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Annual Booklist 2018-2019 : Col. Mike Snook MBE PhD

Colonel Mike Snook was commissioned into the Royal Regiment of Wales and over the ensuing 30 years served all round the world in command, operations and intelligence appointments. He spent two thirds of his career overseas and saw extensive active service in four campaigns. He is a graduate of Leicester University, Sandhurst and the Army Staff College. Twice honoured for operational distinction, he was awarded the MBE in 2000. He spent four years as a British military adviser in South Africa and latterly was the head of the UN’s J3 Operations staff in Khartoum. A recognised authority on the military history of the Victorian era, he is the author of How Can Man Die Better: the Secrets of Isandlwana Revealed, Like Wolves on the Fold: The Defence of Rorke’s Drift, Into the Jaws of Death: British Military Blunders 1879-1900 and Go Strong into the Desert: The Mahdist Uprising 1881-5.


In selecting my five books I have adopted a South-African theme, more particularly the British military experience of the 7th and 8th Cape Frontier Wars of 1846-7 and 1850-3 respectively. These two conflicts are closely interlinked and between them represent the decisive phase of the long running conflict between Cape Colony and the amaXhosa people. If one seeks to comprehend the tactical conduct of war in a bygone age, there is no better substitute for going back to the primary sources in person. It is singularly interesting to compare the way in which the mid-century Victorian Army conducted conventional warfare in the Crimea, with the radically different ways and means it had earlier been obliged to adopt in South Africa. I am much inclined to the view that the true origins of the British model of ‘counter-insurgency warfare’ are to be found in the 7th and 8th CFWs.


My selection is predicated, then, on giving a voice to the mid-nineteenth century garrison of South Africa across a range of ranks. My voices include a private, a sergeant, two middle-ranking regimental officers and a general officer. I will list them in that order, beginning with The Narrative of Private Buck Adams, (The Van Riebeeck Society, Cape Town, 1941), an original manuscript account dating to 1884, edited for publication by A. Gordon-Brown. Adams served in the 7th Dragoon Guards, one of only two regular cavalry regiments to serve in the frontier wars. Here is to be found a fascinating insight not merely into mid-century South Africa, but into the early-Victorian cavalry arm and the daily trials and tribulations of the ordinary soldier. Operationally Adams fought republican boere at Zwartkoppies in 1845 and throughout the 7th CFW of 1846-7. Of particular note is that he was a participant in the famous ‘Charge at Gwanga River’, (properly Mgwangqa), in which an amaNdlambe warband under Chief Siyolo was routed with a fatal loss up around the 300 mark. The charge is commonly misunderstood as a regimental action. In fact the charge was made by Captain Sir Harry Darell’s troop alone, a paltry but evidently gallant command amounting to only 2 officers and 34 NCOs and men, albeit they received second line support from two CMR troops riding with drawn carbines. Adams and his horse ‘Spider’ were both severely wounded in a return charge that finally set the Ndlambe running, with disastrous consequences for them. The Narrative of Buck Adams is a magnificent example of an ordinary soldier’s memoir and comes highly recommended.


Next we come to Sergeant James McKay’s Reminiscences of the last Kaffir War, (originally Grahamstown 1871, but best searched for in the Struik reprint edition, Cape Town, 1970). McKay served with the 74th (Highland) Regiment in the 8th CFW. In addition to telling his own tale, McKay does not fight shy of assuming the role of amateur historian as he proceeds along his way. At such junctures it as well to cross-refer with other sources, for he is not always watertight. South Africa’s first historian, George McCall Theal, was openly rude about McKay’s book, but in my view there is more military substance to McKay than an overly critical Theal was prepared to allow. Leaving his more general remarks to one side, it is McKay’s personal story that matters. His commanding officer was the admirable Lieutenant Colonel John Fordyce, who was killed in action on 6 November 1851. He is commonly said to have been killed in the Waterkloof, the notorious stronghold of Chief Maqoma, but having stood on the spot, it is more accurate to say that he fell on ‘Mount Misery’, a piece of dominating high ground overlooking the 7-mile long Waterkloof valley. One of the most notable passages of McKay’s book is his account of the fighting retreat from the Kroomie Heights made by four companies of the 74th only a few weeks earlier. This was a truly close shave – the one occasion on which the much vaunted Chief Maqoma genuinely came close to giving the British a good drubbing in the open field. As it was the regiment had a dozen men killed in a frantic downhill scramble through the forest.


My third book comes from Captain William Ross King, 74th Regt., who at one point was McKay’s company commander. King of course tells much the same tale, but with greater literary elan and the notable difference that Campaigning in Kaffirland, or Scenes and Adventures in the Kaffir War of 1851-2, (London, 1853), was much quicker into print. Between McKay and King an understanding of a great deal of fascinating tactical detail can be arrived at. This is not to be found other than in participant accounts, for no genuinely compelling military history of the Cape Frontier Wars has yet been written, albeit I like to think that I have provided a useful contextual reader in my two-volume work Cape Warriors. It is easy to understand why Noel Mostert’s admirable Frontiers runs to such epic length, but it makes no pretence to be considered a work of military history. It is however obligatory reading, which observation, if nothing else, is a sneaky way of adding another book to my list.


My fourth book is Sport and War: or Recollections of Fighting and Hunting in South Africa from the Years 1834 to 1867. (London, 1875), the memoirs of Major-General John Jarvis ‘Jack’ Bisset. Bisset was a scion of the 1820 settlers and served in the 6th CFW as a young volunteer in the Albany Corps of Guides. He was one of 15 guides present with Harry Smith’s column when the Xhosa paramount, Chief Hintsa, made a heroic but ill-advised escape attempt and was controversially shot dead by their lieutenant, George Southey, and mutilated by a person or persons unknown. Subsequently Bisset became a regular army officer in the CMR. He fought throughout the 7th CFW, but was so severely wounded in the Boma Pass ambush of 24 December 1850, the opening action of the 8th CFW, that he saw no further action after that. Notwithstanding his injuries of the previous day, Bisset offers by far the best participant account of Colonel George MacKinnon’s Christmas Day retreat from the Boma Pass ambush, another truly dramatic day in the story of the frontier wars, embracing not only a massacre of a party of 45th Regiment men, but also an attack on nearby Fort White, and the annihilation of three small plantation villages of ex-military men in the Tyume Valley. In the previous war Bisset had been a notable participant in the opening three-day battle around Burnshill Mission, the subsequent Battle of Committee’s Drift and the charge at Mgwangqa river. Indeed he was the man who discovered Chief Siyolo’s force, by dint of an extraordinary escapade involving a borrowed ‘chestnut brute’ that ran away with him.


My fifth and final book operates on a higher plane, being the anonymously edited Correspondence of Lieut-General the Hon. Sir George Cathcart KCB, Relative to his Military Operations in Kaffraria, (London, 1856). Sir George was killed in action at Inkerman, but had been the Governor of Cape Colony immediately beforehand. The book contains a mixture of official despatches and private correspondence, but I have chosen it as offering an insight into the British official mind. Here is a man wrestling with a raft of irreconcilable difficulties, across a very large part of the South African sub-continent, with too few resources at his disposal to cope effectively with the scale of the problem. Nonetheless Cathcart pushed the 8th CFW through to a conclusion, in the aftermath of Sir Harry Smith’s dismissal. He then marched north with the object of cowing Moshoeshoe, the paramount chief of the Basotho, but his “decided assertion of authority” led only to the little understood Battle of Berea (20 December 1852). After the battle Cathcart and Moshoeshoe arrived at a politically mature accommodation and promptly brought their 36-hour war to an end. Berea is still commonly portrayed as a British defeat, but the reason that this is so is because the local settler interest raised a contemporaneous howl of protest that Moshoeshoe had not been brought low by Cathcart. In truth it was a drawn match and Cathcart would have been behaving in a wildly irresponsible manner had he allowed himself to be drawn into a new war on the northern frontier.


All the books I have listed are available in tolerably cheap reprint editions. May your Christmas reading enthral you, whatever your chosen subject happens to be.

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