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

Facts, Myths and Legends

Military > Pre-WWI > Anglo-Zulu Wars P&S History > By Century > 19th Century

By Katie Stossel
Imprint: Pen & Sword Military
File Size: 26.5 MB (.epub)
Pages: 201
Illustrations: 16 pages of black and white plates
ISBN: 9781473864115
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.

The author does creditable work in this new volume, taking advantage of the new material while expertly weaving it into the existing narrative, creating an interesting and engaging book.

Military Heritage Magazine

This is a remarkable book as it takes an incisive look at a subject which has been ‘written to death’ since 1879. This new research rightly and carefully challenges many long-held views on what really happened at Rorke’s Drift. Most Zulu War authors have relied too heavily on set pieces of contemporary accounts of the battle but without challenging their authenticity. And one must remember that these accounts have been written by the victors with reputations to preserve or enhance. As the book reminds us, Rorke’s Drift was viewed by army officers present and part of the invasion force as a typical ‘skirmish’ and wondered at all the fuss being made of the event.

The ‘Chard Report’ has long been held to be an accurate account of what happened – but Katie Stossel has had the style scientifically analysed and this analysis has thrown open the question of its authenticity. Other important factors then come under the author’s magnifying glass. She looks at a number of desertions in the face of the Zulus and proves the mission station was prepared for a Zulu attack days in advance – and she has discovered fresh accounts of these preparations. Also reviewed are the letters from August Hammar, Otto Witt’s family friend, who was staying at the mission station when it came under attack – and who wrote letters home of his experience which disprove others’ accounts, including that of Otto Witt, the station missionary.

This is a well researched and interestingly presented account which answers many questions but which, in turn, poses others.

Highly readable and highly recommended.

Dr Adrian Greaves, The Anglo-Zulu War Historical Society

As featured in: 'The dreadful day at Rorke's Drift, when Zulu's were killed in their hundreds, left the soldiers that survived with a strange feeling that there's... Nothing So Sad as a Battle That's Been Won'.'

Irish Daily Mail

As featured in: 'Why the top brass opposed VC's for the heroes of Rorke's Drift'

Daily Mail

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

After visiting the sites of Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana, these battles have held a major fascination for me. Having watched the film Zulu many times over the years it is enjoyable to read a book that sets the record straight on many of the features of the battle. and the main characters.
The author has compiled a substantial amount of exciting new evidence from a number of verifiable sources.
As an example, Stanley Baker's role as Lt Chard in the film did not accurately portray the actual experiences of the officer. Seemingly Chard only arrived at Rorke's Drift an hour or so before the battle and had little part in the construction of the defences other than to quickly add more large biscuit tins to the defensive walls. Serious doubts were also mentioned about the authenticity of his post-battle reports, with a fascinating detailed scientific comparison of his normal writing style vs that of his two reports.
I was unaware of Sister Janet Wells who attended to the injured troops after the battle and who also treated wounded Zulu warriors. A very young, brave, and focussed young lady who did not get the recognition she deserved at the time.
I was surprised to learn that it was members of the Warwickshire regiment that took part in the battle, not the Welsh Borderers. The Warwickshires were incorporated into the Welsh Borderers several years later!

NetGalley, Peter Coxall

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Many years ago I saw the Stanley Baker film "Zulu." Before viewing it I was unfamiliar with the defense of Rorke's Drift, and with the Anglo-Zulu War entirely. Because I was curious about the accuracy of the movie, I read Donald Morris' masterful "The Washing of the Spears," which is essential reading for anyone interested in this subject. To Morris' tome I would add Katie Stossel's "A Handful of Heroes: Rorke's Drift."

This is a terrific book. Well-written and well-researched, Stossel doesn't miss anything. Due to newly-discovered historical materials we now know more about the defense of Rorke's Drift, including the fact that the defenders were more prepared militarily than was previously thought.

I highly recommend this book. The defense of Rorke's Drift was a gallant action in a little-known war, but it has an outsize reputation. It is worth knowing the truth of this action and its place in history.

NetGalley, Barbara Bernstein

An well done book regarding a little known battle between the British and the Zulus. The story is well told and the author does a great job on dispelling falsehoods and misinformation regarding the events. A great read for the history buff.

NetGalley, Ron Baumer

I found the book a fascinating and enjoyable read. The Author has skillfully assembled these stories and more to provide a detailed picture of life as a soldier in the British Empire and the impact of political and personal ambitions. The History enthusiasts will appreciate her weaving together of other published opinions and the due diligence she applies to the more controversial topics. The Novices, like myself, can just soak up the intrigue and the atmosphere she creates on each page.

NetGalley, Michael Neill

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.


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 is a State Registered Nurse with over 40 years experience. She lectures on medical matters worldwide with her surgeon husband. She lives in Kent.

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