The Linesman; or, Service in the Guards and the Line during England's Long Peace and Little Wars (by Colonel Elers Napier, 1856).
The name of Napier on the title page of a military novel is a strong inducement to read it; but, without disrespect to the very distinguished author, we cannot but wish that he had not made the experiment—as he says for the first time—of appearing before the world as a writer of fiction. The Linesman is composed of three elements. It is partly a novel, partly a pamphlet on military reform, and partly an autobiography. Like the milkman's customer in the old story, we prefer our milk and water in separate pails. Colonel Napier's story loses little, however, by the mixture; for though his gallantry is worthy of the name he bears, he is a very indifferent novelist. It is no more possible to write a novel than to command a brigade without some preparation; and if the Linesman had no other claims to attention than those which attach to it as a work of fiction, we should certainly not think that it required notice. But, though the tale loses little, the autobiography and the pamphlet suffer considerably from the strange combination of which we have spoken. It is always difficult to say how far a particular circumstance is authentic, or how far it is introduced to serve the purposes of the novel; and many complaints of hard usage and injustice are introduced into the book, which a sentiment of personal dignity would have suppressed had it been an avowed autobiography. On the other hand, the pamphlet element is utterly antagonistic to both of the others. To be interrupted in an account of Ensign Beresford's adventures during the Burmese war by quotations from Our Own Correspondent, withering sarcasms on Administrative Reform, and all sorts of violent assertions about the siege of Sebastopol, is equally intolerable whether the ensign is only an alias for Colonel Napier or an orthodox novel hero. Looking, therefore, at the Linesman as a whole, we can only pronounce it a decided failure; but it contains much that is worth reading, and much that is worth noticing. Colonel Napier's autobiography, disentangled from that of Ensign Beresford, would obviously be a very curious one. He has served against the Burmese and the Caffres—he has had all sorts of adventures with irregular troops, with Thugs, and with wild beasts. To such a man's virtues we ought to be very kind, and to his faults a little blind. Many of his experiences are doubtless commemorated, though in a confused inartificial manner, in the Linesman, and they make us regret that he has not related more of them in a rather more systematic and more composed manner. Some expressions lead us to hope that he may hereafter be induced to do so.
The most noticeable part of the book is the doctrine which it preaches. It is throughout an enthusiastic panegyric on English soldiers in all their relations, and an indignant denunciation of the aristocratic prejudices and "routine" of the Government, and of the extra privileges bestowed upon the household troops. Indeed, the preface states that the book owes its origin to the memorial presented to the Queen some months since on behalf of the Guards. A few remarks on the less exclusively military questions involved in complaints of this kind may be permitted to civilians, especially if they steer clear, as we hope to do, of all interference with the special questions of the grievances or privileges of the Guards, and the regulations for the purchase of commissions.
No one uses the Englishman's birthright of grumbling more largely than a soldier—perhaps with the exception of a sailor. Nor need this be matter of surprise. Imagine some 15 or 20 men confined, for months or years together, almost exclusively to each other's society—often entirely idle—always uncertain whether they may not be called upon, on the shortest notice, to exchange that idleness for a life of labour and hardship. What can they do but grumble—especially if they are, as all Englishmen are, utterly unable to bring themselves to acquiesce in any state of things which does not meet their convenience, and which any human efforts have any kind of power to alter? It is not surprising that this should sometimes crystallize into displays like those which fill so many pages of the Linesman. The English soldier is, according to writers like Colonel Napier, the noblest and the worst-used of all human beings. He is the bravest, the most loyal, the most self-denying of his species, and he is paid like a crossing-sweeper and treated like a cur. He sustains the whole fabric of English greatness, and all England is in a conspiracy to defraud and insult him. Cannot this kind of language be a little smoothed down? Are not some sources of consolation open to military men, if they would only resort to them? Will Colonel Napier take it in good part if we tell him what is the opinion of an average civilian upon the general subject of soldiers' wrongs?
We think, then, that the soldiers of the British army have some admirable qualities in a very high degree—great courage, great docility, and great power of enduring privations. But there were such men living before the days of Agamemnon, and there are hundreds of thousands of people in various walks of life in this country, who find that society is so constituted as to oppose greater or less obstacles to the full recognition of their merits. Many an able barrister never holds a brief, and sees the sons of attorneys promoted over his head. Many a good physician has to look at both sides of every sovereign he spends, whilst quacks and flatterers drive past in their carriages. Many a man of genius preaches to unsympathetic or distrustful congregations, for want of the plausible flaccidity and minute punctuality which have been so often the passport to bishopric. Indeed, it is an old complaint that the wicked flourish like green bay-trees. It is not in the nature of systems to guard against such a state of things. We know of no road to a perfect division of honours according to merit, except that which leads straight down the crooked lane and right round the square. There is nothing in the neglect which so grieves and enrages Colonel Napier beyond the common lot of all men. Ensign Beresford is vastly angry, because he gets all the hard knocks in the line, whilst his cousin, Augustus Seymour, gets all the scarlet, and fine linen, and sumptuous fare of the Guards. But is there nothing per contra? Is it really true that soldiers have no love for enterprise and adventure? Would the captain who can count twenty years of service against savage tribes, deadly fevers, fearful perils by land and by water, change lives with the colonel who has gained his rank by ten years' lounging in London and Dublin—assuming the facts of the ease to be so? Is not this only another form of that worship of success in life which is the curse of England? Is it nothing for a man whose intellect is active rather than speculative, to have had an opportunity of passing many years in the discharge of duties of the most important and exciting nature? Is it nothing to have acquired a very broad acquaintance with life—to have tested and developed the latent capacities of mind and body—to have formed some of the closest connexions, and to have stored up some of the most interesting recollections of which human nature admits? Would Colonel Napier sell all this for some additional rank and income? If not, nothing has befallen him but what is the common lot of all men. Some desires must always remain unsatisfied; and in the case which he puts, it is only the less noble appetites which are in that predicament.
No doubt a fair distribution of military honours is desirable, and we do not mean to deny that fairer arrangements might be made on the subject than those which exist at present; but though such an arrangement might be politic on the part of the Government, is it dignified on the part of the soldiers to show so much anxiety on the subject? In the wonderful description of the storming of St. Sebastian which is contained in Napier's Peninsular War, the author argues with irresistible force against the notion that men would have gone through what our troops then underwent for the chance of plundering the town. That they would have done so merely for the sake of obtaining an official recognition of their courage, is a conclusion which all who honour the army ought to resist with at least equal warmth. Of the two, we should almost prefer a man who risked his life for money to one who risked it for vanity. The former motive is at least intelligible, individual, and independent—the latter acts only upon a man who is so uneasy about his own worth that he can never be satisfied about it, unless some one else testifies to its existence.
We do not believe that the kind or degree of courage which our troops display is a thing which can be bought either by money or medals. It can only be supplied from two sources— either from a deeply-rooted sense of duty, or from that general ardour of spirit which displays itself in Englishmen, in all directions, and on every conceivable opportunity—the temper which drives well-born and wealthy men into arid deserts or deadly jungles, over inaccessible mountain-tops, and through untracked wildernesses—the spirit which makes athletes of the students at Universities, which animates men in hazardous speculations, and in the obscure and toilsome preparations for professional success. The first motive is noble and holy. The second is gallant and honourable—at once the indispensable condition and the surest guarantee of all that is worth living for. But both of them alike are priceless. If they do not exist, no premium will call them forth— if they do, no premium can do more than record their existence. To us there is something eminently touching and noble in the English sentiment of indifference to mere external attestations of merit. You can go nowhere on the Continent without meeting with red ribbons, crosses, and other badges, of all kinds, bearing a greater or less conventional value. In England, you may know a man for years without discovering that he has a whole drawer full of decorations, which he could wear if he pleased. Surely there is great dignity in the indifference which this sentiment implies to casual admiration—the admiration of the man who meets you at dinner, or passes you in the street. It says, in effect, "You must take me as I am. It is you who receive a favour from the company of an honourable man. It is a privilege to you to do me honour, and not to me to receive it. It does not become an English gentleman to walk about with his ticket on his coat, saying, Look and see how brave I am. I keep my courage to use when it is wanted, not as a matter to brag of to strangers. What I care for is to be brave—not to have evidence to prove that other people consider me brave."
Such is our version of the English neglect of decorations. If it is a true one, it shows a spirit which cannot be weakened without injuring the whole English character. It may be objected that such feelings would be well enough if no decorations at all were given, but that, if given at all, they should be given fairly, and not merely to persons of high rank. This is quite true; but it must also be recollected that the habit which restricts certain honours to persons of high rank greatly diminishes the significance of those honours. That a man is a K.G. does not prove that he is a remarkable man, but only that he is a remarkable lord— which is a very different and a much narrower thing. It may also be objected that the mass of mankind are not, and never will be, philosophers, and that however foolish the love of crosses and ribbons may be, it exists, and must be humoured. This also is true, and affords an excellent reason why statesmen should give crosses. Our present object is simply to show Colonel Napier why soldiers ought not to care so much about having them. That a boy is very childish is no doubt a reason for treating him like a child; but it is an equally strong reason for exhorting him to be a man. The desperate heroism—slightly recognised, as it has often been—which our troops have displayed on a thousand fields of battle through the course of eight hundred years, shows sufficiently that they can fight as well because it is right, and because they like it, as others can fight because they want to be praised for it; and we feel very strongly that the English motives hitherto recognised and acted upon make not only better soldiers, but, what is of far more importance, better men than the others.
Colonel Napier's book contains many suggestions on other military matters, of which we do not pretend to judge, but which appear to us, for the most part, humane and sensible. We wish they were placed in a more permanent form, and offered in a tone of greater calmness and moderation.
Saturday Review, September 20, 1856.