January 22nd 1879, during the Zulu War, the small British field hospital
and supply depot at Rorkes Drift in Natal was the site of one of the most
heroic military defences of all time. Manned by 140 troops of the 24th
Regiment, led by Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers, the camp
was attacke by a well-trained and well-equipped Zulu army of 4000 men,
heartened by the great Zulu victory over the British forces at Isandhlwana
earlier on the same day. The battle began in mid afternoon, when British
remnants of the defeat at Isandhlwana struggled into the camp.
Anticipating trouble, Chard set his small force to guard the perimeter
fence but, when the Zulu attack began, the Zulus came faster than the
British could shoot and the camp was soon overcome. The thatched roof of
the hospital was fired by Zulu spears wrapped in burning grass and even
some of the sick and the dying were dragged from their beds and pressed
into the desperate hand-to-hand fighting. Eventually, Chard gave the order
to withdraw from the perimeter and to take position in a smaller compound,
protected by a hastily assembled barricade of boxes and it was from behind
this barricade that the garrison fought for their lives throughout the
night. After twelve hours of battle, the camp was destroyed, the hospital
had burned to the ground, seventeen British lay dead and ten were wounded.
However, the Zulus had been repulsed and over 400 of their men killed. The
Battle of Rorkes Drift is one of the greatest examples of bravery and
heroism in British military history. Nine men were awarded Distinguished
Conduct Medals, and eleven, the most ever given for a single battle,
received the highest military honour of all, the Victoria Cross.