The V.C. that got away...

A very happy 2017 to all of our followers. This month marks 138 years since the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. The catastrophic defeat at Isandlwana and the desperate battle at Rorke’s Drift are events well known to the British public. Despite the fact that the majority of combatants were English rather than Welsh (The 24th Foot at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift was originally a Warwickshire regiment), these events will continue to be immortalized in the annals of Royal Welsh regimental history.

One example of not only a non-Welsh but also a non-English combatant at Rorke’s Drift is that of Assistant Commissary Walter Alphonsus Dunne, who led an extraordinary and distinguished military career. An Irishman by birth, Dunne was a logistics officer during the Zululand invasion, and assisted with the hasty defense preparations at Rorke’s Drift before and during the battle. As a first-hand eyewitness of events Dunne wrote a letter to his friend Captain W.J. Warneford the day after the battle. The Royal Welsh Regimental Museum acquired this letter at auction in 2014, and it can be seen in the museum’s Zulu War exhibition room and on this website.

Walter Dunne was originally born in Cork in 1853, receiving a commission as a ‘Sub-Assistant Commissary’ (the equivalent of 2nd Lieutenant) in the Army Control Department (which was a forerunner of the Royal Army Service Corps) in 1873. After serving at the Royal Arsenal and in Dublin for a few years, he embarked for South Africa in late 1877. When the Colonial Government was preparing to invade Zululand, Dunne, then stationed in the Transvaal, made a ‘daring solo ride of a hundred miles over country’ to Helpmekaar in Natal to join the assembling invasion force as a Senior Commissary.

Dunne was tasked with establishing a forward supply depot at the Rorke’s Drift Mission Station, later to become the scene of that famous battle. He presided over the work of the Natal Native Contingent in stocking the Mission Station with ample supplies of food and ammunition. Dunne, along with ‘B’ Company of the 2nd Battalion 24th Regt, remained behind to guard the stores while the invasion force under Lord Chelmsford moved ahead and crossed the Buffalo River to set up camp at Isandlwana.

Dunne recounted in his 1891 memoirs the unfolding of events on the 22nd January, when the garrison at Rorke’s Drift learned of the massacre at Isandlwana:

‘Suddenly we noticed at some distance across the river, a large number of mounted natives approaching, preceded by a large number of women and children driving oxen. We were going down to find out what they were, but…we were called back by one of the men who said that a mounted orderly wished to see the officer in command. Turning back at once we met a mounted man in his shirt-sleeves riding hurriedly towards us. His first words were ‘The camp is taken by Zulus!’.

Another message was conveyed to Gonville Bromhead, the officer in command, that the post was to be held at all costs. With the help of 300 natives, Dunne and the others immediately set to work putting up mealie bags (sacks of grain) around the compound; within 2 hours a wall of mealie bags and biscuit boxes had been constructed around the perimeter. Firing holes were knocked through the buildings and ammunition boxes were distributed around the compound.

By about 4pm, the Zulu force had appeared, quickly encircling the defenders. As battle raged on into the evening and the hospital was overrun, Dunne recounted that ‘the position was a desperate one and our chance of escape seemed slight indeed, so Chard [commanding officer] decided to form a sort of redoubt of mealie bags, where a last stand could be made. We labored at this till we dropped with exhaustion; but succeeded in building it up to about eight feet on the outside, and here the wounded were brought for protection. It was hard work, for the bags of mealies weighed 200lbs each.’

Dunne’s efforts in constructing the redoubt and his coolness under Zulu fire were formally acknowledged by Chard, who provided a testimony to Edward Strickland, the Commissary General, to recommend Dunne for a Victoria Cross. However, after much deliberation, it was decided that V.Cs were being bestowed ‘very freely’ and that there was no cause to single out Mr Dunne for such an award. Nevertheless, he was mentioned in despatches and received a promotion to Deputy Commissary (the equivalent of Captain).

The letter that Dunne wrote on the day after the battle (exactly 138 years ago today) was penned on the back of a commissary delivery note. The letter can be seen on the website here:

A transcription for the letter is as follows:

My dear Warneford,

Sad news about the 1/24th. SCd 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 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 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.

(Note that Dunne underestimated the size of both the Zulu force – which was around 4000 – and the number of British defenders – around 150. The contingent that ‘bolted’ refers to ~300 troops of the Natal Native Contingent, who helped fortify the compound but fled upon the arrival of the Zulus.)

Dunne continued to serve as Deputy Commissary for the remainder of the Zulu War, and after the Zulu defeat he personally saw the Zulu King Cetshwayo being escorted as a prisoner-of-war to Cape Town. After the British victory, Dunne returned to the Transvaal, where he participated in the war against the Bapedi tribe under King Sekukuni. He then served in the first Anglo-Boer war of 1880-81, where he was part of the British garrison in Potchefstroom, besieged by the Boers for 96 days. The defenders were eventually able to march out of Potchefstroom with full military honours on the 23rd of March 1881, which was the day the British signed the peace treaty ending the war. Dunne thus had the rare distinction of serving in all South African wars between 1877-1881. Thereafter he continued his military career, serving in Egypt against the Mahdists, and reaching the rank of Colonel in the Army Service Corps in 1897. He was also created a Companion of the Bath in 1896. After some 35 years of Army service, Dunne retired in February 1908. However, he was in poor health by this time, dying just 5 months later in a nursing home in Rome.