(And One It Didn't)
It is the story of the defence of Rorke's Drift, a minor skirmish in the history of British colonialism, made famous because it occurred the day after one of the Empire's greatest defeats. The Zulu nation, one of Africa's toughest tribes, had just been invaded from British Natal and in response they launched a surprise attack on a British camp at a place called Isandhlwana, wiping out the 1st Battalion of the 24th Regiment of Foot. A company of the 2nd battalion, guarding a supply depot just over the border in Natal, then found itself under attack.
The film is a convincing tale of British soldiers, far from home, fighting a brave and determined enemy for reasons most of them had little understanding of. It could be any number of minor battles of the Empire. However in some ways this universalism is one of its problems, as the battle of Rorke's Drift had a number of unusual features which, if the film makers had portrayed them accurately, would have made the film rather less believable, starting with the Zulus themselves.
1. The Zulus
Young, lean and fit these men look every inch the fierce African tribal warriors they are. The Zulus that won the Battle of Isandhlwana would have looked very much like these chaps. Unfortunately those who fought at Rorke's Drift didn't.
So rather than the 'celibate man-slaying gladiators' depicted we have a bunch of married, middle aged men having a mid-life crisis.
2. The British Soldiers
Although not as old as the Zulus they faced, the men of B Company, 2nd Battalion 24th Foot were no boy soldiers. The unit had been in South Africa for several years and hadn't recruited in that time. The men would have been grizzled veterans and no doubt their uniform and equipment reflected that.
Photographs of the Zulu War exist, but they are all posed and so the troops selected would have been looking their best. Contemporary sketches do exist though, and they show soldiers in patched uniforms wearing a variety of headgear. The regulation pith helmets still being worn worn would certainly not have been white either. The soldiers pretty quickly realised having a nice, bright target on the top of your head was not a good idea and so on campaign the brass badge was removed and the helmet staining brown with tea or cow dung.
Scruffy men with shit coloured headgear don't make great cinema, so we can see why this was changed.
3. The Missionary
In reality there was a lot about Zulu culture that would have scandalised the real Witt. Joining the army and being assigned a regiment was very important to a young Zulu, as it was the first step to getting laid. Once a regiment had proved itself in battle the men had the right to take wives, which is one of the reason the young men charged so bravely into the British bullets at Isandhlwana. However the young men weren't always willing to wait and a variety of sexual practises went on that I can't really describe in a family blog like this. As well as the sex, they also smoked cannabis regularly.
|'Ammunition Smith' in action|
There was a man of God present at the battle though, army Padre George Smith. He wasn't a pacifist either and earned himself the nickname 'Ammunition Smith'. As he dished out the bullets he encourage the men to keep shooting, but stop swearing.
Smith's morality, approving of shooting Africans, but not of calling them racist names, may seem hypocritical, but it has been rigorously followed by film makers ever since.
4. The Sergeant Major
Anyone who has served will recognise this type of no-nonsense senior NCO. Unfortunately, whilst 99% of the Colour Sergeants in the British Army at the time probably did resemble Green, Frank Bourne didn't.
Firstly he was only 5; 6", and secondly he was only 24 years old, the youngest Colour Sergeant in the Army at the time. Far from being solid and unimaginative, he was a bright fellow who today would have gone straight to officer training school. He did eventually become an officer, dying a Colonel in 1945 - the last survivor of Rorke's Drift - but only after he had saved up enough money to live in the snobbish world of the British Officer.
Class isn't really something that usually crops up in films like this, but maybe it should, for Bourne was clearly far more of an Officer and a Gentleman than many of the people who led him into battle.
5. The British Officers
In reality though there were reasons these two were left back at base whilst everyone else was off hunting the Zulus.
Chard was an engineer, there to build a bridge whilst Bromhead was the posh one. Both were rather old to still be junior officers. Chard served under Colonel Wood later in the war, who regarded him as a "useless officer...scarcely able to do his regular work" whilst Bromhead was a "capital fellow at everything except soldiering ... brave but hopelessly stupid".
Both men were overweight and General Wolseley, who was the model for the Very Model of a Modern Major General, and who met them both after the war, said "two duller, more stupid, more uninteresting even or less like gentlemen it has not been my luck to meet for a very long time."
So much for Victorian heroes.
6. The Commissary
The question then is how these two hopeless officers actually managed to organise the defence? The view of historians now is that they didn't, and the credit should really go to Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton, a retired army sergeant living in South Africa at the time who had volunteered to help organise the supply wagons.
Dalton had served under Wolseley in Canada and some of the general's drive appears to have rubbed off on him. He won a Victoria Cross in the battle and has a barracks named after him, but never received the praise he deserved in his lifetime.
7. The Defences
The British started the war so overconfident that they never bothered to fortify any of their camps. The men at Isandhlwana paid the price for this, but under Dalton's direction the force at Rorke's Drift made no such mistake and built their own barricades from what they could find.
The remarkable thing about the battle is not so much that the Zulus lost, but that despite having neither eaten nor slept for 24 hours, and having waded a river to get to battle, the Zulu veterans kept up an attack on such a formidable position for ten hours.
8. The Zulu Tactics
This is the stereotypical image of a colonial battle. It's not too far from the reality either, as the British Army faced enemies using such medieval tactics in the Sudan and Afghanistan. The Zulus though were smarter, as they had been fighting enemies with guns for nearly half a century by the time of Rorke's Drift.
The film correctly talks about the Zulu 'horns of the buffalo' tactics, which they did indeed use at Isandhlwana and Rorke's Drift. When they actually closed with the enemy they used an open formation, the men spaced out to avoid heavy casualties.
In the Sudan and Afghanistan the close formations of swordsmen took heavy casualties whilst charging in, and it would all be over one way or the other in a few minutes. But because of their loose formation the Zulus stuck around a lot longer than the Sudanese and Afghans. At Isandhlwana the main body pinned down the British line for nearly two hours until the horns could outflank it, whilst at Rorke's Drift successive waves of attacks continued for the best part of a day.
Zulu warriors weren't just brave, they were also smart.
9. The Captured Rifles
The Zulus really did take a thousand rifles from the fallen soldiers in the British camp at Isandhkwana, and they used them in subsequent battles of the war. The rifles were prized trophies and the Zulu king allowed the men who captured them to keep them. However as the regiments that attacked Rorke's Drift had not been engaged in that battle, none would have had any of Martini-Henries.
The Zulus did have guns though, and quiet a lot of them. Mostly they were old muskets sold to them by white traders. Several of the defenders of the Drift were indeed wounded by these guns. They were poor weapons, especially when compared to the Martini-Henry which could kill a man at half a mile. Most Zulus weren't very good shots, but at least one might have been though, as amongst the soldiers hit were NCOs leading the defence, exactly the people a sniper would be aiming for.
Hitting a target in cover from 300 yards with an old musket would actually be quite a feat, so maybe Bromhead should have been cursing the marksman rather than his weapon.
10. The Malingerer
These characters are standard cinema tropes, but they do exist in real life. I remember being told about someone his father had served with in the Second World War. This man was always on a charge, and as a punishment had to lug the platoon's anti-tank weapon around with him. One day the unit was attacked by a German tank and whilst everyone else hid in the hedge he went running across the field to destroy it. His explanation afterwards was that it was either them or him.
Unfortunately the real Private Hook was exactly the opposite, a model soldier who was there doing his job. He wasn't even sick, he was guarding the hospital. Hook's family walked out of the film premier in disgust, which is a pity as the cinema Hook, played by James Booth, seems a much more interesting, and believable, character.
Once again it seems the film is more realistic than reality.
because everyone knows real battles don't involve musical contests.
Except that sometimes they do.
In 1824 Britain embarked on the first of what would prove to be three wars against the Asante Kingdom of West Africa. When the two sides met the British General ordered the band to play God Save The King. The Asante replied with their war drums and the musical duelling continued for a while until the Asante got bored and attacked. They overwhelmed the British force and the General's head ended up as a drinking cup.
Nothing like this happened at Rorke's Drift though. The Zulus retired when a British relief force approached, allegedly too tired to even lift their shields, let alone their voices.
It's true the 24th Foot only became the South Wales Borderers after the battle, but it was a regiment with a reputation for being fairly Welsh. No ethnic monitoring records were kept of the Victorian Army, but we do know were most of the men were recruited from. However with Victorian cities containing men driven from the land by Enclosures, or escaping poverty and famine in their home countries, just because a man signed up in London doesn't mean he was English. Even more confusingly two score men of B Company were recruited in Monmouthshire, which is now in Wales, but was in England between 1545 and 1974.
All told it's certainly probable that less than half of the army as a whole was English, and that at least half of the 24th were Welsh. Certainly enough for a male voice choir. Would they have sung Men of Harlech? Well, the song wasn't adopted as the regimental march until 1881, when the regiment became the South Wales Borderers, and in 1879 the official tune was 'The Warwickshire Lads'. However historians can only pin down two actual 'Warwickshire lads' in the company at the time, so something Welsh would actually be more likely.
There are lots of books about the Zulus War, with many of the better ones being written by Ian Knight. However my favourite is Like Lions They Fought by the American author Robert B Edgerton.
Also worth visiting is The Regimental Museum of the Royal Welsh in Brecon which has a lot about the 24th Foot and the Zulu War.