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The Battle of Rorke's Drift is still considered one of the greatest military victories ever at long odds, with British troops successfully defending their African mission against Zulu warriors outnumbering them by more than 25-to-1. The battle on January 22-23, 1879 in the British colony of Natal (South Africa) pitted 150 British defenders against as many as 4000 Zulu tribesmen. Earlier in the day, the Zulus had been victorious at the Battle of Islandlwana, when 20,000 Zulus overpowered a British force of 1800, killing 1300. It marked the beginning of the Anglo-Zulu War. The commanders at Rorke's Drift, Lieutenants John Chard and Gonville Bromhead decided against retreating in open territory, and they spent most of the day preparing their defenses. Of their 151 men, at least 39 were hospitalized, but many soon pitched in once the battle began late in the afternoon. The attacking Zulus were the reserve force at Islandlwana and had not fought earlier in the day. Their leader, Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande, was the half-brother of the Zulu king, and he disobeyed orders by crossing the Buffalo River into British territory. Seeing the large Zulu force, nearly 400 native Natal troops who were being counted on to help defend the post fled to safety toward Helpmekaar. With barely 110 healthy men, Chard and Bromhead braced for the attack. The first assault by 600 Zulus--mostly carrying iklwa ("thrusting spears")--was repulsed in
... fierce hand to hand fighting. The British wall was too high for the Zulus to scale, so they resorted to crouching under the wall, trying to get hold of the defenders' rifles, slashing at British soldiers with assegai or firing their weapons through the wall. At places, they clambered over each others' bodies to drive the British off the walls, but were driven back.
The defenders' north wall was soon abandoned, and fighting took place inside and around the hospital, where the sick and wounded soldiers fought valiantly. Zulu attacks continued through the night as the British defense perimeter grew smaller. After 10 hours of fighting, "Virtually every man had some kind of wound." After firing nearly 20,000 rounds, the defenders were down to 900. But when dawn finally came, the Zulus were gone.
More than 350 Zulus bodies were buried in a mass grave by the victorious British troops, and about 850 were wounded. Chard's command suffered 17 dead. The defenders were honored with 11 Victoria Crosses,
... the most ever received in a single action by one regiment.
Chard and Bromhead were among the recipients. The battle was documented in the outstanding film, Zulu (1964), with a young Michael Caine playing Bromhead.
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