Help support TMP

"Seriously, how did the British win at Rorke's Drift?" Topic

24 Posts

All members in good standing are free to post here. Opinions expressed here are solely those of the posters, and have not been cleared with nor are they endorsed by The Miniatures Page.

Please use the Complaint button (!) to report problems on the forums.

For more information, see the TMP FAQ.

Back to the Victorian Colonial Board Message Board

Back to the 19th Century Discussion Message Board

Areas of Interest

19th Century

Featured Hobby News Article

Featured Link

Top-Rated Ruleset

Rank & File

Rating: gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star 

Featured Showcase Article

Turkish Keyk-Class Patrol Digs

Personal logo Editor in Chief Bill The Editor of TMP Fezian finally dips his toe into the world of Aeronef.

2,371 hits since 6 Aug 2021
©1994-2023 Bill Armintrout
Comments or corrections?

TMP logo


Please sign in to your membership account, or, if you are not yet a member, please sign up for your free membership account.
Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP06 Aug 2021 4:12 p.m. PST

"In the last video, I discussed why it seems so extraordinary at first glance that the British managed to win the Battle of Rorke's Drift by examining it in the same way that films often show battles taking place- by taking two armies on a flat field, and mashing them together. But as we all know, military history is more complicated than just looking at raw troop counts, weapons systems, and technological advantages! To fully understand any battle, and especially Rorke's Drift, you need to look at its wider military and diplomatic context. So, in this video, let's look at how the British actually managed to win the battle! It turns out the odds weren't *quite* so against them as might first appear…"

YouTube link


Col Durnford Supporting Member of TMP06 Aug 2021 6:06 p.m. PST

They fight with spears, don't they? Hardly seem fair against the Martini-Henry.

John the OFM06 Aug 2021 6:08 p.m. PST

The ditches were a lot deeper than in the movie. It was not a simple hop over the wall.

John the OFM06 Aug 2021 6:08 p.m. PST

Plus the Zulus had no top tenors.

Dan Cyr06 Aug 2021 6:43 p.m. PST

Let's see, one side has a fortified position, rifles and plenty of ammo, does not to do anything but stand their ground (or all die as there is no retreat possible) and good leadership.

Other side has few rifles (and no actual training on how to shoot really), mass numbers not able to put their numbers to effect due to the narrow fronts of their target, but poorly coordinated attacks, open ground to get to their enemies, unable to over run defenses, had not eaten for a day or more, had moved at the trot dozens of miles to reach the drift, etc.

HMS Exeter Supporting Member of TMP06 Aug 2021 7:19 p.m. PST

The Zulu attack had no answer for an opponent behind an effectively prepared walled position. In every action the Brits were walled up they won. When they weren't, they lost.

Intombe was a British defeat because of the imperfect defenses.

In South Africa the term for such a walled defense was a "laager," usually formed with parked wagons."

In 1838 a Dutch expedition laagered up in the face of an overwhelming Zulu force. The Battle of Blood River took its name from the horrific casualties inflicted by the badly outnumbered but well laagered Dutch.

Wackmole9 Supporting Member of TMP06 Aug 2021 7:25 p.m. PST

Lt. John Chard: If it's a miracle, Colour Sergeant,
it's a short-chambered, Boxer-Henry . 45 calibre miracle.

Color Sgt. Bourne: And a bayonet, sir. With some guts behind it.

Personal logo ColCampbell Supporting Member of TMP06 Aug 2021 7:55 p.m. PST

+5 to John and Bill both!


Rusty Balls06 Aug 2021 8:36 p.m. PST

I heard from my great great grand daddy that he had a friend who knew someone who was there and that he said that they had a old boy InDuna up on the hill with all of the spears in crates and only one screw driver. He'd only hand out married spears to married regiments and unmarried spears to the young bucks. Hence whole regiments were left with nothing but their shields to test the British fire power.

Jcfrog Supporting Member of TMP07 Aug 2021 7:42 a.m. PST

They could sing Men of Harlech, with the proper accent.

WarWizard07 Aug 2021 8:25 a.m. PST

"The Army doesn't like more than one defeat in a day."

Personal logo The Virtual Armchair General Sponsoring Member of TMP07 Aug 2021 9:28 a.m. PST

"Looks bad in the papers and upsets civilians at their breakfast."

…And it helps that the Zulus never "bellied up to the bar" as shown in the film, but hunkered down and simply fired ineffectively from cover.

There was nary an Iklwa wound among the defenders--just bullets and slugs.


42flanker07 Aug 2021 10:07 a.m. PST

"This lapwing runs away with the shell on his head."

Gwydion07 Aug 2021 1:51 p.m. PST

TVAG wrote

There was nary an Iklwa wound among the defenders--just bullets and slugs.

Are you sure?
That may be a surprise to: Pvt Beckett, Pvt Hayden, Pvt Williams and Sgt Maxfield, killed by 'assegai' and Pvts Hook and Jones 'wounded by assegai'

Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP07 Aug 2021 3:39 p.m. PST



newarch08 Aug 2021 4:58 a.m. PST

They could sing Men of Harlech, with the proper accent.

What a Brummie accent you mean? The majority of the soldiers at Rourke's Drift were English, the regiment hadn't been renamed the South Wales Borderers by then, although there were quite a few Welshmen serving at this point.

rvandusen Supporting Member of TMP08 Aug 2021 10:08 a.m. PST

Both of those January 22 1879 battles are great lessons regarding not underestimating one's opponent. Chelmsford would learn from his mistakes, and despite a couple of setbacks would overthrow the Zulu kingdom by July. The 1838 battle at Blood River is another thing altogether. Around 600 Boers and their servants held off an estimated 10,000-15,000 Zulus using muzzle-loaders and a couple of scrounged cannons. The Voortrekkers suffered 2 wounded! What is a bit weird about this event is that it followed an earlier battle at Veglaer the previous August. The Boers used the same tactics and the Zulus were led by the same general! The victory was seen as vengeance for the Weenen massacre the killing of Piet Retief and his delegation.

Dagwood08 Aug 2021 1:56 p.m. PST

Seriously, the British won by the skin of their teeth. They were almost out of ammunition when the Zulus retired and another attack might well have won the day.

42flanker09 Aug 2021 11:17 a.m. PST

"They could sing Men of Harlech, with the proper accent."

Given that the regimental depot had been at Brecon since 1873, that might have been the case. However, there is no record that they did so on 22nd-23rd January, 1879

olicana10 Aug 2021 5:04 a.m. PST

The film gives a wholly wrong impression of the terrain. The film was supposed to be shot on location but the director thought it boring, so he shifted the action to a Drakensberg Mountains National Park.

The actual terrain was a lot flatter and the approaches a lot more open. It's basically a flat plain with two small hills nearby.


The Zulu attacks were completely blunted by fast firing, accurate, breach loading rifles with a bore like a small cannon. Single bullets were capable of taking several Zulus down at a time. In the film they open fire at 50m 100m, in reality they were probably firing accurate volleys, over open ground, when the Zulus were 500m out. Jogging over 'fields', that would take a Zulu four to five minutes to cover. The British soldiers would be firing at 12 rounds a minute.

Then, for the few Zulus who reached the mission station, they had the ditch and defences to get over: again facing men with fast loading rifles, well supplied with ammunition, and with a fitted bayonet if need be.

It was a bloody slaughter. The line about the "butcher's yard", is probably nearer to the truth than anything in the rest of the film.

Out of 3 4000 men, the Zulus probably took 800 casualties 20 25%. The British numbering 156 defenders took 32 casualties 20%.

It was a close call, but the difference in raw casualty numbers (800 / 32) says it all. That's why the Zulus gave up the attack they were simply losing too many brother warriors.

I don't game this period, but I thought everyone knew this much about Rorke's Drift.

Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP11 Aug 2021 3:58 p.m. PST



Gorgrat29 Aug 2021 10:19 p.m. PST


Take Isandhlwana, replace all the stuff they did stupid with the way it should have been done, (like, for starters, taking the Zulus seriously) add in a small fort, and you've got Rorke's Drift.

Also, the British were fresh, and the Zulus probably pretty fatigued before the fighting even started.

Another also. The British had two choices, drive the Zulus off or be massacred. That last one's a pretty good motivational factor.

Die Engelsman15 Aug 2022 4:28 a.m. PST

I've been to Fugitives' Drift, the lodge that specialises in tours of Isandlwana, the flight of the fugitives back towards Rorke's Drift and Rorke's Drift itself. The guy who set it up, David Rattray, grew up on a farm in the area and knew (as a boy) some of the last surviving eyewitnesses (who had been children at the time). Thus he had created a battlefield tour that managed to give pretty detailed history from both sides.
For a start, Chard, being an engineer, knew how to build defences. The mealie sack wall was built facing about the only way a large force could approach. It was also built to chest height on the lip of a six foot rock terrace. Thus the attacking Zulus were faced with a 10 to 12 foot high obstacle topped with men armed with rifles and bayonets.
We must also note the regiments that attacked Rorke's Drift were in a strange position. They had been late at a rendezvous just prior to Isandlwana and had thus incurred the ire of the Zulu king. Because of this they had been kept out of that battle and deprived of their share of the looting after that battle. Instead Cetshwayo had sent them to the border to keep an eye on the Brits at Rorke's Drift. But they had very strict instructions not to cross the river and attack the mission station. Cetshwayo's whole strategy depended on the Zulus not being seen as the aggressors.
The Indunas however wanted to redeem themselves in the King's eyes (and earn a bit of loot into the bargain). The chief amongst them was also known to be a bit of a hot-head. So they launched an immediate attack on Rorke's Drift. It was a small post and they expected to overrun the British post expecting to win easily. They were however unused to taking on defended fortified positions, it was just not a feature of Zulu warfare to that point. Also because they had been deprived of the right to loot, the Zulus did not have any Martini-Henry rifles just old muzzle loaders.
Anyway the first attack failed and this left the Indunas in a bit of a fix. They'd disobeyed the King's strictest instructions not to invade British Natal but had failed in their first attack. Quite frankly, I imagine this messed with their thinking from that point on. They were confronted with a situation for which they weren't experienced (storming a fortified position with superior firepower). They'd seriously upset a king not known to treat people who disobeyed him with kindness and they had maybe a day, probably less, to redeem themselves. It is quite natural to assume that they did not make the best decisions and thus eventually had to retreat.

Nick Stern Supporting Member of TMP15 Aug 2022 9:31 p.m. PST

The Zulus at this time actually had plenty of firearms, almost one per man, though they were of poor quality. It was a common tactic for the warriors to fire their rifles and muskets and then drop them and rush forward with their spears. IIRC, almost all of the dead and wounded Rorke's Drift defenders were hit with bullets, not spears.

Sorry - only verified members can post on the forums.