Zulu war letter fetches £7,000 at Lewes auction


A 19th century soldier’s letter sold for £7,000 at an auction in Lewes.

It described in part the aftermath of the disastrous Battle of Isandlwana during the Zulu War of 1879 and went under the hammer at Wallis and Wallis.

The auction of The David Smith Collection of Zulu and South African weapons and artefacts proved a huge success.

The 154-lot sale at the West Street venue raised £95,485, with buyers in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Belgium, Canada, the USA and, of course, the UK.

In addition, three television companies covered the event.

The poignant 36-page officer’s letter to his mother was an item from another vendor. It was sent in August 1879 by 19-year-old Percival Tatham Armitage, a lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion of the 24th Regiment.

He described visits to the Isandlwana battlefield where some 1,300 British, colonial and native troops, together with many civilians, had been killed when the Zulu force attacked on January 22.

Five months later the dead still lay where they had fallen and Armitage was among the burial parties sent to the grim site beneath the curiously shaped mountain that gave it its name.

He wrote: “The scene was frightful. Bodies lying about in every direction ... This is the dark side of war.”

Later, he notes poetically: “And the Lion Mountain reared its head majestically over the field, an everlasting monument on the spot where British soldiers died whilst fighting bravely against overwhelming odds.”

While performing “the melancholy duty that had been so long delayed”, Armitage discovered the bodies of two of his brother officers which were still recognisable.

The letter also mentions Louis Napoleon, Prince Imperial of France, killed by Zulus who surprised his reconnaissance party on June 1.

“His body was brought down in an ambulance wagon escorted by a few lancers and we had to furnish an escort half way to Landman’s Drift ... it was very sad.”

Other highlights of the Wallis and Wallis sale were a Zulu stabbing spear engraved ‘Ulundi 1879’ which realised £6,000; a Zulu staff with carved hand finial (£4,200); an 1879 period Zulu regimental shield (£5,000); framed relics from the Battle of Rorke’s Drift (£4,000); and a Zulu status necklace of jackal’s teeth (£2,400).

The auction house said: “We are grateful to Ian Knight, the well-known and highly regarded author and historian, for cataloguing the collection.”