Search records

John Francis Dunne

Epithet: Hero of Colenso (1884-1950)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

John Francis Dunne was born at The Smelt, Port St Mary in 1884, [in a thatched cottage on the western side of the corner of Pound Road and Beach Road, finally demolished in 2001]. His father was a soldier in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who was stationed at Castletown.

When he was old enough, in 1898, John joined his father's regiment as a bugler and drummer boy. Shortly after this the regiment was drafted to England and in 1899 they set sail for South Africa, where war had broken out with the Boers. The Boers had besieged Ladysmith in Natal, at the outbreak of the war, and a force under General Sir Redvers Buller was trying to break through the enemy cordon at Colenso to relieve the town which was about twelve miles away.

On 15th December 1899 General Buller began his attack, amongst his troops the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. His plan consisted of sending two brigades in an attempt to cross the Tugela River and capture the Boer positions on the opposite bank. But the strength of the Boers had been seriously underestimated and the scouts had failed to find the enemy positions, with the result that the Dublin Fusiliers who were on the left flank were met by heavy gunfire from a concealed force. Against strong opposition the ford at Bridle Drift was finally reached, but it was impassable, the Boers having dammed the river so that the water was 7ft. deep.

Suddenly a bugle sounded the retreat - but Bugler Dunne realised it was an enemy ruse, as his father had instilled in him the belief that a retreat was never sounded in action. Immediately, on his own initiative, he sounded the 'Advance', being shot through the right arm as he did so. With his injured arm hanging limp by his side, and without stopping to pick up the bugle which he had dropped, he rushed forward through the enemy fire and straight into the river. Although a few soldiers succeeded in reaching the Boer positions on the far side, the position was hopeless and the order was given for the brigade to retire.

Although the action was a complete failure, many heroic deeds were performed that day, none more conspicuous than that of the fifteen year old bugle boy from Port St Mary.

Bugler Dunne was invalided home and given a hero's welcome on arrival at Portsmouth, being carried shoulder-high through the cheering crowds. Shortly afterwards he was presented to Queen Victoria at Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight; the Queen presented him with a new bugle to replace the one he had lost at Colenso. She asked him about his future and he told her he wanted to stay in the army and get back to the front.

His new bugle was inscribed on a silver plate with these words: 'Presented to Bugler John Francis Dunne, 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers by Queen Victoria, to replace the bugle lost by him on the field of battle at Colenso on the 15th December 1899, when he was wounded'.

On his arrival back in the Isle of Man a tremendous welcome awaited him. Again he was carried shoulder-high from the pier to the railway station, then taken by train to Port St Mary, and once more carried along by the crowd which greeted him there.

Bugler Dunne's desire to stay in the army was short-lived as, due to the wounds he had received, he was discharged in 1902 and returned to live with his parents who were by then in Dublin. A modest lad, he tried to avoid the publicity his exploits had brought him, but he was a national hero and several firms used his picture to advertise their products. A photograph of him in uniform with his bugle appeared in a set of cigarette cards issued by Ogdens, along with prominent generals and politicians of the Boer War period including General Buller, Baden-Powell and Winston Churchill.

After his discharge from the army, John Dunne was promised a lucrative career playing his bugle in the music halls, but this did not materialise as the couple who were supposed to be looking after him on tour disappeared, taking the famous bugle with them - it was never recovered.

Dunne then went to sea and spent most of his life as bugler and deck steward with several lines. He went to live in Fiji for a while and in 1909 he married an Australian girl. After World War I he and his family moved to Sydney, where he died on 3rd February 1950.

Biography written by Victor Kneale.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.166-7.)

Culture Vannin


Nationality: Manx

Gender: Male

Date of birth: 12 January 1884

Date of death: 3 February 1950

Name Variant: John Francis ('Bugler') Dunne


Optional, not displayed

Manx National Heritage (MNH) will always put you in control of the information we send you. Read our privacy policy