When a Zulu Impi attacked and destroyed a British encampment at the foot of the sphinx-shaped hill locally known as Isandhlwana, on Wednesday 22nd January 1879, it sparked a series of political and military incidents that are, even today, still faintly echoing around southern Africa. It is the detail of this momentous military engagement, The Battle of Isandhlwana, which is the subject of this work; the author's first published book.
Lt Col Mike Snook is a serving regular officer of the Royal Regiment of Wales and is clearly a man passionate about his Regiment's history; moreover, this book is written with the professional eye of a soldier who has an in-depth knowledge and a deep understanding of his subject matter. By using a mixture of first hand accounts and primary source documents, drawing upon later academic and non-academic books and essays, as well as an extensive first hand knowledge of the area of Zululand in which the focus of the book is based, Lt Col Snook has attempted to gather together the reasons why the British force at Isandhlwana was annihilated all those years ago.
In his preface, Mike Snook states that he was not setting out to write a detailed academic dissertation about the battle, but to reconstruct Isandhlwana using primary sources and where gaps appear, to use military logic and a professional soldier's eye for ground to fill in the missing pieces. This he achieves.
The topography of Zululand, the all important ground over which a land war is fought, is the bed-rock to this excellent book. The author uses the terrain, every detail of it, to describe as logically as possible how the battle was waged. Over this base he has laid the personalities of those involved, military and civilian; British, colonial and, to a lesser extent (because of the lack of reliable sources), Zulu. The third main area of interest to Snook is the actions of the combatants; who did what, when and why? By using the accounts of those who fought and then by relating these to the topography and finally, by matching the whole to [a figurative synchronisation matrix of] time and space, the battle unfolds to the reader. Whilst the author concedes that his reconstruction might not be perfect, it is a refreshingly military-orientated approach and one that I found to be both easy and very enjoyable to read. Command relationships are discussed, staff appointments are defined and individual commander's weaknesses identified.
As with every publication, one can have criticisms. These, however are very few and verge on nit-picking. Firstly, it is a shame that excellent photographs of the Zululand landscape are not in colour. Secondly, a separate or fold out map might have given the reader the advantage of relating Mike Snook's extensive narrative to an easily referenced map without the vexation of constantly having to refer to the section of photographs. Lastly, and whilst acknowledging the author's desire not to write an academic work, the lack of footnotes giving sources to statements and facts is disappointing in what is clearly an extremely widely researched book; as the bibliography makes clear.
So, is this a recommendation to add this title to your bookshelves? Most definitely yes.
(The British Army Review No.139)
How Can Man Die Better? is by Mike Snook, a serving Lieutenant Colonel in The Royal Regiment of Wales. His main purpose was to highlight the immense courage and professional skill of his Regiment's predecessor The 24th Regiment of Foot, which lost six and a half companies at Isandlwana, fighting to the last man with bayonet when the ammunition finally ran out.
Snook has produced a very detailed and well-researched account of that dreadful battle: the movements and actions of the individual 24th companies are meticulously described, even down to the places where they made their last stands, and where their bodies were found.
The author is icily scornful of some recent revisionist books which have insinuated that the two subalterns who tried to save the Queen's Colour were unduly anxious to save their own skins: that Chard (RE) and Bromhead (24th) who commanded at Rorke's Drift were third raters who did not deserve their VCs; and that the nationwide acclaim for Rorke's Drift was a “spin” operation to cover up the failure at Isandlwana. Snook will have none of that.
He also refutes one or two well-established myths. The 24th's ammunition supply did not run out at the climax of the battle: he points out that each man had 70 rounds and could not have fired much more than half of them by the time the Zulus broke in. And the Quartermasters did not have to undo ten screws on each box - there was a quick access panel with a sliding lid secured by only one screw, as is apparent in the surviving specimens in the Brecon Museum. Of course everyone ran out of bullets at the very end, but earlier the only failure of supply was that of Colonel Durnford's Colonial horsemen - which was in fact a decisive factor in the Zulu break-in. Also, the native infantry levies did not break and let in the Zulus: they were too scared to be in the front line.
The truth is that the camp at Isandlwana was, as laid out, indefensible against an enveloping attack by very large numbers of brave and determined Zulus. If a much smaller perimeter had been given some all-round fortification (as was to happen at Rorke's Drift) things might have turned out better.
This book is a wonderful tribute to the courage and professionalism of our Army, and to 'the majesty with which the British soldier fights.' I highly commend it, and await with great interest the promised successor book about Rorke's Drift.
Review by Dawn Grant
The Battle of Isandlwana fascinates and confounds us. Fascinates because an Imperial army equipped with the latest in breech loading rifles was decimated by an army of supposed 'savages' armed in the most part with spears and assegais. It confounds us because so little is known of the battle itself, especially the final moments. In How Can Man Die Better, Mike reconstructs the battle using the knowledge gained during battlefield visits, written accounts of the men who were there and his own military logic. How Can a Man Die Better attempts to strip away the conjecture that has gone before and build up a picture of the battle as accurately as possible. Whether the scenario put forward is the correct one, is impossible to tell for, as Mike puts it, those who were witnesses to the final denouement did not live to recount it. However, much of what is stated is backed up by sound reasoning that cannot be discounted. In the end, the readers will have to make up their own minds.
How Can a Man Die Better is written in a conversational style that is easy enough for a non-military person to follow. It is an in-depth examination of the Battle of Isandlwana and, while it can be read on its own, it is probably better appreciated if the reader already has a general overview of the battle and of the campaign itself. The illustrations include photographs of the present day battlefield marked with the battle lines. These give the reader a grasp of the scale of the battle. However, this reader would have liked at least one topographical map giving an indication of the position of some of the landmarks mentioned in the text. But this is a small point in what is a remarkable and insightful book.