Christopher Brice ed., Forgotten Victorian Generals (Helion, 2021)
Say what you like about the Victorian period and the British Empire, but there’s no doubting the range of colourful characters that inhabited the era. Nowhere is this truer than in the British Army. In this collection of essays, Christopher Brice has drawn together essays from various historians on seven of Queen Victoria’s lesser lights.
Anyone doubting the relevance of this work need only turn to the first general on the list, Sir George White, who made his reputation as a young major in Afghanistan in the 1878 campaign as described by Rodney Atwood. He went on to command in Burma during a particularly volatile period, then in Balochistan. He was also the hero of the Ladysmith siege during the Boer War. Ian Beckett narrates the career of Sir William Lockhart. He served in the Indian Mutiny and the Far East then back to the North-West Frontier. Indeed, he would become the army’s foremost frontier expert. His signal moment came when he commanded the Tirah Campaign in the winter of 1897. Unfortunately, Lockhart’s career ended with his premature death from malaria in March 1900.
Christopher Brice takes up the baton with his account of Sir Robert Cornelis Napier. Napier, Brice points out, is now largely forgotten but was once Britain’s ‘go-to’ general in the event of war. He arrived in India in 1829 to command the 1st Bengal Sappers but greater things lay ahead. He served in the Anglo-Sikh Wars and the Indian Mutiny. He also commanded in China and led the stunning 1867 Abyssinian expedition. From there, he returned to become the Commander-in-Chief of India then took up the same position in Gibraltar. That was his last command as new leaders were rising in the British army. Edward Gosling looks at the career of Sir John Charles Ardagh, a Royal Engineer from 1859 who made his reputation as an intelligence officer, beginning in 1875. Much of his valuable work lay in engineering, surveying, and diplomacy, though he saw action in the Sudan. Gosling argues that Ardagh was an important general through the modernization period for Victoria’s army.
Notable historian John Laband’s contribution is an analysis of the aristocratic Sir Arthur Cunynghame in South Africa from 1873 to 1878. He was a veteran of the First Opium War and the Crimean War before landing in India in 1862. He commanded his first true colonial expedition in 1877 in the Ninth Cape Frontier War in South Africa, though he saw no action. Politics rather than military failure did him in and he was recalled to Britain. Paul Ramsay continues the essays with his review of Sir William Nicholson, the ‘leading staff officer of his generation’. He spent thirty years in India, Afghanistan, Egypt, and South African honing his skills as an engineer and staff officer, and played a significant role in preparing the British army for World War I. Finally, Roger Stearn considers Lord Wantage VC. He joined the Scots Fusilier Guards in 1850 and was one of the earliest VC winners, earning his in the Crimean War. However, he never commanded a formation in battle, according to Stearn. Indeed, he did not see much action at all after Crimea, but he played a role from the side lines as one of the benevolent aristocracy that populated Late Victorian England.
While all that might seem like an extensive summary of contents, I’ve barely scratched the surface of this enthralling and information packed book: Victoria’s generals were an extremely industrious lot. The seven essays are uniformly well-written by historians who know their material, though there is some inevitable overlap between essays. As for the generals, what comes across are universal attributes, such as courage, administrative expertise, political awareness, and logistical and planning skills that kept an extensive empire running through Victoria’s long reign. That these were the ‘forgotten’ generals speaks volumes for those who are still household names. If you have an interest in the Victorian empire or the 19th Century British army, you will want to read this book.