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Subject: How Can Man Die Better. A Review on the Web. Sun Mar 13, 2011 10:41 pm
"How Can Man Die Better tells the story of the destruction of a battalion of the British 24th Regiment at the battle of Isandlwana. It's a fascinating tale, one of the great military epics, and any book on the subject, merely by using proper punctuation and complete sentences, will garner at least two stars.
During the first two-thirds, Col. Mike Snook's book was up at four stars. He's a military man, a member of the 24th, and thus not propulsively readable. He writes in a workmanlike fashion, slinging idioms and military jargon with abandon. His liability - not being a writer - is balanced by his unique advantage: being a military man. He's been on the ground and has looked it over with a practiced eye. Never under estimate how different the military mind thinks from that of a civilian mind. I look at a hill and marvel at a jackrabbit humping a squirrel in the grass; a soldier looks at a hill and thinks about elevation, fields of fire, egress points, etc.
As the book wore on, though, I became more and more disenchanted. This is a work of post-revisionism revisionism. Snook sets out to change Isandlwana from an epic defeat to, in his words, one of the greatest fighting withdrawals in the annals of warfare. More and more, I got the feeling that Snook was something of a homer. By the end, I was positive; his objectivity called into question, I was forced to reevaluate everything that came before.
There are no real secrets to be revealed, as the subtitle promises, unless you don't know anything about the battle, in which case, as Truman said, "the only thing we do not know is the history we've yet to learn." The one interesting thing Snook points out is the utter fallacy of the official history, which posited that two native companies, positioned in the center of the British firing line, gave way, thus allowing the Zulus to smash through the center and roll up both flanks. Donald Morris, unfortunately, repeats this lie verbatim in The Washing of the Spears, his magisterial account of the rise and fall of the Zulu nation.
Snook's "secret" is actually his theory of battle. Interestingly, as I read this book, I had The Washing of the Spear and Lock and Quantrill's Zulu Victoryopen beside me, just to compare. Morris, as noted above, fell for the whole pseudo-racist-it-was-the-blacks-in-the-center-of-the-firing-line-that-caused-the-British-defeat theory. This theory, of course, is patently absurd, as the British were under orders not to allow colonial troops in their firing lines; besides, even if it wasn't an order, the British professionals did not think much of the black levies, and would not have placed them in the center of their battalion. This bogus story came about because the British, having just gotten their butts kicked by black soldiers, decided to blame the defeat on their own blacks. Really cute, England. Lock and Quantrill's theory is that the left flank gave way, and that it was Mostyn and Cavaye's F and E companies (which had been firing since very early in the day and were running low on ammo) that collapsed, while Companies A, H, and G kept up a solid front, never knowing that the battle was being lost at their backs.
Snook takes the exact opposite tack as Lock and Quantrill, and posits that the left flank remained strong throughout, and that it was the right flank, already exposed, that gave way following Col. Anthony Durnford's retreat from the Nyogane Donga. Following Durnford's collapse, due to a lack of ammunition, Pope's G Company was left unattached to the firing line and overwhelmed, while H Company made a fighting withdrawal.
I guess I'm fine with this reconstruction. The accepted telling of the story, which was of a stable front followed by an instantaneous collapse precipitated somewhere along the line, never felt adequate (it's also difficult because the European survivors were already long gone by the time the final men died on the field). Still, even though Snook's theory makes sense, it just doesn't feel supported. It doesn't help that he doesn't use notes, AT ALL. Or that as the book progresses, he relies phrases such as "so-and-so must have..." or "he probably..." or "this or that undoubtedly happened..." or "there is no doubt..." The more often you tell me something undoubtedly happened, the more I start to doubt it. There just isn't a lot of solid evidence, which is all the more noticeable at the end of the book, where Snook recaps his evidence with bullet points: all he has is the position of the bodies, the long-distance observations of Maori Browne, and some Zulu accounts that Snook helpfully annotates to support his thesis.
I probably wouldn't sound so bitter were it not for his Morris-bashing. Yeah,The Washing of the Spears has its problems, but were it not for Morris, and the interest he generated with his book, still in print 43 years after publication, it's likely Snook wouldn't have gotten this book published. Aside from Morris's regrettable adherence to the discredited notion that the collapse was caused by retreating black levies, Snook gets agitated by Morris's treatment of Quartermasters Bloomfield and Pullen.
Snook brazenly disputes there was any problem with the ammunition boxes. He snarkily notes that Morris's description of the ammo-boxes tallied the number of screws in the copper bands holding the box together, failing to note there was only one screw holding the sliding lid. Snook then says, brashly, there was no problem smashing open these lids, even though there weren't enough screwdrivers. He brushes aside Horace Smith-Dorrien's account of his troubles as "an anecdote." This ignores Lock and Quantrill's detailed examination of the issue in Zulu Victor (see the appendix). There, the authors persuasively make the case that the single screw on the sliding lid was enough to make them formidably hard to open, owing to strong construction and the warping of the wood. Lock and Quantrill even describe building one of the boxes themselves, then being unable to break it open for 45 minutes.
Snook thinks that Morris slandered Pullen and Bloomfield. Snook goes so far as to advance his pet theory that Pullen, on his own initiative, organized the defense of the right flank that came to be known as "Durnford's last stand." This notion is almost entirely speculative, but Snook runs with it. Other accounts of the battle show, ephemerally, that Pullen had a horse mounted for himself, then later gathered together some riflemen and plunged into battle. Those accounts are a flimsy springboard for saying Pullen held the flank.
Then there's the treatment of Col. Pulleine, whom Snook attempts to rehabilitate. He lays the blame for the battle on Durnford, who certainly disobeyed orders. Yet he barely critiques Pulleine's positioning of his troops, even though Pulleine had five companies spread in front of camp, facing from the northwest to southeast, and allowed the Zulu right horn to come around and charge right into his unprotected backside. Essentially, Pulleine made the "Custer Mistake," by attempting to hold too much ground with two few men, instead of contracting on a central position. Snook brushes aside this assertion by saying, at the time the orders were given, no one thought the situation was that dire. In other words, Pulleine was correct in maintaining an aggressively defensive posture. Really? That's your defense of Pulleine? Meanwhile, Durnford is painted as mad-hatter bumble-flunking around in an attempt to restore his tarnished reputation.
I've already mentioned it in passing, but Snook makes far too many suppositions. He bases them on his military experience. For instance, he traces Pulleine's movements throughout the battle by stating that that's where a good commander would be. He also uses the negative to prove a positive, as when he has a description of an officer unable to find Pulleine in one place; thus, Snook takes that as evidence that Pulleine was in another. Snook may be a soldier, with an eye for ground and a knowledge of tactics, but I'm a lawyer, and that ain't proof.
Other things just frustrated me. Pulleine is shot. Snook says: "He must have died instantly." Why? Why must he have died instantly? Or when Wardell's H Company is retiring, and Sgt. Wolff is left to command a rearguard. Snook says Wolff must have come up with the idea. Why? Why must he have come up with the idea?
My final analysis is that Col. Snook was too close to the subject. He took it a little too personally. In attempting to portray his regiment as heroic (which they certainly were; even the Zulus said that after Isandlwana, their armies were never the same) he turns them into demigods. His heated description of the infantry squares smashed against the oncoming impi is lose-lose: first, it lacks the novelistic flair of The Washing of the Spears; and second, it lacks a single shred of support. Where does he get his information? From the Zulus? From his imagination? From those famous paintings? This is where the notes come in. You can't tell me that the gruff old sergeants protected the young drummer boys and band-boys in the center of the squares, and that at the final moments, the boys became men by picking up rifles, without supporting these assertions. Otherwise, you're just mythologizing.
There is no doubt about the heroic nature of the fight. There should also be no doubt that it was a disaster. Chelmsford, Durnford, and Pulleine all made mistakes. Both strategic and tactical. That the men fought hard from their poor positions is a testament to their skill, and the skill of their officers and NCOs (unlike Custer, the 1/24th gave far better than they got; thousands of Zulus were killed and wounded). However, by the end of this telling, I didn't know if I could trust what I'd read. I was left feeling this was the way Snook wanted it to be." Matt's review
Any comments from forum members!!
Posts : 7751 Join date : 2009-09-21 Age : 74 Location : Cape Town South Africa
Subject: Re: How Can Man Die Better. A Review on the Web. Mon Mar 14, 2011 6:25 am
Thats probably the best review Ive seen of the book and echoes some thoughts that have been shared by some forum members privatly. its interesting to note that Mike Snook makes great play in the book about the flanks being anchored, on the mountain and on the conical hill. On another website he was broached about that and the length of line he assumed. He backed down and admitted he was wrong amongst a certain amount of waffle. I do believe in his basic premis of the cause of the collapse and also the conclusions of the fighting retreats and squares. It changed my perception. As the reviewer says though there is a massive amount of speculation without source reference, essential for any history book as apposed to a novel.
Good Post David
Posts : 2102 Join date : 2010-07-30 Age : 54 Location : North London
Subject: Re: How Can Man Die Better. A Review on the Web. Mon Mar 14, 2011 12:48 pm
That confirms my thoughts about MS and his books - a very good read, but in terms of evidence, MS does seem to take 2+2 and make 22 in order to advance his own theories - and that is what they are - theories - not evidence theories, and perhaps, very good theories.
I have had online debates with MS on another forum regarding Abu Klea. Here, he takes the fact that an Essex soldier killed on the 16th, must have been out on the hill on the eve of the battle on guard duty; hence the whole Essex detachment were out on the hill on the night of the 16th; hence, the whole Essex detachment were not in the square on the 17th, (as they would have been rested by being chosen to guard the supplies at the zareba, behind the advance of the square to the wells).
An awful lot of assumptions based on the fact that Sgt WIlford was apparently KIA on the 16th, not the 17th! (And this fact may not be correct - it is just what is stated in Webb's Abu Klea roll, which has been shown to be a not necessarily 100% reliable document either).
Posts : 7751 Join date : 2009-09-21 Age : 74 Location : Cape Town South Africa
Subject: Re: How Can Man Die Better. A Review on the Web. Mon Mar 14, 2011 1:01 pm
Tasker I fuly agree. But where I do admire Mike Snook is that he was Colonel of the regiment and has really shown his loyaltiy in exonerating all and sundry from the regiment, wrong or right. Loyalty is allways a good trait.
Posts : 2102 Join date : 2010-07-30 Age : 54 Location : North London
Subject: Re: How Can Man Die Better. A Review on the Web. Mon Mar 14, 2011 1:34 pm
Absolutely agree Springbok - you have to respect his insight as an Infanteer. This certainly adds weight to his theories. I have only read one of his books so far and it was a darn good read; I will be reading "Beyond the Reach of Empire" very soon, but again, I am expecting it to be an excellent and gripping book, an extremely plausible hypothesis, but not the definitive work he would have you believe. Tasker
Posts : 552 Join date : 2009-10-14 Location : Loughborough
Subject: Re: How Can Man Die Better. A Review on the Web. Mon Mar 14, 2011 8:55 pm
Having proof read the particular sections on the Martini for Mike in Pretoria on Saturday, OOTROH is certainly going to be one of the definitive works. Not many students of the Sudan campaigns have actually been on the spot that Burnaby died.
As Mike is a personal friend of mine I have to show my hand now, naturally I'll defend him, but Mike is one of the few authors who will always be happy to debate issues on many of the forums, few authors have actually attempted to re-create the final desperate hour on the saddle, and for those last final moments HCMDB is a masterpiece, fact is nobody but those men who stood until the end know what actually happened. I have been asking him to join this forum, which he hopefully will be doing, to the benefit of us all.
Posts : 2581 Join date : 2009-04-24
Subject: Re: How Can Man Die Better. A Review on the Web. Mon Mar 14, 2011 10:45 pm
Well said Neil. Looking forward to the day Mike joins the forum.
Posts : 94 Join date : 2009-02-13
Subject: Re: How Can Man Die Better. A Review on the Web. Thu Jun 16, 2011 9:27 pm
A very interesting book review
Posts : 4178 Join date : 2008-11-01 Age : 62 Location : KENT
Subject: Re: How Can Man Die Better. A Review on the Web. Thu Jun 16, 2011 9:57 pm
DTSG You just can't resist. Sneakey but not cleaver.
Good bye. You was warned.
Posts : 1857 Join date : 2009-03-25
Subject: Re: How Can Man Die Better. A Review on the Web. Thu Jun 16, 2011 10:08 pm
I am so glad you picked up on that. I saw it and thought why the hell as he started saying good things when we all know how he really feels.
The man not only obsessed with Durnford, he obsessed with Mike Snook.