The Zulu War of 1879 is quite well known and the two battlefields that witnessed a disastrous massacre at Isandlwana and a heroic defence at Rorke’s Drift marked the beginning of the British Campaign. They both occurred on 22 January and involved 25,000 warriors in mortal combat, in which some 5,000 died. Their detail continues to generate a book a year and a regular stream of visitors to the battlefields.
The iconic film Zulu (1964, Michael Caine’s first Oscar) is still aired on prime time TV in the UK and depicts the defense of the Mission Station at Rorke’s Drift. The commander of that defence was Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers, not quite the technical role for which he had been trained; he had quite a busy day on 22 January most of which happened in the view across the Buffalo River from the Rorke’s Drift Hotel.
Lieutenant John Rouse Meriott Chard – Royal Engineers
Chard was part of No. 5 Engineer Company who were making their way up from Pietermaritzburg and way behind schedule due to the heavy rain. They had taken three days to cover just 16 miles with their mule-drawn wagons. Chard leaves his unit and comes ahead up to Rorke’s Drift to take command of the pontoon rafts which are the vital link across the Buffalo River in the line of communication for the planned advance of the Central Column into Zululand. This column of some 4500 British Troops had used the pontoons to cross the Buffalo River that defined the boundary between Natal and Zululand, at the declaration of War on 11th January. They were keen to leave the congested conditions at the mission station which had also been host to the 3500 oxen and the several hundred mules and horses that enabled the Victorian Army to move. Crossing the River, the Military would have been able to find ‘fresh ground’ and accordingly camped in Zululand beside the River. By the time Chard arrives on 17th January the expansive camp on the Zululand side has been in place for a week while the Central Column carry out road building operations to move forward to Isandlwana. Like Rorke’s original drift, the roadway is not up to 200 wagons and all the other transport that is required for offensive operations, so a Military Wagon Road was made as well as improvements to the original Bridle Trail, which can still be seen today.
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