Zulu! The Battle for Rorke's Drift 1879

This book is a re-issue of an earlier work by Edmund Yorke entitled Rorke’s Drift 1879: Anatomy of an Epic Zulu War Siege (Tempus, 2001) but is none the worse for it. Drawn mainly from primary sources it claims to provide ‘an intimate account’ of this iconic engagement and, to a very great extent, it succeeds rather well. Unlike most books on this very popular subject, Yorke actually takes the time to set the battle into its context, and as such provides a very good chapter on the causes of the war, and thus answers the central question of how those famous redcoats came to be behind the mealie bags in the first place. He does well to pay no more than lip service to claims that the war was driven by a desire to dispossess indigenous African peoples of their lands for devious capitalist motives – before the 1886 gold discoveries, Southern Africa was an economic basket case – and instead stresses the strategic motives for a pre-emptive war against the Zulus. He also does well to present the man directly responsible for the war, Sir Bartle Frere, as less of a high-handed maverick and more of a victim of political machinations back in London. Where Yorke does fall down is in failing to connect Frere to the wider crisis of 1878-79 when Britain almost went to war with Russia, and in which Frere was a major player. This is, however, a common error made by historians of the Anglo-Zulu war, mainly because the research on this issue is only now beginning to trickle out. Similarly, Yorke writes a good chapter on the political fall-out from Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, relating the arguments over who was responsible for this crisis without falling into the trap of dismissing Chelmsford’s defence and subsequent exoneration as ‘spin’ – for me, Durnford was always the villain.


The battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift are competently related through clear, detailed exposition and two ‘Battle Analyses’ in which he discusses the battles through the prism of British military theory, and thus avoids the pitfalls of both anti-imperialistic polemic and ‘Boy’s Own’ rhetoric while being genuinely enlightening. He is rather harsh on Chelmsford in presenting him as a blunderer rather than a victim of sheer bad luck, for my taste; Sir Evelyn Wood VC made all the same ‘errors’ as Chelmsford before the Battle of Khambula in March 1879, yet emerged the victor. At the same time, Yorke does a good job in presenting the defenders of Rorke’s Drift – both officers and men – in a believable light and dismisses fashionable accusations of incompetence and charges of deliberate atrocity against them; the basis of the first charge is Wolseley’s personal journal, which is great fun to read for its vitriolic venting of the pent-up spleen which the great general was never able to publicly express but which is therefore hardly a reliable collection of balanced judgements for that very reason; the basis of the second charge is that Zulu wounded were deliberately massacred as part of a policy of genocide and is so risible as to be hardly worth answering.


Where Yorke does court controversy is in arguing that the defence of Rorke’s Drift saved Natal from a more general Zulu invasion. This is much against the general consensus that Cetshwayo had no such intentions even if these particular Zulus were inclined to ignore them on a temporary basis. Yorke argues that capture of the mealie supplies at Rorke’s Drift would have enabled the Zulus to press right on into the colony, but this is a very big claim; even with full bellies, Pietermaritzburg would be a very long eighty miles away across country with Chelmsford’s army and two other columns still in their rear. However, the book remains a very good read, is far better than some weightier tomes, is likely to appeal to both specialists and the more general reader, and I would thus recommend it on both counts.


Damian O’Connor
Author of The Zulu and the Raj: The Life of Sir Bartle Frere (Knebworth, 2002)

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