5/29/12

Book Review: Like Lions They Fought

Like Lions They Fought: The Last Zulu War 
By: Robert B. Edgerton (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1988) 244 pages.

Perhaps no other conflict in the pantheon of British (United Kingdom) military history is as surrounded by  mysticism and falsities bore out of legend, like the Zulu War of 1879. Edgerton's Like Lions They Fought fills a very important gap in academic and popular research into the heavily studied and revisited period of British rule in South Africa and their greater military conquests of Africa in the mid to late 19th century. The author does a flawless job bridging the socio-cultural analysis of both the British and Zulu societies of this era with a concise and an engaging narrative of the conflict that became one of the most, if not they most celebrated colonial conflict of the 19th century.

British forces arrive under the field command of Colonels Henry Pulleine and Anthony Durnford

Unlike almost any other book on the topic of the Zulu War or all the British Wars in Africa, Edgerton examines the culture of all of the men who fought on both sides and their collective experiences and reasons for fighting so well, or very poorly. Again like very few books before or now the author manages to demystify a conflict that is famous for many different reasons.

The organization of the chapters could have been placed more neatly, as to allow the "meat" of the book, the campaigns and battles of the Zulu War itself, to really become the most potent part  which ends up being the first 50 or so pages and the last 75 or so pages. Regardless Edgerton uses a really beautiful prose and narrative style coupled with his own experience in anthropology and history to write an amazingly in-depth book which stands out from wealth of other books that one can read on the Zulu War. Indeed what also gives this book credibility and a true page turning set-up which allows for immersion and excitement that few modern history books offer, is the socio-cultural analysis of the British and Zulu ways of war which the author thoroughly describes throughout.

Praise should be given to Edgerton for not just writing an easily readable & enjoyable book that is not only exciting, but to the constant effort which he puts forth in showing the Zulu War through the eyes of all the combatants and civilians involved in events within. The author alludes to the fact that Zulu's in most histories even in modern ones are more or less consistently portrayed as fiends of hell, massed savages who thirsted for the white's mans blood. He seeks to and does ultimately dispel many common misconceptions about the war and about the Zulu as a people.

Narratives of all the major battles of the Zulu War such as the disaster at Isandlwana, the triumph later in that day at Rorke's Drift, and the final major battle at Ulundi, are included and are all very well done. Each battle narrative is paced and well and written with great detail. Even down to the lesser known battles and skirmishes of the war the narratives and recounting of the action (tactical and strategic) is all very sharp. With the included maps & pictures, Like Lions they Fought is a detailed and exciting book to read.

Maps are presented for all the large battles and the pictures included and are well produced and annotated. Overall this book is so well done because it offers so much information and analysis on the Zulu War of 1879 while keeping an enjoyable and easily understood narrative throughout. Edgerton manages to write a complete volume on the Zulu War which manages to separate truth from myth, and legends from historical facts, strengthened by strong narrative and socio-cultural tie-ins.


The death of Lieutenants Teignmouth Melvill and Neville Coghill while fleeing the battlefield with the 'Queen's Colours', or battle standards (flags) at Isandlwana, January 22nd, 1879. Melvill who was tasked supposedly with saving the flags during the charge of the Zulu army on British positions, was one of the only officers who warned his colleagues that the Zulu's would charge and defeat the scattered forces of the British army under the overall command of Lord Chelmsford. Lt. Coghill came to his rescue though he was also killed as the infantrymen under Colonel Anthony Durnford fought to death in the nearby camp, where over 800 British regulars were killed.

     King Cetshwayo (b.1826-1884), the last Zulu King of an independent Zulu Empire

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