Ian Beckett's Isandlwana 1879

Ian Beckett's Isandlwana 1879


  • Author: Ian Beckett
  • Publisher: Brasseys
  • Price: 14.99

Review By : Ian Knight

Brassey’s new Battles in Focus series offers concise, well-illustrated introductions to famous battles written by experts in the field. In that, the series has much in common with the well-established Osprey Campaigns series, which it much resembles – without, it must be said, the colour artwork and ‘birds’-eye-view’ maps which add so much to Osprey’s visual impact. Indeed, though Ian Beckett’s title is also well illustrated, most of the pictures included here will be familiar to Anglo-Zulu War buffs. It is interesting that Isandlwana is one of the first titles to be included in a new series; fifteen years ago, when this reviewer was writing his first book on the subject, publishers regarded the Anglo Zulu War as a fringe interest, and it is a measure of its burgeoning popularity that it is now considered mainstream.

 Perceptions of the battle of Isandlwana have changed across that time, too; once regarded as a rather embarrassing prelude to the famous action at Rorke’s Drift, it is beginning to take its rightful place as the defining moment of arguably Britain’s best-known colonial war, an icon for the progress of the British Empire in Africa, and a symbol of the resistance of African peoples against it. This shift has by no means been painless, and the reappraisal of Isandlwana has led to heated disputes among historians as new theories have emerged, been accepted – or rejected. Professor Ian Beckett is a worthy analyst who needs little introduction to VMS members – his credentials include influential posts in the Department of War Studies at Sandhurst and Leeds University, and a he is a respected and much-published scholar of the Victorian Army. For the most part, he brings this expertise deftly to bear, treading carefully and lightly through the contentious areas, pointing out the areas of debate, and presenting alternatives before offering any conclusions. This, if nothing else, makes this book a useful summary for the general reader of the current state of academic play. It is interesting to note, however, that the vigorous debates about the battle seem to be producing as many ambiguities as they resolve, and a number of elements are presented here with a degree of certainty that the on-going and often acrimonious wrangling does not entirely justify.

Is it really true, for example, that 2nd Lt. ‘Dyson’s section [of the 1/24th] was overwhelmed at a very early stage’ of the battle? This view is based on observations of a particular burial cairn carried out by the late George Chadwick, apparently in the 1970s. Yet the exact position of this cairn cannot now be ascertained – that part of the battlefield having been heavily disturbed – which makes it difficult to locate its context within the broader course of the battle. Moreover, Mr Chadwick himself was clearly wary of drawing too many conclusions from this cairn, for while it did indeed contain remains consistent with British dead, he was careful to note that ‘This does not necessarily indicate heavy casualties at these points’. The only evidence from survivors’ sources is even less ambiguous; Captain Essex, who took the order to Dyson’s section to withdraw from the ridge, merely noted that the Zulus ‘rushed forward as soon as our men disappeared below the crest’ – a phrase which does not suggest any direct conflict. There is, moreover, a complete absence of direct Zulu evidence from any warrior who claimed to have attacked Dyson’s section on the ridge – despite intense rivalry among the Zulu amabutho to claim the honour of being the first to ‘stab’ the white men. Similarly, was a working party from the camp really overwhelmed on the road behind Isandlwana? If so, who were they? All the available evidence suggests that a fatigue party of the 1/24th had been working on the road in front of Isandlwana, not behind, on the morning of the battle, in preparation for the forthcoming advance – but was recalled before the action began. Nor were the column’s scant compliment of Engineers in much of a position to work on the road that day - Lt. MacDowell, No. 3 Column’s Engineer officer, had been at Mangeni with Lord Chelmsford before the battle, and had only returned to Isandlwana as the Zulu attack developed; he was supposedly seen handing out ammunition at the height of the fighting, and his body was found in the camp, not by the road.

The Sappers from Lt. Chard’s company, ordered up from Rorke’s Drift – presumably with this work in mind – similarly only just arrived in camp in time to be killed. And were ‘Martini-Henry rifles undoubtedly used [by the Zulus] at Rorke’s Drift’? The medical reports of British wounded strongly suggest that not a single British casualty in that battle was caused by Martini-Henry bullets – despite the fact that it was the most efficient weapon on the field, and in stark contrast to later battles such as Kambula, where they were undoubtedly used. The only references to them among eyewitness accounts were written much later, when the looting of the camp at Isandlwana was common knowledge, so it seems unlikely. Furthermore, a note bearing a battlefield order, which only came to light recently and is cited here as evidence, is now generally accepted to be a fake. These points should not generally detract from the value of this useful book – but they do serve as a reminder of the way in which the process of historical debate is – frustratingly, for the average reader - an organic one, a constant ‘work in progress’ in which the points of reference are not always as fixed as one would hope. It is a shame, too, that even a writer of this calibre must see his book promoted by his publishers with essentially colonial clichés, since his text is distinctly at odds with the blurb offering promising us ‘ruthless, primitive Zulu action against a small British encampment’. Certainly I would be embarrassed to speak of the battle in such terms to my Zulu friends.

Thursday 12th of January 2006 08:14:20 PM