Go to Your God Like a Soldier: The British Soldier Fighting for Empire
By Jon Guttman
No national fighting force in history was called upon to fight over a wider variety of terrain, deal with a greater variety of adversaries and adapt to such a wide range of tactics within the reign of a single monarch than the British Army of the Victorian era. Much has been written on the numerous wars and campaigns of that period, but the ultimate enforcer of the empire, the rank-and-file British soldier, is usually represented as a steadfast cliché in a sun helmet. Ian Knight’s new book, Go to Your God Like a Soldier: The British Soldier Fighting for Empire, 18371902 (Greenhill Books, London, and Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pa., 1996, $49.95), treats “Tommy Atkins” with rather more depth and scope, covering not just his uniforms and weaponry, but the necessary equipment for everyday life between battles.
When Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, the uniforms, equipment and tactics of British troops had changed little from those that they had used when Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, commanded them at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Late in 1837, British troops had to put down a rebellion in Canada, and they suffered more from the cold than from the enemy. The same could be said of the Second Burma War of 1852, during which more Redcoats fell victim to heatstroke than to the Burmese.
The Crimean War, best remembered for the stirring Napoleonic-era battles of the Alma, Balaclava and Inkerman in 1854, subsequently degenerated into a stalemate outside the Russian fortress of Sebastopol, presaging the trench warfare of World War I with all its attendant miseries. After the Crimean War ended in 1856, the continuing expansion of British interests in Asia and Africa finally brought on a slow but steady process of reform in the army, most dramatically exemplified by the 1873-74 war against the West African Asante (or Ashanti), for which Brig. Gen. Sir Garnet Wolseley replaced the scarlet uniforms of his soldiers with a practical, neutral gray uniform of his own design. By the time of Victoria’s death in 1901, the transition from Wellington to Wolseley was complete–Britain had an army prepared for the 20th century.
Britain was, of course, one of the leading industrial powers of the 19th century, and Knight traces the effect that the technology of the period had on the army’s campaigns–not only devastating weaponry like the machine gun but also improved medical techniques. A dramatic illustration of the widening technological gulf between the British and many of their opponents can be seen in a photograph in Knight’s book depicting the early field use of mobile x-ray units during the Boer War, contrasted with an adjacent photograph of the back of Private J. Steele of the 4th Dragoon Guards after the Battle of Abu Klea in 1885, showing a sword cut from a Sudanese Dervish, from which Steele somehow managed to recover.
Along with examining the army’s technical developments, the author looks at the human side of the primarily career soldiers who manned the empire’s faraway bastions. Numerous firsthand accounts by officers and men provide insights into such aspects of military life as the army’s way of reflecting the British class system, a soldier’s motives for enlisting and staying on, and how a soldier adjusted to living and fighting in strange and exotic locales.
One interesting revelation concerns the soldier’s status in Victorian society. The officers and gentlemen–who usually bought their commissions first, and learned how to command their troops later–were socially acceptable. In the enlisted ranks, on the other hand, “going for a soldier” was widely regarded not as a noble enterprise but as a final fallback for people who lacked the skills to find a productive, respectable niche in civilian industry. A letter from Private Donald McDonald of 2nd Battalion, 21st Royal Scots Fusiliers, to his brother regarding his enlistment in September 1878 provides a good example of the stigma attached to soldiers. He entreats, “let my poor mother know about it privately and not to let anyone know about it except our own family.”
Much of the public’s jaundiced perception of the army’s enlisted troops was based on fact, although it was not helped much by statements, like the Duke of Wellington’s, that the army was “composed of the scum of the earth.” It took a famous victory like Inkerman, a glorified defeat like the Charge of the Light Brigade, or the awarding of the Victoria Cross–or better still, the awarding of a record 11 Victoria Crosses for the defense of Rorke’s Drift–to elevate the British soldier above his less-than-exalted standing in the public eye.
Profusely illustrated with drawings, paintings (albeit printed in black and white) and photographs that enhance the text by conveying the feel of the times, Go to Your God Like a Soldier is a useful guide to the campaigns of the British Empire–and of the often-underappreciated fighting men who built and preserved that empire.