the eve of war with the British, he was likely in no mood to hold a party with European missionaries on the guest list.
That’s especially true since, unlike what is depicted in the film (where no-one including the King seems to have expected news of battle), Cetshwayo knew very well that a fight was imminent. He had already authorised an attack on the British invasion force, ordering his warriors to “March slowly, attack at dawn and eat up the red soldiers.”4 Ironically, he did not authorise the separate attack on Rorke’s Drift. This raid was led by Dabulamanzi kaMpande, the King’s half-brother, who ignored the King’s standing orders not to cross over into British territory.
The mood at Rorke’s Drift seemed to be calm enough that Lieutenant John Chard, the ‘hero’ of the film, took a leisurely lunch in his tent that day. As in the movie, the Army sent Chard to work on the bridge across the nearby Buffalo River (although he was there to mend the existing rickety pontoon bridge rather than build a new one5). He had no expectation of ending up in a battle. Indeed, this humble, quiet man possessed no combat experience at all.
Chard had been at Rorke’s Drift for several days, so may have already met Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead. As the son of a Baronet, Bromhead certainly had aristocratic pedigree, but at 33 years of age he was getting a bit old for a Lieutenant. He was partially deaf and usually left his superiors underwhelmed by his abilities. Bromhead commanded the infantry company stationed at Rorke’s Drift, but the actual officer in overall charge was Major Henry Spalding (someone who goes unmentioned in the film).
Preparations for Battle
Two riders arrive at Rorke’s Drift bearing news of the slaughter at Isandlwana. One of them, a Boer named Adendorff, decides to stay at the post while the other rides off to alert a nearby relief column. In addition to this news, the riders have brought orders that Rorke’s Drift must be held.
Chard springs into action, although a few things conspire to distract him. First is the foppish Commissary Dalton and the cook, who together form a kind of comical double act. Another is the animated arrival of Reverand Witt and his daughter, who loudly protest that they be allowed to evacuate the sick soldiers from the station’s hospital. When Chard continues to dispatch orders around the camp, he comes into brief conflict with Bromhead. The aristocrat clearly thinks himself superior to his fellow Lieutenant, but a mere technicality (Chard received his commissioned earlier than Bromhead) means it is actually the engineer who enjoys superiority. Chard rounds off his barrage of orders by sending two privates up onto the hill.
Witt and his daughter find to their horror that their demand to let the sick men be evacuated has been refused - instead, those who can bear arms will be fighting. Even the roguish Private Hook, a “thief, coward and barrack-room lawyer malingering under arrest”, gets a rifle. This all thoroughly demoralises Witt, who secretly finds solace in a bottle of booze and begins to fall apart.
Adendorff briefs Chard and Bromhead on Zulu battle tactics, a variation of the classical double envelopment. In response, Chard draws up his own plans, refusing to be drawn into the Zulu pincers and establishing a series of fallback positions. Just then, a cavalry troop appears, lifting the spirits at camp.
But things just as suddenly turn sour. The troopers, led by Stevenson, have just escaped the massacre at Isandlwana and are no mood for more fighting. They immediately continue their escape over the desperate pleas of Chard. Witnessing this, Witt transforms into a furious preacher, promising damnation to those who stay. His proclamations persuade all of the native troops to immediately desert, further sapping the station’s strength. For this, he is imprisoned in the storehouse. As if this were not bad enough, news from the sentries comes in: thousands of Zulu soldiers are closing on Rorke’s Drift.
Around midday, Major Spalding (the commanding officer at Rorke’s Drift) was growing concerned. A relief company due at the station still hadn’t arrived, so he decided to leave the station in search of it. His most senior subordinates, Chard and Bromhead, possessed the same rank. To decide who to leave in command, Spalding consulted the paperwork. Chard had received his commission three years prior to Bromhead, so the engineer was appointed to temporary command6.
“I shall be back again this evening early,” Spalding assured Chard. “You will be in charge, although, of course, nothing will happen.”
Suitably assured, Chard continued overseeing work on the bridge.
The first signs that something was amiss were observed by Otto Witt. Far from being at the foot of Cetshwayo’s throne that morning, he was at Rorke’s Drift, keeping a watchful eye on his station. He had already sent his family out of harm’s way to a nearby area called Msinga. Now he was sitting on the top of a hill along with Surgeon James Reynolds and fellow man of the cloth Reverend George Smith. The three men could see the indistinct smoke of distant battle through a telescope. That was to be expected. What was surprising was to see several cavalrymen galloping furiously towards Rorke’s Drift as though their lives depended on it.
When these exhausted riders reached the river, Chard learned that not only had the regiment at Isandlwana been massacred, but a Zulu detachment was on its way to Rorke’s Drift. He relayed this message to Bromhead at the station and then supervised the packing up of the bridgeworks and ordered everyone back inside the perimeter. When the news reached the station, one person immediately sprang into action: Commissary James Dalton.
Far from the foppish character we see in the film, Dalton was a grizzled veteran. After twenty years in the army, this former sergeant had seen action and accumulated his fair share of experience. He immediately set about organising defences using whatever was at hand: the perimeter walls were erected out of mealie bags and a couple of wagons, while the surrounding areas cleared of things like tents that could provide cover for an attacker. By the time Chard arrived inside the perimeter, defensive works were already well underway7.
Otto Witt arrived back down from the hill to see all this and hear of the disastrous news. Far from choose this time to preach the gospel, he immediately left the station on horseback to see to his family’s safety2. Reverend Smith also considered leaving, but after finding that his horse had been stolen he chose to remain.
Chard conferred with Bromhead and Dalton to discuss the tactical situation. The two Lieutenants, struggling to fully absorb the situation, considered abandoning the post altogether. Dalton urged instead that they should stand and fight. Evacuating the station with dozens of sick in tow would be hopelessly slow; the Zulus would easily overtake them and cut them down in the open ground. The Commissary brought the two officers to acceptance of the inevitable: the only option was to barricade the station, fight off the Zulus and hope that relief came in time.
The odds were not hopeless. As a supply station, Rorke’s Drift had plenty of weaponry and ammunition. They might even escape an assault altogether if the Zulus saw that the station was fortified and ready for them. In fact, Dalton had seen just such a thing first-hand only a year before. During a campaign against the Xhosa people (another tribe in South Africa), his small supply depot was threatened with an overwhelming attack, so Dalton and the rest of the outnumbered garrison barricaded the place. The Xhosa had called off their attack upon arriving and seeing just how heavily defended it was7.
Another sliver of hope for the Rorke’s Drift defenders came not long before the battle began, when about one hundred cavalrymen arrived in camp led by Lieutenant Alfred Henderson (not Stevenson as the film has it). They were part of Natal Native Horse (NNH), mostly black troopers recruited from other local tribes hostile to the Zulus and led by European officers. Despite having fought hard and managing to escape the carnage at Isandlwana, they volunteered to defend some nearby heights along the Zulu’s expected approach.
This was the situation at around 4:30pm on 22 January 1879: About 140 British troops (some unfit for duty), 100 or so Natal Native Contingent (African infantry led by an officer named Captain Stevenson), and the 100 cavalry picketed nearby.
On the other side, just minutes away: four thousand Zulu warriors.
The Zulus Attack
The station is now a miniature fort. The two main buildings - the hospital and the storehouse - are connected by a pair of mealie bag walls, one to the north, the other to the south. Along each wall and on the rooftops, red-jacketed soldiers stand ready with their weapons. In every direction points a breech-loading, single-shot Martini-Henry rifle with a bayonet mounted on its muzzle.
At last, the Zulus make their appearance. And an impressive one it is: thousands of them line up on top of the hill. The valley is surrounded by the Zulu army. But they haven’t come to put on an impressive show; they quickly and stealthily take up their positions. As they do, we see the Zulu warriors for the first time under arms. They wear only scraps of animal hide as clothing and carry a cowhide shield and a spear. They move silently.
Suddenly, at one side of the station, a Zulu unit appears and makes the first attack. As they charge, the British open fire. But just then, the unit halts its advance and the warriors simply make demonstrations as the British continue to shoot. After a few dozen of them are cut down by rifle bullets, the Zulus promptly retreat again. The Zulu commander was testing the firepower of the British with the lives of his own men.
The drunken Reverend Witt meanwhile is becoming a liability. During a lull in the fighting, he is bundled into a carriage with Margareta and sent away from the station. Chard gambles that the Zulus, recognising the Witts, will ignore them.
After the Witts make their getaway, the attack renews. This time, the Zulus surprise the defenders by firing at them with rifles taken from the British dead at Isandlwana. Their target is the south wall and they hit several soldiers. At the same time, a wave of Zulus charges the north wall. It appears they are pinning down one wall while probing the other for weaknesses.
The British struggle to contend with this. With too few men to completely man the perimeter, they are forced to shuttle men between the two walls. Bromhead takes charge of a internal flying platoon, standing ready to plug any gaps that appear. Despite this, some Zulus overrun the north wall and get inside the perimeter. Chard is injured in the attack. He tries to give up command to Bromhead, who adamantly refuses and instead brings Chard to the surgeon.
The soldiers at the south wall fire back at the Zulu snipers in the hills. Commissary Dalton and the cook keep them supplied with cartridges, until Dalton is winged by a bullet and the cook is fatally speared. Two injured soldiers, Hitch and Allen, take over the duty of distributing ammo and Dalton brings himself to sickbay.
During a lull, a recovered Chard orders the reinforcement of the redoubt inside the walls. Private Hook meanwhile takes stock of the situation and opines that the hospital is the weak spot and is sure to suffer the next attack.
The first shots of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift were actually fired a short distance away from the station at 4:20pm. They came from the muskets of Henderson’s NNH cavalrymen, who had taken up position at a hill named Oskarberg.
The infantry remained garrisoned in the station and could hear the muskets from afar. But the firing soon stopped, replaced by the gallops of approaching horses. The soldiers watched the cavalry flee past them. Lieutenant Henderson himself reported to Chard, saying his cavalry were exhausted, running low on ammunition and would no longer obey his orders. A moment later, the cavalry was gone.
Observing this, the nerve of Stevenson’s NNC infantry broke and they also began to flee. Outraged at their desertion, some of the British soldiers fired at them and even managed to kill a man named Corporal Anderson.
Within only a few short minutes, the strength of the British garrison had more than halved, dropping from around 350 to 150.
At this point Chard recognised he now had insufficient men to fully cover the perimeter, so he ordered the construction of an additional internal wall that cut the station in half. If one side were overwhelmed, the men there could fall back to the other side, thus shortening the lines and making them easier to cover with the remaining men. It turned out to be a prescient decision.
Just then, Private Hitch, sitting atop the storehouse roof, reported that a Zulu force was approaching the camp. In the real battle, the Zulus did begin by attacking the south wall, but this was not to test the firepower of the British. Their determined charge was broken up by a volley of rifle fire and the Zulus took cover behind some nearby ovens. Others went immediately for the hospital.
The Zulus at Rorke’s Drift had as of yet no concept of the power of massed rifles - bear in mind that these particular warriors had not fought at Isandlwana. As with the first attack, the ignorance of Zulus who attacked the hospital was punished: bullets rained down on them and they were again forced to take cover.
Some of these warriors who took cover had firearms, despite the Zulus disdain for such a ‘dishonourable’ weapon, and began to fire back at the hospital. Their weapons were mostly muskets, not rifles as the British infantry possessed. This means they were almost certainly not plundered from the British bodies of Isandlwana, but more likely purchased beforehand from European traders. Luckily for the British, muskets were less accurate and the Zulus were poor marksmen.
More warriors attacked the barricades at the north side of the hospital. These attacks were harder for the British to deal with, since the Zulus could engage the soldiers at the wall and force them to use bayonet. Several times, the wall came close to being overwhelmed. Each time, Bromhead led his flying platoon in a bayonet charge against the Zulus to relieve the defenders. But soon the superior numbers of the Zulus began to tell. After about an hour’s fighting, the British were forced to give up part of the wall and further expose the hospital.
This didn’t really help the British. In fact, the abandoned barricade made things worse because the Zulus used it as cover and took up firing positions beside it. The Zulu forces around the hospital were repeatedly reinforced and kept coming. British casualties began to mount and the marksmanship of the Zulu snipers was improving (5 out of 17 soldiers killed here were shot). Both Hitch and Dalton had been badly injured by musket balls, but both continued to encourage and assist their comrades however they could. In Hitch’s case, he was no longer able to wield a rifle, but carried on fighting with Bromhead’s revolver. When he ran out of bullets, he took to delivering ammunition to the other soldiers at the wall. But eventually he collapsed from the loss of blood.
Temporary relief for the defenders came when Corporal Frederick Schiess of the NNC, on his own initiative and despite having injured feet, crept over to the abandoned barricade and went on a rampage. He shot and bayoneted several of the Zulus, forcing the rest to give up their position and giving the other soldiers a better chance of survival during the ensuing retreat.
It was 6:00pm and defence of the hospital started to look hopeless. Chard ordered everyone to fall back behind the interior wall he had ordered built earlier. However he couldn’t communicate with everyone inside the hospital and so was unable to organise a proper evacuation.
As darkness began to fall, the men at the hospital were on their own.
Destruction of the Hospital
Concerns about the hospital are soon validated. Dozens of Zulus descend on the building, clambering onto the roof and bashing down the doors. The thatched roof is easy for the Zulus to hack through with their assegais and they open up a hole through which to descend. In the process, however, a rifle blast sets the straw on fire and the blaze forces the defending soldiers to abandon the roof.
With Zulus descending into the room, Hook makes a run for it, but in the hallway he sees more warriors streaming in through the destroyed doorway. He returns to the room, barricades the door and orders his fellow soldiers to cut a hole in the wall they can escape through. With a rapidly spreading fire and Zulus at the door, Hook and the rest of the soldiers make a fighting retreat out of hospital.
Outside, the sick and wounded clamber out through a high window. Chard meets them, picking out the ablest soldiers to help man a new wall and sending the rest to Surgeon Reynolds.
Hook meanwhile tries to rescue his nemesis, the bedridden Sergeant Maxfield. Despite his best efforts, he is beaten back by a relentless stream of warriors and falling timbers. Maxfield is left to perish and Hook has no choice but to escape - but not before sampling some hero’s brandy, something he feels he’s earned.
After the evacuation is completed, the British fall back into their now smaller perimeter. As they do so, the terrified cattle occupying a nearby kraal manage to break open the gate and begin a stampede. Some of the pursuing Zulus are crushed and the momentum of their attack is broken up.
The retreat from the hospital was fought entirely on the initiative of several private officers. All they had was a rifle each and orders to defend the hospital. But now they were cut off from the rest of garrison. Darkness began to fall as the battle for the hospital got underway.
Private John Williams was stationed at the far west end of the hospital. He and another soldier had spent over an hour firing at the Zulus outside, but by around 7:00pm they were running out of ammo. There was no way out of the room apart from a door that was now being besieged by the Zulus, so Williams took a pick-axe and hacked away at the wall to open up a hole to escape. It was finished just in time to move several patients out of the room, but the Zulus eventually managed to kill the soldier guarding the door and overran the room.
In the next room, Williams found Private Henry Hook. Like Williams, Hook had been busily defending the patients in his room, steadily firing at the Zulus outside. He stayed dutifully at his post even after the other soldier detailed to defend this room (Private Cole) had panicked and fled. Hook was far from the rogue we see in the film; he was noted as a teetotaling model soldier.
The Zulus now inside the hospital began to shoot through the hole in the wall. What’s more, fire started to spread through the building, accompanied by thick smoke. Hook and Williams worked together to escape the second room. Again, Williams hacked away at the wall, while Hook engaged the Zulus trying to get through the hole.
Eventually Williams opened up another hole into a third ward where Privates Robert and William Jones were stationed. He and Hook along with the surviving patients moved into this room. The Joneses covered their comrades’ escape before finally moving out of the hospital. Despite the yard now being undefended and open to the Zulus, all the men made it into the tiny piece of land around the storehouse, which was now the only ground the British held.
Day turns to night. Darkness descends, but the still-burning hospital provides plenty of heat and light. The British are exhausted, but work goes on. Surgeon Reynolds works through the night to treat the wounded, soldiers fight off constant attacks, and defenses continue to be built up, including a redoubt nine feet in height.
The film spends little time showing nighttime attacks, but the garrison spent more time fighting in darkness than in daytime. For four more hours after retreating to the storehouse, the British fended off repeated Zulu attacks. The constant crackle of musket fire, less troublesome now, continued.
These attacks slackened by around 10:00pm and stopped entirely a few hours later. As exhausted as the British were, so too were the Zulus, who had run to Rorke’s Drift, fought all day and were far from any supplies.
The Zulus Last Throw
Dawn breaks in camp and all is eerily peaceful. The hospital is now a smoldering ruin. Many soldiers have given in to sleep. Even the redoubtable Sergeant Bourne is snoozing at his post.
Chard wakes his officers and orders Bourne to man the redoubt. One third of the remaining men take up positions behind its high walls, hidden from view.
The Zulus appear again, ready for another attack. But before they come, they begin to sing a harmonious song that soon turns into a furious war dance. Chard orders that the British respond to the display, and the men defiantly sing ‘Men of Harlech’.
When the Zulus finally charge, the outer wall is quickly overwhelmed and the Zulus come on. The men at the wall fall back to the last holdout: the redoubt. Here, the soldiers form three lines and the tiny redoubt is now bristling with rifles. The Zulus charge into the confined space and the British pour volleys of bullets at the now compacted Zulus, firing rank by rank, allowing them to keep up an unwavering rate of fire. Scores of warriors are massacred in mere seconds.
The last stand at the redoubt was an invention of the filmmakers. After dawn broke, no more fighting occurred. Practically the only sightings of Zulus on the morning of the 23rd January were of the hundreds of dead ones littering the field. A Zulu unit was spotted, but it was retreating from the battlefield. It certainly wasn’t singing the praises of the British.
After the last action, the British believe the Zulus have completely retreated. The bodies and arms of the Zulus are stacked up, while a roll call of the remaining soldiers is carried out. Chard and Bromhead reflect on their experience, sickened by their first tastes of battle.
Then, the Zulus reappear, still numerous atop a hill. The British man their posts once again and brace for an attack. But no attack comes. Instead, the Zulus sing a song, which Adendorff explains is a salute to the British. The Zulus consider them fellow braves.
And with that, the Zulus leave.
Keeping one eye peeled for more attacks, the British took stock of their situation that morning. Almost every man had some kind of injury. A couple of men would later die from their wounds.
Out of 20,000 rounds of ammunition, only 900 remained.
Among the corpses, Zulus lay wounded or dying. The British finished them off with their bayonets as they stalked the battlefield to recover supplies and find water.
At around 8:00am, a unit was sighted in the field and the British rushed to man their positions once again. But this time it was a relief force: the advance cavalry of the British invaders, retreating from their failed attempt to subdue the Zulu Kingdom.
The Battle of Rorke’s Drift was finally over.
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References and Notes
Hale, Frederick. The Military History Journal, 10(4), 1996, The South African Military History Society. ↩
Hale, Frederick. Norwegian Missionaries in Natal and Zululand: Selected Correspondence 1844-1900, Van Riebeeck Society, 1996. ↩
Lock, Ron; Quantrill, Peter. Zulu Victory: The Epic of Isandlwana and the Cover-up. Johannesburg & Cape Town. Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2002. ↩
Yorke, Edmund. Battle Story: Isandlwana 1879, The History Press, 2011. ↩
Stossel, Katie. A Handful of Heroes, Rorke’s Drift: Facts, Myths and Legends, Pen and Sword, 2015. ↩