Battle of Rorkes Drift Historically Significant Personal Letter Written by Major Gonville Bromhead VC

22/06/2022 | Matthew Tredwen

Battle of Rorkes Drift Historically Significant Personal Letter Written by Major Gonville Bromhead VC

Battle of Rorkes Drift historically significant personal letter written by then Lieutenant, later Major, Gonville Bromhead VC, just days after the heroic defence of the mission station at Rorkes Drift and the disastrous defeat at Isandlwana in January 1897.

This handwritten letter was sent to his sister from the mission station on the 3rd February 1879, some 12 days after the battle took place. He begins the letter by showing concern that a previous letter had not reached his sister, to inform her that he was safe and well. He goes on to explain how the main column was attacked by the Zulus, “The Zulus took our camp while the majority of the column were out hunting for them. Only fancy we lost 21 officers and about 600 men besides all our goods”. He tells his sister some information about his position during the battle and how he used his experiences as a child to help him complete his duty, “I was about ten miles behind guarding our stores when they came down on us but I had had one hours warning and you know I was a good hand at making holes in doors and walls when I was young at Thurlby. Well I did the same to the house I had to keep here and we kept them off till morning when the Column and the General came up and they bolted.” 

The making of holes in the wall refers to the defensive firing positions that the garrison made in the hospital and storehouses at the mission station, which were used to great effect to hold off the Zulu force until they were overrun and the hospital had to be evacuated. Bromhead then tells her of the after-effects of the battle on him personally, “I can’t fancy myself in civilian life again. I have not slept out of my clothes for months. We all sleep on the ground now and our toilet is a slake in the morning. What were left of us only had what we stood in – the Zulus took my camp as well as the General’s as I had to go into the house to guard it.”In a separate paragraph he writes, “We all keep in wonderful health though the weather being warm. But the flies are awful from the number of dead bodies about I suppose.” This final statement about the bodies would indicate that the dead had not been buried at this point, some days after the battle, this was because they feared that the Zulus would come again. 

Bromhead was interested in how the British public had reacted to the news from Zululand, “If they take any notice of our fighting out here at home, send me a newspaper like a good girl as I am of course curious to know what they will say about it.” He ends the letter in quite a sombre attitude, reflecting on what had happened to him and the regiment, “I have not got over the blow yet – poor fellows – I knew them all so well having been twelve years with the regiment now, and it nearly seems like some of one’s own family being cut off”. He finishes the letter and signs it off “Your loving brother – Gonville”. This is a very historically important letter, written by one of the most famous recipients of the Victoria Cross and for one of the most historically well-known British battles of the Victorian era. To find original correspondence from this time giving such first-hand detail is rarely encountered in the private market. The letter has been placed in a protective sleeve and comes with a full typed-up translation.

Gonville Bromhead VC was born on 29th August 1845 in Versailles, France. He was born into a military family, with his great grandfather serving with Major General James Wolfe at Quebec, his grandfather serving during the American Revolutionary War and his father, Major Sir Edmund de Gonville Bromhead being a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo.The family resided at Thurlby Hall in Lincolnshire. He was educated at Magnus Grammar School in Newark-on-Trent. After purchasing an Ensign commission, he entered the 2nd battalion of the 24th Regiment of Foot on 20th April 1867 and was promoted to Lieutenant on 28th October 1871. Although very popular with the men under his command, other high-ranking officers were not confident in his military abilities.

He suffered from deafness during his military career which historians state got continually worse. B company of the 24th Regiment of Foot was sent to the British Cape Colony in 1878, this was in response to the need for re-enforcements in the Ninth Cape Frontier War. During an assault on the Xhosa position in the Cape, his commanding officer was wounded and, consequently, command was passed to Bromhead. In August 1878 he was sent with his regiment to Pietermaritzburg, Natal, to prepare for the invasion of Zululand.Bromhead’s battalion of the 24th Foot was part of Lord Chelmsford's main invasion column and they crossed the Buffalo River near the mission station at Rorkes Drift. Bromhead and his company were ordered to stay behind at the mission station, whilst the rest of the column advance some 10 miles to the east to set up camp under the hill at Isandlwana. At noon on the 22nd of January 1879, Bromhead’s commanding officer received news of Zulu activity in the area and left the mission station to find out about re-enforcements; this left Bromhead and a Royal Engineers officer by the name of John Chard as the highest-ranking officers, Chard assumed overall command as his commission was slightly earlier than that of Bromhead’s.

At 15:00 on the 22nd of January, the news came through that the camp at Isandlwana had been overwhelmed and the British troops massacred, the news was also that the Zulus were on their way to attack the mission station at Rorkes Drift. Under the influence of Assistant Commissary James Dalton VC, Chard and Bromhead decided to make a defensive stand at the mission station. They quickly made provisions to turn the station into a defensive position, making loopholes in the stone buildings and using mealie bags to form a defensive perimeter. The garrison was some 139 men and members of the Natal Native Contingent. Some 4,000 Zulus appeared at around 16:00, the sight of the Zulus caused many of the NNC to flee. The Zulus made several assaults on the garrison, but the defenders managed to hold them back. The weakest point of the defence was near the hospital and it was here that Bromhead distinguished himself in the action, being involved in much of the hand-to-hand combat with the Zulu warriors who'd managed to breach the defensive position. 

With the outer perimeter being weakened by wave after wave of Zulu assault, Chard ordered the perimeter to be withdrawn to a new defensive line by the storehouse. Historians have stated that Bromhead took up position next to Private Frederick Hitch VC and “used his rifle and revolver with deadly aim”. It is said that Private Hitch saved Bromhead’s life during the attack; when a Zulu warrior was about to spear him, Hitch presented his unloaded rifle at the Zulu and the attacker jumped back over the wall position.Private Hitch was later wounded and Bromhead was said to give him his revolver, so he could still fire with one arm. The Zulus continued to attack throughout the night on the 22nd of January and into the early stages of the morning of the 23rd, before finally realising that the British garrison was not going to be defeated. After the battle, Bromhead and his battalion remained at Rorkes Drift as it was believed the Zulus would make another attack. What remained of the garrison took to constructing stone defensive walls, which were later to be known as Fort Bromhead. It is said that Bromhead suffered psychologically after the battle and became very lethargic and withdrawn. When news came through to the British public about the disastrous defeat at Isandlwana, the British government used the heroic stand at Rorkes Drift to lift morale. 

Eleven Victoria Cross awards were bestowed on the defendants of Rorkes Drift, this included Bromhead and John Chard. This was the most awards of the Victoria Cross granted for one single action. Bromhead and the other defenders of Rorkes Drift became cult heroes in Britain after the action and, as a result, many officers of the British army were said to be displeased - in their eyes Bromhead and the rest of the garrison were just doing what they were supposed to do. Bromhead returned to the UK and was presented with a number of gifts, including a presentation revolver and a sword from the village of Thurlby and the city of Lincoln respectively. He continued to serve with the British army in the UK and undertook various stints in India. He was promoted to Major in April 1883. In 1888 he proceeded with the regiment to Burma, where he took part in the Third Anglo-Burmese war. 

Gonville Bromhead died of Typhoid Fever on the 9th of February 1891 and is buried in the New Cantonment Cemetery, Allahabad, India. Gonville Bromhead never married. His Victoria Cross is still owned by the Bromhead family and is proudly part of the display at the Regimental Museum of the Royal Welsh in Brecon, South Wales. Michael Caine famously portrayed Bromhead in the 1964 film 'Zulu', about the heroic stand at Rorkes Drift.

This significant and exciting Lot is featured in our upcoming Fine Arms, Armour and Militaria Auction spread over three days on 26th, 27th & 28th July 2022!

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