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The Battle of Rorke's Drift (1879), also known as the Defence of Rorke's Drift, was an engagement in the Anglo-Zulu War. The successful British defence of the mission station of Rorke's Drift, under the command of Lieutenants John Chard of the Royal Engineers and Gonville Bromhead, 24th Regiment of Foot began when a large contingent of Zulu warriors broke off from their main force during the final hour of the British defeat at the day-long Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879, diverting 6 miles (9.7 km) to attack Rorke's Drift later that day and continuing into the following day.
Just over 150 British and colonial troops defended the station against attacks by 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu warriors.
Rorke's Drift, known as kwaJimu ("Jim's Land") in the Zulu language, was a mission station of the Church of Sweden, and the former trading post of James Rorke, a merchant from the eastern cape of Irish descent. It was located near a drift, or ford, on the Buffalo (Mzinyathi) River, which at the time formed the border between the British colony of Natal and the Zulu Kingdom. On 9 January 1879, the British No. 3 (Centre) Column, under Lord Chelmsford, arrived and encamped at the drift.
Chard and Bromhead directed their men to make preparations to defend the station. With the garrison's 400-odd men working diligently a defensive perimeter was quickly constructed out of mealie bags. This perimeter incorporated the storehouse, the hospital, and a stout stone kraal. The buildings were fortified, with loopholes (firing holes) knocked through the external walls and the external doors barricaded with furniture.
At about 3:30 p.m., a mixed troop of about 100 Natal Native Horse (NNH) under Lieutenant Alfred Henderson arrived at the station after having retreated in good order from Isandlwana. They volunteered to picket the far side of the Oscarberg (Shiyane), the large hill that overlooked the station and from behind which the Zulus were expected to approach.
Most Zulu warriors were armed with an assegai (short spear) and a nguni shield made of cowhide. The Zulu army drilled in the personal and tactical use and coordination of this weapon. Some Zulus also had old muskets, antiquated rifles, and some captured Martini-Henrys as used by the defenders, though their marksmanship training was poor, and the supply of powder and shot was low, and of poor quality.
It has been reported that they believed that setting the slide on the rear sight of the Martini-Henry (graduated to 1,400 yards) as high as possible would make the shot more powerful, so that they actually fired high.
The Zulu attitude towards firearms was that: "The generality of Zulu warriors, however, would not have firearms – the arms of a coward, as they said, for they enable the poltroon to kill the brave without awaiting his attack." Even though their fire was not accurate, it was responsible for five of the 17 British deaths at Rorke's Drift.
After the battle 351 Zulu bodies were counted, but it has been estimated that at least 500 wounded and captured Zulus might have been massacred as well. Having witnessed the carnage at Isandlwana, the members of Chelmsford's relief force had no mercy for the captured, wounded Zulus they came across, nor did the station's defenders.
Trooper William James Clarke of the Natal Mounted Police described in his diary that "altogether we buried 375 Zulus and some wounded were thrown into the grave. Seeing the manner in which our wounded had been mutilated after being dragged from the hospital ... we were very bitter and did not spare wounded Zulus". Laband, in his book The Zulu Response to the British Invasion of 1879, accepts the estimate of 600 that Shepstone had from the Zulus.
Samuel Pitt, who served as a private in B Company during the battle, told The Western Mail in 1914 that the official enemy death toll was too low: "We reckon we had accounted for 875, but the books will tell you 400 or 500". Lieutenant Horace Smith-Dorrien, a member of Chelmsford's staff, wrote that the day after the battle an improvised gallows was used "for hanging Zulus who were supposed to have behaved treacherously."
Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders of Rorke's Drift, seven of them to soldiers of the 2nd/24th Foot – the most ever received for a single action by one regiment. (The most awarded in a day is 16 for actions at the Battle of Inkerman, on 5 November 1854; in a single action, 28 were awarded as a result of the Second Relief of Lucknow, 14–22 November 1857). Four Distinguished Conduct Medals were also awarded.
Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville (31 May 1835 – 18 May 1885) was a French academic painter who studied under Eugène Delacroix. His dramatic and intensely patriotic subjects illustrated episodes from the Franco-Prussian War, the Crimean War, the Zulu War, and portraits of soldiers. Some of his works have been collected by the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and by the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Neuville participated in illustrating Pierre-Jules Hetzel's editions of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. He also illustrated Le Tour du monde and François Guizot's History of France. At the same time he painted a number of remarkable pictures: The Attack in the Streets of Magenta by Zouaves and the Light Horse (1864), A Zouave Sentinel (1865), The Battle of San Lorenzo (1867), and Dismounted Cavalry crossing the Tchernaia (1869). In these he showed peculiar insight into military life.
He reached the peak of his career after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. The long-term French reaction was revanchism: a deep sense of bitterness, hatred, and demand for revenge against Germany, especially because of the loss of Alsace and Lorraine. Paintings that emphasized the humiliation of the defeat were in high demand, such as The Spy by de Neuville.
In response, Neuville aimed at depicting episodes of the Franco-Prussian War in his works, and began by representing the Bivouac before Le Bourget (1872). His fame spread rapidly and was increased by The Last Cartridges (1873), memorializing an episode involving the Blue Division of the French marines, in which it is easy to discern the vast difference between the conventional treatment of military subjects, as practised by Horace Vernet, and that of a man who had lived the life that he painted.
Fight on a Railroad (1874) was equally successful, and was followed by the Attack on a House at Villersexel (1875) and the Railway Bridge at Styring (1877). In 1878 (but not at the Great Exhibition), the painter exhibited Le Bourget, the Surprise at Daybreak, The Intercepted Despatch-bearer, and a considerable number of drawings. He also exhibited in London some episodes of the Zulu War.
Fifty thousand people paid to see his impression of The Defence of Rorke's Drift (1880), which the infant Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney paid a large sum to acquire.
In 1881, he was made an officer of the Légion d'honneur for The Cemetery of Saint-Privat, The Despatch-bearer, and Huns in the Battle of Chalon. During these years Neuville was at work with Édouard Detaille on an important although less artistic work, The Panorama of Rézonville.
Neuville died in Paris on May 18, 1885. At the sale of his works the state purchased the paintings Bourget and Attack on a Barricaded House, as well as watercolor The Parley and the drawing Turco in Fighting Trim, for the purpose of displaying them at the Palais du Luxembourg.