Friday, January 10, 2020

THE Queen has been graciously pleased to signify...

The defence of Rorke's Drift 1879
Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville
Painting of the Battle of Rorke's Drift which took place in Natal during the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. De Neuville based the painting on eye witness accounts and it depicts several events of the battle occurring at once. Defenders depicted in the painting: Lieutenant John Chard (to the right at the barrier in pale breeches with rifle) Corporal Scammell of the Natal Native Contingent incorrectly shown in the uniform of the 24th or Corporal William Allen (handing cartridges to Chard) Corporal Ferdinand Schiess (wearing a bandoleer and stabbing a Zulu at the barrier with his bayonet) Chaplain George Smith (bearded man handing out cartridges from a haversack) Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton (sat in foreground with a wounded shoulder) Surgeon James Reynolds (attending to Dalton's wound) Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (standing in the centre of the painting pointing to his left) Private Frederick Hitch (standing behind Bromhead) Private Henry Hook (carrying Private John Connolly on his back away from the burning hospital) Assistant Commissary Walter Dunne (to the left holding a biscuit box). (Source)
In the aftermath of the Battles of Isandlwana (an unmitigated disaster) and Rorke's Drift (a resounding success), the British government awarded Victoria Crosses (VC) to eleven of the roughly 150 men who defended Rorke's Drift against the attacking Zulu. Seven of these VCs went to members of B Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 24th Regiment of Foot. The commander of the post, Lieutenant Chard of the Royal Engineers was also awarded the Victoria Cross.

Men who were not members of the 24th and were awarded the Victoria Cross for this action were: Corporal Christian Schiess of the 3rd Natal Native Contingent, Surgeon James Reynolds of the Army Medical Department, and Assistant Commissary James Dalton of the Commissariat and Transport Department.

The eleven awards of the Victoria Cross for the defense of Rorke's Drift is the record for the most VCs awarded for a single action, the seven VCs awarded to members of the 24th Foot is the record for the most VCs awarded to a single regiment for a single action.

A comment over on koobecaF from my old buddy Advocaat (former Air Force cop, currently an attorney) sparked the writing of this post. He mentioned the seven awards as being the most for a single action, I knew that number as eleven. Technically we were both correct as you can see above. (Seven for one regiment in the same action, eleven for one action.)

With the exception of Corporal Schiess, photos exist of the men who fought at Rorke's Drift and received Britain's highest award for valor. Here they are (photos are from here, an excellent source for the events in Zululand way back in January of 1879) -

Christian Schiess
Likeness from de Neuville's painting

When first established, it was not possible to award the Victoria Cross posthumously. If you'll note at the end of that extract from the London Gazette above, Lieutenants Melville and Coghill, both members of the 1st Battalion of the 24th Foot would have been awarded the Victoria Cross had they survived Isandlwana. The prohibition to the award of the VC posthumously was lifted in 1907, at that time both men were awarded the Victoria Cross. Twenty-eight years after their deaths in South Africa.

Brave men all.

One wonders how many awards for valor would have gone to their Zulu opponents during that war. I suspect it would have been many.

Badge of the 24th Foot

Other sources:


  1. The defense of the mission station at Rorque's Drift (thus saving Natal Province) shows what determined men can do when all appears lost. They had enough ammunition, they had the means to fortify the ground and the willingness to die next to their brothers if needed. The Zulus were no less brave for rushing the defenses and taking on the bayonets and .577/.450 Boxer Henry rounds, each of which would go through two or three Zulus at point blank range, expanding as they went (depending on what they hit on their way through). There were complaints that too many VC's were handed out, but I don't know how you can suggest that in light of what happened and the demise of 24/1, and other troops the day before.

    1. Seems to me that each of those VCs was warranted, probably could have awarded more, but in the case of Isandlwana, all of the witnesses to bravery on the British side were dead.

    2. The number of awards from Roarke's may have been somewhat a reaction to Isandlwana, as in "Oh, dark times, here's something positive" but the awards were definitely earned.

  2. I didn’t know what kind of geological feature a “drift” was, so I looked it up.

    Do they call it that because it’s what happens if things go wrong?

    1. Typically it's a place where a river or creek is fordable. I'm not real clear on the origin of the word as used in South Africa.

  3. Roarke's Drift is an excellent example of having all the right people at the right place and with just enough ammunition (just enough ammunition meaning they still had way more than what the experts' said they needed, after all the shooting was over.)

    It still amazes me that so few Zulu were counted as casualties. I do believe the casualty number was much higher, just some dead were taken away and the walking wounded, well, walked out. Only the dead-dead and mostly-dead that were left on the field remained.

    Total bad-asses, every one. Heck, sing 'Men of Harlech' in their memories (I know, they didn't actually do it, but it was a great scene in the movie.

    Roarke's just shows that a proper defense will allow a numerically inferior defendant the opportunity to stand against a numerically superior attacker, as long as there's parity or superiority of weapons by the defendant.

    You know, kind of like the siege of the foreign legation compound during the Boxer Rebellion in (pre-red) China. (One of me ancestors was there, according to family history.) Who held out for 55 days before relief showed up, mainly US Marines in an ass-tearing frame of mind, which they did. So much heroism by all legation forces and by Chinese Christians during the siege. And the defenders flogged the Boxers and the Chinese Army hard, so hard that the current government fell, which led to the warlords taking over, which led to the Communists taking over, dangit I just harshed my happy moment. Good movie, though, with Charles Heston and Ava Gardner, that got most of the really amazing things correct, like the multinational cannon and the over-over-heroism by US, French and Japanese troops (both French and Japanese troop losses were over 100% because troops would get badly wounded, listed as casualties, get somewhat better, return to combat, get wounded again, listed as casualties, back again (wow, see Beans, resurrection battles do take place (where you get 'killed,' return to start line and then go fight again))) and, well just over-heroism by everyone else.

    Hmmm... good defenses, will to kill but not the right amount of ammo (which would be an overabundance of ammo, like at Roarke's. With a rough parity of weapons (well, amongst the Chinese army that 'didn't' participate (wink, wink, nod, nod, say no more, say no more Squire...))

    1. Uh, you mean defender right? I don't recall Coy B 1/24th being accused of anything. 😁

      Winkling well trained, well led. and well supplied troops out of prepared defenses is always costly.

  4. And of course we have it in Lego:

    It was a very impressive build. I believe he won the award that year for historical builds.


    1. Very impressive, but I'll quibble with his "no winners, no losers" statement, the Zulus definitely lost as they failed to overrun the British defenses. Their losses there and at Isandlwana really hurt the Zulu forces. Cetshwayo (Zulu king) said that "An assegai has been plunged into the belly of the nation..."

      He wasn't wrong.

  5. I've heard the names of those battles bandied about for years but never studied them or even watched the movies. You've educated me nicely and provided lots of further reading and food for thought. So thanks very much indeed Sarge!

    I think I found a place seven miles from Isandlwana Ridge to site Rorke's Drift. The water feature is called Lodgepole Creek though. Have to see about renaming it.

    Thanks again!

    1. That's about the right distance too. Just don't let the Plains tribes know, they might take offense!

      I like the name "Lodgepole Creek," very western it is, though I doubt the original inhabitants called it that. If they even had a name for it at all!


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