Wednesday, January 19, 2011

January 22, 1879 --- Isandhlwana & Rorke's Drift

In a day marked both by incompetence and heroism, one British regiment is annihilated by Zulu warriors at Isandhlwana while only miles away, at Rorke's Drift, a much smaller force repels its attackers. Lord Chelmsford commands British forces which have been sent out to crush the Zulu army of Chief Cetawayo.  The Zulu impis had been menacing the encroaching northern settlements of Natal. Leaving the 24th regiment to guard his supply camp at Isandhlwana, Chelmsford moves out in force.  Somehow, the British forces managed to march past a Zulu army of 20,000 men. Despite word sent from camp that the Zulus are advacing, Chelmsford is unconcerned.  By the time a subsequent message reached him - "For God's sake, come back with all your men" - it is too late.  The camp has been overrun.  Chelmsford returns to find the ground littered with the dead, black and white.  The Zulus, using the bodies of their dead as shields, had been able to breach the camp's defensive lines and overwhelm the small force.  500 British and native supporters are dead.  Cetawayo had then sent 4000 Zulus on to attack the field hospital at Rorke's Drift  A sentry in full retreat informed the defenders, "Here they come, black as hell and as thick as grass."  The action continued through the night.  The hospital, is a strongly walled farmhouse and well-situated, commanding a large open ground.  The 100 men held off repeated Zulu attacks, losing only 17 men.  Eleven VC's (the Victoria Cross) were won at Rorke's Drift, more than on any other single day in Army history.  The Zulu dead from the two battles are estimated to be more than 2500.  Cetwayo said, "There are not enough tears to mourn the dead." A shaken Lord Chelmsford wired London and Prime Minister Disraeli: "We have certainly been seriously underrating the power of the Zulu army."  In her journal, the Queen was distraught: "How could this happen we cannot yet imagine." A disgusted Disraeli, who thought the whole war was "unhappily precipitated," ordered the "panic-struck" Chelmsford replaced.  By the time General Wolseley arrived to succeed him, however, Cetawayo's army was finally defeated at Ulundi.

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