Gunners at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift 22–23 January 1879

Map of battle area. (1) Isandlwana Camp. (2) Area of Lord Chelmfords Column. (3) Guns lost in ravine. (4) Rorke's Drift.
Map of battle area. (1) Isandlwana Camp. (2) Area of Lord Chelmfords Column. (3) Guns lost in ravine. (4) Rorke’s Drift.

The battle of Isandlwana and the defence of Rorke’s Drift are among the memorable episodes of Victorian military history. The disaster of Isandlwana was one of the most embarrassing defeats in British Imperial history. A Zulu army of 20,000 over-ran the camp of Lord Chelmsford’s British expeditionary force killing 1,300 out of a force of 1,800. The same day a Zulu column of 3-4,000 attacked, but failed to defeat a British force of C.140 at the mission station of Rorke’s Drift. The high number of Victoria Crosses awarded for Rorke’s Drift may have been to distract the public from the causes and scale of the disaster at Isandlwana. Ubique means everywhere, and while the presence of artillery at Isandlwana was shown in the film Zulu Dawn, I wondered whether Rorke’s Drift might be the exception. However, there was a gallant band of Gunners at Rorke’s Drift and a recently published book of letters by a Gunner survivor from Isandlwana adds to the story.

These battles are well know events immortalised in film, with the focus on the heroic actions of the 24th Regiment of foot often misrepresented as Welshmen. Chelmsford’s force included a artillery contingent. These included N Battery of 5 Brigade, with six 7 pounder mountain guns on special colonial carriages, designed for the rigours of Africa and 11 Battery of 7 Brigade with Hale rockets.

Hale Rocket By Smithsonian Institution

Hale rockets were an improvement on the earlier Congreve design. Hale’s design vectored part of the thrust through canted exhaust holes to provide rotation of the rocket, which improved its stability in flight. The British Army had adopted this rocket in 1867. There was a troop of rocketeers with Captain Russell. Colonel Durnford’s column under which was ordered to the Isandlwana Camp. On its arrived Durnford led his cavalry out to the north east of the camp where they clashed with the Zulu impis encircling the camp. Russell’s rocket troop was caught by the Zulus deploying and only managed to fire one or two rockets before a volley of fire from the Zulu’s killed Russell and three gunners, after which the mules carrying the rockets bolted and fled with the company of Natal Native troops assigned as escort. There were few survivors, namely Bombardier. Gough and Gunners Grant , Johnson and Trainer.

N Battery of 5 Field Brigade was equipped with six RML 7-pounder Mountain “Steel” Gun on mounted on Colonial (or “Kaffraria”) carriages: light field gun type carriages with larger wider-spaced wheels suited for being horse-drawn across long grass. These Rifled Muzzle Loaded guns were the first British guns made of steel. They fired common shell, shrapnel or cannister rounds to a maximum range of 3,000 yards. Four of the guns were with Lord Chelmsford’s column that left the camp in an elusive hunt for the Zulu force. Two remained in the camp under the command of Lt Curling RA. Curling deployed his two guns 300-400 yards front left of the camp, with an infantry company on each side. The decision to deploy forward of the camp may have saved Curling’s life as it mean that he had his horse with him. Major Stuart Smith rode up and assumed command, having ridden back from Chelmsford’s column. When the Zulu’s came into view they were engaged with common shell at 1000 yards.

‘We could get no idea of the numbers but the hills were black with them….‘we were able to throw shells into a huge mass of the enemy that remained almost stationary.’

As the range reduced the gunners fired shrapnel and then at 100 yards range cannister. By this time the Zulus were very close. The infantry companies forced square and started to withdraw. The Guns limbered up and withdrew, intending to deploy again closer to the camp. Only the officers had revolvers. The Gunners were unarmed less for sabres stored on the limbers. Those that could jumped on the guns and limbers, however the last man was stabbed in the back with an assegai while other gunners ran alongside the guns. As they approached the camp they saw that it had already been overrun by Zulus so they guns galloped through the camp. Most of the detachments were lost at this time. As the road to Rorke’s Drift had been blocked by Zulus, the battery, reduced to the two officers and the drivers turned down a ravine following the rout until the guns became jammed at a narrow point. Here Major Smith and the drivers were caught and killed, with Lt Curling as the sole survivor from this party. Curling’s letters home were discovered and published recently. The Curling Letters of the Zulu War: There Was Awful Slaughter

Two 7 pounder RML Guns from, N/5 captured at Isandlwana. The Zulus lacked the technical skills and gunpowder to make use of these.
Contemporary map from the Illustrated London News

The film Zulu Dawn does show the artillery, but Zulu does not. Gunner John Cantwell  was one four Gunner defenders of Rorkes Drift from N Battery 5th Brigade

Cantwell, John. Gunner 2076, awarded Distinguished Conduct Medal
Evans, Abraham. Gunner 1643
Howard, Arthur. Gunner 2077
Lewis, Thomas. Bombardier. 458

Cantwell was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his part in the defence of the hospital. He had been a bombardier until 21 January when he  reverted to the rank of Wheeler Driver, and may have become a storeman. Whatever the reason for his reduction to the ranks it probably saved his life and the £5 cash award with the DCM may have been some compensation for the loss of pay.  

This painting of the Defence of Rorke’s Drift by Alphonse_de_Neuville shows the burning hospital in the centre. Driver Cantwell distinguished himself by his gallantry in the defence of the hospital.

Gunners known to have fallen at Isandlwana

N” Battery, 5th Brigade R.A.
Captain and Brevet-Major Stuart Smith
Brevet-Major F. B. Russell, R.A., Rocket Battery

Sergeant Edwards, William 3483 Corporal Bailey, H.R. 1119 Corporal Cooper, William 2721 Corporal Langridge, John 1872
Bombardier Parker, John 746 A/Bombardier Nash, Thomas 1763 A/Bombardier Leguay, John 3181 A/Bombardier McDonnell, James 2196
A/Bombardier Aylett, James 1882 A/Bombardier Boswell, Thomas 147 Farrier Sergeant Whinham, Robert 841 Collar Maker Shepperd, Thomas753
Shoeing Smith Elliott, Thomas1462
Beech, Frank. 1883 Berry, Thomas 655 1885 Burke, James Byrne, James 2189
Cockrane, Samuel 646 Collins, Robert 1311 1082 Connelly, John 1637 Davies, Isaac
Dickins, William 3484 Harrison, Thomas 668 Hicks, James 1412 James, Edward G.1773
King, Charles 1834 Lamb, James 1113 McGregor, Murdoch 2945 Mead, James 1655
Marshall, William 1683 Miller, Thomas 2630 O’Neal, Daniel 2633 Page, Henry 2322
Redman, Alexander 1438 Reede, John 692 Regan, John 2460 Roscoe, William 2183
Smythe, Joseph 1405 Stevenson, Joseph 1833 (“Joseph” in the despatch “R.” on the roll) Williams, Robert 2652 Wilson, Thomas 2819
Wilson, William 1626 Woolacott, Alfred 704

Adams, William 1471 Allen, Henry 751 Barron, William 707 Bishop, Charles 1524
Brooks, James 2174 Bruce, Thomas 1961 Clarke, Thomas 1598 Cowley, Henry 2301
Dailey, John 1185 Hiatt, William 727 Hutchings, James 723 Jones, J. William 2178
Joyce, Leonard 1997 Marchant, John741 McKeown, George 2119 Murphy, Francis 2015
648 Spread, Charles

The battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift are two of the eighty-two battlefields listed in the Zwa-ZuluNatal Battlefield Trail in the area where the British Boers and Zulus fought. There are local guides, but Gunner Tours can advise about sites of particular interest to Gunners or advise of relevant Battlefield study and Staff Ride content.

For further reading

Smallwood, Victor S. . The role of the Royal Regiment of Artillery in the Battle of Isandlwana 1879

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