Challenge of Battle - The Real Story of the British Army in 1914, Adrian Gilbert

Challenge of Battle - The Real Story of the British Army in 1914, Adrian Gilbert

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Challenge of Battle - The Real Story of the British Army in 1914, Adrian Gilbert

Challenge of Battle - The Real Story of the British Army in 1914, Adrian Gilbert

I must admit I approached this book with a certain sense of dread. Most books that promise to tell the 'real story' of any historical event are generally unremittingly negative, looking to destroy the reputation of whatever they are examining, or reveal an unknown 'true story'. Thankfully that isn't the case here. Gilbert's aim is to produce an accurate history of the BEF in 1914, stripping away the wartime propaganda and its influence on later writers to see what actually happened, looking at both the failures and the achievements of the British army. Once or twice single negative sources are preferred to several more positive ones, but often with some justification.

The book starts with the period from the opening of the British War Book, through the move to France and the march towards contact with the Germans, and the battle of Mons. I don't entirely agree with the current tendency to describe Mons as a British defeat - given the scale of the oncoming German army in 1914 the escape of the BEF can be considered as a success, but I can see the author's argument. Part two looks at the BEF's least impressive period - the Great Retreat itself might have been handled with some skill, but the high command performed badly, the battle of Le Cateau was almost catastrophic (and caused divisions within the army for years to come), and Marshal French came close to withdrawing the BEF from the battle altogether.

The third part looks at the crucial battle of the Marne, where the BEF played a part in the victory, and the Battle of the Aisne, where a series of chances to seize the high ground on the German side of the Aisne were missed. The fourth part looks at Ypres, where the BEF performed impressively during a costly defensive battle. This intense period of warfare almost destroyed those units of the BEF most heavily engaged, as demonstrated by a quote from a medical officer who realised he was one of only two original officers (along with the quartermaster) left in his battle by the time of Ypres).

This account of the campaign demonstrates the unsuitability of several high ranking officers for service in such an intense conflict (the same was true in the French army, where many generals were replaced after the first clashes). One senior officer was said to have fainted when the scale of the German advance became clear, and many were caught out by the scale of the conflict. Others, Haig amongst them, come out rather better. Other parts of the BEF also struggled under the strain of an unexpectedly titanic conflict, including the artillery, which was equipped with the wrong sort of guns for trench warfare, and on occasion the wrong attitude.

This is a good up-to-date campaign history of this early pivotal period of the First World War, where both sides failed to take advantage of the period of open warfare, condemning their armies to the years of static warfare on the Western Front.

Part 1 - Advance to Battle
1 - Opening the War Book
2 - Across the Channel
3 - The March to Mons
4 - The Kaiser's Army
5 - Encounter at Mons

Part 2 - The Great Retreat
6 - Disengagement
7 - Le Cateau: the Decision to Fight
8 - Le Cateau: the Defeat
9 - Failures of Command
10 - The Retreat Continues

Part 3 - From the Marne to the Aisne
11 - Turn of the Tide
12 - Battle on the Aisne: Assault
13 - Battle on the Aisne: Entrenchment

Part 4 - Decision at Ypres
14 - The Opening Moves
15 - Storms over Ypres
16 - Battle in the South
17 - Ypres: the Test

Author: Adrian Gilbert
Edition: Softcover
Pages: 376
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2014

Challenge of Battle – Adrian Gilbert

As a believer in the recent revisionism on the First World War, I often am annoyed by the way the war is reported in most histories. The standard view is a Liege, a dash of German offensive, Mons, the Marne, then Ypers. After that you have some Verdun, a bit of Somme and the British offensive in Flanders in 1917 and then the crisis of 1918 and victory. Notice the relative lack of discussion of anything French.

This book was refreshing because while it was a history of British operations and the army alone, so the lack of mention of the primary allied partner is excusable, at least it did not recycle the overblown depiction of the combat power of the BEF at Mons and actually described anything between the Marne and Ypres. And it is overall a great depiction of an army introduced to a new sort of warfare, and how it dealt with and eventually survived the process.

Like all armies in 1914, the actual results were a mixed bag. When troops had good positions and artillery support, they held well and inflicted severe losses. When turned or unsupported by guns, they could be pounded themselves. The BEF was a good outfit, but the tasks it had to take on meant it eventually was destroyed in the process. When the British next took the offensive, it would be with essentially a new army raised for the purpose.

Challenge of Battle: The Real Story of the British Army in 1914.

Challenge of Rattle: The Teal Story of the British Army in 1914 by Adrian Gilbert is a modern retelling of the experience of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the opening months of the First World War. Corresponding to the Centennial of the Great War, Gilbert wrote the book to offer a "realistic assessment" of the BEF Citing distortions in the historic record, the author tried "to look afresh at the British Army during 1914" by using first-person accounts and primary archival sources.

Challenge of Battle begins with an exciting account of the celebrated Major Tom Bridges of the 4th Royal Dragoon Guards in Mons, Belgium on August 21, 1914. The reader is given a gripping description of the opening engagement of the war between the BEF and the Imperial German Army. After this stirring introduction, Challenge of Battle provides background to the BEF assembling in Great Britain and its movement across France and Belgium. Filled with personal commentary from soldiers, this book provides an excellent feel to the general mood of the BEF as it prepared to fight the German army.

After a brief description of the fighting near Mons, Belgium, Challenge of Battle offers an interesting description of the tragic retreat of the BEF in the face of overwhelming German force. This retreat is hampered by poor coordination with the French army, a breakdown in command and control, and lack of situational awareness. This situation, combined with reliance on antiquated tactics, brings the BEF close to destruction by the German army. After surviving the retreat, the BEF, together with the French Army counterattack and force the Germans to dig in. Thus, trench warfare becomes the defining feature of the Western Front for the next four years.

Challenge of Battle lives up to the author's desire to offer a fresh look at the BEF. Without being revisionist, Adrian Gilbert provides the reader an honest assessment of the BEF's performance, leadership and tactics in 1914. The book concludes the BEF was hampered by lack of command and control, outdated Napoleonic tactics, poor integration of artillery, infantry, cavalry and aviation and the lack of an efficient noncommissioned officer corps. These issues alone could be fatal to an army, but to compound the matter, its commander, Field Marshal John French, did not trust his counterpart, French Fifth Army Commander, General Charles Lanzerac. Adrian Gilbert says the result of this lack of trust meant, ". both armies, although deployed side-by-side, would operate and fight separately." This situation nearly had catastrophic results for the BEF, demonstrating that personal relationships matter more than we often realize.

Although providing an excellent assessment of the BEF in 1914, Challenge of Battle does have several areas of concern. Foremost is the inadequate use of German sources. One would expect a scholar to approach this topic from multiple perspectives in order to offer a more accurate history. There is perhaps no better way to offer a "fresh new look" than to see what the adversary had to say about the BEF. Yet, Gilbert uses few firsthand German sources. Also, there are virtually no French sources the reader is left to wonder what the French view of the BEF was. Instead, we have merely the British view of the British Expeditionary Force.

Another issue is Challenge of Battle rehashes some analysis from Terrance Zuber's book, The Mons Myth. This is problematic for serious historians. Zuber has made a habit of claiming certain ideas or events are myths that he, of course, debunks. His books have included, The Moltke Myth and Inventing the Schlieffen Plan. The latter of these was written with the idea that the Schlieffen Plan never existed (it did). Yet, some of Zuber's ideas related to Schlieffen have been rebuffed, bringing into question his assertions on other topics. For more on this debate, see The Schlieffen Plan: International Perspectives on the German Strategy for World War I, edited by Hans Ehlert, Michael Epkenhans, and Gerhard P. Gross. English translation edited by David T. Zabecki, USA (Ret.)

With these concerns aside, Challenge of Battle is an interesting book that offers a refreshing look at the performance of the BEF in 1914. Adrian Gilbert strips away the sentimentality, without being revisionist, and provides an excellent overview of the British Expeditionary Force in the critical first few months of that catastrophic war. This book is a welcome addition to those arriving during the Centennial commemoration of that terrible period of history.

Reviewed by COL Douglas V. Mastriano, PhD, Department of Military Strategy Plans & Operations, US Army War College

September 8th, 2016 Headsman

The British military shot 306 soldiers for desertion or cowardice during World War I, but the very first of them was 19-year-old Thomas Highgate on September 8, 1914.

This Kent farmhand and former seaman had enlisted back in 1913, before the world fell apart and that meant that even though Highgate was a trained up and ready to go when the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment deployed to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. Young Master Highgate had the honor of participating in the first British engagement of the Great War, the Battle of Mons.

The ensuing Retreat from Mons scrambled the BEF, sprinkling the French countryside with stragglers, though there is little evidence that these men represented a trend towards wholesale desertion as against the disorder inherent to the retreat. The horrors of trench warfare still lay in the (very near) future but perhaps British commanders who aspired to put the Hun to jolly rout were already shaken by the dawning reality of a long and inglorious slog.

“Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth,” Mike Tyson once quipped. In Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War, Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson suggest that BEF Commander-in-Chief John French had become a bit unmanned by the punches the Germans had thrown at his beautiful army* and fired off the memo that would doom Thomas Highgate in an embarrassed panic.

The C in C views with grave displeasure the straggling which still continues … and has reason to think that in certain cases sufficient effort is not being made to rejoin units. … All ranks will in the event of being detached from their units use every effort to [rejoin] … and [will face] severe punishment if there is reason to suppose that every effort has not been made.

“I have the feeling that what we are looking at here is a crisis of confidence amongst the senior officers and not necessarily anything to do with Highgate himself,” said historian Julian Putkowski, author of Shot at Dawn: Executions in World War One by Authority of the British Army Act.

On September 5, Highgate slipped away from his unit to relieve himself, then just stayed away. “I got strolling about, went down into a farm, lay down in an empty house,” he would explain to his court-martial. (For whom Highgate’s inability to account for doffing his military duds played very ill.**) A few hours later, he had the rum luck to be found by a manor gamekeeper who happened to be a former British soldier. “I have lost my army,” Highgate declared, “and I mean to get out of it.” The private suggested to his judges that the sense of this remark was to express his intent to return (i.e., get out of the barn).

The court martial didn’t buy it: here was the public example to make as a sop to the boss’s anti-straggling ukase. There was little time wasted.

Highgate was condemned on the 6th, the death sentence endorsed by superior officers on the 7th, and it was carried into effect on the morning of the 8th — Highgate having the benefit of only 47 minutes’ advance notice, just enough time to scribble a tear-jerking “will” leaving the remains of his salary due to a girlfriend in Dublin. His execution was published in army orders a few days later — a little warning to the rest of the team.

* French would be relieved of BEF command in 1916.

** Dressing in civvies reads pretty badly, but slumming in more comfortable French peasant gear too was a (disturbingly, to the brass) common indiscipline in these days. Adrian Gilbert in Challenge of Battle: The Real Story of the British Army in 1914 quotes a cross directive of Brig. Gen. Forestier-Walker: “No unauthorized articles of dress should be allowed. Articles of civilian pattern are absolutely prohibited … The crime of throwing away clothing must be severely dealt with.” To be fair, Forestier-Walker had in mind ad hoc amendments to the gear, like tossing the army cap in favor of a shady straw hat, more so than wholesale wardrobe changes.

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  • Herausgeber &rlm : &lrm Osprey Publishing Illustrated Edition (20. Februar 2014)
  • Sprache &rlm : &lrm Englisch
  • Gebundene Ausgabe &rlm : &lrm 312 Seiten
  • ISBN-10 &rlm : &lrm 1849088594
  • ISBN-13 &rlm : &lrm 978-1849088596
  • Abmessungen &rlm : &lrm 15.9 x 2.96 x 24.13 cm
  • Amazon Bestseller-Rang: Nr. 4,462,773 in Bücher (Siehe Top 100 in Bücher)
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    This is a timely and up-to-date account of the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1914 from the battle of Mons to the end of the first battle of Ypres. It was published in 2013. The general outline of the course of events is well known, from the retreat of the French army from Charleroi and the British army from Mons, to Joffre's riposte at the Marne, the German defence of the Aisne, the German determination to crush the tiny British army at Ypres by sheer weight of numbers leading to the impasse in the trenches.

    After the First World War self-congratulatory accounts were given evidence was not riorously tested. This the author proposed to remedy and provide a more realistic assessment of the British Army. The first British encounter of the war was of a squadron of cavalry on reconnaissance met a similar German squadron on similat duty. The british had swords and the Germans lances which were unhandy in a melee. It was like that in August 1914.

    Step by step he traces the course of the British Expeditionary force, giving credit where it is due, and not covering up mistakes or weaknesses. Just a tiny niggle. He mentions the Kindermord where the Germans were so anxious to overwhelm the British ar Langemarck near Ypres pushed up half-trained units up against the British. The resulting slaughter was called by the Germans Kindermord which refers to the massacres of the Holy Innocents by Herod at Bethlehem. It was the Germans who made the comparison, and German-speakers would all recognise the comparison. But British writers think the word was first applied to Langemarck. As I say, just a niggle.

    He considers Haig a much better corps commanders than Smith-Dorrien though he defends the latter from attacks by Marshal French who was using him as a scapegoat. The book is confined to the British Army though in fact the brunt of the fighting was sustained by the French.

    Altogether this book is to be recommended to those who want an up-to-date account of events in August and September 100 years ago


    An in-depth examination of the elite group of soldiers originally designed as Hitler’s bodyguards and carefully groomed and trained by Heinrich Himmler for murderous duty.

    British military historian and broadcaster Gilbert (Challenge of Battle: The Real Story of the British Army in 1914, 2014, etc.) offers a nuts-and-bolts, chronological study of the Waffen-SS, from the time of Himmler’s assumption of its command in 1929 through training, successes, atrocities on the Eastern and Western fronts, and to its bitter defeat in 1945 (and resurrection in a postwar loyalists’ group). After Hitler’s elimination of Ernst Röhm and his thuggish SA (the “brownshirts”) in the so-called Night of the Long Knives on June 29, 1934, the elite Schutzstaffel became the “prime arbiter of violence in Nazi Germany.” Himmler envisioned a group with “a confirmed Aryan pedigree and a high level of physical fitness”—education was not a priority—forged into “a vanguard of political soldiers for the Nazi cause.” Of course, the men would be inculcated in racial doctrine and develop an intense sense of comradeship. Gilbert explores the competitive dynamic between the Germany army and the SS and the army’s attempts to undermine the SS and its various splinter groups. While Himmler pursued his vision of an ever larger role for the SS—as the racial war against the Jews and Slavs progressed—Hitler “did not favor diluting its special character through mass recruitment.” As Nazi expansion continued, so did the widening makeup of the SS, and the group began to incorporate mercenary Dutch, Finns, Norwegians, and Danes. With the Germans increasingly desperate, “the once fixed racial lines were also becoming…blurred, something not lost on bemused Waffen-SS veterans.” Ultimately, the organization fought until the bitter end. Of the “more than 900,000 men [who] passed through its ranks,” writes Gilbert, “. 300,000 were killed or died of their wounds.”

    A fairly technical study featuring some riveting revelations about the diverse makeup of the notorious Nazi organization.


    Rorke's Drift, known as kwaJimu [10] ("Jim's Land") in the Zulu language, was a mission station of the Church of Sweden, and the former trading post of James Rorke, a merchant from the eastern cape of Irish descent. It was located near a drift, or ford, on the Buffalo (Mzinyathi) River, which at the time formed the border between the British colony of Natal and the Zulu Kingdom. On 9 January 1879, the British No. 3 (Centre) Column, under Lord Chelmsford, arrived and encamped at the drift.

    On 11 January, the day after the British ultimatum to the Zulus expired, the column crossed the river and encamped on the Zulu bank. A small force consisting of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot (2nd/24th) under Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead was detailed to garrison the post, which had been turned into a supply depot and hospital under the overall command of Brevet Major Henry Spalding, 104th Foot, a member of Chelmsford's staff.

    On 20 January, after reconnaissance patrolling and building of a track for its wagons, Chelmsford's column marched to Isandlwana, approximately 6 miles (9.7 km) to the east, leaving behind the small garrison. A large company of the 2nd/3rd Natal Native Contingent (NNC) under Captain William Stevenson was ordered to remain at the post to strengthen the garrison. [11] This company numbered between 100 and 350 men. [12]

    Captain Thomas Rainforth's G Company of the 1st/24th Foot was ordered to move up from its station at Helpmekaar, 10 miles (16 km) to the southeast, after its own relief arrived, to further reinforce the position. [13] Later that evening a portion of the No. 2 Column under Brevet Colonel Anthony Durnford, late of the Royal Engineers, arrived at the drift and camped on the Zulu bank, where it remained through the next day.

    Late on the evening of 21 January, Durnford was ordered to Isandlwana, as was a small detachment of No. 5 Field Company, Royal Engineers, commanded by Lieutenant John Chard, which had arrived on the 19th to repair the pontoons that bridged the Buffalo. Chard rode ahead of his detachment to Isandlwana on the morning of 22 January to clarify his orders, but was sent back to Rorke's Drift with only his wagon and its driver to construct defensive positions for the expected reinforcement company, passing Durnford's column en route in the opposite direction.

    Sometime around noon on the 22nd, Major Spalding left the station for Helpmekaar to ascertain the whereabouts of Rainforth's G Company, which was now overdue. He left Chard in temporary command. Chard rode down to the drift itself where the engineers' camp was located. Soon thereafter, two survivors from Isandlwana – Lieutenant Gert Adendorff of the 1st/3rd NNC and a trooper from the Natal Carbineers – arrived bearing the news of the defeat and that a part of the Zulu impi was approaching the station.

    Upon hearing this news, Chard, Bromhead, and another of the station's officers, Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton (of the Commissariat and Transport Department), held a quick meeting to decide the best course of action – whether to attempt a retreat to Helpmekaar or to defend their current position. Dalton pointed out that a small column, travelling in open country and burdened with carts full of hospital patients, would be easily overtaken and defeated by a numerically superior Zulu force, and so it was soon agreed that the only acceptable course was to remain and fight. [14]

    Defensive preparations Edit

    Once the British officers decided to stay, Chard and Bromhead directed their men to make preparations to defend the station. With the garrison's some 400 men [15] working quickly, a defensive perimeter was constructed out of mealie bags. This perimeter incorporated the storehouse, the hospital, and a stout stone kraal. The buildings were fortified, with loopholes (firing holes) knocked through the external walls and the external doors barricaded with furniture.

    At about 3:30 pm, a mixed troop of about 100 Natal Native Horse (NNH) under Lieutenant Alfred Henderson arrived at the station after having retreated in good order from Isandlwana. They volunteered to picket the far side of the Oscarberg (Shiyane), the large hill that overlooked the station and from behind which the Zulus were expected to approach. [16]

    With the defences nearing completion and battle approaching, Chard had several hundred men available to him: Bromhead's B Company, Stevenson's large NNC company, Henderson's NNH troop, and various others (most of them hospital patients, but 'walking wounded') drawn from various British and colonial units. Adendorff also stayed, while the trooper who had ridden in with him galloped on to warn the garrison at Helpmekaar. [17]

    The force was sufficient, in Chard's estimation, to fend off the Zulus. Chard posted the British soldiers around the perimeter, adding some of the more able patients, the 'casuals' and civilians, and those of the NNC who possessed firearms along the barricade. The rest of the NNC, armed only with spears, were posted outside the mealie bag and biscuit box barricade within the stone-walled cattle kraal. [17]

    The approaching Zulu force was vastly larger the uDloko, uThulwana, inDlondo amabutho (regiments) of married men aged in their 30s and 40s and the inDlu-yengwe ibutho of young unmarried men mustered 3,000 to 4,000 warriors, none of them engaged during the battle at Isandlwana. [18] This Zulu force was the 'loins' or reserve of the army at Isandlwana and is often referred to as the Undi Corps. It was directed to swing wide of the British left flank and pass west and south of Isandlwana hill itself, in order to position itself across the line of communication and retreat of the British and their colonial allies in order to prevent their escape back into Natal by way of the Buffalo River ford leading to Rorke's Drift.

    By the time the Undi Corps reached Rorke's Drift at 4:30 pm, they had fast-marched some 20 miles (32 km) from the morning encampment they had left at around 8 am, and they would spend almost the next eleven and a half hours continuously storming the British fortifications at Rorke's Drift.

    Most Zulu warriors were armed with an assegai (short spear) and a shield made of cowhide. [19] The Zulu army drilled in the personal and tactical use and coordination of this weapon. Some Zulus also had old muskets and antiquated rifles, though their marksmanship training was poor, and the quality and supply of powder and shot was almost non-existent. [20]

    The Zulu attitude towards firearms was that: "The generality of Zulu warriors, however, would not have firearms – the arms of a coward, as they said, for they enable the poltroon to kill the brave without awaiting his attack." [21] Even though their fire was not accurate, it was responsible for five of the seventeen British deaths at Rorke's Drift. [22] [23]

    While the Undi Corps had been led by inkhosi kaMapitha at the Isandlwana battle, the command of the Undi Corps passed to Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande (half-brother of Cetshwayo kaMpande, the Zulu king) when kaMapitha was wounded during the pursuit of British survivors from Isandlwana. Prince Dabulamanzi was considered rash and aggressive, and this characterisation was borne out by his violation of King Cetshwayo's order to act only in defence of Zululand against the invading British soldiers and not carry the war over the border into enemy territory. [24] The Rorke's Drift attack was an unplanned raid rather than any organised counter-invasion, with many of the Undi Corps Zulus breaking off to raid other African kraals and homesteads while the main body advanced on Rorke's Drift.

    At about 4:00 pm, Surgeon James Reynolds, Otto Witt – the Swedish missionary who ran the mission at Rorke's Drift – and army chaplain Reverend George Smith came down from the Oscarberg hillside with the news that a body of Zulus was fording the river to the southeast and was "no more than five minutes away". At this point, Witt decided to depart the station, as his family lived in an isolated farmhouse about 30 kilometres (19 mi) away, and he wanted to be with them. Witt's native servant, Umkwelnantaba, left with him so too did one of the hospital patients, Lieutenant Thomas Purvis of the 1st/3rd NNC.

    At about 4:20 pm, the battle began with Lieutenant Henderson's NNH troopers, stationed behind the Oscarberg, briefly engaging the vanguard of the main Zulu force. [26] However, tired from the battle at Isandlwana and retreat to Rorke's Drift as well as being short of carbine ammunition, Henderson's men departed for Helpmekaar. Henderson himself reported to Lieutenant Chard the enemy were close and that "his men would not obey his orders but were going off to Helpmekaar". [17]

    Henderson then followed his departing men. Upon witnessing the withdrawal of Henderson's NNH troop, Captain Stevenson's NNC company abandoned the cattle kraal and fled, greatly reducing the strength of the defending garrison. [27] Outraged that Stevenson and some of his colonial NCOs [28] also fled from the barricades, a few British soldiers fired after them, killing Corporal William Anderson.

    With the Zulus nearly at the station, the garrison now numbered between 154 and 156 men. [29] Of these, only Bromhead's company could be considered a cohesive unit. Additionally, up to 39 of his company were at the station as hospital patients, although only a handful of these were unable to take up arms. [30] With fewer men, Chard realised the need to modify the defences, and gave orders that biscuit boxes be used to construct a wall through the middle of the post in order to make possible the abandonment of the hospital side of the station if the need arose. [25]

    At 4:30 pm, the Zulus rounded the Oscarberg and approached the south wall. Private Frederick Hitch, posted as lookout atop the storehouse, reported a large column of Zulus approaching. The Zulu vanguard, 600 men of the iNdluyengwe, attacked the south wall, which joined the hospital and the storehouse. The British opened fire when the Zulus were 500 yards (460 m) away.

    The majority of the attacking Zulu force swept around to attack the north wall, while a few took cover and were either pinned down by continuing British fire or retreated to the terraces of Oscarberg. There they began a harassing fire of their own. As this occurred, another Zulu force swept on to the hospital and northwestern wall.

    Those British on the barricades – including Dalton and Bromhead – were soon engaged in fierce hand-to-hand fighting. The British wall was too high for the Zulus to scale, so they resorted to crouching under the wall, trying to get hold of the defenders' Martini–Henry rifles, slashing at British soldiers with assegais or firing their weapons through the wall. At places, they clambered over each other's bodies to drive the British off the walls but were driven back.

    Zulu fire, both from those under the wall and around the Oscarberg, inflicted a few casualties, and five of the seventeen defenders who were killed or mortally wounded in the action were struck while at the north wall.

    Defence of the hospital Edit

    Chard realised that the north wall, under near constant attack from the Zulus could not be held. At 6:00 pm, he pulled his men back into the yard, abandoning the front two rooms of the hospital in the process. The hospital was becoming untenable the loopholes had become a liability, as rifles poking out were grabbed at by the Zulus, yet if the holes were left empty, the Zulu warriors stuck their own weapons through in order to fire into the rooms. Among the soldiers assigned to the hospital were Corporal William Wilson Allen and Privates Cole, Dunbar, Hitch, Horrigan, John Williams, Joseph Williams, Alfred Henry Hook, Robert Jones, and William Jones.

    Privates Horrigan, John Williams, Joseph Williams and other patients tried to hold the hospital entrance with rifles and fixed bayonets. Joseph Williams defended a small window, and 14 dead Zulus were later found beneath that window. As it became clear the front of the building was being taken over by Zulus, John Williams began to hack a way of escape through the wall dividing the central room and a corner room in the back of the hospital. As he made a passable breach, the door into the central room came under furious attack from the Zulus, and he only had time to drag two bedridden patients out before the door gave way.

    The corner room that John Williams had pulled the two patients into was occupied by Private Hook and another nine patients. John Williams hacked at the wall to the next room with his pick-axe, as Hook held off the Zulus. A firefight erupted as the Zulus fired through the door and Hook returned fire–-but not without an assegai striking his helmet and stunning him. [31]

    Williams made the hole big enough to get into the next room, which was occupied only by patient Private Waters, and dragged the patients through. The last man out was Hook, who killed some Zulus who had knocked down the door before he dived through the hole. John Williams once again went to work, spurred on by the fact that the roof was now ablaze, as Hook defended the hole and Waters continued to fire through a loophole.

    After fifty minutes, the hole was large enough to drag the patients through, and most of the men were now in the last room, being defended by Privates Robert Jones and William Jones. From here, the patients clambered out through a window and then made their way across the yard to the barricade. Privates Waters and Beckett hid in the wardrobe, Waters was wounded and Beckett died of assegai wounds.

    Of the eleven patients, nine survived the trip to the barricade, as did all the able-bodied men. According to James Henry Reynolds, only four defenders were killed in the hospital: one was a member of the Natal Native Contingent with a broken leg Sergeant Maxfield and Private Jenkins, who were ill with fever and refused to be moved were also killed. Reportedly, Jenkins was killed after being seized and stabbed, together with Private Adams who also refused to move. Private Cole, assigned to the hospital, was killed when he ran outside. Another hospital patient killed was Trooper Hunter of the Natal Mounted Police. [32] Among the hospital patients who escaped were a Corporal Mayer of the NNC Bombardier Lewis of the Royal Artillery, and Trooper Green of the Natal Mounted Police, who was wounded in the thigh by a spent bullet. Private Conley with a broken leg was pulled to safety by Hook, although Conley's leg was broken again in the process. [33]

    Cattle kraal and bastion Edit

    The evacuation of the burning hospital completed the shortening of the perimeter. As night fell, the Zulu attacks grew stronger. The cattle kraal came under renewed assault and was evacuated by 10:00 pm, leaving the remaining men in a small bastion around the storehouse. Throughout the night, the Zulus kept up a constant assault against the British positions Zulu attacks only began to slacken after midnight, and they finally ended by 2:00 am, being replaced by a constant harassing fire from Zulu firearms until 4:00 am. [ citation needed ]

    By that time, the garrison had suffered fourteen dead. Two others were mortally wounded and eight more – including Dalton – were seriously wounded. Almost every man had some kind of wound. They were all exhausted, having fought for the better part of ten hours and were running low on ammunition. Of 20,000 rounds in reserve at the mission, only 900 remained. [34]

    As dawn broke, the British could see that the Zulus were gone all that remained were the dead and severely wounded. [35] Patrols were dispatched to scout the battlefield, recover rifles, and look for survivors, many of whom were killed when found. At roughly 7:00 am, an impi of Zulus suddenly appeared, and the British manned their positions again.

    No attack materialised, however, as the Zulus had been on the move for six days prior to the battle and had not eaten properly for two. In their ranks were hundreds of wounded, and they were several days' march from any supplies. Soon after their appearance, the Zulus left the way they had come. [ citation needed ]

    Around 8:00 am, another force appeared, and the defenders left their breakfast to man their positions again. However, the force turned out to be the vanguard of Lord Chelmsford's relief column.

    Breakdown of British and colonial casualties: [36]

    • 1st/24th Foot: 4 killed or mortally wounded in action 2 wounded
    • 2nd/24th Foot: 9 killed or mortally wounded in action 9 wounded : 1 killed in action 1 wounded : 1 killed in action 1 wounded
    • 1st/3rd NNC: 1 killed in action
    • 2nd/3rd NNC: 1 killed [37] 2 wounded

    After the battle 351 Zulu bodies were counted, but it has been estimated that at least 500 wounded and captured Zulus might have been massacred as well. [35] [38] Having witnessed the carnage at Isandlwana, the members of Chelmsford's relief force had no mercy for the captured, wounded Zulus they came across, [39] nor did the station's defenders. Trooper William James Clarke of the Natal Mounted Police described in his diary that "altogether we buried 375 Zulus and some wounded were thrown into the grave. Seeing the manner in which our wounded had been mutilated after being dragged from the hospital . we were very bitter and did not spare wounded Zulus". [40] Laband, in his book The Zulu Response to the British Invasion of 1879, accepts the estimate of 600 that Shepstone had from the Zulus. [41]

    Samuel Pitt, who served as a private in B Company during the battle, told The Western Mail in 1914 that the official enemy death toll was too low: "We reckon we had accounted for 875, but the books will tell you 400 or 500". [42] [43] [44] Lieutenant Horace Smith-Dorrien, a member of Chelmsford's staff, wrote that the day after the battle an improvised gallows was used "for hanging Zulus who were supposed to have behaved treacherously". [42]

    Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders of Rorke's Drift, seven of them to soldiers of the 2nd/24th Foot – the most ever received for a single action by one regiment. (The most awarded in a day is sixteen for actions at the Battle of Inkerman, on 5 November 1854 in a single action, twenty-eight were awarded as a result of the Second Relief of Lucknow, 14–22 November 1857). [45] Four Distinguished Conduct Medals were also awarded.

    This high number of awards for bravery has been interpreted as a reaction to the earlier defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana – the extolling of the victory at Rorke's Drift drawing the public's attention away from the great defeat at Isandlwana and the fact that Lord Chelmsford and Henry Bartle Frere had instigated the war without the approval of Her Majesty's Government. [46]

    Certainly, Sir Garnet Wolseley, taking over as commander-in-chief from Lord Chelmsford later that year, was unimpressed with the awards made to the defenders of Rorke's Drift, saying "it is monstrous making heroes of those who, shut up in buildings at Rorke's Drift, could not bolt and fought like rats for their lives, which they could not otherwise save". [ citation needed ]

    Several historians [ citation needed ] have challenged this assertion and pointed out that the victory stands on its own merits, regardless of other concerns. Victor Davis Hanson responded to it directly in Carnage and Culture (also published as Why the West Has Won), saying, "Modern critics suggest such lavishness in commendation was designed to assuage the disaster at Isandhlwana and to reassure a skeptical Victorian public that the fighting ability of the British soldier remained unquestioned. Maybe, maybe not, but in the long annals of military history, it is difficult to find anything quite like Rorke's Drift, where a beleaguered force, outnumbered forty to one, survived and killed twenty men for every defender lost". [47]

    Victoria Cross Edit

    • Lieutenant John Rouse Merriott Chard, 5th Field Coy, Royal Engineers
    • Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead B Coy, 24th (The 2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot (2nd/24th Foot)
    • Corporal William Wilson Allen B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
    • Private Frederick Hitch B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
    • Private Alfred Henry Hook B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
    • Private Robert Jones B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
    • Private William Jones B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
    • Private John Williams B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot
    • Surgeon-Major James Henry Reynolds Army Medical Department
    • Acting Assistant Commissary James Langley Dalton Commissariat and Transport Department
    • Corporal Christian Ferdinand Schiess 2nd/3rd Natal Native Contingent

    In 1879 there was no provision for the posthumous granting of the Victoria Cross, and so it could not be awarded to anyone who had died in performing an act of bravery. Private Joseph Williams, B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot, was killed during the fight in the hospital and was mentioned in despatches that "had he lived he would have been recommended for the Victoria Cross". [49]

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