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Very rare eyewitness account of Zulu Battle of Rorke's Drift for sale at Bonhams
Letter written on receipt for the mealie bags used to defend mission. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- A letter written the day after the Battle of Rorke’s Drift – immortalized in the film Zulu - by one of the men involved in the successful defence of the mission station is to be sold at Bonhams Books, Maps, Manuscripts and Photographs sale in London on June 18. It is estimated at £20,000-30,000.

Letters describing the battle are extremely rare and hardly ever come up for sale. This one, dated 24 January 1879, was written by Assistant Commissary Officer, Walter Adolphus Dunne on a requisition chit for mealie bags – two hundred pound sacks of the coarse maize-flour which is a staple of the South African diet. When news of an impending attack by Zulu forces was received, Dunne, who was in charge of the stores, and his colleagues used the bags to construct a makeshift defence.

Rorke’s Drift was a supply depot and hospital which had been garrisoned earlier in the year by soldiers of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot, under Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead. He was later joined by a small detachment of Royal Engineers commanded by Lieutenant John Chard. It was Bromhead and Chard who mastermind the defence of the mission station.

The Zulu attack started on the evening of 22rd January hours after the calamitous defeat of the 1st Battalion, 24th Foot, under Colonel Pulleine at Isandlwana, and continued into the following day. The garrison at Rorke’s Drift had just two hours notice that the Zulus - who numbered nearly a thousand - were on their way. In his letter, Dunne described what happened.

“About 1,000 of them came in here and attacked us on the same day (22nd). We had got about 2 hours notice and fortified the place with bags of grain biscuit boxes &c. They came on most determinedly on all sides. They drove our fellows out of the Hospital, killed the patients and burned the place. They made several attempts to storm us but the soldiers (B Co of 24th under Bromhead) kept up such a steady killing fire that they were driven back each time. We had only 80 men, the contingent having bolted before a shot was fired. The fight was kept up all night & in the morning they retreated leaving 351 dead bodies “

The successful repulse of the attack has achieved legendary status helped by the 1964 film Zulu which starred Stanley Baker and Michael Caine as Broomhead and Chard. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded. Seven of them went to soldiers in the 2nd Battalion - the highest number given for a single action to members of one unit. Dunne, himself was considered for a VC but the Commander of Chief of the British Forces, the Duke of Cambridge, decided that the medals were being given too freely. He was, however, promoted and mentioned in dispatches.

Bonhams Head of Books, Matthew Haley said, “There’s a vivid and appealing immediacy to this letter, scribbled down on a receipt for the makeshift fortifications that would save the day. Politically the victory restored some credibility to the British Army but Walter Dunne isn’t concerned with that. His thoughts are about the companions he has lost and the courage and resourcefulness of the men he fought alongside. A fantastic insight into history as it was being made.”

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