The Battle of Rorke’s Drift is famous. Everyone knows the basic story. The British had decided to destroy the independent Zulu kingdom lying to the north of Natal province in South Africa. Zululand had been invaded by an expeditionary force under Lord Chelmsford. The Zulu army had slipped
undetected around the flank of the main advance, and attacked and annihilated the garrison of Chelmsford’s advanced base-camp at Isandlwana on 22 January 1879.
Immediately following, a Zulu force of up to 4,000 warriors had descended on
the nearby outpost at Rorke’s Drift mission station. Between late afternoon on 22 January and the early hours of 23 January, this force mounted a succession of attacks on the 150 or so defenders, the great majority of whom were regulars of the 24th Regiment of Foot.
The mission-station was successfully held, with 32 British casualties, an estimated 850 Zulu casualties, and the subsequent award of 11 VCs, seven of them to men of the 24th Foot, the largest number ever received by a single regiment in a single day in the history of the British Army.
The epic defence of Rorke’s Drift was made famous at the time – partly to compensate for the disaster of Isandlwana – and became again a focus of intense public interest with the release of the movie Zulu in 1964 and the publication of Donald Morris’s The Washing of the Spears in 1965.
Since then, interest in the Zulu War, and Rorke’s Drift in particular, has never subsided. The contrast with the epic defence of Chakdara is intriguing. It lasted a week (26 July-2 August 1897), involved 240 men defending an isolated post against up to 8,000 tribal warriors, and had a big impact on the public back home at the time. But no VCs were awarded, and the action is almost totally forgotten today. Why?
A major factor almost certainly is that the defenders were not British regulars, but Indian soldiers under British officers – 180 sepoys (infantry) and 60 sowars (troopers). As defenders of the British Raj, they make poor heroes in the context of an independent India, and as native soldiers they constitute
less interesting subject-matter – or so it would seem – for Western historians and English-speaking film-makers.
This issue (April 2018) we have combined our Special and Regiment features to take a detailed look at the defence of Chakdara during the Pathan tribal uprising on the North-West Frontier in 1897-1898. Military historians Patrick Mercer and Mark Simner have combined to explain the background, describe the fighting, and analyse the character of warfare on the Frontier.
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