Like Wolves on the Fold

April 21st, 2009 | by Sqotty |

Last night I finished reading Like Wolves on the Fold: The Defence of Rorke’s Drift by Lt. Col. Mike Snook. This book details out how the battle came about in the aftermath of the British defeat at Isandlwana, how the defensive perimeter was laid out, the geography of the area, and how the battle unfolded. Snook also dispels a number of myths that surrounded the battle and the men who fought.

My interest in this particular battle stems from having watched (on more than one occasion) the movie Zulu, which starred Michael Caine as Lt. Gonville Bromhead. The movie, although brilliantly produced, contains numerous inaccuracies, especially about the mindset of the Zulu warrior and the character of some of the British defenders (most notably Pvt. Alfred Hook. This is not to say the movie is dimmed in any way – it is a very well cast film with excellent performances turned in by the entire cast, with excellent writing and cinematography. It still remains a favorite.

Snook details out how the detachment at Rorke’s Drift were alerted to the advancing Zulu regiments by survivor’s of the Isandlwana battle, most of whom continued on their way Helpmekaar. Prior to the alert, the B company commander, Major Spalding departed for Helpmekaar with the intent of returning in the evening, leaving Lt. Chard (senior Lieutenant on the scene) in charge. His words were to the effect “Don’t worry, nothing will happen.”

Chard and the other officers determined that their best chance was to stand in fight, and began building up a defensive perimeter for the roughly 150 British troops and some 300 native levies. As the extent of the disaster at Isandlwana became better known, the native levies deserted, leaving the redcoats and a few other European officers and noncoms holding the bag.

Another myth about this battle that Snook dispels is that the large number of Victoria Crosses awarded, eleven in total, was a means to shift the public focus away from the defeat at Isandlwana. Snook asserts that this is not so as the award recommendations did not come out of a political arm, but from the military based on the reports of the officers and men involved in the battle. It is also possible that there would have been more VCs awarded had the tradition at the time allowed for posthumous awards.

Like Wolves on the Fold is a military man’s view of how the battle transpired, from the defense of the makeshift “walls” of the perimeter to the battle within the hospital and the escape there from to the re-established line. One get’s a sense of what it was like to be in this battle. Even the tactical mistakes that were made on the side of the British were more a function of a lack of time to fully prepare for the battle rather than having been overlooked.

The only weakness in this book, in my opinion (for the two cents that’s worth!) is the final section where Snook gets into the “blame game” of why Isandlwana took place, although he does include some thoughts on what could have been done to turn that battle into a victory rather than a shocking massacre.

Overall, it is an excellent read, especially for those who are interested in military history and the Battle of Rorke’s Drift. It also contains numerous maps and photos concerning the battle.

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