It's 1879. The British are the British Empire, in possession of a modern army, and they think themselves insurmountable, especially by native peoples armed with spears and cow hide shields. One of the British territories is South Africa and they are engaged in taking control. They instigate a fight with the Zulus on a pretext and then invade the Zulu territory with 16,000 troops. The British are armed with Martini-Henry breech loading single shot rifles, 7 pound artillery pieces, and an early kind of rocket propelled grenades.
The Zulu impi are armed with assegai and cow hide shields. They are a culture of warriors. The Spartans would recognize the Zulu. With training starting at the age of six, every man trained to battle. In the century before the arrival of the British, the Zulu had centralized power and either overwhelmed or displaced neighboring tribes to become the dominant power in the southern tip of Africa.
The British split their forces, confident in their tactics and firepower. The details of this are available and interesting, but I am trying to get somewhere, so suffice it to say they are not one large unit when things get pear shaped. Lord Chelmsford, the Commander-in-Chief, retains about 4,000 men, approximately half of them British regulars, the rest native auxillaries. They are in a forward encampment at Isandlwana when the Zulus found them. 21,000 Zulus.
The Zulus used a fighting tactic they called the horns of the buffalo. They would strike hard in the center and then "the horns" would encircle both flanks. They took heavy casualties but they closed with the British and the right flank was successfully breached. From there it became a slaughter. Essentially all the uniformed British troops were killed fighting or executed, along with several hundred of the native auxiliaries. They lost a thousand rifles, their artillery, and all the food and wagons.
Word of this loss reached a small contingent of British at a field hospital located at Rorke's Drift, located on the Buffalo River, near the Zulu border. 139 British, 30 of which were ill or wounded, were garrisoned there. The officers made a decision that trying to retreat with wagons filled with wounded was a recipe for disaster and decided to stay. They build up their defenses, sandbagged where they could, used wagons and boxes to build barricades. They broke out ammunition and prepared a plan.
The Zulu attacked with approximately 4,000 men, some of them armed with rifles recently acquired at Isandlwana, most of them carrying their traditional spears and clubs.
It should have been another Zulu victory. It was not. The British maintained discipline, used volley fire to effectively break up the Zulu attacks, and held out through a battle that lasted from mid-afternoon throughout a very long night. It was hand to hand much of the time, or firing at very close range. It continued until the Zulus could see a British relief column approaching the next morning and they broke contact and retreated.
Of the 139 British, 17 were killed and 10 wounded. They had started the battle with 20,000 rounds of ammunition. Reports vary, but one I read said they just over 300 rounds remaining. It becomes part of the lore of the British army. An incredible stand against overwhelming odds. It resulted in the awarding of 11 Victoria Crosses. It also is likely that all the survivors had what we would now call PTSD, the lives of many of them were short, several were plagued by nightmares of Zulu attacks, and there were at least 2 suicides.
The Battle of Rorke's Drift is the subject of the 1964 movie Zulu. It is a great movie, one of the best British films of all time. It holds to the story fairly well, although it take poetic license in some places. It is respectful of both sides, showing the humanity and bravery, of both the Zulu and the British.
Filmed on location, the battle scenes were carefully planned and shot as both the rifle bayonets and the assegai were real. The Zulus are real, as well, although there were only 400 Zulu actors, making the attack scenes much smaller than having 4,000 men in three wings charging in at the barricades. The wounds shown are not realistic, as a true rendering would never have gotten past the censors. There was no sing off before the battle. Some of the rifles in the background are Lee-Enfields, you can see the actors work the bolts. None of this matters.
If you haven't seen this one lately, here's a taste.