Sketches from the battlefield: Captain George Vaughan Wardell and the Battle of Rorke’s Drift

By Nicola Kelly, Archivist, Maynooth University Library

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The Wardell Archive comprises the personal papers of the Wardell family; William Henry Wardell senior (1799-1881) a Major in several regiments, including the Royal Canadian Rifles; his wife Eliza Wardell (b.1800); William Henry Wardell junior (1838-1903)  Major-general, and an instructor at Woolwich Academy. The majority of the collections contents are the letters, photographs and sketches by George Vaughan Wardell  (1840-1879) Captain of the 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot.

Captain George Vaughan Wardell’s correspondence reflects his family life and military career which began when he enrolled as an ensign in the 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot in May 1858. He writes between 1864 and 1871, mainly to his parents but also to his brothers and sister, a series of letters detailing among other matters his experiences in faraway postings such as Mauritius, Rangoon, Madras, Malta and Burma.

Captain George Vaughan Wardell

On 23 February 1872, he was promoted to Captain. As company commander, Wardell was stationed at St Helena, before being posted to South Africa ‘to inquire into the late native disturbances, my Colonel has gone up with him’ (PP/2/61). He served throughout the Ninth Cape Frontier War (1877-78), where he and his company successfully built and defended Fort Warwick against Xhosa attacks for several months. His efforts throughout the campaign were praised by the British commander in South Africa, General Sir Arthur Cunynghame.

Following the British victory over the Xhosa, attention drifted towards Zululand in an effort to further establish British hegemony in the region. On 23 February 1872, he was promoted to Captain. Wardell was stationed at St Helena, before being posted to South Africa, noting the ‘continuous knocking’ of campaigning for his regiment and ‘hundreds of miles marching’, he predicted an eminent war in his correspondence ‘as the Zulus are a far more powerful and better armed than the last.’ 

‘The road to Rorke’s Drift’ depicting Zulu soldiers marching towards the site of the British encampment (PP/2/78)

On 10 January 1879, reports were received of a large Zulu force-marching in the direction of the camp. Over twenty thousand Zulus had eluded the attention of General Frederic Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford’s reconnaissance force, and were now marching in force in the traditional battle formation of ‘chest and horns’. In preparation of the attack, Colonel Pulleine ordered his infantry companies to form an extended line, a few hundred yards outside the camp. Captain Wardell’s ‘H’ company would be positioned centre of the line, beside two pieces of artillery, under the command of Major Smith, of Ballintemple, County Cavan. These men would face the ‘chest’ of the Zulu attack. Initially, the ‘old and steady shots’ of the 24th Regiment were producing a deadly volley-fire. However, as Wardell and the other companies were checking the Zulu advance, the British right flank became highly vulnerable. Colonel Durnford, a Royal Engineer from County Leitrim, and five hundred men of the Natal Native Horse, defended a donga (dry gully) against the Zulu left ‘horn’. At first, Durnford’s men successfully maintained constant and accurate fire to stall the attack. However, due to a lack of ammunition and the obvious danger of being outflanked and isolated, Durnford’s position was no longer tenable and ordered his men to retire back to the camp and establish a new position. As a result, this dangerously exposed the right flank of the entire British position.

His final letter is written from the camp at Rorke’s Drift on 10 January 1879, the eve of the fatal British advance into Zululand. Wardell wrote a letter to his parents, detailing the final preparations of the advance across the Buffalo River. At Isandlwana on 22 January, some 20,000 Zulu warriors attacked the British force of about 1,800 men. Captain Wardell and all his company fell in the last stand near Black’s Kopje. In June 1879, the bodies of the 24th Regiment were finally buried. After seven months in the open, George Wardell was one of the only recognisable officers left on the battlefield.


For further information about the Wardell Archive, please contact


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