Like Wolves on the Fold: The Defence of Rorke’s Drift
by Mike Snook, Greenhill Books, London, (distributed by MBI, Galtier Plaza, Minn.), 2006, $34.95.
Late in 1878, Sir Henry Edward Bartle Frere, the British governor of Cape Colony and high commissioner for native affairs in South Africa, started a war against the neighboring Zulu kingdom. Up to that time, the Zulus had coexisted with the British Cape Colony, paying it an annual tax of 5,000 pounds sterling. By the time the Anglo-Zulu War ended in August 1879, it had cost Britain 5 million pounds, taken the life of the exiled French Prince Imperial Louis Napoleon, embarrassed the leading world power of the 19th century and helped cost Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli the next election.
This unusual African conflict inspired numerous books, including two by Mike Snook, a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Regiment of Wales, which in its earlier guise, as the 24th Regiment of Foot, played a prominent role in both Britain’s shocking defeat at Isandlwana on January 22, 1879, and its stunning victory at Rorke’s Drift the next day. Having described the former battle in How Can Man Die Better: The Secrets of Isandlwana Revealed, Snook devotes himself to its sequel in Like Wolves on the Fold.
Although the legendary defense of Rorke’s Drift has certainly been documented before, Snook’s second book is a brilliant historical achievement. From the beginning his narrative leaps from each page to the next, making the reader feel as if he is sometimes standing alongside Lieutenants John Chard and Gonville Bromhead. Even so, when objectively read the book clearly gives equal recognition to the martial courage of the defending British soldiers and attacking Zulu warriors alike.
In spite—or perhaps because—of having written of it in his first book, in Like Wolves on the Fold Snook returns to the reasons for the defeat at Isandlwana. I do not agree with the author’s conceit that Lt. Col. Henry Pulleine’s six companies were insufficient to protect the camp, and that he needed at least 10. As Rorke’s Drift proved, one company might have been able to defend it if Pulleine had been John Chard. It largely came down to leadership. Poor commanders punctuated Britain’s imperialist wars with such humiliating setbacks as Isandlwana, Maiwand, Majuba Hill, Khartoum and Spioenkop. Others, even junior officers and the men they led, could redeem the army with a seeming miracle like Rorke’s Drift.
Like Wolves on the Fold is a highly recommended addition to the Zulu War enthusiast’s library. It is a very well documented and outstandingly written saga of what may well be considered a Thermopylae of the British Army.
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.