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Out of Time: How Two Ruddington-Born Soldiers Played Their Part in the Infamous Battle of Rorke’s Drift

30 July 22 words: Ashley Carter

While most of us will be familiar with the events of Rorke’s Drift from Zulu - the 1964 film that made a star out of Michael Caine - there is much more to the story than the Hollywood portrayal, including the presence of two Ruddington-born soldiers at the battle. In what has been described as amongst the most famous military actions in British history, the twelve-hour long battle demonstrated both the best of British bravery and the worst of the Empire’s seemingly limitless horrors…

The British sentry strained his eyes against the blinding sun, scanning for signs of activity amidst the arid, rolling plains of southern Africa. He was part of the single company of men that had been left to guard Rorke’s Drift, a small mission station located on the border between the friendly territory of Natal and Zululand that served as a store of food, ammunition and other supplies for the main British force – which numbered around 2,000 – as it marauded further into enemy territory. It was 22 January 1879 and, as part of the British invasion force, they were tasked with bringing the territory under British command and ending the dominance of the Zulu Empire in the region. But for the sentry and the other 140 men of that single company of the 2nd Battalion of the 24th Regiment of Foot that made up the rearguard, the chance of seeing action was slim. They were essentially on guard duty, while the rest of the battalion got to share the spoils of war. 

Suddenly a horseman appeared on the horizon. And then another. It was immediately clear that something was wrong, so wildly were the two men gesticulating. The news they brought was so incomprehensible they struggled to make themselves believed. A Zulu force of 20,000 had completely wiped out the British forward line, encircling, overwhelming and killing the majority of the 1,800-strong force at what would later be known as The Battle of Isandlwana. Britain had suffered its worst defeat against an indigenous enemy and the single company left to defend Rorke’s Drift were next. Lord Chelmsford, the man in overall command of the invasion, believed that the Zulus would never attack rifle-armed British soldiers in the open and, if they did make that mistake, would be swiftly and comprehensively defeated. Isandlwana had proven him spectacularly wrong. 

There was a reason that Gonville Bromhead had been left in charge of the small force defending Rorke’s Drift. Despite being from a notable military family – his father had fought under Wellington at Waterloo, his grandfather was a lieutenant general in the American Revolutionary War and his three brothers had already exceeded his rank and achievements in the British army – he was seen as intellectually lacklustre and an average soldier at best. He’d never seen action, and was only in temporary charge because the company’s original commander had been accidentally shot by one of his own men. But being excluded from the main force had likely saved his life, and the events of the next 24 hours would see his name etched in the annals of British military history, overtaking anything his relatives had achieved. Having been born in France but educated in Newark, Bromhead had two other Nottinghamshire men alongside him that day. Signing up on the same day in 1887, with concurrent enlistment numbers and both listing Ruddington as their hometown, it’s likely that Caleb Wood and Robert Tongue knew each other before their army life began. They had both been framework knitters with little-to-no formal education and, having signed up for pay of a shilling per day, likely had poor career prospects outside of military service. Neither man had seen their twentieth birthday before Rorke’s Drift, but were about to take part in one of, if not the, most famous military actions in British history. 

They showed no fear of death at all… At one place their bodies were piled up to a height of four or five feet

Frantic defensive preparations were underway as the previously quiet outpost became a hive of desperate activity. Initial discussions of abandoning the post and trying to run for friendly territory had been dismissed. Heading into the open plains against a numerically superior Zulu army that excelled in hand-to-hand combat and swift movement was nothing short of suicide, but the odds of defending the outpost weren’t much better. Scouts had climbed the Oscarberg – a large hill 350 yards to the read of the outpost – to confirm the riders’ reports. The sky to the east was burning red with the flames of Isandlwana – just six miles away as the crow flies, but a craggy, zig-zag march owing to the mountainous terrain – and what looked like countless Zulu warriors were headed straight for Rorke’s Drift. Bromhead, along with Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers, used what little time they had to good effect. Alongside the 141 British regulars were 100 Natal Native Contingent cavalrymen, a handful of colonial troops and eleven patients in a makeshift hospital building. With the other troops, Bromhead and Chard had around 400 men at their disposal, which they set to work building a defensive perimeter of mealie bags, incorporating the storehouse, hospital and stone kraal (an enclosure for livestock). They included a biscuit box barricade running through the middle of the enclosure which would serve as a ‘last stand’ point should the Zulus break through the outer barriers, effectively cutting the defensible zone in half. With what little preparation time they’d been afforded, the small force had done as much as they could. 

The soldiers heading to engulf them were led by Prince Dabulamanzi, the half-brother of Zulu king Cetshwayo kaMpande who had been wounded pursuing the British survivors from Isandlwana. While the British were doubtlessly better armed and technically superior in practically every way, it’s a great disservice to consider the Zulus as lesser warriors. Armed with short assegai spears and nguni cowhide shields, they were well-drilled and ferociously effective at surprising and overwhelming the enemy at close quarters. Their bravery was unmatched on the continent and, since having their social, political and military spheres reorganised by Shaka kaSenzangakhona (often referred to as Shaka Zulu) earlier in the century, they’d become the dominant military force in southern Africa. They tended to shun the use of firearms, as Bourquin writes, “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." The firearms they did have – often outdated and in poor condition – they lacked the proper training to use, with many believing that the more gunpowder used, the more powerful the shot. Even with these shortcomings, King Cetshwayo had made a sustained effort to make sure as many of his men were equipped with guns as possible, meaning that in his wealthier units (Zulu army units were split into age, marital status and social standing), around half his men were equipped with firearms. On paper at least, that meant the British soldiers at Rorke’s Drift were outgunned by as much as twenty to one. 

The four - the uThulwana, iNdlondli, uDloko and iNdluyengwe – moving toward the outpost had a point to prove. The 4,000 veterans had been held in reserve during Isandlwana meaning that they were fresh, but seeing their younger countrymen take the loot, plaudits and royal favour for such a famous victory would have stung their veteran pride. Three of the regiments bore the white shields that denoted married veterans, while the other was the Zulu equivalent to a guards’ regiment, the elite infantry in which King Cetshwayo had once served. They were hungry to get their slice of the day’s glory, and Rorke’s Drift provided a seemingly easy opportunity to do it. 

In the long annals of military history, it is difficult to find anything quite like Rorke's Drift, where a beleaguered force, outnumbered forty to one, survived and killed twenty men for every defender lost

Facing odds of ten-to-one, with superior weaponry and some semblance of a defensive structure, the British might have had reason to feel the slightest element of hope, despite the fate of the rest of their regiment earlier in the day. But as the Zulu force drew near, both the NNH and NNC forces fled, leaving just 141 British soldiers to defend the tiny outpost. What little hope they may have held had surely gone, and they shot wildly at the fleeing soldiers in disgust and desperation, killing one of their commanding officers in the process. But there was nothing to be done. 4,000 elite Zulu warriors had finally arrived at Rorke’s Drift, and the 141 men – including Nottingham natives Caleb Wood and Robert Tongue – had to stand and fight. 

“As soon as they showed themselves we fired two volleys,” Caleb Wood would later remember in a 1914 interview with the Nottingham Daily Express. “Before we could fire the third the order was to ‘Fix bayonets!’ and receive them at shortened arms.” It was around 4.30pm when the Zulu force rounded the Oscarberg, with around 600 attacking the south wall while the bulk of the troops moved for the north. Armed Zulus had scaled the hill to rain musket fire down on the defenders, ensuring that, at one time or another, the British were being attacked from at least two sides as well as from above. “The first charge brought some of them in, but those Zulus never got out again,” Wood recalls. “In a few minutes it became a fight for the hospital, so that we could save the men who were hurt and sick.” 

Throughout the course of human history, battles are very often decided on a number of factors much larger than the soldiers themselves. The decisions – good or bad – of the generals in charge, supply lines, terrain, the element of surprise, equipment and even the weather are often far more important than the actions of any one individual. But Rorke’s Drift was a soldier’s battle, and each moment of that relentless fight, each action taken by soldiers on either side, was key in deciding who won or lost, who lived and who died. The brave Zulus faced the devastating fire of a Martini-Henry rifle - which at 100 yards was enough to go through fourteen inches of elm wood – decimating their number, scything wave after wave of attack down. At close range they were unable to scale the hastily built defensive walls, and had a great fear of the British bayonet. “Had the Zulus taken the bayonet as freely as they took the bullets, we could not have stood more than fifteen minutes,” remembered a Private Hitch, “They seemed to have a great dread of the bayonet, which stood us from beginning to end.” With the protection of their defensive walls, the ability to fire between 12-20 rounds per minute and the additional length afforded by the bayonet over the shorter assegai spears, Wood, Tongue and the rest of the British defenders were just about holding their own.

But the thunder-crack of musket fire could still be heard from the Oscarberg and, despite being comparatively poor marksmen, the Zulu sharpshooters were taking their toll. The waves of Zulu attacks showed no signs of letting up, either. “They showed no fear of death at all… At one place their bodies were piled up to a height of four or five feet,” described Ruddington-born Wood. “Fighting side by side with me was Robert Tongue… who killed fourteen Zulus himself in a very short time.” He continues, “We began to think that we would never see the light of day again.” Realising the north wall could not be held, Bromhead and Chard pulled their men back to the inner yard, abandoning the hospital - the thatched roof of which had been set on fire - in the process. The soldiers and patients within had to use their bayonets to smash through the hospital’s inner walls, slowly moving room by room toward the new defensive position, all while holding off the seemingly endless line of Zulu warriors moving in. The building’s small doorways meant the attackers could only enter one at a time, ensuring that those soldiers defending the rooms (as well as the patients too injured to fight), never had to face odds of more than one vs. one in single combat. Miraculously, out of the eleven patients, nine made it to safety, as well as all able-bodied soldiers who had been defending the building. 

The evacuation completed the shortening of the perimeter and, as night began to fall and exhaustion set in (the British had been fighting relentlessly at close quarters for almost six hours at this point, as well as the hours of brutal defensive work undertaken before the battle), the Zulu attacks only grew stronger. The cattle kraal was next to be evacuated meaning that the defensive perimeter was as small as it could be – any more ground lost would mean being overrun and annihilated. Still the Zulus came on, and still they were repelled until finally, at around midnight, they began to slacken, stopping completely at around 2am. The musket fire from atop the hill ceased around two hours later. Not a single man had escaped unharmed, with each carrying his own reminder of the violence of the evening. Incredibly only fourteen British were dead – mostly as a result of the musket fire from above – while two more were mortally wounded and a further eight were seriously wounded. By this point they were mentally and physically exhausted, having fought non-stop for ten hours and, having started the day with 20,000 rounds of ammunition, were down to less than 900. If the Zulus attacked again at dawn, it would be over.

Eleven Victoria Crosses were handed out, as well as a number of other decorations and honours, as Victorian policy-makers attempted to draw as much attention away from the loss of almost two-thousand men at the hands of the Zulus earlier that same day

But as the sun rose the Zulus were nowhere to be seen. They were suffering exhaustion of their own, having been on the move for six days without eating properly for the past two. The number of Zulu dead has long been debated, with some estimates being as low as 350, with others claiming the true number to be nearer to 900. The disparity comes from the battle’s aftermath when, in one of the darkest chapters of an already atrocious campaign, the British are said to have killed all surviving Zulu wounded, with some sources even claiming that makeshift gallows were erected in order to execute captured Zulus in an act of revenge for those that had been lost at Isandlwana. As the true horrors of the British Empire start to be realised, the travesty and tragedy of the Anglo-Zulu War have rightly been sharply pulled into focus. 

While it’s essential to put the events of Rorke’s Drift into its wider context, it’s also worth noting that for most of the men fighting that day, the British Army was the only viable career path available to them. It’s easy to make monsters out of red-coated land-stealers marching under the butcher’s apron, but men like Caleb Wood and Robert Tongue were eighteen and nineteen respectively, and from one of the poorest industrial cities in the country. Their individual bravery, fighting for their very lives under the imminent threat of death, is worthy of remembrance, as is the incredible bravery shown by the Zulu warriors. “How did we do it? Ah! That’s always been a puzzle to me,” recalls Caleb Wood. “I can’t tell you how it was done, except that every man stood firm like a rock.” Wood and Tongue both survived Rorke’s Drift – Wood became a curtain maker in Ilkeston before dying in 1935, aged 77, whereas Tongue served until the age of 31 when, despite his action at Rorke’s Drift and an impeccable service record, he was rejected for an army pension. He died in 1918, just weeks before his son John was killed in the First World War. Friends in civilian life and brothers-in-arms during Rorke’s Drift, both Wood and Tongue are buried in Ruddington Cemetery. 

For Victorian policy-makers, Rorke’s Drift served as a perfect counterbalance to the humiliating defeat at Isandlwana. Eleven Victoria Crosses were handed out – the most ever awarded for a single action by one regiment - as well as a number of other decorations and honours, as they attempted to draw as much attention away from the loss of almost two-thousand men at the hands of the Zulus earlier that same day. As convenient as Rorke’s Drift might have been as a distraction, many historians – including Victor Davis Hanson – believe the heroics displayed that day should stand on their own merits. “Modern critics suggest such lavishness in commendation was designed to assuage the disaster at Isandhlwana and to reassure a sceptical Victorian public that the fighting ability of the British soldier remained unquestioned,” Hanson writes. “Maybe, maybe not, but in the long annals of military history, it is difficult to find anything quite like Rorke's Drift, where a beleaguered force, outnumbered forty to one, survived and killed twenty men for every defender lost.”

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