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The Zulu Salute at Rorke’s Drift

    It’s another of the great cinematic moments in Zulu. The defeated Zulu army, having battled throughout a day and night to overcome the defenders of Rorke’s Drift, appears on the crest of the surrounding hills one more time, and sings a sonorous chant honouring the bravery of their enemy, before drifting off into the landscape.

     Did it happen in reality? No, of course it didn’t.

    The truth is that at Rorke’s Drift both sides fought each other to utter exhaustion. The defenders were battered, bruised and bloody, and even their commander, Lt. Chard, doubted if they could have withstood another attack. The Zulus were so shattered that they could hardly carry their shields as they retreated, but dragged them along the ground.

     The nearest thing to the salute incident occurred when part of the Zulu rearguard appeared at dawn on the morning of the 23rd January, after the fight. They took up a position on the slopes of kwaSingqindi hill, opposite the mission station, and quietly observed the garrison. Then they rose up, and retreated out of sight. In fact, they had probably intended to withdraw via the drift on the river, but from their position they could see the remnants of Lord Chelmsford’s force approaching from iSandlwana in the opposite direction.

     It is true that the opening battles of the war - iSandlwana, Rorke’s Drift and Nyezane - did give both the British and Zulu a new-found respect for each other’s fighting capabilities. But the aftermath of Rorke’s Drift was a good deal less romantic than the film. After of iSandlwana, feelings were running high among the British and the garrison was in any case desperately low on medical supplies; when the battle was over, the garrison and relief column went over the field, and shot or bayoneted all the wounded Zulu they found there.