One of the world’s most remarkable military engagements happened in South Africa in 1879. It was the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, immortalized in the film Zulu with Michael Caine back in 1964.
During the 1870s, Britain had a sphere of influence in South Africa, and looked to expand its territory, so war was declared on the Kingdom of Zululand. Rorke’s Drift, a mission station occupied by the British troops, was located near the border between the Zulu Kingdom and British colony of Natal. When the battle broke out, there were only 139 soldiers in the station, unaware of what was coming.
On January 22, 1879 at 4:20pm, the station was besieged by a force of Zulu warriors 4,000 strong, and the siege lasted for almost twelve hours, until 4am the next day.
The British were lucky in one aspect: military equipment of the Zulus in most cases couldn’t compare to what they were armed with. A Zulu warrior most often wielded a short spear called an assegai and a cowhide shield, and even though some of them were armed with old muskets, antiquated rifles and such, Britain’s highly trained soldiers were far superior when it comes to firepower. However, they were vastly outnumbered – 139 to 4,000.
During the 12 hours of the siege, British soldiers repulsed wave after wave of attacks, which even involved hand-to-hand combat to preserve ammunition. Right when they were at the ends of their strength, with low ammunition and morale, and several soldiers wounded or dead, at dawn, the Zulus retreated, leaving behind around 500 of their casualties. The British soldiers had only 17 dead and 10 wounded in comparison.
Eleven Victoria Crosses, Britain’s highest medal for bravery, were awarded to Rorke’s Drift defenders, which is the highest number of medals ever received by one regiment in a single military engagement.