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Through the Crimea by Scott Hughes Myerly; Harvard
University Press $35, 293 pages | BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

Britain's Military Pomp and Circumstance


At quiet moments in Britain's African campaigns of the 1850s, Col. Sir James Dennis, commander of the Third Regiment of Foot, or the Buffs, would make his men parade in a vast circle. Sir James stood in the middle, pounding his staff in time as he sang:

"Buffs go round, go round,

"Buffs go round, go roundy da-da."

Admittedly, he was an extreme case. One imagines him as the inspiration for Mr. Toad in "The Wind in the Willows." Soldiers from other units fell about laughing as they watched; his superiors, one account relates, "had to give him a major generalship to get him out of the regiment."

Nonetheless, the colonel--or rising to his own level of incompetence, the future major general--personified the odd pattern woven inextricably into the fabric of military life. There is war, and there is--no game, though it seems like one--playing soldiers.

"British Military Spectacle: From the Napoleonic Wars Through the Crimea" looks at the playing. The author, Scott Hughes Myerly, provides colorful details. He also attempts, with less success, to suggest what was at work in the elaborate drills, the spectacularly gaudy uniforms and the stylized theatricals.

Through much of the 19th century, it was the British who were the most effectively gaudy. Blue, green or scarlet--early on, the officers and sergeants got the rich red dye; other Redcoat ranks were more of a brick color--gold or white lace, and a tangle of belts, pouches, scabbards and message cases, spectacularly shined or whited. Some of the illustrations suggest spiffier versions of Lewis Carroll's White Knight, clattering in a tangle of tin cans and contraptions.

Although there were efforts to regulate the show--George IV took a particular interest and had a warehouse full of his own uniforms, though he was never allowed to serve--the British army was essentially a collection of independent regiments. Their colonels, usually noble and wealthy, were proprietors as much as commanders. Just as they took pride in the livery of their own servants, they would vie to impose their individual versions of gorgeousness on their officers and men.

The gorgeousness impressed the soldiers themselves, and perhaps made up for low pay and brutal living conditions. In 1860, Myerly tells us, 37% of the army was in sick bay. It impressed the public, up to a point, though it probably did more pleasing than impressing--the British, as one contradiction, being quite unmilitary-minded, though keen on military shows and every other kind, too. (As a second contradiction, which the French never quite understood, they fought extremely well. Stubbornness can do what passion doesn't.)

It was useful in recruiting for a chronically soldier-starved army, Myerly writes; he gives an amusing account of the enlistment caravans that descended on rural villages. The tallest and best-looking soldiers were used. The brilliance of their uniforms was augmented by borrowing officers' regalia. Enlistment bounties were paid--and exhausted when the recruits had to purchase their own clothes. Sometimes there was a dray carrying whiskey and hot meals. Knives and forks dangled from strings so that the villagers could take turns with them.

The bright show had little to do with the actual conditions of war, though some aristocratic officers thought it did. Even Wellington, a fighting general, was confused on the subject. Seventy-three and a national legend, he fell while boarding a ship with Queen Victoria, having tangled his sword in an effort to manage his monstrous cocked hat. The queen ordered him to keep wearing the hat and to fall no more, he complained. Yet in the 1840s, he vetoed a proposal for camouflage dress even though he conceded that it would save lives.

Myerly touches on the contradictions between showiness and the need to fight. Tight uniforms made it hard to wield a saber; tight britches enjoined an odd stiff-legged method of mounting a horse. The author never really deals, though, with how the toy army of the parade ground adapted itself to real fighting. Nor does he indicate how the gaudiness gave way to olive drab by the end of the century. True, it is out of his time frame, but the reader will want to know.

His details are better than his general thoughts. These he assembles toward the end in an argument about the army-as-machine becoming the pattern for society as a whole. Myerly makes his argument expansively and meagerly at the same time.

The writing is cumbersome and repetitious and staggers under an outsize professional apparatus. Take 172 pages of text, add 116 pages of notes, bibliography and index, and you get something only a scholarly mentor could love.

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