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 …