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The 1879 action was little more than a skirmish given the numbers involved and the fact that earlier in the same day it started, January 22, a British force was slaughtered by the Zulu warriors, leaving 1350 dead on the field of Isandlwana.

But Rorke’s Drift brought a degree of pride back, especially as 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded to the survivors by Disraeli’s government. Five Distinguished Conduct medals were also given out.

For medal collectors, the ‘skirmish’, involving just 150 or so defenders, has also assumed an importance far beyond those numbers.  If you want bravery against overwhelming odds, it’s here, as an auction result from December 8 nicely underlines.  

London saleroom Dix Noonan Webb (DNW) offered a Kaffir and Zulu War medal awarded to Private Michael Minehan, 2nd Battalion, 24th Foot, right-hand man of the front rank of B Company at the defence of Rorke’s Drift.

It was estimated at a hefty £26,000-30,000 but sold for a remarkable £70,000 hammer price (or £84,000 when buyer’s premium is added). The pre-sale estimate was £26,000-30,000. DNW said bidding quickly soared past the estimate and eventually it was a contest between a phone bidder and a bidder in the room. The latter, a British private collector, was successful.

The result sets a record price for a Rorke's Drift medal awarded to a defender who did not receive the VC. Minehan’s award was a South Africa Medal – a campaign, not gallantry honour. No clasps are awarded for these showing battle honours, but instead they are given for the years involved: 1877, 1877-78, 1877-9, 1877-8-9, 1878, 1878-9, 1879.

The Medal Yearbook 2016 suggests a value of £30,000-35,000 for such a medal given to a Rorke’s Drift participant, so the DNW result is impressive, but as Will Bennett, spokesman for DNW, points out: "Medals to the 150-strong garrison do not come onto the market all that often and so bidders competed strongly to own this important reminder of the bravery shown by Minehan and his comrades.”

In February a South Africa Medal awarded to Rorke’s Drift survivor 1524 Private Joseph Bromwich 2-24th Foot sold for £39,500 at the Fieldings auction house in Stourbridge. The buyer was a Midlands private collector.

Fierce defence

Minehan, an Irishman, was the subject of a testimonial written by Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, VC, one of the other best-known figures of that battle alongside Lieutenant John Chard VC (Bromhead was played by Caine in the film, Chard by Baker).

Captain (later Major-General) Penn-Symons also wrote: “Minehan was a great pal of mine; he was right-hand man, front rank of B Company, who knew his drill well and had often kept me straight.”

At one stage of the battle at Rorke’s Drift, Minehan had been posted in the kraal (cattle or sheep enclosure). The day after the fight he was unable to speak as a result of exhaustion, but had taken Penn-Symons to the corner of the kraal where he had been stationed.

By means of gesticulation he indicated the body of a Zulu, partly hidden under the straw. It appeared that during the battle the Zulu had crawled under the straw and grabbed Minehan by the leg. Minehan had “prodded the straw with his bayonet” and one such thrust had penetrated the Zulu’s body, killing him instantly.