Go to Your God Like A Soldier

Go to Your God Like A Soldier


  • Author: Ian Knight
  • Publisher: Greenhill Books
  • Publish Date: 01/01/1996
  • ISBN: 1-85367-237-8
  • Price: £35.00

Review By : Elizabeth Hogan

Although it is fashionable today to look back in the failings of the British Army during the Victorian era – its innate conservatism, its supposed inflexibility, and its many disasters – it is worth remembering that in fact it was at the time the most successful professional body in the world. Between 1837, when the young Queen Victoria came to the throne, and the end of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902 – the year after her death – the Army fought over sixty wars in environments as varied as the Canadian winter and the rainy season in West Africa, and against enemies as profoundly different, both to one another and to the British, as Maoris, Sudanese fundamentalists, the Chinese, the Russians and Boer farmers. And in all those wars, although there were a series of memorable catastrophes – the ‘charge of the Light Brigade’, Isandlwana, Maiwand, Spioenkop – only one war could be said to be a defeat; the Transvaal Revolt of 1881, in which the British lost all the battles, General Colley got his head blown off at Majuba, and peace was made on terms largely sympathetic to the Boers. This is no mean record of achievement, and this hefty book – in itself a tribute to the breadth of Ian Knight’s scholarship, and proof that he knows about more than just Zulus – attempts to put all these events within the context of a military institution which was by no means as static as it is often portrayed. The author tries to encapsulate the Victorian military experience as it evolved from an essentially Napoleonic body to something like a modern Army, everything from recruitment, from the peace-time life of ordinary soldiers and their officers, to training, tactics and weapons across the period. All of this is illustrated with over 230 pictures, tactical diagrams, and maps. For much of the period service in the Army was regarded as anathema to even the poorest sectors of society, and ‘going for a soldier’ was considered a worse option than a spell in prison. Nevertheless, men did enlist, and not merely to ensure the first regular meals many of them had experienced in their lives but to escape the consequences of social embarrassment or crime, or simply for the adventure; it was not unknown for youths to undergo a late spurt in growth, so much better were even the harsh conditions of Army life to those which prevailed in civilian society. For the ‘other ranks’, Army life was often dull and repetitive, alleviated by rare spells of active service and anaesthetised in peacetime by access to alcohol in quantities that still seem shocking today. Nevertheless, many soldiers took the opportunity to better themselves, and across the Victorian period serious attempts were made to improve educational standards within the ranks, to offer religious guidance and healthcare. For the officers there were long periods of home leave, particularly in peace-time, and a routine which seldom brought them in contact with their men except in the presence of the Colours, their shared symbol of common allegiance. In battle – surely any army’s test – the British often began badly, as in Zululand, before getting the measure of their enemy and learning to fight to their own strengths. Often, a triumph was logistical as much as tactical, and in some campaigns – such as Abyssinia in 1868 – simply getting close enough, through harsh terrain, to fight an enemy was a victory in itself. Victorian officers like Lord Chelmsford, much maligned these days for their lack of imagination, were frequently required to fight wars on hostile ground, with inadequate resources and with little or no knowledge of the enemy so that in fact the necessary art of ‘muddling through’ was an under-rated contribution to the Empire’s success. Indeed, this book offers a rather encyclopaedic account of Victorian wars, providing a concise and insightful account of chronological campaigns around the world. At the end of it all, there was little enough reward for the average ranker and the plight of the old soldier, exhausted by his service and reduced to penury, begging in his red coat to evoke some sympathy from the public - a familiar sight in the 1830s - was only marginally alleviated by the end of Victoria’s rain. Civilians, who thrilled increasingly to heroic images of the deeds performed on their behalf by redcoats around the world, remained unimpressed by the reality of soldiers drinking and brawling in garrison towns at home; only the advent of the Anglo-Boer War, with the first popular volunteer movement of modern times, began to change that, paving the way for the experience of the First World War. This book is not just about the Anglo-Zulu War, nor even about the British Army in South Africa; nevertheless, for anyone seeking to understand the way the Army functioned, and the experiences endured by the men in red or khaki coats, it is essential reading.

Friday 30th of June 2006 07:45:09 AM