'A thousand of them attacked, we had only 80 men and fortified the base with biscuit boxes': Incredibly rare first-hand account of Zulu battle written the day after on actual paper from Rorke's Drift up for auction

  • Despatch by Walter Dunne on January 24, 1879, found 135 years later
  • Tells how he and a comrade built barricade after barricade to repel Zulus
  • Dunne fought in stand where 150 British soldiers defeated 4,000 men
  • The letter - written on a delivery note - will be auctioned for £30,000

By Martin Robinson


An incredibly-rare eyewitness account by one of the British heroes of the Zulu War battle immortalised in the celebrated Michael Caine film has been unearthed 135 years later.

Walter Dunne's letter on January 24, 1879 describes how he and a brave band of soldiers successfully defended an outpost in South Africa against 4,000 Zulu warriors.

The assistant commissary officer was recommended for the Victoria Cross for his role in the heroic stand, which was celebrated in the 1964 film Zulu.

The letter - written on the back of a large delivery note - reveals how with a comrade he fortified the mission station by organising a makeshift barricade from 200lbs mealie bags that were stacked 5ft high. 

He wrote about being attacked by a thousand Zulus - but in fact it was probably four times that number.

Remarkable: 135 years after Rorke's Drift this letter by Walter Dunne on the day after the battle has emerged and will be sold at auction
Walter Alphonsus Dunne- an Irishman, died in 1908

Remarkable: 135 years after Rorke's Drift this letter, left, by Walter Dunne, right, written on the day after the great battle has emerged and will be sold at auction

Brave: At Rorke's Drift 150 British soldiers successfully defended the outpost against 4,000 Zulu warriors

Brave: At Rorke's Drift 150 British soldiers successfully defended the outpost against 4,000 Zulu warriors

High price: The high price is expected because of how rare it is and not least because the piece of paper was actually at the Battle of Rorke's Drift

High price: The high price is expected because of how rare it is and not least because the piece of paper was actually at the Battle of Rorke's Drift

When the marauding Zulus eventually breached that in the battle, Dunne built a 9ft high redoubt of more mealie bags where the wounded were brought for protection.

 

NOTE FROM THE BATTLE: HISTORIC RORKE'S DRIFT LETTER IN FULL

Rorke's Drift/ 24 Jan.r '79/

My dear Warneford, Sad news about the 1/24th. (1st Battalion, 24th Foot) 5Cd commanded by Col. Pulleine were cut to pieces and the camp sacked. 20 Officers are missing.

About 1000 of the Kafirs came in here and attacked us on the same day (22nd). We had got about 2 hours notice and fortified the place with trap 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 the Kafirs retreated leaving 351 dead bodies.

Dalton was wounded in the shoulder and temp clerk Byrne killed & 12 of the men... W A Dunne (over)

Some of the missing are Pulleine, Col. Dunford, Capt. Russell, Hodson (killed), Anstey, Daly, Mostyn, Dyer, Griffith, Pope, Austin, Pulleine (2 Mr.) Shepherd (S... major) Wardell (killed), Younghusband, Degacher, Porteous, Carage Dyson, Atkinson - Coghill is believed to have escaped & also Melvill;

The British overcame massive odds to defeat the native warriors.

The following day, Dunne picked up a delivery note for the mealie bags and used it to write the letter to an army friend in Cape Colony in South Africa.

The simple document has now come to light after being made available for sale at auction.

It has been given a pre-sale estimate of £30,000, not least because the piece of paper was actually at the Battle of Rorke's Drift.

Dunne's letter was written on January 24, 1879, the day after the battle.

In it he told of how the Zulu-Kafirs slaughtered 1,500 British soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot at nearby Isandlwana two days before.

Later that same day, 4,000 Zulus headed for Rorke's Drift.

Dunne described how the Zulus surrounded the outpost and praised Major Gonville Bromhead, who was awarded the VC for his part in the battle and who was played by Michael Caine in Zulu.

Dunne wrote: 'About 1,000 of them came in here and attacked us on the same day.

'We had got about two hours notice and fortified the place with bags of grain and biscuit boxes.

'They came on most determinedly (sic) 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 begore a shot was fired. The fight was kept up all night and in the morning the kafirs retreated leaving 351 dead bodies.

'Dalton was wounded in the shoulder and temp clerk Byrne killed.'

The 1964 film Zulu, starring Michael Caine as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, dramatised the heroism shown by soldiers at the battle in 1879

The 1964 film Zulu, starring Michael Caine as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, dramatised the heroism shown by soldiers at the battle in 1879

Finest hour: Painting commemorating the heroic defence of Rorke's Drift in 1879 - a victory by the British against the odds

Finest hour: Painting commemorating the heroic defence of Rorke's Drift in 1879 - a victory by the British against the odds

In actual fact, the British numbers were nearly double the amount Dunne stated and the number of Zulus were four times his estimate.

Dunne, an Irishman, was turned down for a VC but was mentioned in dispatches.

He sent the letter to pal Capt Gonville Warneford. The letter was retained by the Warneford family and has now emerged for sale at Bonhams in London.

After 35 years of service, he retired to Gibralter in 1908, but died the same year at a nursing home in 1908.

Matthew Haley, head of books and manuscripts at auctioneers Bonhams, said: 'Letters describing the battle are extremely rare and hardly ever come up for sale.

'There is 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.'

The letter is being sold by Bonhams on June 18.

RORKE'S DRIFT: BATTLE CONSIDERED ONE OF BRITAIN'S GREATEST VICTORIES WAS PART OF A WIDER BLOODY CONFLICT THAT COST 8,000 LIVES

Conflict: Rorke's Drift was part of the wider Anglo - Zulu war in 1879, starting with an invasion by the British in January and ending with a British victory and Zulu independence five months later

Conflict: Rorke's Drift was part of the wider Anglo - Zulu war in 1879, starting with an invasion by the British in January and ending with a British victory and Zulu independence five months later

It was on January 22 1879, on the Natal border with Zululand, in South Africa, that the tiny British garrison of 140 men - many of them sick and wounded - fought for at least 12 hours to repel repeated attacks by up to 4,000 Zulu warriors.

The defence was rewarded by Queen Victoria's government with no fewer than 11 Victoria Crosses.

The name of Rorke’s Drift led to the much-loved film starring Stanley Baker and Michael Caine.

The movie, which is still celebrated more than 50 years after it was made, saw  Baker play Lieutenant John Chard, while Caine played his right-hand man, Lieutenant Goville Bromhead.

After fighting day and night the Zulus eventually retreated after 351 of the men died and 500 were wounded.

It was part of the wider Anglo - Zulu war took place during 1879.

The conflict began because the Zulu kingdom presented an obstacle to British imperial ambitions in southern Africa.

The British invasion of Zululand began on January 11 1879, with the British objective being an eventual federation in Africa.

The battle of Isandlwana erupted on the 22nd of January 1879, 11 days after the British started their invasion. 20,000 Zulu warriors attacked 1,800 British, colonial and native troops and 400 civilians.

The Zulus, who had more numbers, overwhelmed the British, killing over 1,300 troops, while around 1,000 Zulu soldiers were killed.

The battle of Rorke's Drift started almost immediately after, ending on the 23rd.

The Battle of Ulundi on the 4th of July 1879 effectively ended the Zulu-Anglo war, with the defeat of the Zulu forces by the British when over 5,200 British and African soldiers razed the capital of Zululand after defeating the main Zulu army.

The war ultimately ended with a British victory, and Zulu independence.

The comments below have not been moderated.

Like all British Army officers Lord Chelmsford was an arrogant fool who disliked taking expert advice, so lost half his command -- and thought himself ill-used when he lost his job. The bravery of the men at Rorke's Drift is not in doubt, but the lack of initiative so typical of the two officers, which made them stay to defend a strategically useless and unimportant Mission Station instead of getting the hell out of there, condemned their men to the subsequent horrors.

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ADRIAN GRIEVES HAS written great accounts of this ZULU war great read.

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Woah!

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Zulu produced by Stanley Baker was an excellent film for its day, Michael Caine was a relatively unknown at the time but that was about to change.

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I am surprised that any letter made it out of the camp. Bumwad must have been in great demand and short supply.

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So glad the Zulus won!

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Read the thing again fool. The Zulus didn't win.

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The British had no right to be in South Africa. As usual they were trying to take it and make it part of Queen Victoria's Empire. You can't blame the natives for fighting for their country.

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Go and re-arrange the teddy bears on your bed.

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The British were expanding their influence in the world Louisa-Jane and the world was happy to receive it at the time, we gave the natives beads and mirrors and they were the good times, everybody knew their place. You cannot change history, only the Americans can do that in Hollywood.

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Over 4000 Zulus' were killed at isandlwana, more than any other battle, after which, catchwayo wanted to end the fighting but didn't know how to.

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the flim make looklike they was all welsh but only 2 v.c went Welshmen (still brave though and a good flim )

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Pardon!

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Who can forget the line: "Zulus, farzarnds of 'em...."

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