A single company of infantry garrisoned the mission station at Rorke’s Drift, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Foot. Although the 24th was designated the South Warwickshire Regiment, this company was manned largely by Welshmen. The company colour sergeant was Frank Bourne; the sole officer, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead.
The mission belonged to the Reverend Otto Witt, a Swede. Mr Witt’s church had been turned into a store by the British Army; his house a military hospital under Surgeon James Reynolds.
Lieutenant John Chard, Royal Engineers, arrived at Rorke’s Drift on 19th January 1879 with a party of sappers. Chard had cause to journey up to Isandlwana immediately before the battle and on his return saw groups of Zulus.
On 21st January 1879 the garrison heard firing from the distant battle and a group of officers climbed the nearby hill. They saw what they eventually realised to be parties of Zulus advancing towards the mission station. News of the disaster at Isandlwana was confirmed by the arrival of Lieutenant Ardendorff from the camp.
The British garrison set to fortifying the mission station. Tents were struck and stored and the buildings loopholed for defence. The store (church) and building (Witt’s house) were linked by walls of mealie bags.
A party of Durnford’s unit arrived and was posted forward to hold the Zulu advance as long as possible.
At 420pm firing was heard from the hill and the men of Durnford’s unit returned to the mission station and then left for Helpmakaar, the nearest Natal town. The company of Natal Native Infantry also left, leaving the regular British troops and some Natal irregulars.
The garrison hurriedly built a shorter perimeter line of biscuit boxes to accommodate the greatly reduced numbers of soldiers.
The main body of Zulus came up and opened a heavy fire on the British from cover around the West and North West of the mission station.
The fighting now concentrated on the wall of biscuit barrels linking the mission house with the mealie wall. As night fell the British withdrew to the center of the station where a final bastion had been hastily assembled. The light from the burning hospital assisted the British in their fire. The savage Zulu attacks were resisted until around midnight when unexpectedly the ferocity of the assault fell away. Firing continued until around 4am when the Zulus withdrew. By then the British held only the area around the storehouse.
Soon afterwards the column arrived at the drift and crossed the Tugela, marching up to the mission station. Chelmsford’s delight at finding the garrison alive and still resisting was heavily tempered by his despair at finding that no survivors from Isandlwana had escaped to Rorke’s Drift.
Zulu casualties are thought to have been around 500. The garrison of the mission station comprised 8 officers and 131 non-commissioned ranks. Of these 17 were killed and 10 wounded.
- Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead were each awarded the Victoria Cross for the defence of the Rorke’s Drift mission station and promoted major.
- In addition to the soldiers of the 24th who distinguished themselves in the defence of the hospital, Victoria Crosses were awarded to Surgeon Reynolds, Commissary Dalton and Corporal Schiess of the NNC. Color Sergeant Bourne and Private William Roy of the 24th Foot, Gunner Cantwell of the Royal Artillery and Corporal Attwood of the Army Service Corps were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. (Sergeant Bourne was offered a commission, but turned it down)