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July 26, 2005

The Victorians at War - (Ed.) Ian Beckett

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Victorians at War
edited by Ian Beckett
Pp 288. London: Hambledon & London, 2003
Hardback, 19.99

This is a fine collection of essays that throws much light on the Victorian army, rather than an analytical study of the Victorians at war. The essays are divided into three sections. The first, Reputations, is a masterly series of re-evaluations, many of them of once prominent figures now fallen into neglect. Indeed, some of these generals are now castigated. Ken Livingstone sees no reason why Major-General Sir Henry Havelock, the subject of one of the essays, should be among the Trafalgar Square statuary, while the Sikh community in Southall want Havelock Street renamed, although, in fact, many Sikhs served, and bravely, under Havelock in suppressing the Indian Mutiny. In the very different world of the 1850s, the Indian Relief Fund Committee and the Havelock Memorial Committee pressed for recognition for the reliever of Cawnpore and Lucknow. According to his son, possibly not the most reliable of witnesses according to Beckett, Havelock urged his men forward toward Lucknow by telling them:

Think of the poor women and children at Lucknow. With God's help we shall save them, or every man of us die in the attempt.
Havelock adding of his men:
They'll cheer when I show them the enemy and the bugles sound the charge.
Different times: nowadays the mutineers blown from across guns in the advance on Lucknow seem to excite more sympathy than the women and children they had slaughtered in Cawnpore and thrown down a well.

The essays on reputations also enable Beckett to offer discussion of such topics as the prominent role of spouses in military patronage, the role of the VC in promotion, and the quest for honours, particularly by Roberts. Indian commands were often held by VC winners. Wives who were ambitious for their husbands are shown to have played an important role in army careers. Beckett suggests that Lady Roberts acted as if she was her husband's Military Secretary. In 1895, Queen Victoria described Roberts as ruled by his wife to the extent that she felt he would be unacceptable as commander-in-chief at home. Three of the four Field Marshals to hold the VC (Roberts, Wood and White) were Victorians (the other was Gort). Reputations discussed include those of failures, especially Colley and Hicks: the latter's head was sent to the Mahdi as a trophy after the destruction of his command, the Egyptian army's only field force in the Sudan, in 1883.

A second section deals with generals and politicians, including essays on command in South Africa. Beckett has a fine feel for the military dimension of politics, although this section is somewhat bitty. The Zulu War saw particular disquiet over command choices, as well as a lack of harmony among senior officers. Pressures for reform in the 1880s and 1890s are considered, and Beckett points out that generally Liberals found it easier than Conservatives to reform the War Office. The need for reform emerges clearly.

The third section, Ways of War, considers both the Crimean and the Boer Wars. The former is seen as in many ways a modern conflict with as much claim as the American Civil War to be a highly significant step on the road to total war. An instructive essay on War, Technology and Change suggests that it is important to look beyond the traditional view that soldiers resisted technological change and were unprepared for war. The legacy of the Boer War is skilfully probed. It led the army to a general sense of the need for reform. As a consequence, the fact that the BEF of 1914 was a finely-honed military instrument owed much to the earlier conflict. However, this force was to be largely swept aside in the first three months, and that exposed the weakness of the British military for large-scale conflict.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter.

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