Turtle Bunbury

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HISTORY

IRISH HISTORY

THE IRISH AT RORKE'S DRIFT, 1879


‘Usuthu! Usuthu! Usuthu!’

As the Zulu battle cry echoed along the banks of Buffalo River, the 140 British and Irish soldiers encamped within old Jim Rorke’s trading compound watched and waited, their mouths dry, their hearts lurching. Thousands of Zulu warriors were gathering on the surrounding slopes, their shields and spears silhouetted against the skyline.

At 4:30pm, a Welsh look-out turned to Tipperary-born Sergeant Henry Gallagher.

‘Here they come, sir. Thick as grass and black as thunder.’

Gallagher and his men braced themselves for the final onslaught.

The remarkable story of the defenders of Rorke’s Drift in South Africa has captured the imagination almost since the moment the battle was over. It’s most celebrated telling was in the 1964 movie ‘Zulu’, with Stanley Baker and Michael Caine.

This veritable epic is given fresh treatment in a welcome 2017 book, ‘A Bloody Night – The Irish at Rorke’s Drift’ which the author - Irish Army veteran Lieutenant Colonel Dan Harvey - had dedicated to ‘the Forgotten Irish who fought, bled and died during the Anglo-Zulu War.’

No stone is unturned as Harvey unearths the Irish connections to this extraordinary event, which resulted in eleven of the defenders being awarded the Victoria Cross. For starters he believes that as many as thirty of the defenders were Irishmen.

The battle of Rorke’s Drift marks a rare moment of redemption in the Anglo-Zulu War, one of the more shameful episodes in British colonial history. The British deliberately engineered a conflict with the Zulus so that they could annex the African kingdom and proceed on with their plans for complete conquest of the continent.

Britain’s interest in Africa had been expanding ever since they took possession of the strategically important coastline of Cape Colony during the Napoleonic Wars. With the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in the 1870s, Britain became ever more determined to establish supremacy in the region. The Trekboers or Boers had pushed north into the Transvaal and Orange Free State but both territories recognised the likelihood of British invasion, not least when Britain annexed the Boer Republic of Natal in 1843. Sure enough, the British annexed the Transvaal in 1877 in a bid to establish a Canada-like system of states.

A minor incursion into British Natal by a Zulu prince served as the casus belli (excuse) to serve the Zulu king Cetshwayo with a ridiculous ultimatum that basically ordered him to hand over control of his kingdom or else. He correctly read this as a foresight of British intent to annihilate his kingdom and began preparing his people for war.

Meanwhile, the British invasion of Zululand began when an army of nearly 8,000 men crossed the Buffalo from the British colony of Natal under the command of General Frederic Thesiger, aka Lord Chelmsford, the military commander in the region. Back in the 1850s, Chelmsford had been based in Dublin Castle when he served as aide-de-camp to both Lord Eglinton and Sir Edward Blakeney, the Viceroy and Commander-in-Chief of Ireland. He had since made his name by subjugating the Xhosa tribesmen in 1878. Clobbering the Zulus was supposed to be his big moment, his chance to cement his reputation and join the icons of the Victorian Age. However, his sheer arrogance got in the way.

Knowing Cetshwayo would have to reject his ultimatum, Chelmsford sent his army into Zululand with the objective of taking out Cetshwayo’s capital at Ulundi. His hopes for a speedy passage were hampered by heavy rains, which churned up the main access routes; engineers were put to work digging drains but they only covered ten miles in nine days. Chelmsford ordered his army to camp on forward slopes of a towering 500-foot high rocky outcrop known as Isandlwana.

Chelmsford’s early encounters with the Zulus had convinced him the African warriors reputation was overrated and that Cetshwayo’s men would avoid open battle in favour of hit and run guerrilla war. He also assumed that the Zulus, like the Xhosa before them, would melt away in the face of a disciplined British force armed with rapid-firing Martini Henry rifles.

To compound his folly, the otherwise astute Chelmsford deduced that the main Zulu army were lurking to the east of Isandlwana and so he brazenly rode out to confront them with most of his army. Meanwhile, watching him go, were the scouts of a force of some 20,000 Zulus who were slowly and stealthily assembling in the Ngwebeni Valley, five miles north of Isandlwana. When two British scouts stumbled upon this unexpected army, the Zulus reacted ‘like the release of a coiled spring,’ writes Harvey.

Cetshwayo was under no illusions that the British wanted to destroy his kingdom. Over the previous century the Zulus had risen through the ranks to become the most fearsome people in South Africa. During the early 19th century the great Shaka Zulu introduced conscription, tactical education and high tempo training, as well as such innovations as the broad-blade assegai spear (ideal for close-quarter combat), larger shields and making all his warriors go barefoot in order to improve mobility. They also had plenty of guns by the 1870s.

Their foremost tactic was called L’npondo Zankhloma, the Horns of the Beast, by which they would use the vast weight of their numbers to encircle and crush the enemy. It was utterly brutal and highly effective.

Chelmsford had left Lt. Col. Henry Pulleine to defend the British base at Isandlwana with sixty officers and 1,300 men, comprising British troops and native levies from Natal. While Chelmsford’s force pulled out, over 20,000 Zulu warriors were quietly assembling.

At Isandlwana, Colonel Anthony Durnford, an engineer’s officer from Manor Hamilton, Co. Leitrim, ordered his men from the 24th Battalion to form a firing line. Ordinarily a compact unit discharging a continuous volley of fire from their Martini-Henry service rifles (eight rounds a minute) should have seen off the enemy. However, despite their considerable battle experience, the 24th was unable to combat the sheer numbers coming at them.

Under orders from their king to ‘eat up the red soldiers’, the Zulus were utterly psyched up with blood lust, boosted by such unsavoury rituals as ceremonial vomiting for spiritual cleansing and drinking a magical potion which, Harvey tells us, was ‘concocted from the masculine body parts of defeated enemies.’ There was also a powdered tobacco laced with hemp that Zulus believed made them immune to gunfire.

Before long it was close combat and once the thin red line was penetrated, it was all over. The 1300 soldiers whom Chelmsford had left behind at Islandlwana did not stand a chance. Although a thousand Zulu warriors fell dead to British lead, and another thousand were wounded, it was an overwhelming Zulu victory.

No mercy was shown to the redcoats caught at Islandlwana.

Neville Coghill, a young lieutenant from Drumcondra, Co. Dublin, nearly made it through when he and another officer sought to prevent their battalion’s Colours from falling to the Zulus, but both men were hacked to death as they tried to cross the Buffalo. The two men were later awarded the Victoria Cross.

Also slain was Private Arthur Griffiths from Roscommon who had won a VC a decade earlier in the Andaman Islands.

Isandlwana is considered one of the most humiliating defeats ever suffered by the British Army.

Not every Zulu warrior participated in Isandlwana and those who had not were now eaher to ‘wash their spears’ in fresh blood. Their attention duly turned to the garrison at Rorke’s Drift.

‘It'd take an Irishman to give his name to a rotten stinking middle o' nowhere hole like this.’ So states one of the English defenders in the movie ‘Zulu’. He was, of course, quite right.

Rorke’s Drift stood alongside a shallow crossing point on the Buffalo River. Known to the Zulues as Kwajimu, it had been established as a trading post in 1849 by Jim Rorke, a part-time soldier from Ireland, who died in 1875 and was buried beneath a nearby hill, Shiyane. A Swedish missionary subsequently converted his thatched outpost into a church complex before it was appropriated by British troops when the Anglo-Zulu War broke out.

The “fort” was completely unfortified and that, with the Zulu army en route, was something the defenders quickly sought to rectify.

Of the 140 moustachioed men who garrisoned Rorke’s Drift, at least thirty were Irish-born or born to Irish parents in Britain. Among them were Henry Gallagher, the ‘Quiet Sergeant’, from Killenaule, Co. Tipperary, and Privates Michael Minihan (a groomsman from Castlehaven, Co Cork), Garrett Hayden (Dublin) and Michael Tobin (Windgap, Co. Kilkenny).

Such a number should come as no surprise. During the Napoleonic Wars, a third of the British army was Irish. By the time of the Crimean War in the 1850s, four in ten soldiers was an Irishman. And by 1878, at least 22% of the army – or 40,000 men – was Irish.

The second most senior officer at the fort was Lieutenant Gonville ‘Gunny’ Bromhead, so memorably played by Michael Caine in the 1964 movie. Although born in Versailles, Bromhead had three Irish grandparents, and claimed kinship with families such as the Ffrenches and Lynches of Galway, the Dillons of Roscommon and the Woods of Sligo, as well as present-day iconic horse trainer Henry de Bromhead. Bromhead commanded B-Company and the right hand man in the company's front rank was Private Michael Minihan (1845-1891) from Castlehaven, West Cork.

The surgeon James Henry Reynolds, a 35-year-old from Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire), was a graduate of Trinity College Dublin; he was appropriately played by Armagh-born actor Patrick Magee in the movie. When Isandlwana was underway, Surgeon Major Reynolds was one of four men who set out from Rorke’s Drift and clambered up Shiyane with a telescope to see what all the shooting was about. Shortly afterwards, confirmation of the massacre arrived from survivors such as Private Daniel Whelan and a petrifying ambience quickly set in. As Harvey puts it, it ‘abruptly changed from a day of monotonous routine to one full of menace.’

Another key player was James Langley Dalton, a 46-year-old red-head whose parents are thought to have hailed from Longford or Westmeath. As Commissary, he ran the fort’s food, ammunition and provisions depot alongside two other Irishmen, Walter Adolphus Dunne and Louis Byrne. The instinct to retreat 10 miles to the main British base at Helpmekaar was strong but Dalton persuaded his superiors, Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead, that there was no way they could outrun the Zulus and that their best bet would be to dig in tight and fortify their position

Dalton also oversaw the fortification of the place when, as Cork-born Dunne observed, the men from the Natal Native Contingent began barricading the 300-yard perimeter with ‘a breastwork of bags of grain, boxes of biscuit and everything that could help stop a bullet or keep out a man.’

The men also ensured that most of the 20,000 rounds of rifle ammo available to them were close to hand. By the time two ox-wagons had been incorporated into the south wall, such defences offered the briefest flicker of hope for the men at Rorke’s Drift.

The situation looked increasingly ominous when a detachment of 100 men from the Natal Native Horse opted to flee to Helpmekaar rather than stand and fight.

The next challenge was to master self-control over fear and foreboding before the Zulus arrived.

By late afternoon the fort was under attack from hundreds of Zulu warriors from the Undi (Zulu reserve) who had missed the fun at Isandlwana and were eager to make up for it at Rorke’s Drift. The men were commanded by Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande who had opted to defy the king, his half-brother, and cross the border and attack the fort.

The defenders fired ‘at will’ and felled wave after wave of warriors but, as Surgeon Major Reynolds noted, ‘on they came at the same slow, slinging trot, their heads forward, their arms outspread…’. However, the redcoats held steady and kept firing until at last, the Zulu line faltered. As they backed away, Dalton epically clambered onto a wagon and threw his hat at them.

It turned out that was just the warm up.

‘Usuthu! Usuthu! Usuthu!’ *

The Zulu war cry resounded once more along the skyline as the Zulus commenced their next attack, homing in on the hospital building which they had correctly identified as the weakest link.

As Harvey observes, ‘To be frightened and still be brave, that is real courage.’

The redcoats were saved by their triple-edged bayonets which, at 22 inches long, doubled the size of the Zulu assegai spear. As they were compelled to withdraw further inside the fort, cold steel and rifle butt offered vital protection against the onslaught. The storeman Louis Byrne was one of the first defenders to die.

The fighting at the hospital was particularly fraught and aggressive; a Zulu bullet slammed into Surgeon Reynolds helmet but somehow failed to injure him.

Dalton was not so lucky, being peppered with lead in his right shoulder as he rallied the men. Bereft of any medical equipment, Surgeon Reynolds innovatively treated the wound with quinine.

The men at Rorke’s Drift maintained a dogged defence until midnight when the Zulus withdrew into the darkness. Most of the surviving defenders assumed they would be finished off in the morning. In a particularly moving moment from the ‘Zulu’ movie, the African warriors then begin to sing a song in respect to the defenders. Alas, this is pure fiction, and nor did the defenders sing back. It seems the Zulus were, in fact, ready to finish off the defenders until the rest of Chelmsford’s army returned in the nick of time and the Zulus were forced to retreat. Within a few weeks, the British had extracted full revenge, captured Cetshwayo and burned his palace to a crisp; Zululand was formally annexed in 1897.

Astonishingly, just 17 defenders were killed, mostly from gunshot wounds rather than spears. Among them was Billy Horrigan, who died defending the hospital, and Dublin-born Garrett Hayden, a patient, who was stabbed 16 times. Another eight men were seriously wounded, including Dalton whose right shoulder was peppered with Zulu gunshot.

Surgeon Reynolds was lucky to survive after a Zulu bullet slammed into his helmet. Michael Minehan also made it through but was unable to speak for some time afterwards.

Sergeant Gallagher’s cheek and nose were burned black and blue from constant firing of a red-hot rifle, a mark he would bear for the rest of his life.

Inevitably it was the heroism of Rorke’s Drift rather than the catastrophe of Isandlwana that the British focused on after the Zulu war. Harvey’s book is a timely reminder that, for better or worse, the forces of the British Empire were often a lot more Irish than we of the 21st century tend to realise.

See also William Whitelocke-Lloyd.

‘A Bloody Night – The Irish at Rorke’s Drift’ (2017) by Dan Harvey is published by Merrion Press.

Thanks to John Cahalane.

* ‘Usuthu!’ means ‘fat cow’!


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