Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Rorke's Drift and Friedrich Von Martini
Friedrich von Martini may not be all that familiar a name to most of us, and among military buffs and gun collectors his name may be somewhat more familiar; but I can assure you that those who fought at Rorke's Drift on January 22, 1879 knew his name well. He was the man who in essence made it possible for about 140 British Soldiers to hold off an onslaught of approximately 4,000 Zulu Warriors, many of those warriors armed with modern rifles (for the time) as were the British. You see, earlier that same day, the Zulus Warriors led by King Cetshwayo kaMpande resoundingly defeated approximately 1,500 British forces Isandhlwana, where British General Lord Chelmsford greatly, and foolishly in the way only a snobbish British Lord could do, underestimated the fighting prowess of his enemy. According to a dispatch to the British government by Chelmsford after the battle, he stated that the Zulus had, in overwhelming numbers, launched a highly disciplined attack... That attack resulted in about 1,100 dead British forces, only 400 survivors, and only about 80 of them British or other European. This was the worst defeat of the British in history; and it reportedly resulted in the loss to the Zulus of many Martini-Henry breech loading rifles (though this is disputed by some, it was fact that the Zulus were well armed with rifles, and did establish harassing fire on the British during the battle of Rorke's drift later that same day).
Regardless of which rifle the Zulus used, it was that same breech loading rifle, the Martini-Henry, with which the British forces at Roarke's Drift (a supply/trading station, chapel, and filed hospital) were armed, when later that same day a large contingent of the Zulu army (called an impi) attacked. This impi, led by Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande, headed to Rorke's Drift against the orders of their king. It was a decision that Dabulamanzi would later regret. The British at Rorke's Drift had been made aware of the defeat of Chelmsford's forces, and prepared for battle. A decision was made by the three ranking officers: Lieutenant John Chard, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, and Acting Assistant Commissary James Langley Dalton that the British would remain within Rorke's Drift rather than try to flee the Zulus through open country, which most assuredly would have resulted in their deaths. So with approximately a force of 140 British soldiers, only about 100 of them fit to do battle, and a fairly large native force of the Natal Native Contingent commanded by European officers, the men at Rorke's Drift busied themselves and prepared for the worst.
Lookouts were posted high upon a hill overlooked the drift. Sometime, late that afternoon, one of the British lookouts upon spotting the advance of the Zulu Warriors was reported to have said: "Here they come thick as grass, and black as hell". This to my knowledge has only been widely disputed in the few decades, and as seen in Wikipedia it is now held by some that Sergeant Henry Gallagher yelled "Here they come, as thick as grass and as black as thunder!". If he actually said it either way, then he was right about them being as thick as grass (in overwhelming number of forces), and also right about equating their arrival with hell or thunder (because of the battle that they would wage). The photo above is an actual late 18th century picture of Zulu Warriors in full battle gear (Europeans behind them in the shot). The Zulus who approached Rorke's Drift numbered about 4,500 men, all disciplined and seasoned fighters, and as I said, many were armed with Martini-Henry Rifles. Of course, they did not know the intricacies of how to perform battlefield techniques with the rifle as they did with their own and more familiar weapons; but the British had been thoroughly trained in their use. While that training, weighted down by the poor decision making of lord Chelmsford, had done the British little good at Isandhlwana earlier that same day; the British at Rorke's Drift had something going for them other than those Martini-Henry rifles. They had officers who improvised, and who did not wear blinders seemingly as did Lord Chelmsford when it came to estimating the fighting skills of their enemy.
Through the use of standard defensive techniques such as barricading, and the use of volley fire, and through improvised use of handing out ammunition without the required signed chits (yes the British could be very anal about such things even requiring requisition forms in the heat of a battle - but not during this one), the British held off wave after wave of Zulu Warriors. However, all too soon for the British, the Zulus were successful in reaching weak points in the British defenses - including the hospital. During the hand to hand combat that then ensued, the Zulus set the hospital afire, and then relentlessly attacked it. Soon the British had to pull back further into the compound at which point they abandoned part of the hospital, and the British soldiers who were inside of it. At that point, not only did the wounded in the hospital fight for their lives, but as they held off the Zulu Warriors, one of the hospital patients started to hack his way through the walls, room to room, while his fellow patients defended their rear. While several soldiers in the hospital perished at the hands of their enemy, many of them were able to escape the hospital because of these actions. The action within the hospital was some of the fiercest of the whole battle.
The fighting continued throughout the night, though the relentless waves of attacks ceased in the early hours of the next morning to be supplemented by harassing Zulu fire from the hills overlooking the compound. This also ended a couple of hours later, still in the wee hours of the morning of the 23rd. At dawn, the British were astonished to see that the Zulus had departed the area, leaving their dead. A count of about 351 Zulu dead was made. The British had fought for over 10 hours against a vastly superior force, and now that force was gone. Then at about 0700, anther impi was spotted, but luckily for the British, no attack followed. At about 0800, Lord Chelmsford arrived on the scene with a large number of British troops, and it was then assured that no further battle would take place. All very lucky for them indeed because they were low on ammo, almost everyone of them had been wounded, and there was little hope they could have held out much longer. As it turned out though, they held out long enough, thanks in no small part to Friedrich Von Martini, and his Martini-Henry breech loading rifle. Because of that rifle, in the hands of those trained to use it, and because of absolutely outstanding defensive tactics and acts of courage (or desperation - they are close to, but not exactly, the same thing under such circumstances), the British losses were held to 15 dead, 8 seriously wounded, and just about all, if not all, of the remaining men wounded to some degree.
The Victoria Cross, Britain's highest military award was initiated by Queen Victoria in about 1856 because to honor the valor shown in the Crimean War. Since that time, up until today, only about 1,356 of those medals have been awarded. Due to their courage at Rorke's drift, 11 British soldiers were awarded the Victoria Cross, more such awards for a single action (one battle) than in any other single engagement by British forces throughout the history of if the medal.
I really am no big history buff, and don't know a whole lot about military history, but this battle is certainly inspirational for anyone who may ever have to face the dangers of being attacked by a well disciplined enemy, and one in overwhelming number at that. To those in such positions today, such as those in our military services, or those in law enforcement, I say this: Train now as if your life depends upon your training, then train some more, but always be willing to use your brain to best apply that training; and never give up. That may just may save your life, and the life of your fellow serviceman or officer. Never forget, you are not only fighting to save yourself, but more importantly you are fighting to save the guy next to you, because as you are saving his life, he is likely doing the same for you. Now it is almost time for me to pull out a cold one out of my fridge, sit down to relax, and watch one of my favorite movies of all time: Zulu. Sure they take some liberties with the story, but it is surprisingly close to the reality of it, especially for Hollywood. It is now 129 years later, and I salute the memory of the men of both sides, for their bravery, determination, and patriotism, in what surely was, is, and will remain one of the most memorable battles of all time.
All the best,
For more info on Martini-Henry Rifles, and the Battle of Rorke's Drift, see these links:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rorke (lots of info there)
http://www.martinihenry.com/index.html (lots of the above info, and the pic of Martini, ans one of his rifles were found there).
http://www.rorkesdriftvc.com/myths/myths.htm (Lots of info there, even about current tourism to the site of the battle)