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Soldiers of the Queen

The Model Major General: A Biography of Field-Marshal Lord Wolseley

by Joseph Lehmann
Houghton Mifflin, 415 pp., $5.95

The Royal George, 1819-1904: The Life of H. R. H. Prince George Duke of Cambridge

by Giles St. Aubyn
Knopf, 393 pp., $6.95

Two soldiers of the Queen, both Commanders-in-Chief of her army; the “Royal George” from 1856 to 1895, Wolseley (his successor) until 1900. Yet two more different figures it is difficult to imagine. The Duke of Cambridge, a Prince of the Blood, was a grandson of George III, and himself heir presumptive to the British throne before the birth of his cousin, Victoria. Garnet Wolseley, fourteen years his junior, was born into an impoverished Anglo-Irish military family. The Duke, an honorary colonel in the Hanoverian Guards from the age of nine, slid painlessly into supreme command. Wolseley, too poor to purchase a commission, obtained one only through an act of favor on the part of the Duke of Wellington; and, by sheer merit, literally fought his way up the ladder of promotion by way of a series of battles extending in space and time from the Second Burma War (1853) to the Egyptian and Sudanese campaigns of the 1880s. The “Royal George,” during his lengthy tenure of command (as a cousin of the Queen, he was difficult to get rid of) made himself a vociferous opponent of change, a stumbling block to much needed army reforms. Wolseley, affectionately satirized by Gilbert and Sullivan in the Pirates of Penzance as “the very model of a modern major-general,” played a prominent part in pressing for these very reforms. They ranged from the abolition of the antiquated system by which commissions and promotions were regularly bought rather than obtained by merit, to the introduction of more efficient methods of recruitment and tactical warfare. It need hardly be added that for the greater part of their lives the two men were mortal enemies. One finds them enshrined as such in histories and textbooks dealing with the Victorian age, contrasting symbols of reaction and progress.

These two biographies do not radically change this picture. One learns from Mr. St. Aubyn that before settling into hidebound conservatism, the Duke had a brief reforming period. One learns from Mr. Lehmann that even Wolseley, progressive that he was, must bear part of the blame for the muddle in which the War Office found itself during the Boer War. But as regards their attitude toward army reform, the contrast between the two Commanders-in-Chief remains. Still, these are both good books, imbued with sympathy for their subjects, yet not totally uncritical; making generous use of hitherto unpublished family papers; and, most important, successful in bringing two neglected Victorian figures back to life.

Mr. St. Aubyn, in his own words, “stumbled on a historical treasure-trove” in the form of letters and journals, some the Duke’s own, others written about him by those who knew him well. Being more interested in his subject’s personality than in details of the administrative history of the British army, he could largely let the papers speak for themselves. Mr. Lehmann’s was the harder task. Wolseley, unlike the Duke, was an active soldier, almost continuously involved in campaigning. So he was forced, in effect, to write a series of military histories as well as a biography. He does this with skill, if on occasion with a vigor reminiscent of the Boy’s Own Paper:

The Zulu strength was in the attack. Out of the circular kraal the impis swarmed like angry hornets, led by unmarried regiments roused to violence by the heat of their celibacy. Undaunted by all the appliances of civilized warfare, they flung themselves on the quick-firing lines of infantry, leaping and shrieking, pausing only long enough to hurl an assagai or fire slugs and pieces of cooking-pot legs from their museum pieces.

Wolseley undoubtedly was the hero of many a boy who grew-up in an age when British soldiers were painting the map red. They would have been thrilled by his assertion that “man shooting is the finest sport of all.” And they would have relished the story of how, during the Egyptian campaign of 1882, he promised his daughter the tip of the enemy commander’s nose. Wolseley made no bones about any of this. He characterized himself as “a high-souled jingo of the purest water.” Nothing could be further from the truth than to think of him, as some old-style army officers did, advocating political democracy. He wanted to reform the British army, but he wanted to do so for the greater glory of the British Empire. For the greatest Liberal of the epoch, “that old wind-bag” Gladstone, he composed an epitaph long before it was required: “Here lies W.E.G., a minister of the Crown who for a very long period exercised authority. He found England a first-rate power and died leaving her a weak third-rate power.”

For the Duke of Cambridge, that “Bow and Arrow General,” that “great German Bumble-Bee,” he had nothing but contempt. On more than one occasion, he felt like giving him “a good thrashing.” Historians have followed the same impulse. In textbooks and lectures, “Royal George” appears, if at all, as an antediluvian monster who set his face against the march of progress. Did he not oppose the abolition of the purchase of army commissions because it would mean the end of an army officered by gentlemen? Did he not defend the cocked hat as part of the army uniform, because he had worn it through the Crimean campaigns and had found it a very comfortable headdress? Did he not say to his military colleagues as he bade them farewell: “Gentlemen, there have been great changes in my time—great changes. But I can say this. Every change has been made at the right time, and the right time is when you cannot help it.” Even Mr. St. Aubyn, who says as much as can be said (and possibly even a little more) to modify this picture of the Duke as an archreactionary, cannot get away from depicting him as at bottom a conservative.

Yet the passage of time does strange things to the controversies of the past. Progressives confront diehards. The enlightened revile the benighted, and vice versa. After a certain interval has passed—and we are just reaching this stage with the Victorians—the particular circumstances and the spirit of the age in which they are contemporaries tends to make them, for the historian, brothers under the skin. Perhaps it should not be so. This retrospective flattening out may be vastly unfair to the pioneer and the rebel. Yet it happens. Let no credit be taken from Wolseley for favoring the Gatling gun; let obloquy be heaped on the Duke for favoring the cocked hat. In this day and age, both of them appear to us more and more like figures from another planet.

What touches us most nearly, transcending the passage of time, are not old battles of reform against reaction, but human character and attitudes. And in this realm these two military men present some surprises. Disraeli agreed with Queen Victoria that Wolseley was an egotist and a braggart. But Nelson had been one, too. “Men of action,” he explained, “when eminently successful in early life, are generally boastful and full of themselves.” Wolseley ran true to type: vain, aggressive, such a snob that at one stage of his career he rejected a Baronetcy on the ground that the same honor had recently been bestowed upon the Duke of Devonshire’s gardener. Yet he married for love—a lady who prided herself on possessing the same proportions as the Venus do Milo and whom he addressed as his “dear little spider.” Furthermore, contrary to what one might expect, he was a man of wide reading and some learning, who moved easily among the leading literary figures of his time. Henry James called him “an excellent specimen of the cultivated British soldier.”

But in human terms it is the “Royal George” who surprises us most, for he defied convention in a truly extraordinary way. In 1840 he met his future wife, the daughter of a printer, an actress of great beauty and charm named Louisa Fairbrother. He did not formally marry her until seven years later, by which time two children had already been born to the couple. Needless to say, Queen Victoria disapproved of the match, refused to receive Louisa at Court, and pretended to be publicly ignorant of the marriage. The Duke, however, remained unabashed. On one occasion he told the future Emperor William II of Germany who, as a great gesture, offered to pay a courtesy call on “Mrs. Fitzgeorge”: “I am afraid, Willie, that my wife will not be able to spare the time to see you. She only sees friends.” The marriage was a happy one, even though the Duke could not qualify as the most faithful of husbands.

He did, however, remain faithful to his own sympathetic and humane attitude toward all ranks under his command. He was kind and considerate to the point that he was known to call off a field exercise because it was raining and he did not want the soldiers to have to do too much cleaning and scrubbing afterwards. Perhaps he acquired this solicitude during his own sole period of combat, the Crimean War, in which he showed personal bravery but reluctance to risk the men under his command. The shock of seeing casualties and all the other horrors of war induced what we would call “battle fatigue,” and led to his first being given sick leave and then allowed to return home. Just before his unheroic departure, he wrote to his mother: “Once this war is over for my part I shall never serve again, that I swear by God.” Wolseley fought in the Crimea, too. He, for his part, found that war ennobling. True, casualties meant suffering and hardship for widows and orphans—“but what nobler heritage can a poor sinful man leave his children than the fact that he willingly died that England might be renowned and great, and her people safe and prosperous.” There is no question about which was the more soldierly attitude. There may, however, be some question about which, in 1965, strikes us as the more congenial.

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