Hook of Rorke’s Drift; The Life of Henry Hook VC

Hook of Rorke’s Drift; The Life of Henry Hook VC

  • Author: Barry C. Johnson
  • Publisher: Bartlett Press, 37 Larchmere Drive, Hall Green, Birmingham, B28 8JB
  • ISBN: 0-9517115-6-5
  • Price: 292 pages, £14.50 paperback (limited edition bound in red cloth, £19.50)

Review By : Ian Knight

Hook of Rorke’s Drift; The Life of Henry Hook VC, by Barry C. Johnson, Reviewed by Ian Knight (Bartlett Press, 37 Larchmere Drive, Hall Green, Birmingham, B28 8JB), 292 pages, £14.50 paperback (limited edition bound in red cloth, £19.50). Available from all good bookshops. Throughout the Victorian era – the Anglo-Zulu War included – the most elusive voice remains that of the ordinary British soldier in the ranks, many thousands of whom, despite improvements in literacy and educational standards in general across the period, have left nothing to history beyond the scant details of their attestation and discharge papers. In 1986, Barry Johnson wrote and privately published a slim biography of Henry Hook VC, the man he described as ‘the most famous private soldier in the annals of the British Army’; his new book, Hook of Rorke’s Drift, expands on this to a remarkable degree, and provides not only a detailed portrait of the man himself, but also a cross-section of Victorian society – and in particular its relationship with its Army – at the time. Hook was born into an agricultural labouring family in Gloucestershire, received little or no formal education, and faced a life which offered little hope of upward social mobility, and few alternatives to hard work and poor and infrequent wages. Even so, he might have remained reconciled to it, were it not for the adventures of an uncle who had ‘gone for a soldier’, and whose experiences perhaps tempted Hook to join the Royal Monmouthshire Militia.

 When, a few years later, Hook found himself trapped in a claustrophobic and unsympathetic marriage, he simply walked away to join the regular Army, highlighting the fact that for many who enlisted the Army offered a means of escape which was just as enticing as the prospect of regular meals or a life of adventure. Johnson vividly evokes the barrack-room routine of the new recruit’s life before following Hook’s journey into the 2/24th, and thence to South Africa at the closing stages of the 9th Cape Frontier War. Here Hook saw active service for the first time, although the reader is struck by the very real difficulties of tracing a single ordinary soldier through such a war, for at that time Hook was every bit as anonymous as his comrades in the ranks. Indeed, were it not for the single extraordinary action at Rorke’s Drift the following year, he would surely have remained so. Wisely, the author doesn’t attempt to give a detailed history of the Zulu campaign, or indeed of Rorke’s Drift, but concentrates on Hook’s participation, which earned him the Victoria Cross and in doing so became the defining experience of his life. Discharged just eighteen months after the battle, Hook clearly had no intention of returning to life on the land, and toyed with the idea of joining first the Cape Mounted Rifles, and then the Yeomen of the Guard. Instead, he secured a post at the British Museum, and had to content his military leanings by joining the local Volunteers.

 Much of the success of this book lies in its evocation of context, of the worlds through which Hook moved, and which serve as a microcosm for thousands like him. Included in the book is a splendid portrait of Hook in 24th uniform, posed beside another man in uniform, presumably a friend; revealingly, it has not been possible to identify this second man. In his description of the world of the British Museum in the 1890s, the author suggests the extent to which Hook’s position broke down this anonymity and gave rise to a growing fame; it brought him into contact on a daily basis with writers and journalists who, attracted by the strip of crimson ribbon on his jacket, were increasingly interested to hear his story at a time when Rorke’s Drift was becoming firmly fixed in the popular imagination. In fact, Hook remained illiterate throughout his life, and all the accounts attributed to him were filtered through the perception of others. As Johnson observes, ‘he became increasingly practised at telling the story’, but ‘as he was becoming more articulate the events which he was describing were becoming more remote in time’. His early accounts have a raw, edgy quality, reflect the confusion of the battle as it must have seemed at the time, and offer disturbing examples of the brutal close-quarter fighting; his later versions have more narrative cohesion, become increasing certain about ambiguous detail, and underplay the horror.

 As a result of this press interest, Hook in his own lifetime saw his actions represented in paintings and in cigarette cards; when he died in 1905, he was given full military honours at his funeral. His reputation, moreover, has continued to grow in recent times, thanks to his prominence in the feature-film Zulu. The author quite rightly points out that the film maligns Hook’s true character, but the relationship between history and the cinema is a complex one, films taking as they do popular myths and reinventing them in new forms for a new generation. The script for Zulu was inspired by a magazine article by John Prebble – entitled Slaughter in the Sun – which in itself was very much part of the Boy’s Own tradition of history-telling. It could be argued, indeed, that films are the cigarette cards of our day, popular snapshots of dramatic events gone by – and without Zulu it is doubtful whether Hook would still be the Victorian Army’s ‘most famous private soldier’.

This book is not only a worthy record of an individual life, which also debunks a few myths along the way – such as the story that Hook’s wife thought he was killed in Zululand, and remarried during his absence – but serves, too, as an insight into the common experiences of many of Hook’s contemporaries, who never had the opportunity to make their mark on history, as he did. Ian Knight

Thursday 12th of January 2006 09:09:20 PM