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Beyond the call of duty

Men of War: Courage under Fire in the 19th-century Navy, by David Crane

24 June 2009

12:00 AM

24 June 2009

12:00 AM

Men of War: Courage under Fire in the 19th-century Navy David Crane

Harper Press, pp.480, 30

David Crane’s latest book is much more interesting than its title would lead you to believe. If you buy it hoping for a collection of stories of derring-do and British pluck, you won’t be wholly disappointed: you will indeed learn how Frank Abney Hastings, having got himself sacked from the Royal Navy for behaving like a petulant teenager when given his first command, went on almost single-handed to invent naval steam-powered gunboats, and used the first one he built to sink a ridiculous number of Turkish ships in the Greek War of Independence. You will read of Robert Peel’s son, William, winning his VC tossing live shells out of his battery at Sevastopol, riding out of the smoke and chaos to the rescue of the Grenadier Guards at Inkerman, immaculately dressed and accompanied by a midshipman on a pony, or dragging his naval 68-pounders up to the very walls of rebel forts in the Indian Mutiny. Then there is James Goodenough, somehow maintaining his Christianity in the disreputable warfare against the Chinese, which led to the sacking and burning of the Summer Palace, and refusing to allow reprisals against South Sea islanders whose treachery led to his lingering death from tetanus. There is plenty more: walk-on parts for Thomas Cochrane, Evelyn Wood VC, George Tryon and even an ominous appearance by the young Jackie Fisher.

But the real substance of the book is much more subtle and much more interesting. It is about the relationship between a civilised society, striving to settle disputes by means of courts of law or civil processes, and its warriors. However deep the peace, and however anxious to avoid the use of force they may be, even skilful leaders will not always succeed in avoiding war, and so warriors there must be. Conversely, how should the warriors behave in a world which is doing its best to do without them? What should their code be?

These are issues which are not easy to resolve. On the one hand, as the great Aurel Kolnai showed in relation to Nazi Germany, it is no good devaluing military virtues because their extreme exaggeration is a pathology. Military virtues are virtues. However pacific we are, Tommy is indeed the saviour of his country when the guns begin to shoot; and silly old Don Quixote’s antique honour may be more use than the ideas of those of us who have never buckled on a sword at all. When it comes to it, as Keynes wrote in 1939, three cheers for Colonel Blimp and the old School Tie.

On the other hand, it is not very easy accommodating Colonel Blimp awaiting the call from Bloomsbury, either for the Colonel, or for the rest of us.

Crane takes three stories and explores how the hero of each tried to find his own answer, and how society around him responded. Nineteenth-century Britain is a good time for such a study: our long economic and naval dominance gave us 100 years of general peace during which most of the rapidly increasing population had little experience of war. But warriors were needed from time to time, though some of the limited wars in which they were deployed seem now more the consequence of belligerence whipped up by populist politicians than of unavoidable necessity. (The Arrow War, the Crimea, and the Boer War at least remind us that democracy is not always a force for peace.) These conflicts, however, were not enough to last a warrior caste a century, and they scoured the globe for other people’s conflicts in which to keep their honour bright.

Crane has selected contrasting examples of how three extraordinary individuals wrestled with these issues. Hastings, a child of the romantic era, drew on the codes of Homeric Greece (averting his eyes as much as he could from the behaviour of the actual Greeks alongside whom he was fighting.) Like a Homeric hero, face and personal honour did not preclude the utmost ruthlessness in the pursuit of victory: no sentimentality from him about the glory of sail if steam- power and exploding shells could do the job more efficiently. There is nothing sentimental about Achilles, either, for that matter.

William Peel embodies and partly invents the most attractive form of high Victorian public-school style: devoted to his men and they to him, elegant, brave beyond belief. The slogan with which he and his blue-jackets greeted each other in the hell of his Diamond Battery at Sevastopol was ‘all will be serene’. Today they would surely have said, as the shells exploded around them, ‘it’s all cool’. Honour as cool: there is something very modern in that.

Finally, there is James Goodenough, who bases his warrior creed in his Christianity, converting the old imperialism of trade and opportunism into a deeply held belief that the empire was doing the Lord’s work bringing Christianity and justice to all.

For none of them was patriotism enough; let alone just obeying orders (indeed all three were singularly difficult to command). They each struggled in different ways to find a fulfilling personal doctrine to make the business of killing, which no society as yet has managed to do without, into something honourable, and to find a concept of honour which made sense in their time. We are unwise if we sneer at such struggles. Without the antique codes we may be left with the appalling calculations of mere utilitarianism: looming over the end of Crane’s period is modern industrialised warfare, one of whose most powerful advocates, Jackie Fisher, was a midshipman at the disaster of Tientsin in 1859 to the avenging of which Goodenough brought his Christian sword. Fisher argued later that enemy prisoners should be boiled in oil, to encourage dismay amongst their fellows still fighting; if there are no rules, and it works, why not? Crane’s heroes, in their different ways, were trying to avoid the world created by that calculus. That these tensions are still with us, and perhaps always will be, gives Crane’s book a compelling and topical interest. 

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