Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The Red Soldier 
Frank Emery
Hodder & Stoughton 1977

A book that tells the story of the Anglo Zulu war through the letters of British solders.

The "soldiers eye view" of a battle is often an interesting one, and although by definition a very narrow view, when enough are stitched together can produce a compelling account.

The vast majority of the accounts in the book are told from the British perspective, with just a few Zulu accounts, as retold by Bertram Mitford (Through the Zulu Country, 1880) adding a touch of balance.

Given the authors and the intended audiences of the original letters,  many are short of detailed accounts of combat, and long on complaints of food and lodgings (or lack thereof). Cheerful optimism before Isandlawana, and stoic determination after, seem to be the prevailing mood.

From a wargamers perspective, the accounts provide interesting details that could influence the way we depict the conflict - descriptions of the conditions suggest that for the most part the Red Soldier was a wet, muddy, ragged mess, who slept in the open on the bare ground, in full kit, for weeks on end, and was anything but the paradeground redcoat as modeled by most figure manufacturers.

If I have any misgivings about the book, is that it needs to be read with a healthy critical eye, as the origins of some of the enduring myths of the Zulu war are evident in the letters. Many of those at Helpmekaar and Rorkes Drift retold secondhand 'details' of Isandlwana as truths. The 'little drummer boys, strung up by the Zulus on meathooks and mutilated" is one of such. This was noted in a number of letters - all written by individuals who were not at Isandlwana. Clearly they were simply repeating camp hearsay, and as Knight and others have pointed out that there were no youngsters employed as drummers or buglers in the regiments at Isandlwana, and "boy" was a rank, not a description of age. (Also, one cant expect the redcoat of the time to have much sympathy for the Zulu practices of hlomula and qaqa - ritual mutilation of fallen enemies...)

I found it very much worth the time I spent reading it.

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