McGonagall’s Poetic Gems: The Hero of Rorke’s Drift

Rorke’s Drift today – hospital on the left, stores on the right

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 hereoic 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.”

February, 1899.

See the poem at McGonagall Online here.

McGonagall was a bit slow off the mark with this poem, writing it 20 years after the event, in February, 1899. You have to wonder why he didn’t jump right onto the subject when it was still hot news. The poem conspicuously lacks the usual “‘Twas on the 22nd day of January, in the year 1879” sort of line we’ve come to expect in his work. “At tea-time” just doesn’t cut the mustard. Notice the “1879” and “line” rhyme. Dates ending in “9” must have been natural poem-fodder for McGonagall.

Aged anywhere from 69 to 74, depending on which autobiography you read, he seems to have forgotten the date. The poem sets a tiny alarm ringing, as when a loved relative can’t remember for the moment who the prime minister is. So I am glad help him out.

The battle of Rorke’s Drift took place on 22 January, 1879, part of the Anglo-Zulu War, which began with an invasion of the Zulu Kingdom by British forces on 11 January, 1879. It was instigated by their Commander-in-Chief in South Africa, Lord Chelmsford, without first receiving authorization from the British government, although they were probably in favour of the move.

Cetshwayo c. 1875

The Zulus, led by King Cetshwayo, achieved a significant early victory at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January, when a Zulu army of 20,000 warriors, armed mainly with assegais and iron spears, killed some 1,300 British troops equipped with state of the art rifles, 2 artillery pieces and a rocket battery.

This led to the defeat of the first British invasion. Deeply embarrassed by this trouncing at the hands of “savages,” the British mounted a second invasion later that year, which destroyed the Zulu Kingdom.

Original film poster

In this context, the Battle of Rorke’s Drift has a Dunkirk quality – a small, beleaguered force holding out against impossible odds, and somehow surviving to fight another day. That’s certainly how it resounds in history, and I’m sure the British at the time didn’t miss a trick in spinning it that way. The film, Zulu (1964), shows that this interpretation has lost none of its power.

But what about Rorke’s Drift? This supply depot and hospital, defended by 139 soldiers of the 24th Regiment of Foot – not technically the South Wales Borderers until 1881 – was situated across the KwaZulu river from Isandlwana.  Under the temporary command of Lieutenant Chard (Stanley Baker in the film), they became aware of the disaster on the morning of the 22nd. Two survivors of the battle at Isandlwana brought news that a detachment of 3,000 – 4,000 Zulu warriors were on their way to attack the garrison.

24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot

And what of Private Henry Hook? McGonagall makes him out to be the principal “noble hero,” being awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest possible military decoration for valour in the face of the enemy. In fact, 10 other VCs were awarded, 5 of them to privates.

There are several possible explanations. The most obvious is that McGonagall found it easier to write about the actions of an individual – he needed a single focus for his poem.

But why Henry Hook among all the heroes present on that day? I think it’s because Hook was a teetotaler. For McGonagall, a passionate supporter of the Temperance movement, he would have been the natural choice. In the film, Zulu, Henry Hook is portrayed as a drunken reprobate who is redeemed by his heroism on that day.  McGonagall would have been outraged.

The British survivors of Rorke’s Drift

Of the 139 soldiers who fought at Rorke’s Drift, only 80 were fit for active duty. British casualties amounted to 17 killed and 14 wounded, while the Zulus had 351 killed and 500 wounded. These 500 wounded Zulus may have been massacred by Lord Chelmsford’s relief column.

The bravery of the troops, celebrated by McGonagall and the entire British press, was not well rewarded in the aftermath of battle. Three more of them died, two from their wounds and one from disease, due to lack of shelter and medical care.

And not everyone was happy about the Victoria Crosses. When Sir Garnet Wolseley took over as Commander-in-Chief, he said of the defenders of Rorke’s Drift,  “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.”

I’m inclined to think the bastard was upset because 6 of the 11 VCs went to the lower classes. Add one more to my “Graves To Piss On” list.

8 thoughts on “McGonagall’s Poetic Gems: The Hero of Rorke’s Drift

  1. I think the large number of VCs given out at Rorkes Drift, and the hype about it generally, was intended to distract the public from the massive cock-up at Isandlwana. As a professional soldier, Wolseley would have been all too well aware of the fact.

    • Even so, he comes over as an utter scumbag. The implication being that you can’t be a hero unless there’s no possible chance of escaping the battle. The photo in the post of the exhausted survivors is telling – I felt every sympathy for their ordeal, while condemning the whole imperialistic adventure.

    • That’s what they say, my own feeling some very brave young men fought hand to hand and were awarded some medals my own feeling the whole lot should have had them.

  2. however you perceive the battle of rorkes drift the fact remains those men went above and beyond was it expected of a british soldier and they fully deserve all the merit they have received.
    And imperialistic adventure was the order of the day we were not the only country in pursuit
    of imperialism . you cant impose modern views on past events. lest we forget our history defines us.

    • My contempt is reserved for the government and military establishment that sent these soldiers on imperial exploits. The behaviour of the soldiers at Rorke’s Drift was exemplary and they fully deserved their decorations. It was Sir Garnett Wolsey who begrudged them the awards, thinking that because they were trapped they couldn’t do anything else but fight to the last. Despicable.

  3. The 500 wounded Zulus were NOT killed by the British ,the Zulu savages killed their wounded..
    This piece is a thinnly veiled cynical attempt by a Britaphobe Marxist Operative to discredit the British from start to finish.

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