A Solemn Mockery

A Solemn Mockery


  • Author: Dr Jonathan Hicks
  • Publisher: Fielding Publishing
  • ISBN: 0-9551954-0-3
  • Price: 14.99

Review By : Dr Adrian Greaves

This new book, presumably based on Dr Hick’s PhD, is theoretically fertile ground for research. My first impression was that Dr Hicks was playing a joke on his readers, it is a not-so-solemn mockery of other authors and historians, who Hicks dismisses as commentators. Some are highly respected academics, who have far more deeply researched the subject matter than Hicks, yet Hicks short shrifts their well-argued and meticulously researched findings, often without any explanation – I presume he left the research in his PhD? Hicks’ book misleads the reader by his use of unjustified or inaccurate pronouncements.

His challenge of known primary sources, coupled with his lack of alternative explanations or new research, renders the book useless to anyone wishing to learn about the conflict in Zululand. It is very much a ‘fire and forget’ work and I quote a small selection of examples that hit me between the eyes with regard to some of my own work of the last 20 years.

1. p7 quote 6. "Only Saul David has touched on suggesting that this action (Melvill and Coghill’s flight from the battlefield) was not as laudable as previously portrayed". To say the least, this quote is grossly untrue. It is easy to offer a wide variety of well established historians and researchers who have deeply researched this aspect. In my case, Hicks has ignored my article in Journal 2 (AZWHS), which was expanded on in my Isandlwana and Redcoats and Zulus. Hicks provides an excellent bibliography but his quote unwittingly suggests that, maybe, Saul David's is the only book he researched?

 2. On p 79. Hicks states of Lieutenants Coghill and Melvill….."both men gave up after a brief swim to the riverbank". Brief swim? Has he never been to the battlefields and seen this mighty river, or the steepness of the Natal riverbank? If not, he could have read the Guidebook to the Zulu War or my Redcoats and Zulus. On the day in question the river was in full flood and could be heard a mile away. Even on a still day (which it wasn’t) with the river low (it was raging having burst its banks) the swim across Fugitives’ Drift is treacherous.

3. Hick’s footnotes 54 and 55 relate to the defence of the Isandlwana camp and consist of selected parts of my book The Curling Letters. Hicks uses them selectively to denigrate Curling’s eye witness account written within hours of his escape, alongside my own research – all based on primary evidence of what survivors saw in the camp as it was being overrun. Hicks dismisses this with his unexplained pronouncement; "they were not packing the tents away until the final orders…..as has been suggested by one commentator".   OK then, why not tell us what the soldiers in camp were doing?

 4. p233 Hicks writes "Holmes in his introduction to Greaves implies that the writer is tackling the myths of Durnford and the ammunition controversy for the first time”. Prof. Holmes implied nothing of the sort – he actually wrote…"Dr Greaves uses recently discovered material to exonerate Durnford and to suggest that the faulty dispositions at Isandlwana stemmed from Lord Chelmsford’s own standing orders". (Prof. Holmes is correct. I meticulously investigated the actual orders given to Durnford, originally found on or near Durnford\\\'s body, orders which had only recently been discovered in a tin box at Chatham, and I reproduced them for the first time – and in colour. Prof. Holmes continues…."Perhaps the most durable myth is that which suggests that the British lost because they ran out of ammunition. Adrian Greaves comprehensively debunks this and in doing so gives the battle its proper balance". Prof. Holmes is again totally correct. Hicks completely misses the point that I addressed the ammunition debate in the book because it was a durable myth! I have further investigated this in my various books and AZWHS Journals.

Now, for the record, I actually approve of having my work reduced by anyone who produces new evidence – but Hicks is the first to do so without producing evidence! Perhaps he has misunderstood the role of mythology in the context of the Zulu War? A definition of what Hicks believes constitutes a myth would have been helpful – then one could understand what he was trying to prove. My own view is that there are few Zulu War myths, merely conflicting accounts and, in some instances, a lack of evidence.

Dr Adrian Greaves

NOTE; Dr Hicks was invited to comment on the above review – his reply is still awaited. Site Controller.

Friday 01st of December 2006 12:04:49 PM

Review By : Ian Knight

This is a privately-published paperback based on Jonathan Hicks’ PhD, and it addresses the gulfs between the popular understanding of history – specifically in this case the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 – and the so-called ‘reality’, and attempts to chart the way in which modern myths owe their origin at least in part to the deliberate contemporary manipulation of facts. In particular, the author looks at a number of iconic incidents from the war – the ‘last stand’ of the 24th Regiment at Isandlwana, the attempts by Lt Melvill and Coghill to save the Queen’s Colour during the same battle, the defence of Rorke’s Drift, the action at Ntombe Drift and the court martial of Lt. Carey following the death of the Prince Imperial – and attempts to draw out consistent threads in the war courage was rewarded at the time, and blame apportioned, and to assess how this has influenced popular mythology.

Certainly, there is much that is worthwhile in this approach, as the British invasion of Zululand in 1879 has become one of the most mythologised of all Victorian campaigns. Indeed ironically, while it was regarded by British politicians at the time as a minor affair, distinguished only by its calamities and over-shadowed by far more serious events in Afghanistan, it has come to stand in the popular consciousness today as an emblem of British nineteenth-century military adventures in general. And much of this undoubtedly results from the obvious contradictions of the war which can be encapsulated in technicolour snap-shots of courage and folly; not only has Sir Stanley Baker’s 1964 epic film Zulu become firmly implanted in the popular mind as the defining image of heroic redcoats defending bad causes on the far-flung borders of Empire, but Charles’ Fripp’s painting of the battle of Isandlwana – which conspicuously failed to arouse critical interest when it was first exhibited – is now the mostly widely-reproduced image of Empire on the cover of modern books about the conflicts of the period.

Quite how the Anglo-Zulu War has achieved this status, and the contrast with the reality of the campaign itself, is certainly worthy of an exhaustive study. If Dr Hicks chose to address the more theoretical aspects of the impact of war on popular memory, however, he presumably left them in his PhD, as they are not in this book. Instead, what we have is a picking over of essentially well-worn debates about the war. Were Durnford, the NNC or ammunition boxes to blame for the British defeat at Isandlwana? If they were not, did Lord Chelmsford – or someone on his behalf – suggest that they were, in order to deflect attention from his own failings? Did Melvill and Coghill leave the camp at Isandlwana together, were they really trying to save the Colours, and did their action warrant the later award of the Victoria Cross? To what extent was the surviving officer at Ntombe Drift, Lt. Henry Harward, vilified in order that the actions of Sergeant Booth – who won the VC for rallying a group of men during the retreat – might be exploited to rehabilitate the image of the 80th Regiment? In what way did the actions of Coghill, Harward and J. Brenton Carey differ, and are the vastly different positions they occupy in the litany of Zulu War heroism and villainy at all justified?

In other words, it looks at areas that seem to be the subject of most popular studies of the war now (which is a little odd as the author acknowledges few modern works in his footnotes, though it is obvious enough where he has referred to them) – and most of which has been done better elsewhere. Indeed – let’s be honest and confess a personal response – I found a number of echoes of my own work (unacknowledged) in here, notably my Zulu; The Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, Nothing Remains But to Fight, and in particular With His Face to the Foe where I also toyed with the ambiguities of the popular perception of courage and cowardice, comparing, as it happens, much the same examples. Nor is there anything new about the revelation that British soldiers killed wounded Zulus after Rorke’s Drift, which has been considered in almost every book published on the battle in the last ten years. The Isandlwana ammunition question has been debated pretty thoroughly in The Journal of Army Historical Research and elsewhere, while it is almost commonplace now to damn Lord Chelmsford’s incompetence; rather too commonplace, in my view, since it has led to an over-simplification of the challenges which faced him. In hindsight, his failings are obvious enough, but that rather misses the true question which is surely whether, given the context of time and available intelligence, Chelmsford’s command decisions can be understood at all. All too often they can – although of course at Isandlwana, in particular, they turn out to be wrong. It is easy, now, to spot a strain of arrogance in his decision to ignore the advice of local white settlers who, on the eve of the invasion, urged him to always laager his wagons. And yet, as a professional soldier who had been involved a campaign against a southern African enemy only months before, who knew the strengths and weaknesses of his own men far better than the settlers – who had never seen British troops in action, and were relying on experiences of battles against the Zulus fought forty years before – is it any wonder Chelmsford relied instead on his own judgement?

Like other recent popular works, this book seems to miss the point that the court of inquiry following Isandlwana was not in any sense an impartial investigation into the conduct of the campaign; it was merely an intelligence-gathering exercise established by Chelmsford to answer to his own satisfaction the question of what had occurred at the camp during his absence. Moreover, in looking at the mixed reactions of the officers of the 80th Regiment to the events at Ntombe, the author might have made more of the inferences of the fact that Lt. Harward was not court-martialled until almost a year after the action, had during most of that time continued to serve with the battalion, and was found not guilty by a court of his peers. Interesting though some of the ideas considered here are, they would have benefited from a deeper examination of the codes of honour and duty which bound the Victorian Army of the period, and which circumscribed the behaviour of the officers in particular. Wolseley’s damning comments about Melvill and Coghill reflect his deep belief that discipline in the Army depended to a large degree on the faith in which ordinary soldiers – who were on foot – held their officers – who were often mounted – to stand by them in times of difficulty. If officers who could get away did so, as many of those discussed here attempted to do, the bonds of tradition and loyalty which bound them to their men, and which shaped behaviour in battle, might collapse. Other references outside the period also illuminate some of these points. It seems to me in attempting to tease out the truth of Lt Melvill’s actions at Isandlwana, it is interesting to compare them to those of Col. Galbraith at the battle of Maiwand, in Afghanistan, a year later, who ordered the Colours of the 66th Regiment to be unfurled at a similarly critical moment of the battle, while some consideration of the African perspective – both Zulu and NNC – would add illuminating insights into some of the debates addressed here.

Rather too little notice has been taken, in my view, of Professor John Laband’s work on the Zulu army and Dr Paul Thomson’s work on the Natal Native Contingent. The assertion, for example, that the Zulu right ‘horn’ was the first to enter the camp at Isandlwana can only be made without reference to Zulu sources – which stress that the uMbonambi regiment, on the centre-left, entered the camp first between Durnford’s command and Pope’s company of the 24th – and the evidence of Durnford’s surviving officers, which says much the same thing (so, as it happens, does Lt. Curling of the Artillery). Indeed, while much of the criticism of Imperial conduct from colonial sources carries a good deal of weight, it is important to note that it was made at a time when the defeat at Isandlwana had exposed significant cracks in the unity of purpose between the local settler viewpoint and that of the British military. Generally, the Zulu perspective is given only cursory consideration here, and there are some sweeping generalisations which it would be difficult to support - it is not true, for example, that in 1879 individual Zulu amabutho contained men from a variety of age-groups; as late as the 1920s court interpreters in the Natal civil service were able to judge the ages of elderly Zulus with reference to the regiments in which they had served. The interpretation of King Cetshwayo’s reaction to Shepstone’s ‘coronation laws’ is glib and does little justice to the subtle and complex power-plays which lay beneath the coronation expedition. While it is true that the Zulus are not the focus of the study, this is nevertheless odd given the amount of excellent and readily-available work there is on the subject. Nor, indeed, is it particularly true that British ‘battlefield tactics had varied little over the preceding century and at the time of the Anglo-Zulu War still consisted of rigid line formations, volley-fire and bayonet charges’; in fact the Army of the 1870s was on the cusp of great changes, the product of an on-going struggle between conservative elements and reformers, and these were already having an impact on battlefield tactics. At Isandlwana, in fact, there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that a contributing factor to the British defeat was the use of ‘modern’ extended open-order formations by the 24th; ironically Chelmsford actually won the war by reverting to more traditional close-order formations, like the square, which were increasingly regarded as obsolete by progressive military theorists.

Also, I must admit, I would have liked a greater definition of the term ‘myth’ and its use in this context, since there is little distinction between the word in the context of something which is false – which is believed to have happened, but did not – and something which occurred and afterwards accrued a mythic significance. The story that one of the 24th defended a cave on the slopes of Isandlwana until finally killed by a volley of Zulu rifle-fire has certainly been mythologised – but is it a myth? It comes from a first-hand account by a Zulu eyewitness, who saw it – which means that the incident itself is as much a fact as any other we can lay claim to in the confused, fragmentary, trauma-ridden and often self-serving product of damaged memories which pass for first-hand evidence about the battle.

All in all, it seems that the reality of the war of 1879, as with others, defies understanding ever more with each attempt to define it; which is perhaps hardly surprising, as ‘history is merely lies agreed upon by historians’, and with this war more than most there remains, for all that is written about it, precious little agreement.

Friday 17th of November 2006 02:53:46 PM