Review By : Ian Knight
Hill of the Sphinx by FWD Jackson. Westerners’ Publications Limited (90, Babbacombe Road, Bromley, BR1 3LS), 83 pages, paperback, £10.00 (2004) Available from all good bookshops. Almost lost among the rush of books on the Anglo Zulu War is another study of Isandlwana published recently, David Jackson’s The Hill of the Sphinx. In 1965, Jackson published a series of articles on the battle in the Journal of the Society of Army Historical Research, which were to have a devastating effect on the historiography of the battle. Working entirely from primary sources, Jackson constructed a view which differed radically from the one first set out in the War Office’s official history, and which had been later taken up and elaborated by popular historians. Jackson’s incisive research was the first to question the conventional view of British dispositions during the battle, and to overturn such old chestnuts as the theory that the 24th Regiment ran out of ammunition at the height of the battle.
He went on to expound his views in an important debate with Donald R. Morris in the pages of this Journal, and in a contribution to the VMS’ Anglo Zulu War centenary publication, There Will Be An Awful Row At Home About This. As such, his work has heavily influenced most subsequent studies – including, incidentally, Ian Becketts and my own. This new publication is a revised and enlarged re-working of those original 1965 articles, presented in an A4 soft-cover format. It is illustrated with some new maps – greatly improved from the ones originally published – and numerous illustrations, including colour views of the battlefields (which, taken in 1979, already look dated, showing far less Zulu settlement, and not a tourist lodge in sight!). Well aware of the problems which ‘arise through quasi-history … fake documents and … the invention of details’, Jackson confines himself to primary sources, and while this may give his account less dash to the general reader than many popular studies, his style reveals occasional flashes of ironic humour (‘my grandfather … was commissioned a year after the Zulu War into the … Loyal Lincoln Volunteers. They did have one man from Lincolnshire …’) and many myths melt away under his relentless and perceptive analysis. If there are faults, they are largely those of omission; Jackson’s principle focus is on the officers and men of the 1/24th Regiment, and it is through them that this account largely unfolds. It might have been nice to see the something of John Laband’s work on the Zulu army in 1879 reflected here, or of Paul Thompson’s study of the black auxiliary troops who fought for the British. Moreover, since he is concerned only with the events at Isandlwana, the author’s sketches of background and peripheral characters are necessarily sparse. Nevertheless, it is a measure of the weight of Jackson’s work that the huge amount of energy expended since 1965 in investigating the battle – including the discovery of previously unknown Zulu accounts, and a preliminary archaeological survey of the battlefield – have validated his view rather than challenged it.
The author quotes Capt. Molyneux – Chelmsford’s ADC, who was on sick-leave in England at the time of the battle – as saying that ‘the subject of Isandlwana has been talked and written about much more by those who knew nothing about it than by those who were in the country’, a comment which one cannot help but ponder ruefully 125 years later. This book, however, remains an essential read for anyone with a serious interest in the battle.