How can man die better?

How can man die better?

  • Author: Mike Snook
  • Publisher: Greenhill
  • Publish Date: 10/10/2005
  • ISBN: 1-85367-656-X
  • Price: 20

Review By : Elizabeth Hogan

At last, a book about Isandlwana written by a senior officer of the Royal Regiment of Wales, and one who has previously reviewed a number of books on the subject and further, has served with distinction at Pretoria and walked the battlefield on numerous occasions. My first impression of this book was not heightened by the book’s ponderous title, but the title is the author’s choice and he must ride with it. Likewise, the book’s cover relies on the oft repeated picture seen on almost all recent Isandlwana books, and although it may be a favourite of the author, its repetition would not draw me to buy it. And so to the content: As a Zulu War enthusiast, (like Snook, been there and walked the battlefields - repeatedly) I was delighted with the first part of the book. Its account, though rarely new, was well written and Snook’s accompanying photographs clarified the text. I don’t necessarily agree with some of Snook’s findings.

 I think it’s ‘old hat’ to still claim that the Zulu army was patiently waiting at the bottom of the Ngwebeni valley when allegedly discovered by Raw. Even Raw’s account steers one from this assumption. But every author is entitled to his opinion, but opinions need sources and footnotes that can be checked. Here, in my opinion, is the main fault of the book; there are few relevant footnotes, so nothing ‘new’ can be followed up or verified. HCMDB frequently leaves the reader suspended. The second part of the book soon made me uneasy. Snook’s frontal attack on Colonel Durnford RE is, in my view, unworthy. There is a vast amount of primary source material that details Durnford’s actual orders, discovered in the last few years, which justify his known actions at Isandlwana. Snook tries a full character assassination of Durnford and then portrays Pulleine, the regiment’s senior officer at Isandlwana, as a fine example of a commander responding to the approaching Zulus and, on horseback, gallantly riding the front line trying to rectify Durnford’s mistakes. Where on earth has this come from?

 I was also concerned that the text suddenly moved from clear clipped military-speak into hop-bop teenage language. Was Col. Snook rushing to meet a deadline with statements such as ‘Durnford went cowboy’, ‘irresponsible Durnford’ and ‘Durnford’s mind was racing with dreams of military glory’. These are unworthy and irritating taunts; not thoughtful explanatory descriptions that one expects from a senior army officer writing about another. And without footnotes…... It occurred to me that, perhaps, the intention of this book is to perform two tasks; the first is to explain the topography of Isandlwana as a battlefield, which is very well done, Secondly, I wonder if Snook is making a retrospective attempt to re-establish his Regiment’s reputation by dismissing many historians’ views that Col Pulleine failed on the day. It’s well known this was no fault of Pulleine as he’d never previously been in action and was loyally obeying his general’s orders. This part of the book reflects Snook’s apparent main thrust which focuses attention on the official Records of the 24th, written by well-meaning people like Colonel Glyn, but who were not at Isandlwana. Little mention is made of detailed research by Knight, Laband, Whybra, Greaves and a long list of other recent Isandlwana authors. Neither is the archaeology of Isandlwana discussed which, surely, contributes to the evidence? Other crucial aspects which may have led to the British defeat at Isandlwana have been ignored, such as half of Pulleine’s command being engaged dismantling the camp as the Zulus attacked, an event witnessed and confirmed by those lucky to escape the onslaught, and who left detailed accounts, such as Lt. Curling RA.

As a finale, the book tries its readers’ credulity by portraying as fact the famous myth in Records of the 24th of Pulleine handing Melvill the colours, (surely colour Col. Snook?) Snook writes, ‘there is no evidence but, we in the Regiment all know that it happened’. Really? How has this gem eluded the rest of us? My main reservation is for those who buy the book in anticipation of new material; they will be stalled without the gravitas of footnotes and sources. Overall, a good read for those interested in the topography of Isandlwana, though I much prefer David Rattray’s guidebook.

Thursday 12th of January 2006 08:29:12 PM