I am shocked and deeply saddened by the news from South Africa that David Rattray has been murdered by intruders who broke into his home near Rorke’s Drift. I find it difficult to comprehend that the life of a dear friend has been cut short in such a senseless and tragic way.
In newspaper obituaries, David has been described as a historian. Although not inaccurate, this does not begin to do justice to a man who was one of life’s great storytellers. David, who was arguably the world’s greatest authority on the Zulu wars, had that rare ability to transport someone back in time. He could provide a vivid description of a battlefield or scene, even conjuring up its noises and smells.
I knew David for all too short a time, but I feel privileged to have met him. During the last year, he became a firm friend and I shall miss him terribly. Through my interests in bravery and the Victoria Cross, I have had a long fascination with Rorke’s Drift, when a British force of just 140 men – of whom 35 were sick – held out against overwhelming odds in the face of 4,000 Zulu warriors in 1879.Today the trust set up to preserve the collection of 145 VCs that I have assembled has two of the 11 VCs that were awarded for bravery at Rorke’s Drift – the medals given to Lieutenant John Chard and Private Robert Jones.
It was against this background that I met David in March 2006 when I was in South Africa. I attended some of his lectures on the Zulu War of 1879 and I found his style of delivery and his knowledge of his subject mesmerising. In June of 2006, I returned to South Africa and chartered a helicopter. For three days, David and I travelled around together as he showed me the sites of various battles and skirmishes between the Zulus and the British. At the time, I was doing some research for my book, Victoria Cross Heroes, and a recce for a channel Five television series on the VC, which I co-funded.
I thoroughly enjoyed our time together – so much so that I invited David to London in October 2006, where he gave a lecture on the battle of Isandhlwana to Crimestoppers, the charity that I founded more than 20 years ago to prevent and solve crime. That event, too, was a great success as David recounted tales from what was arguably the most humiliating defeat in British colonial history. At the time of David’s untimely death, we had planned to meet up twice later in 2007 – once in South Africa and once in London.
I will always be grateful to David for the help he has given me, particularly in relation to the Zulu wars. David, a fluent Zulu speaker, was a charming and generous man. He was also a wonderful international ambassador for the Zulu people he loved so much.
David did more than anyone to put the remote battlefields of KwaZulu Natal on the tourist map. One unidentified commentator described his talents perfectly when he was quoted in The Daily Telegraph’s obituary of David which appeared on January 29, 2007. “To listen to David Rattray narrate the story of Isandhlwana was akin to watching the best-scripted, best-directed and best-produced movie Hollywood’s finest studios could put on. It was goose-bump stuff,” the commentator said.
It is not surprising that such a talent led to him receiving the accolade of “the Laurence Olivier of the battlefield”. His storytelling skills were said to have reduced the top brass from the modern British military to tears. It is little wonder that he addressed capacity audiences at the Royal Geographical Society in London on more than 20 occasions, and was elected a fellow of the society in 1998.
David, a father of three sons, was just 48 when he died. When I heard of his murder, my thoughts immediately turned to his widow, Nicky. She summed up the tragedy of his death when she said: “This famous son of South Africa now joins the unacceptable list of citizens who have lost their lives to senseless banditry.”
It was ironic that the news of David’s death came just as I was finalising the paperback version of Victoria Cross Heroes, which will be published later this year. Just weeks before his death, David had been kind enough to read my write-ups on the VCs that had been awarded to Lieutenant Chard and Private Jones for their bravery at Rorke’s Drift. He had suggested some small factual corrections, which I readily made.
When we were travelling together in South Africa last year, I asked David, during an idle moment: “What is the most common question that you get asked [by visitors and those attending his lectures]?”. He replied: “It is: ‘Have you lived here [KwaZulu Natal] all your life?” I told him: “In future, when you are asked the question, reply ‘Not yet’.” I thought this was an amusing way of indicating to people that, all being well, he had a good bit of his life still to enjoy. I have to confess that the response of “not yet” was borrowed: it was first used in similar circumstances by my friend William Hague, the former Conservative Party leader and now Shadow Foreign Secretary.
When I saw David in London at the end of 2006, he told me that he had already used his response on a few unsuspecting visitors – which I suspect drew some puzzled expressions. I feel sad today when I reflect on our private joke. For now, of course, David has indeed lived in the land he loved among the people he cherished for all his life. And what an extraordinary life it was. To use the words of William Shakespeare: “He was a man, take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.”