The Story of James Langley Dalton
James Langley Dalton VC (1833 – 7 January 1887) was an English recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.
Burial: Russell Road RC Cemetery - Port Elizabeth Cape Province, South Africa
He was approximately 46 years old, and an Acting Assistant Commissary in the Commissariat and Transport Department (later Royal Army Service Corps), British Army during the Zulu War when he was awarded the VC for action on 22 January 1879, at Rorke's Drift, Natal, South Africa.
His citation in the London Gazette of 17 November 1879 reads: "For his conspicuous gallantry during the attack on Rorke's Drift post by the Zulus on the night of the 22nd January 1879, when he actively superintended the work of the defense, and was amongst the foremost of those who received the first attack at the corner of the hospital, where the deadliness of his fire did great execution, and the mad rush of the Zulus met with its first check, and where, by his cool courage, he saved the life of a man of the Army Hospital Corps, by shooting the Zulu who having seized the muzzle of the man's rifle, was in the act of assuaging him. This officer, to whose energy much of the defense of the place was due, was severely wounded during the contest, but still continued to give the same example of cool courage."
Born in London in 1833, Dalton enlisted in 85th Regiment of Foot in November 1849 at the age of 17. In 1862 he transferred to the Commissariat Corps at the rank of Corporal, and was promoted to Sergeant in 1863, and clerk and Staff Sergeant in 1867. He served with Sir Garnet Wolseley on the Red River Expedition in Canada in 1870, retiring from the army the next year. By 1877 he was living in South Africa and volunteered for service as Acting Assistant Commissary with the British Force.
Dalton was not originally named among the VC recipients, eventually receiving his VC from General Hugh Clifford VC at a special parade at Fort Napier on 16 January 1880. Most historians credit Dalton, rather than the relatively inexperienced Chard or Bromhead, for initiating the defense at Rorke's Drift.
Dalton died in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He is buried in the Russell Road Roman Catholic Cemetery with a memorial, Plot E. The precise location of his grave is 33” 57' 37" S 25” 36' 53" E.
The Barracks in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire is named 'The Dalton VC Centre' after him. Also Dalton Barracks, Abingdon, previously RAF Abingdon bears his name.
Here is what the Archives of DGS AGM meeting held in Camberley, England on 7 June 2008 says about James Langley Dalton:
1. AGM Report at Deepcut Barracks, Surrey.
From Sir Geoffrey Dalton
The AGM was held on a fine SummerÕs day at Deepcut Barracks, the home of the Royal Logistic Corps, near Guildford in Surrey. It combined the AGM with a visit to the Regimental Museum and Medal Collection to see the Victoria Cross awarded to James Langley Dalton for his conspicuous gallantry at the Battle of RorkeÕs Drift in Natal in January 1879.
Article on James Langley Dalton
We arrived at the OfficersÕ Mess at 11am where we were met by Colonel Owen the curator of the Medal Collection. This is housed in a large room - an incredible display of Awards for Gallantry, Orders of Chivalry, Campaign Medals and Long Service Medals awarded to members of the various Regiments which have been amalgamated over the years culminating in the formation of the Royal Logistic Corps in 1993.
Colonel Owen gave us a fascinating talk about the history of the many displays, pointing out that it was one of the most comprehensive collections because, as a support corps, they were involved in most actions whereas frontline regiments were not. Then, he finished by showing us the Victoria Cross won by Commissary JL Dalton, one of 11 awarded for the Defense of RorkeÕs Drift and the largest number ever awarded for a single action. Dalton was the holder of one of three VCs awarded to the Corps, the other two being won in the Indian Mutiny at Azimghar in 1858. Dalton died in South Africa in January 1887 at the age of 53. His medals were much later recovered from a blitzed house of a niece and bought by a collector. In 1986 they were put up for auction and the Corps set up a campaign raising more than sufficient to buy the medal together with his South Africa Campaign Medal and Long Service and Conduct Medal for £62,000. They joined the other two VCs in the museumÕs care.
James Langley Dalton's Medals
After lunch and the AGM we visited the Corps Museum nearby and had a chance to see displays and memorabilia of the many incidents in the Corps history and, of course, of particular interest was the tableau of the defense of RorkeÕs Drift and a copy of the famous painting in which Mr. Dalton can be seen in the midst of the battle encouraging and leading the defenders.
Michael, Colonel Owen and Sir Geoffrey with James Langley Dalton's VC
VICTORIA CROSS NAMED TO JAMES LANGLEY DALTON
(COMMISSARIAT & TRANSPORT DEPARTMENT)
Here is a copy of something different for the collector with discerning taste; it is a full size museum copy of the Victoria Cross complete with ribbon, and beautifully engraved to JAMES LANGLEY DALTON who won the award for his actions at Rorkes Drift during the Zulu War.
JAMES LANGLEY DALTON WAS BORN IN LONDON IN 1833. HE ENLISTED INTO THE 85TH FOOT AT 17 YEARS OF AGE IN NOVEMBER 1849. HE WAS TRANSFERRED TO COMMISSARIAT CORPS IN 1862 AS CORPORAL AND PROMOTED TO SERGEANT IN 1863. IN 1867 HE BECAME A CLERK AND A MASTER-SERGEANT, LATER SERVING IN CANADA ON THE RED RIVER EXPEDITION WITH SIR GARNET WOLSELEY IN 1870.
IN 1871, AFTER 22 YEARS SERVICE, HE RETIRED FROM THE ARMY WITH A PENSION AND A LONG SERVICE GOOD CONDUCT MEDAL, BUT COULD'NT SETTLE INTO CIVILIAN LIFE AND BY 1877 HE HAD VOLUNTEERED FOR SERVICE AS ACTING ASSISTANT COMMISSARY WITH THE BRITISH FORCE.
ON JANUARY 22ND HE WAS AT THE RORKE'S DRIFT MISSION WHEN IT WAS ATTACKED BY SEVERAL THOUSAND ZULU WARRIORS AFTER THEIR MASSACRE OF LORD CHELMSFORD'S COLUMN AT ISANDLWANA. DALTON SUPERINTENDED THE WORK OF DEFENCE OF THE MISSION AND RECIEVED THE FIRST WAVE OF ATTACK. ALTHOUGH WOUNDED, DALTON CONTINUED TO DISPLAY COOL COURAGE THROUGHOUT THE ACTION. IT WAS HIS COURAGE AND EXPERIENCE WHICH MADE THE DEFENCE OF RORKE'S DRIFT A SUCCESS. THIS FACT WAS NOT AT FIRST RECOGNISED, BUT EVENTUALLY REPORTS OF HIS ACTIONS REACHED HIS SENIOR OFFICERS AS WELL AS QUEEN VICTORIA, AND JAMES LANGLEY DALTON WAS RECOMMENDED FOR THE VICTORIA CROSS.
HE WAS DECORATED BY GENERAL HUGH CLIFFORD VC AT A SPECIAL PARADE AT FORT NAPIER ON 16TH JANUARY 1880. HE RETURNED TO ARMY SERVICE BEING GIVEN A PERMANENT COMMISSION.
ON JANAURY 7TH 1887, HE TOOK TO HIS BED AND DIED DURING THE NIGHT IN PORT ELIZABETH, SOUTH AFRICA, WHERE HE IS BURIED.
Altogether a most interesting day and we are all most grateful to Colonel Owen and the Curator and Staff of the Museum for all their help as well as providing an excellent sandwich lunch.
Acting Assistant Commissary J.L. Dalton commissariat and transport department and colour sergeant F. Bourne, during the battle at the front wall about 6pm at Rorkes Drift.
The Story of Rorke's Drift
The news of the epic defense in early 1879 of the remote outpost at Rorke's Drift against some 4,000 Zulu warriors, flushed with victory following the annihilation of the 1st Battalion 24th Foot at Isandhlwana, thrilled Victorian Britain, and has been hallowed ever since as one of the most heroic stands in military history.
The backbone of the Rorke's Drift garrison consisted of ninety-five men belonging to B Company, 2nd Battalion 24th Foot. Acts of gallantry performed during the defense resulted in the awards of eleven Victoria Crosses - the highest number ever conferred for a single action; with seven of them going to members of B Company. The action has inspired many artists down the years - Lady Elizabeth Butler's 1880 painting The Defense of Rorke's Drift, January 22nd 1879 and the 1964 film classic Zulu among them. It has been said that some survivors never really escaped from the traumatic events at Rorke's Drift on 22-23 January 1879 and continued to be haunted by visions of the lethal contest between thrusting bayonet and the vicious stab and slash of the assegai to the end of their days. However, at the time, the performance of this handful of men did much to restore British public morale after the Isandhlwana disaster, and has been seen ever since as epitomising the stalwart and disciplined fighting qualities of the British infantryman.
In early January 1879 five British columns intent on the invasion of Zululand marched up through Natal. The strongest column, comprising 1st and 2nd Battalions, 24th Foot; a squadron of Mounted Infantry; about 200 Natal volunteers; 150 Natal Police; two battalions of the Native Contingent; some Pioneers and six Royal Artillery guns, were accompanied by the Commander-in-Chief Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford, and his staff. On the Natal side of the Buffalo River, the Reverend Otto Witt's remote Swedish mission station was commandeered as the column's most forward post on the line of march and was adapted for use as a commissariat store and hospital for sick NCO's and men. On the 11th Chelmsford's column crossed the Buffalo River by the ford, or drift, a quarter of a mile away leaving the 2/24th's B Company under Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead to garrison the mission with the help of a company the Natal Native Contingent, some half dozen other details and three commissariat officers. Surgeon Reynolds was in charge of the hospital and the Reverend George Smith, a missionary, acted as unofficial chaplain to the troops. Major Spalding of the 104th Regiment was left in overall command.
At dawn on the 22nd, a young officer rode into the station with a message from Lord Chelmsford concerning a native column coming up under Colonel Durnford and excitedly announced that the main column had gone into camp nine miles away at Isandhlwana and that "a big fight was expected." At about half past six that morning, Lieutenant John Rouse Merriott Chard R.E., who had been left in charge of the ponts, or ferry boats, at the drift, obtained permission from Spalding to ride out to Isandhlwana and ascertain if there were any new orders which would effect the service of the ponts under his command. Chard returned at noon and reported that large bodies of Zulus had been reported working round the left of the camp at Isandhlwana, and said he thought that they might try to make a dash for the mission. This caused some excitement but everyone felt certain that Lord Chelmsford and his column, some 4,000-strong, would never permit the Zulus to move against the mission unmolested. The Rev. Witt, Rev. Smith and Surgeon Reynolds took themselves off to the summit of a neighbouring hill "to watch the fun" through field glasses. About an hour later, however, Major Spalding decided that it might be advisable to bring up the company of the 1/24th left ten miles further down the road at Helpmakaar and, leaving Lt. Chard in command, set off on his self-imposed task. John Chard returned to his ponts.
At about 3:15 pm he saw two men riding "hell for leather" towards the drift. A pont was sent across the river to bring them across. Lieutenant Adendorff of the N.N.C. had a terrible tale to relate. Lord Chelmsford had gone out that morning with half his force to make reconnaissance and select a new camping ground. Some 1,800 officers and men had been left at Isandhlwana. At noon the Zulu force, whose presence had been observed for some hours, had audaciously rushed the unprepared camp in overwhelming numbers and slaughtered the force to a man. Meanwhile nothing had been heard of Lord Chelmsford or his half of the column, and now another Zulu force was advancing rapidly towards Rorke's Drift. Stunned by Adendorff's news, Chard then received an urgent message from Bromhead who likewise had just been informed of the disaster by a Mounted Infantryman carrying a note which said the post was to be strengthened and held at all costs.
After a hurried consultation between Chard, Bromhead and Assistant Commissary Dalton, it was decided to abandon the ford and concentrate all efforts in holding the mission. By 3:30 pm the guard at the drift had been recalled and the preparations for the defense were begun. At about the same time what seemed to be a welcome reinforcement arrived in the form of an officer and one hundred troopers from Durnford's force. The officer reported to Chard for orders and was asked to post vedettes in the direction of the advancing horde and hold it up as much as possible. When forced to retire on the post, the troopers were to help in its defense. Meanwhile the work of strengthening the mission was being carried on apace. A wall constructed of mealie (maize) bags was raised to a height of four feet and continued in the form of a rectangle of which the bottom, or south east and south west, corners were filled respectively by the walls of the thatched hospital and storehouse which stood about forty yards apart.
It was decided to leave those patients unable to bear arms inside the hospital, as it was generally considered by Surgeon Reynolds and others that neither "building would be taken unless with the fall of the whole place." The defense of the hospital, which measured 60 by 18 feet and was divided into a number of rooms, some with interconnecting doors and others accessible only via outside doors, was left in the charge of Reynolds. Lieutenant Bromhead detailed Private Robert Jones and five other B Company men, namely Privates Harry Hook, 593 William Jones, 1395 John Williams, 1398 Joseph Williams, and Thomas Cole, to assist. The hospital walls were loopholed, and the windows and outside doors barricaded with tables and mattresses.
When word was received that the Zulus had been sighted Missionary Witt, having returned from the hill top with Reynolds and Smith, exercised his right to depart. Every man now took up his assigned post. At 4:15 pm firing was heard beyond the hills to the south and shortly afterwards the officer of Durnford's force rode in reporting that the enemy were at hand and that his men would not stand and were making off towards Helpmakaar. The sight of the fleeing troopers proved too much for the N.N.C. who likewise departed, reducing the total number of men under Chard's command to about 152 of whom some thirty were hospital patients. Chard now realized that the line of defense was too extended for the men who remained, yet he proved equal to the crisis. The eighty by twenty foot storehouse, formerly used by Witt as a church, contained biscuit boxes besides mealie bags and ammunition. The biscuit boxes were feverishly placed across the rectangle connecting the parallel northern and southern mealie bag walls so forming an inner work at the storehouse end, into which the defenders at the hospital end might withdraw. When the wall was only two boxes high the cry went up: "Here they come!"
Private Robert Jones, shortly to earn a Victoria Cross, was stationed at a loophole in a room occupied by patient Corporal Jessy Maher of the N.N.C. at the rear of the hospital. The room contained a barricaded external door and a window, and adjoined the kitchen which extended out from the main line of the hospital rear wall. His view south towards the Oscarberg Hill allowed him to see the approach of the Ndluyengwe regiment as it advance at the run, screened by a line of skirmishers constantly fed by the main body. Making straight for the southern mealie bag wall, the Zulu impi was met by a steady well-sustained fire from the defenders' .577 Martini-Henry rifles but progressed with rare courage to within fifty yards of the wall. Here, however, they were caught in a withering cross fire from the defenders behind mealie bags and the loop holed storehouse, and the main Zulu effort swept to the left and skirting the hospital fell upon the men holding the north west corner of the mealie bag wall. This assault was beaten off and the Ndluyengwe, reinforced by the uDhloko and uThulwana regiments moved eastwards finding cover below the rocky terrace upon which the northern mealie bag wall had been raised. Meanwhile large numbers of Zulu snipers kept up a heavy fire from positions on the slopes of Oscarberg Hill.
Next the Zulus rose up from the terrace and with a wild rush made a determined and ferocious attack on the northern mealie bag wall. The defenders holding that breastwork had to contend not only with the Zulus at their front but also with the uncomfortable thought of a shot in the back. Inevitably as the Zulu fire from Oscarberg became less erratic and after a number of men had been killed by the sniper fire, Lieutenant Chard was forced to give the order for the men holding the mealie bag walls to retire behind the biscuit box wall at the eastern end of the enclosure. This left Robert Jones and his comrades in the hospital completely cut off.
The Zulus swarmed around the building trying to break in at various points and fire the thatch. Having expended all his ammunition, Robert Jones helped Maher into the adjoining kitchen, where 593 Private William Jones was posted with six more patients. Returning to his original room with his namesake, they crossed bayonets and took post at the doorway, which was being smashed in by several warriors. Trooper Lugg firing from a loophole in the kitchen extension wall managed to get a good shot at a number of them but at length they burst through the makeshift barricade. Those Zulus who managed to dodge Lugg's fire were then taken on by the two Joneses who together bayoneted every warrior as he approached. During the struggle in the doorway, Robert Jones received three assegai wounds from the attackers as they leapt forward in their eagerness to enter the room, one of the injuries being "a spear scrape on the abdomen - a particularly close shave". When their duties at the doorway permitted, the Joneses went into the kitchen and helped the patients through the high window which provided the only means of escape into the area between the north and south mealie bag walls from which Chard had withdrawn his men at 6.30 pm.
While the Joneses were holding the enemy at bay in the doorway and attempting to get their last patient Sergeant Maxfield dressed, a pick axe smashed through the wall behind them; this was 1395 Private John Williams making an escape route for Private Harry Hook and their surviving charges who had been quartered in the western end of the building. While Hook and Williams heaved their eight surviving patients through the hole and fought off the pursuing Zulus, the Joneses succeeded in dressing Maxfield who was delirious with fever, but he refused to move and their efforts to get him to do so were interrupted when they had to take over at the escape hole from Hook and 1395 Williams who had to assist their patients out of the window. As Robert and William Jones retreated to join Hook and Williams, the Zulus began to scramble through the escape hole. The hospital roof was a smoldering mass, and Hook, 1395 Williams, 593 Jones and Robert Jones, decided to make their exit. When the other three had climbed out of the window, Robert Jones, having passed out his Martini-Henry, decided to make a final attempt to save Maxfield. Groping his way through the smoke filled room he made his way towards the stricken Sergeant lying on his bed. But it was too late, Maxfield was being repeatedly stabbed by the Zulus.
Robert Jones clambered out of the window and, just as he dropped down into the dangerous no man's land of the bullet swept enclosure, part of the hospital roof fell in behind him. A series of hair raising dashes across the enclosure brought a total of fourteen patients and their four gallant rescuers into the biscuit box retrenchment. Privates Cole and 1398 Joseph Williams had both been killed defending the hospital patients, the latter being dragged outside, repeatedly stabbed and, in accordance with Zulu ritual, his stomach ripped open.
The struggle to hold the retrenchment now commenced. At 7pm Lt. Chard ordered the construction of a lofty mealie bag redoubt at its centre, in which the wounded were placed for safety and from which an elevated field of fire was maintained as long as daylight lasted.
Meanwhile there had been fierce fighting in the cattle kraal at the opposite end of the position which likewise had been abandoned. When darkness fell, the Zulus used its cloak to mount several attacks, but again each onslaught was beaten off. Then the hospital roof flared up illuminating the surrounding area for hundreds of yards and allowing the defenders to resume their well aimed fire. By 10 pm, however, the hospital thatch had burnt itself out and the men of B Company resorted to the use of the bayonet as the Zulus again attempted force their way over the ramparts. At midnight Lt Bromhead, Private Henry Hook and few others launched a foray into the abandoned yard to recover the vital water cart.
The Zulu onslaughts finally began to slacken after eight hours of ceaseless fighting, but there was still little rest for the defenders as the Zulus continued to maintain a desultory fire until 4 am. The first streak of dawn revealed the extent of the slaughter around the post, and the welcome sight of the Zulus retiring around Oscarberg Hill. Seemingly it was all over. Chard issued orders to remove the thatch from the storehouse roof, to strengthen the defenses and send out patrols. When the latter had returned, the Zulus suddenly reappeared lining the heights to the south west. All work was instantly stopped and every man returned to his post. The garrison steeled itself for another desperate struggle, but then the advance of the Zulus wavered, and without any obvious explanation they retired behind the hill whence they had come.
Meanwhile, Lord Chelmsford's force had marched back into camp at Isandhlwana during the night and had stumbled upon the mutilated corpses of the 1st Battalion 24th Foot. In the early hours of the morning of the 23rd, his lordship dejectedly set out for Rorke's Drift expecting to find a similar scene of carnage. He found instead the survivors of "as gallant a defense as the annals of the British Army have ever known".
Of the defenders,15 NCO's and men were killed in action. One officer (Assistant Commissary James Langley Dalton) and 9 NCO's and men were wounded, two of whom later succumbed to their injuries. An unprecedented number of 11 officers, including Lieutenant Chard, NCO's and men, were awarded the Victoria Cross.
The Rorke's Drift Victoria Cross Winners
Lieutenant J.R.M. Chard, R.E.
Lieutenant G. Bromhead, 2/24th Foot
Surgeon J.H. Reynolds, A.M.D.
Acting Asistant Commissary J.L. Dalton, C.&T.D.
Corporal Allen, 2/24th Foot
Corporal C.F. Scheiss, N.N.C.
Private F.Hitch, 2/24th Foot
Private A.H. Hook, 2/24th Foot
Private R. Jones, 2/24th Foot
Private W. Jones, 2/24th Foot
Private J. Williams, 2/24th Foot
A note on the Rorke's Drift officers:
Major John Rouse Merriott Chard V.C., R.E., a thirty-one year-old Lieutenant at the time of the epic defense of Rorke's Drift against some 4,000 Zulus, fell into the command by virtue of the fact he had held his commission the longest. Following Major H. Spalding's departure from Rorke's Drift on a self-imposed mission to summon reinforcements from Helpmekaar on the morning of 22 January 1879, the officers with Chard were Lieutenant Bromhead, Surgeon Reynolds, Acting Assistant Commissary Dalton, Assistant Commissary Dunne, and Lieutenant Adendorff of the Natal Native Contingent.
Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, the commander of the backbone of the Defense, B Company of the 2/24th Foot, was from an old army family and suffered from impaired hearing. Prior to 22 January 1879 it was not unusual that the less agreeable subaltern's duties were his lot. He was two years older than Chard but still his junior by date of commission. He received the Victoria Cross for his leading role in the Defense, and after Rorke's Drift went on to serve in Burma and India. He died unmarried of enteric at Allahabad in 1891 aged forty-six.
Surgeon James Henry Reynolds of the Army Medical Department also received the Cross, and ultimately rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. At his death at the age of eighty-eight in 1932 was the longest lived V.C. of the Zulu War.
James Langley Dalton, a former Sergeant in the 85th Regiment had much military experience, and gave Chard a valuable insight into the means of success in the defense - a fact which Chard acknowledged in both of his accounts. Dalton, who also gained the V.C., died at Port Elizabeth in 1887.
Walter Alphonsus Dunne, in charge of the stores at Rorke's Drift, was one of the unsung heroes of the defence, and though named in Chard's report and recommended for the V.C. he did not receive it. He retired with the rank of Colonel and died in Italy in 1908.
Chard, himself, continued in the Royal Engineers, serving in Cyprus, Singapore, and as C.R.E. at Perth, until forced to retire three months before his death in November 1898.
JAMES LANGLEY DALTON (Acting Assistant) Commissariat and Transport Department (Afterwards Commissariat Staff Corps)
The successful defense of RorkeÕs Drift on January 22nd 1879 was in a great measure due to this officer, who on hearing the news that the Zulus were marching on the Post, devoted his energies and resource to the construction of the barricades. He was at the corner of the hospital when the first onslaught was made by the dense mass of Zulus, and his unerring aim and cool courage did much to contribute to the repulse of, and heavy loss inflicted on, the enemy at that point. One Zulu had sprung on to the barricade, and having seized the rifle of one of the defenders, was about to assagai him, when Dalton rushed forward and saved the manÕs life by shooting the Zulu. During the Defense he was very severely wounded, but continued at his post until the Zulus retired. In spite of the invaluable work done by Dalton, the War office ignored his merits, and it was not until many months after-in November 1879-that they were awakened to the fact that his bravery had been overlooked, and he would have been awarded had not the facts been laid before Parliament, and pressure of public opinion been brought to bear in his favour.
While the defenses were hurriedly being constructed, Mr. DaltonÕs energies being particularly noticed by Lieutenant Chard in his report-it occurred to the officers that they would necessitate dispositions too extended for the effective handling of the small force at their command, and therefore the laager was divided into half by a transverse barricade of biscuit boxes.
Mr. DaltonÕs conduct at this point was exceptionally fine. He directed the fire of the men, and by his own unerring aim during the Zulu rush, and his courageous behavior when they closed on the bayonet, contributed very considerably towards the repulse. The general nature of the attack, throughout, was a succession of desperate attempts to force and climb over the barricades, and the strain upon the defenders can be imagined under the stress of the circumstances in which they were placed. For twelve long hours, without cessation, this magnificent defense continued. The heroic bravery of the two young officers in command stimulated their men in continual repulse of rush after rush of the fearless enemy.
Dalton had been a Sergeant Major in the British Army before the war. He died at Portsmouth in April 1887.
There was a movie made of this event in history.
Zulu is a 1964 historical war film depicting the Battle of Rorke's Drift between the British Army and the Zulus in January 1879, during the Anglo-Zulu War.
The film was compared by Baker to a Western movie, with the traditional roles of the United States Cavalry and Native Americans taken by the British and the Zulus respectively. The film acknowledges the Zulus' bravery. Director Endfield showed a Western to Zulu extras to demonstrate the concept of film acting and how he wanted the warriors to conduct themselves.
Most of the characters in the film were based on actual participants of the battle, but their behavior is mostly fictional – something that has provoked disapproval: in an interview on the DVD, the descendants of Private Hook object to his negative portrayal in the film (he is depicted as a thief and malingerer, though his character acts bravely near the end of the movie during some desperate fighting). Indeed, Hook's elderly daughters walked out of the film's 1964 London premiere, angry at the way their father had been depicted.
In 1879, a communiqu from British South Africa to the government in London, narrated by Richard Burton, details the crushing defeat of a British force at the hands of the Zulus at the Battle of Isandhlwana. The first scene shows a grassy landscape with many dead British soldiers, while victorious Zulus gather their weapons.
A mass Zulu marriage ceremony witnessed by missionary Otto Witt (Jack Hawkins), his daughter (Ulla Jacobsson) and Zulu King Cetshwayo (Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi) is interrupted by a messenger who informs Cetshwayo of the great victory earlier in the day.
The movie then shifts to the missionary station of Rorke's Drift in Natal, which a company of the British army's 24th Regiment of Foot, depicted as a Welsh regiment, is using as a supply depot and hospital for their now-defeated invasion force across the border in Zululand. Upon receiving news of Isandhlwana from the Witts and that a large enemy force is advancing their way, Lieutenant John Chard (Stanley Baker) assumes command of the small British detachment, being senior to Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine). Realizing that they cannot outrun the Zulu army, especially with wagonloads of wounded soldiers, Chard decides to fortify the station, using wagons, sacks of mealie, and crates of ship's biscuit, and await the assault. When Witt becomes drunk and starts demoralizing the men with his dire predictions, Chard has him and his daughter sent away in their carriage.
As the Zulu impis approach, soldiers of the Natal Native Contingent and Boer horsemen flee, despite Chard's desperate pleas for them to stay. Zulu sharpshooters open fire on the station from a neighboring hill. Over the next few hours, wave after wave of Zulu attacks are repulsed. The attackers succeed in setting fire to the hospital, leading to intense fighting between British patients and Zulu warriors as the former try to escape the flames. Malingering Private Henry Hook (James Booth) surprises everyone by taking charge in the successful breakout. Attacks continue into the night, finally forcing the British to withdraw into a tiny redoubt built from supply crates and mealie bags.
The next morning, at dawn, the Zulus withdraw several hundred yards and begin singing a war chant; the British respond by singing "Men of Harlech". In the last assault, just as it seems the Zulus will finally overwhelm the tired defenders, the soldiers Chard had hidden behind a final redoubt emerge, form into three ranks, and pour volley after volley into the stunned natives. They withdraw after sustaining heavy casualties, sing a song to honour the bravery of the British defenders, and leave. The film ends with a narration by Richard Burton, listing defenders who received the Victoria Cross, including Private Hook. Eleven were awarded for the actual fighting at Rorke's Drift, the most ever for a regiment in a single battle in British military history.
Stanley Baker as Lieutenant John Chard, of the Royal Engineers.
Michael Caine as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, his first major role.
Jack Hawkins as Reverend Otto Witt, a Swedish missionary based at Rorke's Drift.
James Booth as Private Henry Hook, described as "a thief, a coward, and an insubordinate barrack-room lawyer"
Nigel Green as Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne. Green and Caine appeared in a number of films and television episodes together.
Glynn Edwards as Corporal William Allen, portrayed as a model soldier.
Ivor Emmanuel as Private Owen, a Welsh baritone and head of the company choir. In response to the Zulu war chant, Owen leads the men in singing "Men of Harlech".
Neil McCarthy as Private Thomas.
Patrick Magee as Surgeon-Major James Henry Reynolds, the overworked doctor.
Gert Van den Bergh as Lieutenant Josef Adendorff, an Afrikaner officer serving with the Natal Native Contingent and a survivor of the battle at Isandhlwana.
Dickie Owen as Corporal Schiess, a hospitalized Swiss corporal in the Natal Native Contingent.
Rorke's Drift Men of Harlech video:
Zulu - Movie Trailers:
Researched, complied, formatted, indexed, wrote, copied, copy-written, and filed in the mind of Rodney G. Dalton in the comfort of his easy chair in Farr West, Utah in the United States of America in the Twenty First-Century A.D.
Rodney G. Dalton