Defeat has a funny way of producing heroes.
The British lost an embarrassing battle to Zulu tribesmen at Isandhlwana, but the improbable defense of an insignificant river crossing 10 miles away by a handful of rear-echelon soldiers, overage officers, and civilians created a new crop of heroes for the public to idolize. More important, it allowed the military and political leaders who had mishandled the Zulu campaign to redirect the public’s attention away from the debacle at Isandhlwana to the more uplifting moral victory at Rorke’s Drift. It was a classic example of the old bait-and-switch.
The butchered bodies of 1,300 British soldiers were still warm on the field at Islandhlwana when word of the disaster first reached the transport station at Rorke’s Drift, 10 miles away on the banks of the Buffalo River. The commander of the station, Major Henry Spalding, had ridden off that morning in search of a missing infantry company which had not arrived in camp as previously ordered. In his place, he left behind two undistinguished career soldiers who would become the most unlikely heroes of the Victorian age.
In titular command of the station was Lieutenant John R. Chard of the Royal Engineers, a 33-year-old veteran of 11 years in Her Majesty’s Army. Fellow officers considered Chard amiable enough, but “hopelessly slow and slack.” He was, in the words of Colonel Evelyn Wood, “a dull, heavy man who seemed scarcely even able to do his regular work.” Second-in-command that day was Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead of the 24th Regiment of Foot. Bromhead, also 33, came from a long line of soldiers—members of the family had served in the same regiment for the past 120 years, and his brother, Major John Bromhead, was a rising star on the general staff in London. Gonville was a different matter. Almost entirely deaf, he should not have been in the military at all. Whether it was because of his hearing impairment, or was simply part of his inherent nature, Bromhead was considered rather stupid, “a capital fellow at everything except soldiering” and a victim of his own “unconquerable indolence.”
These were the officers that fate had left in charge at the Battle of Rorke’s Drift on January 22, 1879, when the first reports reached the station about the massacre at Islandhlwana. Luckily for them, and for the skeleton crew of 140 soldiers, civilians, and missionaries under their charge, a former sergeant major named James Langley Dalton was also at the station working as a contract commissary officer. Dalton, a tall, bearded authority figure of 50, had served in the 85th King’s Light Infantry before retiring. It was Dalton who made the decision that ultimately saved the garrison, the hasty construction of an improvised defensive wall of boxes of biscuits, canned beef, and corn sacks. Behind this tower of supplies, the defenders, armed with powerful new Martini-Henry rifles, were able to hold off 4,000 Zulu warriors for the next 10 hours.
Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded that day, the most ever given for one engagement. Chard and Bromhead received medals—Dalton, now a civilian, did not. Both lieutenants were promoted, and both were invited to meet the Queen. Neither man ever did anything else remotely significant, personally or professionally, in his entire career.
The stiff-upper-lip stand at Rorke’s Drift captured the public’s imagination in a way that the even braver fight to the last man by the outnumbered men at Isandhlwana did not. Perhaps it was easier to identify with the little company of defenders at Rorke’s Drift than it was the faceless hundreds who fell beneath the Zulu spears at Isandhlwana. Or perhaps the public just likes a winner, even ones as unprepossessing as John R. Chard and Gonville Bromhead. Either way, it certainly took the people’s minds off the criminal incompetence of the nation’s leaders. And that, of course, was the point of all those Victoria Crosses in the first place.
This article first appeared at the Warfare History Network.