How They Won Their Crosses at Rorke’s Drift

July 15, 2020
15 mins read

Editor’s note: The following is extracted from The V.C.: Its Heroes and Their Valour, from Personal Accounts, Official Records, and Regimental Tradition (published 1913).

Some quarter of a mile or so from the ford of Rorke’s Drift, and under the shadow of a conical hill named the Oscarberg, stood a Swedish mission- station, to which large stores of corn, biscuit, and tinned meat had been conveyed from Helpmakaar, a place twelve miles farther into Natal.

The post — used as commissariat depot and base hospital, and held by B Company, 2nd Battalion 24th Regiment, under the late Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead — consisted of a single-storey dwelling, fronted by a veranda; another building, originally the church; two stone cattle-kraals, and a small cook house, the whole standing on a rocky platform, and surrounded by a straggling orchard, some black poplars, aspens, and gum-trees, a mealie — or native corn — field, and patches of thick scrub; facing a wild, rolling plain, through which the river wound, hidden by undulations, on its rapid course to the sea.

Tents were standing behind the storehouse; the outspanned wagons from Helpmakaar were disgorging their heavy loads, and the scene was a bright and busy one on that January 22nd, while their comrades were fighting the death fight at Isandhlwana.

Down at the Drift, where the army had crossed on the 11th, Lieutenant Chard, R.E., was engaged with a few men among the ponts, when, shortly after 3 p.m., two horsemen galloped on to the opposite bank and shouted loudly to be ferried across.

The clumsy pontoon was pulled over the river, the engineer officer learned the terrible news of the disaster that had befallen our camp, and that the Zulus were coming on for the Drift, and once on the Natal side, the two horsemen — Lieutenant Adendorff, without coat or hat, his revolver strapped to his arm, and a carbineer, both of Lonsdale’s corps — dashed round the mountain and drew up in the centre of the mission-station, where Private Henry Hook was making tea for the hospital patients, in his shirt sleeves.

After a few breathless words, the carbineer went off at a gallop for Helpmakaar, to warn them there, while later the lieutenant who remained to assist the defence rode out along the hillside to watch for the enemy.

Hook ran to the camp some yards away, and the little garrison fell in; Lieutenant Bromhead sending down to the Drift for Chard, who commanded the post in the absence of Major Spalding, the two rows of tents being hastily struck by pulling up the centre poles.

At first it was thought to inspan, pack the wagons, and retreat for Helpmakaar, twelve long miles off, with a stiff rise at the end of the journey; but, happily, that idea was abandoned — thanks to the advice, I believe, of Assistant Commissary Dalton — and the fortification of the place was instantly commenced.

While anxious eyes were strained on the hillside in the direction of Isandhlwana, hands were busy among the mealie-bags, and a long wall, four feet high, was built from the corner of the kraal to the further angle of the hospital.

The hospital was the living-house of the mission, and contained a number of small rooms, its ends being of stone, the outer walls of brick, and the partition walls of sun-dried clay; while both it and the other building, which was church, barn, store, and stable all in one, were roofed with thatch, and had originally been whitewashed.

It is necessary to state further that while some of the rooms of the dwelling-house communicated with each other, others were entered by a door from the outside only, and had no connection with the rest, notably two that opened on to the veranda, of which we shall have more to say.

The distance between the buildings was about thirty yards; and two wagons, once intended to carry the sick, were utilised to help in a barricade, also four feet high, across the space, a water-cart being dragged into the centre of the square.

When the alarm first reached the post there were forty-five men in the hospital ; but as many were not severe cases, they pluckily took their rifles and their places among the defenders, leaving only twenty- three unable to fight, to guard whom six men were told off.

There were present at that time, besides B Company, about a hundred of Durnford’s Horse, who had bolted from Isandhlwana, and some of the Natal Native Contingent; but the bulk of these “brave fellows” cleared off when the enemy appeared, our men sending some balls whistling after them, one killing a European non-com of the contingent, whose body lay just outside the wall all through the action.

Captain Stevenson, of the contingent, also bolted, but a few remained to throw in their lot with the others, notably Sergeant Duncan Campbell Francis Moody, who has since published a very valuable history of our wars in South Africa, and whose rifle did good service behind the mealie-bags.

The Rev. Otto Witt and a man in spectacles went up the hill and remained there for some time, but when the Zulus came in sight they mounted and rode away, Witt afterwards bringing a claim against the British Government for the destruction of his mission-station, which he had not the courage to help defend. A Natal paper tells us that he was convicted subsequently for pointing a loaded gun at a Kaffir woman who refused to do his family washing.

The windows of the hospital had hardly been barricaded by blankets and mattresses, and much still remained to be done to the walls and barriers, when the scouts came in with the news that the enemy were upon us, and round the end of the mountain there, about half-past four on a dull afternoon, twenty black figures appeared, followed by many more, who, led by two fat mounted chiefs, began an attack on the wall between the two buildings, and were received with a heavy fire, half of them swerving round the back of the hospital and trying to rush the bags in front of it.

Private Dunbar picked off one of the chiefs and eight men by as many consecutive shots, but taking possession of a rocky ledge on the hillside above us, they poured in a rattling hail of bullets on our rear, and the post was soon surrounded on all sides.

Luckily the Zulus fire high, but when they hit the wound is a terrible one, as their bullets are large, and, being roughly cast, have a jagged projection at one side.

There was no shouting among us; the officers simply went round with a “Do your best, men!” and everyone there did his best without flinching.

Few recent conflicts have had a more truly British aspect, for the 24th were dressed in thin red jumpers, the regulation blue trousers, and helmets which had once been white, but were then soiled by service, and minus spike and chin chain.

A grey horse, which among others stood tethered to a tree near the hospital, was soon shot, and there were also fowls there, one hen having a brood of little chicks which were nestling under her after it was all over.

But they had little time to notice these things, for there were less than a hundred and fifty behind those flimsy walls, and outside, in the scrub and the trampled garden, and among the rocks and caves, between three and four thousand Zulus to be kept at bay.

A whisper went round among the Warwickshire men, “Poor old ‘King’ Cole is killed.” A ball had gone clean through his head and struck another man on the nose at the front wall, as the enemy swarmed along it and stabbed furiously with their “bang-wans,” or thrusting assegais, or tried to wrench the bayonets from the Martinis, succeeding even in a few cases, only to be shot for their pains.

A hospital patient named Schiess, of the 3rd Natal, a short, fair man and a Swiss by birth, had his broad-leaved hat blown off by a ball, and springing on to the sacks, he bayoneted the Zulu, jumped back and shot another, and leaped on to the wall again and bayoneted a third, although he had been struck in the instep before that, and refused to leave his post.

It was hand to hand at the front wall, the air rent with cries of “Usutu,” and more than one charge with the “cold steel ” did Lieutenant Bromhead lead to save the hospital; but fearing that the enclosure was too large for the tiny garrison to hold, an inner line of defence had been formed of biscuit boxes, two boxes high, from the front angle of the store house to the mealie-wall, and within it a huge pyramid of sacks was afterwards built up to serve as a last resource.

Behind the inner rampart the men retired, through a gap left for that purpose in the centre, about half- past six, and the wounded occupants of the hospital building had to be entrusted to the exertions of the handful who defended them.

Not long after the main body were concentrated in the inner square the enemy fired the thatch of the hospital, and it was that flame which the column away at Isandhlwana saw bursting out into the night.

In a small room at the back far end stood the two Williams, Joseph and John, with two wounded men under their charge.

From a little window Joseph Williams blazed steadily away, and they found fourteen dead Zulus in his line of fire next day; but he, poor fellow, met his end before long, for their ammunition done, they had to keep the door with their bayonets, and the enemy, making a sudden rush, dragged Joseph Williams out by the hands and put him to death in sight of the three remaining, who managed to get through a hole in the wall into another room, where they found Henry Hook.

Hook, a short, sturdy, Gloucestershire man, with a fair moustache, who had served five years in the Royal Monmouth Militia before joining the 24th, had meanwhile been having his hands full.

We left him running to camp in his shirt sleeves, but he had since got into his red jumper, and occupied a small room at the front far corner of the building in company with “King” Cole, who, after bolting an enormous quantity of tea and grub generally, took himself off to the mealie-wall, where he was probably the first man killed, as we have already described.

Left to himself, Hook turned his attention to a loophole, through which he saw the Zulus in great force, taking advantage of the ant-hills and bush as they approached.

He was a good shot, and was fortunate in having a splendid Martini, a very light weapon, then numbered 152, and with it he picked off several savages, opening at 600 yards.

At 400 yards he hit a Zulu somewhere about the middle of the body as he ran from cover to cover, and, stopped short in his earthly career, the savage turned a complete somersault and then lay still.

At 300 yards he noticed another popping up from an ant-hill every now and then to fire, and after sending a ball just above his head, Hook saw his second bullet spurt up the sand ten yards short, so, sighting a little fuller, he waited for the black spot to show above the ant-heap again, and next morning found the Zulu there, shot through the skull.

Soon, however, the swarm closed round the devoted building, and a fierce crackling overhead told that the thatch was burning. Driven out by the heat, he was obliged to leave a wounded man to his fate, and his charred remains were seen there next day; he was a tall private of the 24th, who had broken his leg by falling from a wagon.

In the other room were several patients, and he was soon joined by John Williams, a sandy man, of two years’ service, who proceeded to smash a hole through the clay wall into the next room and get the patients out.

While he was doing so the door burst in, and in a twinkling Hook was at one side of it, lunging with his bayonet, and slipping a cartridge into the block when he could manage it.

It was impossible in the heat of the moment to see everything, but he owned to four or five dead Zulus in the doorway, and several more just outside.

An assegai pierced his helmet, grazing the parting in his hair, and several more stuck in the wall at the end of the room behind him; one savage clutched the muzzle of the rifle, and he was fortunately able to press in a cartridge and pull the trigger before another rush was made, and the Zulu sank down, dead, his blood trickling over the pile already heaped up there. But so wary was the private’s grey eye, so strong the arm that plied the reddened steel, that seven out of the eight wounded were safely through the hole and into the third room, and one only remained, a tall man like the other, and also suffering from a broken leg.

“For God’s sake, don’t leave me,” he wailed, as Hook, panting from his work, slid backwards into the opening, and, grasping him by the collar of his overcoat, the brave fellow pulled him after him not a second too soon, and broke his leg again as he did so!

Several touching things happened in their progress through four apartments in succession: in one a wounded Kafir lay with a shattered thigh, who began to untie the splints when he found himself about to be abandoned; Hook could not save him, and afterwards heard the Zulus talking to him from the next room before they killed him.

Here let me remark that all the wounded in hospital were dressed. There is no truth in the pictures we have seen of stalwart privates gently leading out suffering comrades with thin bare legs and well- starched nightshirts!

While Hook and his comrade were struggling with their helpless burdens, pausing every now and then to keep a door, a window, or a hole in a partition with ball and bayonet, two others were battling bravely at the back of the burning house — William Jones, a dark-complexioned man, with twenty years’ service, and a light-complexioned namesake, Robert Jones, who only counted some three or four years with the colours.

When Robert Jones reached the front of the hospital with a wounded volunteer named Mayer, and joined the other, he found a crowd of Zulus there breaking in, and crying, “They are on top of us,” the two crossed bayonets at the door, and piled up the dead as fast as they came on.

Robert was wounded three times by assegais, twice in the right side, and once in the left, and, after fighting desperately for some time, unaware that any more remained within the walls, they got away and crossed the open space between the buildings under a heavy fire, to join in the defence of the square, the roof falling in with a crash as Robert Jones left the hospital.

Volley after volley rolled across the veldt; by the glare of the blazing roof our men directed their fire, and, above some steps leading to a granary, Private Hitch and Corporal Allen kept their post, and by their well-directed aim cleared the ground to some extent for the patients to cross.

One by one the wounded had scrambled out of the end of the dwelling-house, dropped several feet, all maimed and shattered as they were, and while some ran, others crawled painfully over the intervening space, exposed to the bullets of the yelling enemy.

One, Trooper Hunter, Natal Mounted Police, a very tall young fellow, was killed as he ran; some were seized by the Zulus and speared there and then, but others, more fortunate, were helped in by the men behind the biscuit boxes, while one or two managed to get away and lie concealed till morning, among them Gunner Howard, R.A., who hid himself in the grass, where four dead horses and a pig afforded him a shelter.

Several pigs ran wildly about during the night, and there was pork enough for the men afterwards, as one of them has told me.

As the official report says, the odds were nearly thirty to one, but not a man flinched as the night wore on, and the Zulus, after drawing off at intervals, and dancing until the earth seemed to tremble, renewed their ugly rushes from time to time.

Conspicuous for their exertions and the fearless way in which they exposed themselves, were Assistant-Commissaries Dalton, Dunne, and Byrne, the last of whom met his death in a tragic manner.

Corporal Scammell, N.N. Contingent, was shot through the shoulder and back, and, crawling a short distance, handed up his cartridges to Lieutenant Chard.

“I should like a drink of water,” said the corporal, through his clenched teeth; and Mr. Byrne, who had been using Dalton’s rifle after that gentleman was wounded, got him some, and was holding it to his lips, when a ball struck him in the head and he fell lifeless.

It is hard to pick out individuals here and there, when every man was a hero; but the thin, spare form of Parson Smith, his red beard shining in the wavering light, was seen and well remembered afterwards: busy with the water-bottle, helping the surgeon, ministering to the last moments of more than one who fell, and escaping the V.C. by a miracle.

The mountain side was tinged with the lurid glare; smoke rose in a heavy cloud, and the crackling sparks would have formed a magnificent display but for the stern reality of that struggle in front of the storehouse.

Dalton, hit through the right shoulder, still assisted to direct the fire on each side of him, as did Chard and Bromhead, cool and collected, though perhaps realising better than any there the true hazard of their position; had the Zulus been as good shots as they were spearsmen, Rorke’s Drift would have been another Isandhlwana.

Hitch, badly wounded, and Corporal Allen, also hit, when no longer able to use their rifles, braved the danger all night long and served out cartridges to those at the barricades; but still Hook and Williams and several of the wounded were in that blazing charnel-house out of reach of aid.

As the gallant hospital-cook (who, by the way, had taken that historic tea to the patients ten minutes before the attack began) was hauling his broken-legged man along the floor, an assegai pierced the overcoat, between Hook’s hand and the man’s neck, and another that stuck in the coat-tail dangled between his legs all the time — two narrow shaves for one or other of them.

At last Williams, by dint of pushing and lifting, got his men out through the window into the open air, and they made the best of their way for the biscuit tins, Hook still sticking to his charge, who must have been suffering untold agonies, until he helped him into the inner line of defence, and quietly took his place there at a spot where three others had just before been shot.

Again and again did No. 152 dart out its tongue of flame; cartridge after cartridge flew back, to be replaced by others; the ground was littered with brown ammunition paper among their feet; and beneath him, shot through the thick part of the neck, lay a soldier in great pain, who kept entreating him piteously the whole night through to turn him first this way and then that, adding to the horror of it all by his screams and cries.

Presently the Zulus were seen mustering inside our first line for a final, overwhelming rush. The fire had burnt itself out by ten o’clock or so; there had been short pauses, and more terrific stampings; and charge after charge had been driven back by the splendid volleying of our men, whose green cuffs were black with smoke and sweat, and who were getting exhausted by the protracted struggle.

Brave as the Zulus were, our still bold front impressed them; the rush resolved itself into more desultory firing, which, to the inexpressible relief of every man there, gradually died away about four o’clock; and, as morning dawned slowly, the defeated impis were out of sight round the south-west corner of the hill.

A patrol went out, and collected some 400 assegais and about 100 guns and rifles, and men had time to look around at the slaughter.

Red coats dotted the space, but they were few in comparison with the black corpses lying among their shields and spears beyond the mealie-bags.

Between the storehouse and the smoking end of the hospital building a few of the unhappy wounded lay where they had been shot in that last sad crawl for life; and one man of ours, named Horrigan, still knelt at the barrier of sacks, his rifle pointed at the plain outside.

Hook went up to him and took his helmet off, his brains falling down over his face — he was dead at his post.

Even then the alarm was not over, for when they were removing the thatch from the roof of the store house another large body of Zulus appeared to the south-west again, and a friendly Kaffir was sent to Helpmakaar for assistance; but about an hour later the column under Lord Chelmsford came in sight, greeted by a wild waving of hats and helmets, and the foe retired.

We had lost fifteen killed outright, and two of the twelve wounded died afterwards; but about 350 of the enemy lay round the post, and when they buried them some were not quite dead.

Chard and Bromhead, Surgeon Reynolds, the two Joneses, Williams, Hook, Hitch and Allen were granted the Victoria Cross, the brave Schiess and Assistant-Commissary Dalton being gazetted five months afterwards.

Chard received his decoration at Fort Elizabeth; Jones and Bromhead theirs at Utrecht; Williams at Gibraltar; and Private Hook almost on the ground where he had won it.

At Fort Melvill, by the river, there was a parade of the Queen’s Bays, some companies of the 24th, and troops of Dutch and Basutos, on August 3rd; and there, after a few stirring words and a hearty handshake, Sir Garnet Wolseley pinned the Cross on the broad breast of our gallant hospital-cook amid tremendous cheering.

One little item is worthy of record. Hook was a teetotaler at the time, but when the affair at the post was over, and the grog was served out, he went up to the sergeant, who, surprised to see him, said, “What? You here!”

“Well, I feel I want something after that,” replied the brave fellow; and he had it, too — good measure, brimming over — returning to his temperate habits for long enough to come. After long service in the British Museum Library, Hook retired through ill-health, and died in 1905, a month before he should have received the increased V.C. pension! He was buried with full military honours, and seven brother sergeants of the City of London Fusiliers followed him to the grave at Churcham, near Gloucester.

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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