Front page slideshow

Sad News; Mike McCabe

     Lt. Col. Mike McCabe passed away on Monday 4th November 2013 after a long battle against prostate cancer.

     I first met Mike back in 1979, when we were both on the same tour to attend the commemorations of the Anglo-Zulu War Centenary. It's fair to say, though, that we didn't become friends then - that had to wait some twenty years, though we were both aware of each other in the meantime. In 1979 I was in my early 20s, and on my first African adventure, and I was in any case rather over-awed by the military men who made up the bulk of the group; Mike was then a serving Major in the Royal Engineers. Over the years I noted his name in connection with reviews and articles about the Anglo-Zulu War, many of which appeared in military publications such as the Royal Engineers' Journal, and I remember that in 1993 he gave my Zulu; The Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift a distinctly lukewarm review which framed my wariness still further.

     I was, then, a bit unsettled to find myself seated next to him for the 125th anniversary dinner, which was held at Isandlwana Lodge. In fact, of course, the seating plan must have been a nightmare, and the Lodge's charming owner, Pat Stubbs, has my enduring sympathy for her herculean achievements in tact that evening; the Anglo-Zulu War has its fair share of established rivalries, and I think on no other occasion have so many authorities in the field been gathered together at one event. As the mist closed in around the Lodge that night I half expected one of us would be found lying in the bar area the next morning with a spear between his shoulder-blades, and that the local equivalent of Hercule Poirot would be called in to decide who, of the many suspects, 'dunnit'. In the event, I decided to take the plunge with Mike (it was going to be a pretty dreadful evening otherwise) and I planned to open with our shared experience in 1979. 'I remember you', I announced - to which he looked abashed for just a second (the only time I ever saw him so!) and replied 'Ah yes, about that review ...'

     And then we were off, and over the course of the evening which followed (in which I seem to recall, though I am temperate in all things, some alcohol might have been imbibed) I discovered that Mike in fact possessed a deliciously mischievous sense of humour and a deep interest in both the history and people of KwaZulu-Natal. Indeed, as it turned out he had a spectacular web of contacts which made him hugely well-informed, although his otherwise stella qualities as a gossip were occasionally limited by frustrating outbursts of discretion ('I know the answer to that Knight, but I couldn't possibly tell you'; and he wouldn't, either).

     Mike was a descendant of one of the great clans of Scots-Irish mercenaries of the 13th and 14th centuries. These clans were know as the Galloglass, a pseudonym Mike would adopt for himself when debating aspects of the Anglo-Zulu War on various historical forums. He had been born in the UK but his father had been based in South Africa during WW2 and had emigrated there afterwards. Mike grew up in Durban in the 1950s and, although he left South Africa later and joined the British Army, his boyhood shaped his interest in the region.

     Now, the Anglo-Zulu War has produced more than its fair share of enthralling stories - not all of which, let's be honest, stand up to the rigorous test of truth - but Mike possessed the best I've ever heard, and I have no doubt at all about its authenticity. One day in the late 50s his father decided to take the family on a day trip to the iSandlwana battlefield. 'He didn't have any interest in it - nor did I at that stage. It was just somewhere to go on a day out'. After a long drive down dirt roads they had arrived at the site  and were setting up a picnic when an elderly Zulu in an old great-coat approached them. It turned out that this man was in the habit of earning a few pennies from the occasional passers-by by telling them the story of the battle. As a boy he had been old enough at the time of the war to carry mats for his father and had accompanied him on campaign in January 1879. His father was a member of the uThulwana ibutho, and in the aftermath of iSandlwana had crossed the Mzinyathi into Natal and taken part in the attack on Rorke's Drift. The son had not been allowed to join the fighting, but he and the other mat-carriers had sat on the KwaSingqindi hill opposite and watched the battle, and Mike remembered how vividly he had described the sight of the hospital blazing in the darkness and the sound of the firing and war-cries. The Zulu's father had been wounded in the battle, shot through the body, and during the night he had been carried away by his friends. He survived and recovered from his injuries, but in later life his old wound continued troubled him greatly. He lived to be very old, and as he became wizened and wasted a large hard swelling became more prominant above his hip. On the advice of a local inyanga (herbalist), the old man's sons had cut into the swelling - and out came a mishapen Martini-Henry bullet, which had been working its way slowly to the surface for all those years. The old man recovered from the operation but died of natural causes soon after, and the son had kept the bullet. As he was telling the story, he produced it from his pocket - and as young Mike was staring at it in amazement the Zulu suddenly told him to take it. 'I don't know why he picked on me - I suppose he could just see I was spell-bound. Maybe he thought I'd keep the story alive'.

     And so he did. Over the years Mike went on to acquire a level of knowledge of the subject which put many an expert in the field to shame. His familiarity with the sources was offset by a professional soldier's understanding of the terrain and of military capabilities, and above all by a rigorous scepticism which put many a new interpretation of the battle to test.

    I had only a vague knowledge of Mike's military career. I know he was a Royal Engineer for twenty-three years and ended his time as a Lieutenant-Colonel but I felt uncomfortable pressing him on the details of his service, although he did offer up a few anecdotes now and then. I recall one particularly harrowing one about his time in Northern Ireland, gathering the remains of a friend blown up by an IRA bomb, and another from his time in the 1st Gulf War which seemed to him to sum up the random destructiveness of war. He was, he said, commanding a small convoy driving through the desert towards the front line ahead. Suddenly, to his surprise, a salvo of shells exploded half a mile away to one side. At first he though the convoy was under fire, but when a second salvo exploded shortly afterwards, also just off-target, he realised that these were in fact shells fired by the Iraqis at British troops at the front, and which had passed over their targets, and were randomly falling in the rear. 'I didn't mind the idea of being killed if someone was shooting at me', he said, 'but it did seem particularly futile that I might be killed by shells just falling out of the air'.

    My friendship with Mike over the best part of the last ten years had introduced me to the curious closed world of officers' clubs, had involved one particularly entertaining road trip to the Royal Engineers Museum in Chatham, but was often carried out by way of books of correspondence exchanged by email. I'd ask his opinion on some aspect of the Anglo-Zulu War scene or arcane point of Zulu history and often get two or three replies in a day, usually running to several pages. He was always aware who thought what about who and what, and he weighed it all  up in his usual meticulous way, peppering his observations with a humour that could sometimes be acerbic and was always irreverent, but always somehow managed to remain warm. He delighted in observing the inflated egos in the field, and certainly didn't spare mine ('Gawd, Knight, you are so easy to wind up there is almost no fun in it!'), and I found him immensely valuable as a sounding-board to my own ideas. He often didn't agree with them, but I felt that if I could hold my ground against his robust counter-arguments then I at least I could put forward my own position with confidence.

     Mike's involvement in KwaZulu-Natal was not limited to its past, and he had a deep interest in the communities at iSandlwana and Rorke's Drift. He was involved in a number of community projects over the years, and in particular in the mission churches at Rorke's Drift and St. Vincent's at iSandlwana.

     Mike had spoken with brutal honesty about his illness. He knew that his cancer was inoperable and that it would one day spread vigorously, and possibly suddenly. Nonetheless he continued with his historical involvement, and we had talked of us making a trip out to South Africa together. He had planned it as his last, although he remained scornful of my usefulness as a travelling companion because of my inability to drive ('Oh Knight, you are so utterly useless sometimes!'). In the event, though, not enough time was left to him; the only regret I heard him express was for the things to come he would miss. Three weeks ago we were in the middle of our usual correspondence (about the significance of the bridge-side cairn in the Manzimnyama valley, as it happened) - and then it stopped.

     Although Mike never wrote the history of the Royal Engineer involvement in the Anglo-Zulu War which he had hoped might one day be his lasting contribution to the field, his influence lives on in the work of others, and certainly Zulu Rising would have been a very different book without the input of his ideas and opinions.

     The Anglo-Zulu War field will miss Mike McCabe quite a lot - and so will I.