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Lieutenant John Chard

Royal Engineers

Victoria Cross

Rorke’s Drift, Natal

January 22 and 23, 1879

Queen Victoria called the 1879 British defense of Rorke’s Drift “immortal,” and a modern historian labeled it “one of the best known battles in the history of the British army.” Strategically it settled nothing—but it inspired a legend.

At the drift—a mission station and ford on the banks of the Buffalo River in Britain’s southern African colony of Natal—154 Redcoats fought off repeated attacks by some 4,000 Zulu warriors. Eleven of the British troops earned Victoria Crosses, seven by men of the 24th Regiment of Foot—the most ever in a single action by one regiment. One VC went to 31-year-old Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers, who was —inadvertently—in command.

Around noon on Jan. 22, 1879, Major Henry Spalding, commander of the outpost, left to check on another station, putting Chard in charge.

“Of course,” Spalding had reassured his senior officer, “nothing will happen.”

Later that day a lieutenant and a carabineer arrived from Isandlwana, to the east, where a large Zulu force had nearly wiped out a British column, and the two survivors warned of approaching Zulus. Chard immediately put his garrison to work raising a perimeter of 200-pound grain sacks and 100-pound biscuit boxes, and knocking loopholes through the exterior walls of the station’s buildings. Around 3:30 p.m. a troop of Natal Native Horse (NNH) arrived and volunteered to picket in the direction from which the Zulus were expected.

At this point Chard had several hundred men, including British and colonial regulars, the NNH, a company of the Natal Native Contingent (NNC) and walking wounded from the hospital.

But things changed quickly.

Around 4:20 p.m. Zulu warriors armed with iklwas (thrusting spears) and a few muskets and rifles engaged the NNH, which soon fled the field. The NNC also fled the station.The garrison was down to 154 men.

Chard ordered the construction of a wall of boxes across the middle of the station in case his men were forced to abandon the north, or hospital, side of the perimeter. Then his men, outnumbered by as much as 26-to-1, took up their positions.

Within minutes the Zulus attacked, their main body hitting the north wall. They repeatedly engaged the British on the barricades in hand-to-hand fighting, slashing with their spears, firing their ancient weapons and trying to grab the defenders’ rifles. Chard and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, ordered repeated bayonet charges to drive back the Zulus. Realizing his men could not hold the wall, at about 6 p.m. Chard abandoned the hospital after evacuating 11 patients.

As night fell, the attacks intensified. The defenders retreated to the innermost bastion of grain sacks around the storehouse. The attacks continued, not slackening until after midnight.

Chard had lost 14 dead, two wounded mortally and eight seriously. The station’s ammunition reserves, some 20,000 rounds before the battle, were down to 900 rounds, or fewer than 10 per man. Virtually every man was exhausted and had some kind of wound. It seemed the end was near.

But when dawn broke, the Zulus were gone.

The official enemy death toll came to 351, but Samuel Pitt, who had participated in the battle as a private, told a British newspaper in 1914 that figure was too low. “We reckon we had accounted for 875,” he said.

In addition to the 11 Victoria Cross recipients, four men earned Distinguished Conduct Medals. In 1879 there was no provision for the posthumous granting of the VC, but Private Joseph Williams, among the heroes of the hospital fight, would likely have received one. “Had he lived,” affirmed official dispatches, “he would have been recommended for the Victoria Cross.”

Upon his return to Britain, Chard received an invitation to visit Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where the monarch personally handed him a gold signet ring. John Chard rose to the rank of colonel before dying of cancer in 1897.


Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.