This letter was written by Walter Adolphus Dunne, a Sub-Assistant Commissary attached to the 24th Regiment. Dunne was one of the defenders of Rorke’s Drift, and wrote the letter only hours after the battle finished in the early hours of 24 January 1879. No-one knew at this time if the Zulus would return, so the letter was obviously written in some haste. It is a vivid document and must be the earliest account of the defence. What makes it even more evocative is that it is written on a piece of paper dated 21 January 1879, which was originally a receipt for mealie. Bags of mealie were famously part of the barricade hastily erected by the defenders as they prepared to face the attack.
The letter begins and ends with poignant references to the losses at the Battle of iSandlwana, fought two days previously, when an army of 25,000 Zulu warriors destroyed a British force of 1,700 men. Dunne goes on to describe the actions taken by the men at Rorke’s Drift to defend themselves before the Zulu attack, and then the battle itself. He supervised the erection of the barricade, including the redoubt of mealie bags.
Dunne (1853–1908) was born in Dublin and joined the Army in 1873. He was posted to South Africa in 1877 and saw considerable action over the next few years in both North Africa and Mauritius. The letter’s recipient was William John Jortin Warneford (1837–1919) who joined the Army in 1861, retiring in 1880.