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Monday, May 29, 2006

Memento Mori

Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die:
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 'Charge of the Light Brigade'

Many will write about the flags, the trumpet solos, the aged veterans, the origins of Memorial Day - Porcupine chooses instead to offer a view of military affairs in his own day, the early half of the 19th century. Below are some excerpts from the book, "The Reason Why" by Cecil Woodham-Smith (a woman with a male name and an unerring eye for military history, who was kind enough to quote my own small efforts of writing in describing the public run up to the somewhat insane Crimean War):

About the Untrammeled British Aristocracy:

And the strange, the astonishing fact was that public opinion accorded these privileges not merely with willingness but with enthusiasm. Foreigners were struck by the extraordinary and eager deference paid by the English to their aristocracy. It was, as Richard Monckton Milnes wrote, "a lord loving country." Honest British merchants quivered with excitement in the presence of a peer, as if they were susceptible young men in the presence of a pretty girl. True, beneath the surface dark and gigantic forces were beginning to move, and in mines and mills, in rural hovels and cholera-infested city rookeries, half-starved, sub-human millions were beginning to stir in their sleep. But the wind of revolution that had blown from France seemed to have died away, and in England rank and privilege had never appeared more firmly entrenched. Flattered, adulated, deferred to, with incomes enormously increased by the Industrial Revolution, and as yet untaxed, all-powerful over a tenantry as yet unenfranchised, subject to no ordinary laws, holding the government of the country firmly in their hands and wielding through their closely knit connections an unchallengeable social power, the milords of England were the astonishment and admiration of Europe.

On the practice of buying a Commission or Rank in a Regiment:

The purchase system, under which a man first bought his commission and then paid for each subsequent step in rank, and which enabled a rich man to buy the command of a regiment over the heads of more efficient officers, appears at first sight so childishly unjust, so evidently certain to lead to disaster, that it is almost impossible to believe that sensible people ever tolerated, much less supported it. Yet the purchase system expressed a principle which is one of the foundations of the British Constitution; famous victories were won by the British Army while it was officered by purchase, and it was upheld by so great a master of military administration as the Duke of Wellington.

No sentiment is more firmly rooted in the English national character than a hatred of militarism and military dictatorship. "An armed disciplined force is in its essence dangerous to liberty," wrote Burke, and Parliament in its dealings with the Army has always been concerned, above all else, to ensure that no British Army shall be in a position to endanger the liberties of the British people.

The vital period in the formation of Britain's policy towards her Army was the period of government by Cromwell's majorgenerals. The people of England were then subjected to a military dictatorship, they were ruled by Army officers who were professional soldiers, and who, though admittedly the finest soldiers in the world, usually had no stake in the country, and often were military adventurers. Their government was harsh and arbitrary, and the nation came to detest the very name of the Army.

After the Restoration, nation and Parliament were equally determined that never again should the Army be in the hands of men likely to bring about a military revolution and impose a military dictatorship. With this object, purchase was introduced when a standing Army was formed in 1683. Men were to become officers only if they could pay down a substantial sum for their commission; that is, if they were men of property with a stake in the country, not military adventurers. As a secondary consideration the purchase price acted as a guarantee of good behaviour; a man dismissed from the service forfeited what he had paid.
From that date it was the settled policy both of Parliament and of the Crown to draw the officers of the British Army from the class which had everything to lose and nothing to gain from a military revolution.

That really refines the concept of the all-volunteer army, does it not? This is the military in which I served, and had to flee because I attempted to expose the graft and corruption endemic in the officer corps.

Lastly, the subject of the book, the vicious and spoiled James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan who purchased command of the 11th Hussars:

The circumstances of his arrival were impressive. It had been three generations since the succession of the Earls of Cardigan had gone direct from father to son. The much desired heir was of almost mystic importance, and as he lay in his cradle, wealth, rank, power, and honours gathered around his head….No rude voice contradicted him, no rough shoulder pushed him aside. From his earliest consciousness, he was the most interesting, influential person in the world…..He did not know what fear was. A superb and reckless horseman, he risked his neck on dangerous brutes. No tree was too tall for him to climb, no tower too tall to scale. He had in addition to courage another characteristic which impressed itself upon all who met him. He was, alas, unusually stupid…The melancholy truth was that his glorious golden head had nothing in it.
Lord Cardigan -in addition to getting a sweater named after him - is most famous for misinterpreting the order to take the guns that caused the British Light Brigade to charge the artillery battery at Balaclava, the only time artillery was captured by a cavalry regiment. Three out of four men were killed in their saddles, and the empty-headed Lord went home safe and sound to continue his career of military mismanagement.

When you hear of soldiers misbehaving, of colonels dithering, of generals pursuing the wrong strategies - Remember Lord Cardigan and generational idiocy, and be grateful that our American Armed Forces have become the professionals they are, and can rely upon the volunteers that step forward to defend this nation in time of trial.


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