The Hero of Rorke’s Drift

Twas at the camp of Rorke’s Drift, and at tea-time,
And busily engaged in culinary operations was a private of the line;
But suddenly he paused, for he heard a clattering din,
When instantly two men on horseback drew rein beside him.

“News from the front!” said one, “Awful news!” said the other,
“Of which, we are afraid, will put us to great bother,
For the black Zulus are coming, and for our blood doth thirst,”
“And the force is cut up to pieces!” shouted the first.

“We’re dead beat,” said both, “but we’ve got to go on,”
And on they rode both, looking very woebegone;
Then Henry Hook put all thought of cooking out of his mind,
For he was surrounded with danger on every side he did find.

He was a private of the South Wales Borderers, Henry Hook,
Also a brave soldier, and an hospital cook;
A soldier of the Queen, who was always ready to obey,
And willing to serve God by night and day.

Then away to the Camp he ran, with his mind all in a shiver,
Shouting, “The force is cut up, sir, on the other side of the river!”
Which caused the officer in command with fear to quiver,
When Henry Hook the news to him did deliver.

Then Henry Hook saluted, and immediately retired,
And with courage undaunted his soul was fired,
And the cry rang out wildly, “The Zulus are coming!”
Then the alarm drums were instantly set a-drumming.

Then “Fall in! Fall in!” the commanders did cry,
And the men mustered out, ready to do and to die,
As British soldiers are always ready to do,
But, alas, on this occasion their numbers were but few.

They were only eighty in number, that brave British band,
And brave Lieutenant Broomhead did them command;
He gave orders to erect barricades without delay,
“It’s the only plan I can see, men, to drive four thousand savages away.”

Then the mealie bags and biscuit boxes were brought out,
And the breastwork was made quickly without fear or doubt,
And barely was it finished when some one cried in dismay,
“There’s the Zulus coming just about twelve hundred yards away.”

Methinks I see the noble hero, Henry Hook,
Because like a destroying angel he did look,
As he stood at the hospital entrance defending the patients there,
Bayoneting the Zulus, while their cries rent the air,
As they strove hard the hospital to enter in,
But he murdered them in scores, and thought it no sin.

In one of the hospital rooms was stationed Henry Hook,
And every inch a hero he did look,
Standing at his loophole he watched the Zulus come,
All shouting, and yelling, and at a quick run.

On they came, a countless host of savages with a rush,
But the gallant little band soon did their courage crush,
But the cool man Henry Hook at his post began to fire,
And in a short time those maddened brutes were forced to retire.

Still on came the savages into the barricade,
And still they were driven back, but undismayed.
Again they came into the barricade, yet they were driven back,
While darkness fell swift across the sun, dismal and black.

Then into the hospital the savages forced their way,
And in a moment they set fire to it without dismay,
Then Henry Hook flew to assist the patients in the ward,
And the fighting there was fearful and hard.

With yell and shriek the Zulus rushed to the attack,
But for the sixth time they were driven back
By the brave British band, and Henry Hook,
Who was a brave soldier, surgeon, and hospital cook.

And when Lord Chelmsford heard of the victory that day,
He sent for Henry Hook without delay,
And they took the private before the commander,
And with his braces down, and without his coat, in battle array grandeur.

Then Lord Chelmsford said, “Henry Hook, give me your hand,
For your conduct to day has been heroic and grand,
And without your assistance to-day we’d been at a loss,
And for your heroic behaviour you shall receive the Victoria Cross.”

The Defence of Rorke’s Drift

This place will be indelibly associated with the names of Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead, by whom it was hurriedly entrenched, after they had heard from some fugitives that the force in front had been destroyed by the Zulus. It was, indeed, “a gallant defence,” as Lord Chelmsford phrased it. Eighty men, ten of whom were sick in hospital, beat off and defeated some three thousand Zulus flushed with their late victory. They had hardly half-an-hour’s warning to make their preparations. Fortunately, there were plenty of sacks of “mealies” to be had, and temporary fortifications were rapidly constructed with them and with biscuit boxes. From 3 P.M. to 5 A.M. the Zulus came on again and again with undoubted pluck. They succeeded in taking the hospital and burning it, though in doing so they lost ten times the number they killed; they charged up to the very walls, and attempted to unscrew the bayonets which met them. The engagement lasted all night, and the Zulus only retreated when dawn was breaking, having suffered enormous loss, some 350 killed and 200 or 300 wounded. Of the defenders thirteen were killed and nine wounded, some of whom afterwards died.

The Graphic, 15th March 1879


Henry Hook was one of eleven defenders of Rorke’s Drift to be awarded the Victoria Cross (Britain’s highest military honour), the most VCs ever awarded for a single action. These men, and 140 of their comrades, held their isolated post against 4000 Zulu warriors in ten hours of fierce fighting. A few miles away at Isandlwana, the British army had just suffered one of its greatest ever defeats.

When the British Army had opened their unprovoked attack on the Zulus a few days earlier it had all seemed so simple. The Zulu tribesmen, armed with spears and shields and a few antiquated firearms, would be easily cowed by the superior technology of a European force and Queen Victoria would add another colony to her empire. They reckoned without the skill and bravery of the Zulu nation.

Lord Chelmsford led his force across the Buffalo River into Zululand on the 11th January 1879. Rorke’s Drift, a small mission settlement on the Natal side of the river, was converted into a depot and field hospital and B Company of the 24th Regiment were left behind to guard it. Meanwhile Chelmsford and the main body advanced steadily, establishing their camp in the shadow of the conical hill of Isandlwana.

Before dawn on the morning of the 22nd January, Chelmsford marched out of camp with 2,500 men – rather more than half his force – to scout out the route ahead and attack a small Zulu force spotted by his cavalry scouts the previous day. Little did he know that a much larger Zulu army of some 22,000 warriors was bearing down on his camp from the North. He spent the day exploring the country to the south west and ignoring the sound of gunfire and the desperate messages that came to him from his camp.

Meanwhile the 1,600 men left at Isandlwana were in serious trouble. The Zulu army made good use of the surrounding ground to attack the camp without warning. A perimiter was swiftly established by the British which held out initially, but eventually the “thin red line” was broken by the Zulus and carnage ensued. 1,329 British and Native soldiers were killed, as opposed to about 3,000 Zulus.

A portion of the Zulu army had been held in reserve during the attack on Isandlwana, and this 3,500-strong force pursued the fleeing remnants of the British army towards Rorkes Drift. Defying their explicit orders not to cross into Natal, the Zulus bore down on the hastily fortified buildings in a series of ferocious attacks that would last all through the night. Somehow the defenders held out until a combination of exhaustion and the appearance of Chelmsford’s column caused the Zulus to withdraw.

The battle of Rorke’s Drift is best remembered today through the 1964 film Zulu, which launched the career of actor Michael Caine. Henry Hook is a prominent character in the film, but he is portrayed as a rogue and barrack-room lawyer, rather than McGonagall’s perfect soldier. For once McGonagall is nearer the mark, as Hook had a spotless military record.

Whilst McGonagall was writing poetry at the time of the Zulu war (1879 was, of course, the year of the Tay Bridge Disaster!) this poem was not written until several years after the event. McGonagall makes a common mistake (as does the film) in describing Hook’s regiment as the South Wales Borderers. In fact the 24th Regiment did not receive this designation till 1881, they were the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment at the time of the action.

Further Reading


Wikipedia Article

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Comments (4) »

  1. Alan Jones
    In the year 2013, on the 30th day of October at 3:57 pm

    You have to feel sorry for Henry Hook and his family. If it’s not bad enough for a soldier with an exemplary service record to be posthumously defamed as a drunken thieving barrack room- lawyer in Zulu he was ‘MacGonagalled’ during his lifetime. At least they didn’t make him a Welshman !

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