Colour Sergeant Bourne: “It’s a miracle.”
Lieutenant Chard: “If it’s a miracle, Colour Sergeant, it’s a short chamber Boxer Henry point 45 caliber miracle.”
Bourne: “And a bayonet, sir, with some guts behind.”
From the film Zulu
When I was young, a guy on my paper route turned me onto the movie, Zulu, which was my first exposure to the Battle of Rorke’s Drift. Like most Americans, I had little knowledge of the Anglo Zulu War and if it wasn’t for Zulu I might have glossed over this battle. The movie entranced me because of the incredible odds that the troops faced. For an American, it was as if we had fought the Alamo and had won.
If you are not familiar with the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, it was a battle that took place on 22 January 1879 and more Victoria Crosses (eleven) were awarded in that one battle than any other in a single British engagement. The battle took place the day after a stunning defeat of the British at Isandlwana, where over 1300 British troops and their allies were slaughtered by the same troops that advanced on the mission at Rorke’s Drift.
At Rorke’s Drift, the British created a defensive position around the mission and hospital there and weathered a series of attacks that should have overwhelmed them…yet they prevailed.
The defenders were less than 200 men and militia against a force of 3000-4000 Zulus warriors. The odds were staggering and the day before the British, with much better odds, had been slaughtered. The commanders that day, Lieutenants Bromhead and Chard, had never commanded men in battle before. On paper, they should have lost, but history has a way of cheating mathematicians and statisticians. The British were victorious and handed one of the most recognized victories to emerge from the Victorian era.
Over the years I’ve picked up a number of books on the subject of the battle. There are times I wish I hadn’t – because reading the actual accounts makes you understand how inaccurate parts of the film is. So when I saw Mike Snook’s Like Wolves on the Fold, I already went in with what I thought was a good understanding of the battle. Snook was a historian in the 24th Regiment of Foot, the unit stationed at Rorke’s Drift and not only gives us new insights to the battle, but provides us with a glimpse of how the unit still commemorates the historic battle and reveres the artifacts that still exist from the confrontation.
Snook went back to primary sources and successfully attempts to reconcile historic accounts of the sequence of battle, almost to the man. This is no small undertaking. Previous historians have simply latched onto one account or another and used that as the basis for their analysis. Snook parses these accounts in the way that only a skill historian can. The results is probably the best account of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift.
The author wrote this book to stand alone but in all fairness, his prequel work, How Can Man Die Better, covers the tragic events at Isandlwana the day before. I read them out of sequence because I was more interested in Rorke’s Drift, but the two books could almost have been published together in a single tome.
I am a junkie for the appendix of non-fiction books and Like Wolves on the Fold doesn’t disappoint. It provides a summary of all of the key figures and, where possible, the original accounts of the fighting. As a historian myself I have read many battle reports, but reading these was a real treat.
Zulu remains one of my favorite films of all time. Like Wolves on the Fold may be the last book I ever buy on this subject, because it is so well done and so complete. Five out of five stars.