First Hand Account from Rorkes Drift

A first-hand account of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, at which a small contingent of British redcoats fought off thousands of Zulu warriors, has come to light in a girl’s scrapbook. The letter, written on a chit for a type of coarse cornflour, is one of the only scraps of paper to survive the battle to defend the tiny mission station. It is dated January 24, 1879, the day after the battle.

It was written by Walter Adolphus Dunne, a commissary officer attached to the 24th Regiment of Foot, later the South Wales Borderers. Dunne was responsible for provisioning the horses and had also purchased the feed bags that formed a vital part of the defences. The previous day the British Army had suffered one of the worst defeats in its history when 1,350 men were massacred by the Zulu army at the Battle of Isandlwana. The few survivors who made it back to the mission at Rorke’s Drift were able to warn the defenders in time to throw up rudimentary defences, including Dunne’s mealie sacks, which were used as sandbags.

Although the Zulus were armed only with short spears, known as assegais, and leather shields, they had already proved themselves fearless and more than a match for the redcoats with their Martini-Henry rifles and bayonets. About 4,000 warriors who had been held in reserve at Isandlwana ran the 11 miles to Rorke’s Drift determined to finish off the British presence in Zululand. The sight of the massed warriors terrified the native Natal contingent, who fled in fear, just leaving the British. Dunne, who was writing to a former army comrade William Warneford, first told him about the defeat at Isandlwana. He wrote: “Sad news about the 1/24th. 5Cd commanded by Col. Pulleine were cut to pieces and the camp sacked. 20 Officers are missing.” He went on: “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 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 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 . . . ” He then lists some of the officers missing after Isandlwana who would have been known to Warneford.

The letter came to light in a scrapbook kept by Warneford’s daughter and sold at auction earlier this year. The letter was resold on its own in November, in Devizes, Wiltshire, where it was bought by the Museum of the Royal Welsh Regiment in Brecon for £13,000 with the help of the Arts Council and other benefactors.

Eleven Victoria Crosses, were awarded, the largest number presented to a single regiment at any engagement. The battle claimed the lives of 17 British soldiers, including patients in the mission hospital, and an estimated 600 Zulus died. Richard Davies, the museum’s curator, said: “The letter is certainly the earliest account of the battle, which lasted about 12 hours from four in the afternoon on the 22nd to four the following morning on the 23rd. “The letter was written on the 24th, at which point they probably didn’t know that the Zulus weren’t going to return.”

View the Dunne Rorkes Drift Letter