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A Handful of Heroes, Rorke's Drift (Hardback)

Facts, Myths and Legends

Boer/Zulu War

By Katie Stossel
Imprint: Pen & Sword Military
Pages: 201
ISBN: 9781473828223
Published: 1st July 2015

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Thanks to newly discovered letters and documents, A Handful of Heroes updates the history of the Defence of Rorke's Drift, which will forever be one of the most celebrated British feats of arms.

Remarkably after such prolonged historical scrutiny, the author's research proves that there is yet more to discover about this famous incident of the Zulu War 1879 and her superbly researched book reveals a number of myths that have distorted what happened during the gallant defence of the small Mission Station. For example, it transpires that the isolated outpost was already well prepared for an attack by experts in field defence. While this in no way denigrates the heroic efforts of the heavily out-numbered defenders, it does help to explain the successful defence against seemingly overwhelming odds

This fascinating and highly readable account goes on to examine in detail the famous Chard Report which has long been relied on by historians and authors. Doubts emerge as to its accuracy and evidence is provided which suggests the Report's author was coerced by a senior officer in order to protect the latter's reputation. Likewise the letters of August Hammar, a young Swedish visitor to the Mission, put Reverend Otto Witt's false account into perspective.

These and other revelations make A Handful of Heroes a fresh and important addition to the bibliography of this legendary Zulu War engagement.

Thanks to the authors' diligent research, we can see the events of that day and in the aftermath more clearly. An aftermath which involved a British nurse, Sister Janet Wells who had already served with the Russian Red Cross in Bulgaria before reaching South Africa in July 1879 where she quickly sent to the hospital at Utrecht to care for the wounded from the Zulu War and was able to visit Rorke's Drift. She was subsequently awarded the Royal Red Cross, the nursing professions highest accolade; there was just one previous recipient, Florence Nightingale.

The Bulletin of the Military Historical Society No.267

The Battle of Rorke's Drift is a Victorian story from the race for Empire. This new book provides a thoroughly researched study that questions the many myths and distortions that have grown up.
Strongly Recommended.

Read the full review here.

Firetrench

This book reads well and holds our attention. Some of the detail is a little challenging but the author recognises this and sympathises with the reader. I don’t think this book should be considered as a Zulu War anorak’s dream, but you should have some knowledge of the important stuff before diving in. It is an example of a writer using the widest available resources to reassess established history. Katie Stossel frequently acknowledges the work of others and although her name is on the book jacket she more than likely sees it as a team effort. Respect for her peers is evident.

The fate of British redcoats over a century ago may be the stuff of the Kiplings of that era but their story is enthralling. A lot of people will simply merge them with earlier redcoats on another continent and the fact that it was a devious war of conquest assists impressions of a cruel empire and perfidious Albion at her worst. The ordinary rank and file where in Africa for far more prosaic reasons than the adventurous and generally privileged officer class but they fought and died together and have their place in the sun.

Questioning perceived history needs bravery and the author cracks on with the job and regards the popular version of events as mythology. Find your way through some of the classics and then rip aspects of them apart with this excellent book. It is the job of historians to challenge accepted ‘facts’. The author does the job here with style and grace. The story has always been real to me and I love the details. Wherever the definitive story of Zululand resides Katie Stossel is on the case. Great stuff!

War History Online - Mark Barnes

Gripping as the film is the myths, the legends it helps perpetuate have to a large extent muddied the waters as to what really happened on 22nd January 1879. Now, thanks to the author's diligent research, we can see the events that day and in the aftermath more clearly.

The Bulletin of the Military Historical Society No.263

As featured on

The Past in Review - David L. Poremba

In this new book the author goes over the context of the events that surrounded the fighting at both Islandlwana and Rorkes Drift. She examines what was expected to be a quick victory over the Zulus and an invasion of their territory which hadn't actually been approved by the government in London. The mission did not go as planned though. The large British column passed through Rorke's Drift and across the Buffalo river into Zulu land. Here they made camp at Islandlwana while part of the force moved away to seek battle with the Zulus. Falling victim to some diversionary ruses by the Zulus, this left the camp open to an attack from the large Zulu army and the whole force there was decimated, and few survivors.

It was a Zulu reserve force of about 4,000 men who had not been needed in the battle who, needing to preserve their fighting honour before returning to their villages, moved to attack the small force of just 139 men manning the station at Rorke's Drift. When the relief column reached Rorke's Drift on the 23rd, British troops went out looking for any wounded Zulu warriors. In the weeks following the fight, the troops remained at Rorke's Drift with little cover, drenched in torrential rain for a week or more, so with several hundred men there conditions must have been quite awful...

If you are interested in a wider look at the story of Rorke's Drift, and finding out more about the Facts, Myths and Legends of this famous event, you will find this an excellent examination to broaden your knowledge.

Military Modelling Magazine - Robin Buckland

As seen in...

Military History Monthly

About Katie Stossel

Katie Stossel was an operating theatre sister who became fascinated by the Anglo Zulu War during a visit to South Africa. This led her to research and write the inspiring story of Sister Janet Wells (Sister Janet – Heroine of the Zulu War, Pen and Sword Books 2006).
Katie, who lives in Kent, regularly lectures on the subject.

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