B O O K R E V I E W S
The Victoria Crosses That Saved An Empire: The Story of the VCs of the Indian Mutiny
By Brian Best
Frontline Books, 2016, 236 pages, £19.99/$39.95 hardcover
The Victoria Cross, awarded for gallantry ‘in the face of the enemy’, is the United Kingdom’s paramount military award for battlefield heroism. It was established in 1856 by Queen Victoria to recognize acts of bravery that had taken place during the 1854-1856 Crimean War. The cataclysmic 1857-1859 Indian Mutiny, which shook the very foundations of the Empire and witnessed unimaginable brutality, served as the stage for further awards of the Victoria Cross to deserving British soldiers, sailors – and four civilians.
The Mutiny broke out on 10 May 1857 and did not officially end until 8 July 1859. A series of generally unconnected military revolts of native Indian soldiers against the rule and authority of the East India Company, frequently accompanied by bloody atrocities and suppressed by the British with equal savagery, it was also perhaps the inevitable clash of British civilization with Indian customs, traditions and religion. The Mutiny itself can be divided into a number of campaigns. The first consisted of the siege and capture of Delhi; the second the campaign in Oudh, including the defence and relief of the Lucknow Residency; the defence and battles of Cawnpore; the pacification of Oudh and Rohilkand. The Battle of Gwalior, 19 June 1858, was the last major engagement of the war. Final ‘mopping-up’ operations took place between 1858 and May 1859.
This book is divided into eleven chapters, roughly corresponding to the major campaigns, operations and engagements of the Indian Mutiny. The Victoria Cross actions of the British Army officers and soldiers are grouped together in their respective chapters. After 29 October 1857, East India Company soldiers became eligible for award of the VC, and ‘Non-Military persons Bearing Arms as Volunteers’ were authorized on 13 December 1858 to receive this highest military decoration. These VC vignettes, beginning with the three members of the Bengal Veteran Establishment responsible for blowing up the Delhi Magazine on 11 May 1857, to Private George Richardson’s VC action on 27 April 1859, are fascinating. Unusually. Richardson’s VC citation (published on 11 November 1859) included additional material: ‘Richardson did, despite the fact that his arm was broken by a rifle bullet, and leg slashed by a sabre, rush to the aid of his officer, Lt. Laurie, was attacked by six natives, and that, crippled as he was, succeeded in killing five, and the sixth fled’ (p. 216). This is but one example of the exacting standards required to earn the Victoria Cross.
While the stories of Indian Mutiny VC recipients and their actions are interesting, although at times somewhat superficial, more contextual material would have enhanced the reader’s understanding of their bravery, significance and risk. Seven pages of References and Notes are contained at the end of this monograph; unfortunately all of them are ‘notes’ and there does not seem to be an actual ‘reference’ among them. This is unfortunate, as references would have provided a means for readers to verify the stated information and could have suggested possible courses of action for additional research. A dozen excellent color plates and photographs, and thirty-two monochrome portraits of VC recipients, add a superb visual dimension to the text. However, maps are conspicuous by their absence.
Of the 182 VCs awarded during the Indian Mutiny (and this was the same total number of VCs awarded during the entire Second World War), 116 were awarded to members of the British Army and 66 to soldiers of the East India Company, including three civilians and one volunteer. Their actions serve as threads that form the tapestry of British success in the Indian Mutiny, and The Victoria Crosses That Saved the Empire is a fine book that ensures their legacy of gallantry and selfless service is not forgotten.
Harold E. Raugh, Jr.
The British Army and the First World War
By Ian Beckett, Timothy Bowman, Mark Connelly
Cambridge University Press, 2017, 476 pages, £19.99 paperback
In recent years so much research has been published on aspects of Britain and the British army in the Great War that a new synthesis, incorporating it and making it more widely accessible, has become necessary. This is now provided in The British Army and the First World War by Ian Beckett, Timothy Bowman and Mark Connelly. They are all currently at the University of Kent. Professor Beckett of course needs no introduction or comment here. The other two are from a younger generation of military historians. Dr Bowman is the author of Carson’s Army and Professor Connelly of inter alia Steady the Buffs: The East Kent Regiment and the Great War. Professor Edward Spiers has described them as ‘three scholars at the top of their game’, and their publisher has called them ‘three leading military historians’. Their book, researched from an extensive range of sources, has maps, monochrome illustrations, footnotes conveniently at the bottom of the page, and a long bibliography. It is in the Cambridge University Press series ‘Armies of the Great War’ which includes Elizabeth Greenhalgh on the French army and David Woodward on the American.
The British Army and the First World War comprises chapters on the pre-war army, officers, regulars, territorials, volunteers and conscripts, morale and experience, strategy, the Western Front from 1914 to 1918 – battle by battle - and the ‘side shows’ in Africa, China, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Salonika and Italy. It is packed with data, insights and analyses. It describes often fraught civil-military relations and evaluates French, Haig and other commanders. Much is inevitably familiar – including the importance of artillery and logistics and the limitations of tanks - but there are also some reinterpretations and surprising and significant facts. The book disagrees with Sir James Edmonds’ famous praise of the 1914 BEF, alleging it was ‘on many levels a flawed instrument’. Those familiar with Kipling’s ‘Soldiers Three’ may be surprised to learn that many pre-war soldiers were voracious readers and army libraries were much used. By the end of the war about half the officers were from the ranks. However, the book states this is potentially misleading as many ‘rankers’ were from elite middle-class units such as the Artists’ Rifles. The book vindicates the WAAC from a ‘totally unjustified reputation for immorality’. The book states that the army underwent ‘some sort of a learning process’, but avoids the controversial ‘learning curve’.
The British Army and the First World War is too short for its subject, and the imposed word limit necessitated selection and omission of data of which the authors were presumably well aware: maybe inevitable, but regrettable. A notable example is the first chapter, on the pre-war army, which omits the Boer War and subsequent modernization and re-equipment of the army. It also omits the cavalry controversy and the withdrawal and restoration of the lance. The chapter mentions British officers and NCOs in the WAFF and KAR but ignores the Egyptian army which still had a British sirdar and other officers. The book claims there has been confusion over the army’s purpose. Yet surely this is a non-issue and the Stanhope memorandum was unnecessary. The army’s role was to respond to any armed threat wherever, requiring flexibility not prescription. The BEF, if later in practice constrained by ‘WF’ planning, could have been sent to India or elsewhere. The book alleges the Great War mismanaged ‘colonial’ campaigns suggest that the army had forgotten the fundamentals of such campaigns, especially logistics, learned in Victorian wars. The book suggests the FANY was part of the British army. In fact it was one of those anomalous independent organizations, like the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, which were uniformed and worked with but not in the army. The book is not always consistent. The first chapter rightly argues the pre-war war army was not a colonial gendarmerie, but the conclusion claims its role was very much that of an imperial police force. The book claims the army in Ireland from 1916 to 1921 essentially carried out policing roles: in fact it fought a counterinsurgency war.
The British Army and the First World War has been praised by Edward Spiers as ‘an invaluable work of reference and a stimulus for further study,’ and by Bill Nasson as ‘an event in historical studies of the First World War’. It will be a boon to Great War researchers, students and buffs. Definitely recommended.
Roger T. Stearn