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Anciennes et nouvelles aristocraties

Didier Lancien
Monique de Saint-Martin

II. Anciennes et nouvelles aristocraties avant 1914

Crown of Self-Sacrifice: A Self-Sacrificial Elite in the Age of the New Imperialism1

James Anthony Mangan

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  • 1 This is a slightly amplified version of “Duty unto Death: English Masculinity and Militarism in th (...)

1Edward Palmer Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) is widely known throughout the academic world–and indeed beyond. Justifiably. It has many virtues. Among other things, it is an impressive synthesis of the ideas of the “good and the great” of the social sciences. In it we hear echoes not only of Gramsci but of Weber and Durkheim, and we see references not only to classes but to codes and values (Alexander 1990: 21). Thompson, of course, was concerned, first and foremost, with the creation of “community.” In the eighteenth century, he argued, in traditions which revolved around the “code” of the self respecting artisan–decency, regularity, mutuality–, were to be found the seeds of the “highly organised and self-conscious working class” of the Industrial Revolution. This “code” promoted a secure, ordered, cultural milieu and ensured a viable working class culture. As this culture evolved, it linked to the artisanal code, the languages of religious brotherhood and socialist idealism. The outcome was a collectivist culture, propagated by political theory, by new social organisations and by cohesive rituals (Alexander 1990: 21). This cultural transformation, Thompson insisted, ensured political recognition. In Thompson’s view, the emergent autonomy of working class culture “was a historical and political necessity” (Alexander 1990: 21)–an interesting viewpoint with period application elsewhere as we shall now see.

2The attraction here of Thompson’s analysis, albeit briefly outlined above, is that it appears relevant at the other end of the social class continuum of Victorian England–especially late Victorian England and the Era of the New Imperialism. Among the upper middle class of the period, I suggest, there was also concern with the creation of a “community”, albeit smaller; a “self-sacrificial warriorhood”–a small elite of sacrificial subalterns conditioned to accept the responsibility, if necessary, of martial martyrdom. This elite had its “code” which ensured a militaristic culture–one which also emerged out of perceived historical necessity.

3I will return to this point in due course.


4David D. Gilmore’s Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity is concerned with the way different cultures conceive and experience manhood: “the approved way of being an adult male in any given society” (1990: 1). Gilmore is intrigued by the fact that so many societies construct an exclusionary image of manhood through trials of skill and endurance, by the fact that there seem to be “parallels in male imagery around the world” constituting “a ubiquity rather than a universality,” and finally, by the fact that there appear to be continuities of masculine expectations across cultural boundaries; in particular, the demand made upon males to “be a man” or “act like a man”–an expectation of aggressive assertion (1990: 90).

5Gilmore’s attention has been caught by the apparently similar and the often dramatic manner in which cultures, past and present, non-literate and literate, define manhood. Can we speak, he asks, of a global masculine archetype born of trials and testing.

“If there are archetypes in the male image,” he surmises, “they must be largely culturally constructed as symbolic systems, not simply as products of anatomy, because anatomy determines very little in those contexts where the moral imagination comes into play. The answer to the manhood puzzle must lie in culture; we must try, therefore, to understand why cultures use or exaggerate biological potentials in specific ways.” (1990: 23.)

6It is appropriate at this point to note the conclusions of Clark McCauley in The Anthropology of War.

“... Twenty years ago, Lor and Ardrey [...] popularised the idea of an aggressive or killer instinct for aggression in warrior societies, but which was present to some degree in all humankind [...] Anthropologists then and now find the hypothesis of a killer instinct not so much wrong as irrelevant to the kind of facts they want to explain. The Vikings of some hundreds of years ago are the notably peaceful Danes of today. The horse and gun made some people of the Shoshonean Basin–the Utes and Snake–into warriors, and other people of the same basin–the poor Diggers-into fearful refugees. The gun and the market for sales made both the Miskito kingdom and its Sumo victims out of identical aboriginal material.” (1990: 2.)

7In these examples, the rate of cultural change is too great to be a function of genetic differences. So McCauley advances the notion of pre-adaptation (1990: 7)–ecological change that leads to cultural adaptation mediated by human choice based on pre-existing culture. Historians of culture, claimed McCauley, “are confident that the speed and direction of cultural change in relation to changed ecology could only be understood in terms of change consciously directed by the perceptions of human actors” (1990: 8). Both directly and indirectly such arguments lead back to Gilmore who argues, unremarkably, that culturally endorsed ideals of manhood make an indispensable contribution both to the continuity of social systems and to the psychological integration of men into their communities. To understand the meaning of manhood from a sociological point of view, and, on occasion, as I hope to demonstrate, from a historical point of view, therefore, it is important to understand its social rather than individual functions and causes. And to Gilmore, it is clear that acts of manhood are frequently related to the extent of disciplined aggression required of the male. In his opinion this simply demonstrates that life is mostly hard-and men, historically, have been given the dangerous tasks in the interest of the survival of the group. Thus while there may be no “Universal Male” it is possible to speak of a Ubiquitous Male–a quasi-global personage: “Man-lhe-Impregnator-Protector-Provider” (1990: 223).

8These three moral injunctions “seem to come repeatedly into focus” whenever and wherever the “word” manhood is valued. They represent danger: “They place men at risk on the battlefield, in the hunt, or in confrontation with their fellows” (Gilmore 1990: 223). Consequently if the group is to survive, boys must steel themselves to undertake such activities, must be prepared by various sorts of tempering and toughening, and must accept the fact that they are expendable. Thus, states Gilmore, in a crucial passage, men too, nurture their society “by shedding their blood, their sweat, their semen, by producing children, by dying if necessary in faraway places to provide a safe haven for their people” (1990: 230). In short, manliness is a cultural construct with the important concomitant of martial expendibility. And in Gilmore’s words–most apt for my immediate historical purpose here I will deal with the relationship to contemporary society later–, “in Victorian England, a culture not given over to showy excess, manhood was an artificial product co-axed by austere training and testing” (1990: 18). In other words, an imperial masculinity consonant with Empire building became a sexual imperative.

9The making of masculinity is the focus of this paper. It is concerned with the cultural creation of a self-sacrificial warrior–an imperial elite–and with the conditioning of this elite–on the public school playing fields of the privileged; those important locations of an indoctrination into martial, moralistic manhood with eventually serendipitous global ramifications.


10Correlli Barnett has suggested that “to hear politicians and constitutional historians holding forth on the virtues of parliamentary democracy, it is easy to forget that ours is a civilisation largely born out of war and devoted to it” (1967: 15). War, symbolised in the metaphors of war used so widely and so frequently, is deeply embedded in our institutions, thinking, recreations (Barnett 1967: 15). Nevertheless, throughout the nineteenth century, there was a marked reluctance among the British to see Britain as a militaristic nation. The myth of British anti-militarism was pervasive: “Almost all nineteenth century writers on the army and the State, prior to the Boer War at least, agreed that Britain was not a military nation” (Gooch 1975: 87). This was a belief reiterated full in the face of jingoism!

11However, all was not as was claimed.

12The Victorians, early, middle and late, were as addicted to playing at soldiers as any of their continental counterparts. The many, different and gorgeous uniforms, badges and helmets of Volunteers, Militia and Yeomanry in the magnificent displays in British military museums may seem a puzzling collection for so small a military power, says Geoffrey Best, but soldiering, he adds, appears to have been “the hobby of the aristocracy and gentry” (1975: 130). Hugh Cunningham has described Volunteering as the spectator sport of mid-Victorian Britain (Summers 1976: 107).

13Furthermore, at the level of what Michael Howard has termed High Culture, emphasis on military matters was intense. It amounted to the worship of war as a sacred path to moral purity, ascendancy and domination, compounded with (more than) a piece of Social Darwinism.

14As early as 1865, John Ruskin lectured on “War” at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich–seemingly an incongruous combination of an improbable speaker, at an improbable place on an improbable theme for here was an impotent, aged aesthete captive in a cage of virile, young philistines lecturing on a decidedly unaesthetic theme (MacKenzie 1992, Intro.). However Ruskin’s ideas harmonised with Wyatt, Cramb, Wolseley and other late Victorians: “War, by eliminating the unfit, determined who were the best–those highest loved, most fearless, coolest of nerve, swiftest of eye and hand.” “All great nations”, he also told his audience, “... were nourished in war, and wasted in peace, taught by war, and deceived by peace; trained by war, and betrayed by peace–in a word, they were born in war, and expired in peace” (Richards 1992: 86). Then late Victorians passed their militaristic inclinations and preoccupations to the Edwardians. And while Edwardian Christianity was not particularly martial or bloodthirsty, claims Ann Summers, it adopted militarism with an apparent uncritical enthusiasm (1976: 120).

15This militarism, suggests Ann Summers, has escaped the attention of many social historians–misled by those long-standing “conventional wisdoms” that Britain was a nation of seafarers not soldiers and that socialist pacifism ensured a hostility to militarism. In consequence, the rush to the colours in the Great War still lacks adequate explanation and there still exists a lack of real understanding of the political, cultural and social basis of British patriotism of the pre-war period. The fact that Great Britain produced 1.5 million volunteers in its first two years, disposes her to the view that Britain “must have developed, over a long period, a very wide and pervasive range of military or militaristic modes of thinking” somewhat different from the more conventional and obvious forms of militarism–conscription, garrison towns, duelling manias and the like-which characterised other European societies before the Great War (1976: 105). So what were they?

16In “The Language of Patriotism 1750-1914” Hugh Cunningham (1981: 8-38) offers one clue. In the third quarter of the nineteenth century racial patriotism called for loyalty to the State as an essential element of imperial ideology. In the age of this new imperialism, says Cunningham, the English were continually exhorted to be patriotic. Conservatives of the 1870s constructed a patriotic measuring rod: “The patriot was above class, loyal to the institutions of the country, and resolute in defence of its honour and interests” (Cunningham 1981: 24). Patriotism was now inseparable from conservatism, militarism, royalism and racialism. At one point in his argument Cunningham doubts whether among the working class this new emphasis had the effect which was intended: “There was a sense of the irrelevance of patriotism to most of working class life” (1981: 23). Later, however, he considers that it was illusory to consider that neither minority criticism nor proletarian interpretation immunised the working class “in any thorough going way from the virus of right wing patriotism” (1981: 23). He adds two thoughts of interest to the theme of this chapter. First, patriotism was effectively a classless phenomenon. In chapels, especially Wesleyan Methodist chapels across the land, he remarks, the congregation was now more likely than earlier in the century to hear patriotism being preached from the pulpit. Thompson’s working class community was drawing nearer to the upper middle class community. Second, there was now continuous speculation about the relationship between patriotism and playing field (1981: 24).


17Within this new climate, a rhetoric of jingoistic conceit in poetry, prose and printing now coalesced into a triadic instrument of propaganda in which the subject of this paper, the self-sacrificial subaltern, was celebrated. The sons of the upper middle class could not escape, even if they wished which was often unlikely, its sustained attack. Esmé Wingfield-Stratford in Before the Lamps Went Out, his autobiography of the years before the Great War provides graphic and startling evidence of the impact of a rampant militarism on the young:

“[...] the whole atmosphere of the time seemed to be faintly redolent of gunpowder; [...] among those who professed and called themselves gentlefolk in the fin de siècle–and I think this would apply to an even wider circle–everybody seemed to be talking about those two linked attractions of war and Empire.” (1945: 74.)

18What Thomas Carlyle had insisted, many had come to believe. The national hero was now a warrior and a patriotic death in battle was the finest masculine moral virtue. Unsurprisingly, therefore, in popular British culture, the image of the military was transformed by the end of the century. Execrated as vicious in 1800, it was eulogised as virtuous in 1900 (MacKenzie 1992a: 1). A shift in role from repressive internal agent of conservatism to external agent of liberalism, a public perception of being sinned against rather than sinning, endorsement by a new confident Christian militarism after 1800, institutional reform after 1870 and imperial expansion account for much of the change in public perception (Richards 1992: 84-87). In the Age of Empire, senior officer, junior officer and common soldier became popular heroes in the public imagination for the basic reason that the perceived nature of imperialism had altered:

“The dominance of soldier heroes [...] in popular culture the last decades of the nineteenth century represented a distinct change of emphasis and accompanied a change in the nature of imperialism. In mid-century ‘free trade imperialism’ was dominant, the concept of a commercial and maritime Empire with minimum territorial responsibilities and maximum profit. But by the time Disraeli proclaimed Queen Victoria Empress of India in 1876 the mood was changing.” (Richards 1992: 84.)

19There was a practical basis to this change in emphasis from “free-trade imperialism” to “militaristic imperialism”. With Russia, France and Germany as challengers, strategically Britain was now on the defensive. In addition, following the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny and the jamaica revolt there was a new need for military readiness (Richards 1992: 85). Both developments enhanced war and the military in popular culture.

20Even more significant to the change in emphasis, however, was the fact that British society was increasingly characterised by a belief in the morality of imperialism (Richards 1992: 85). The Empire was to be extended as an ethical imperative–and an endorsed militarism was to be the means of extension. Influential imperialists such as Curzon, Balfour, Milner and Rosebery articulated a fully formed imperial creed, with militaristic overtones: “a creed compounded of the concepts of destiny, duty and service” (Richards 1992: 85). They personified the politics of conviction. This conviction grew stronger as the century grew older. Colonial conquest was approved because it would christianise the pagan and civilise the savage. The military now became an instrument of imperial moral design (MacKenzie 1992a: 6). A few out of step radicals booed but most, including schoolmasters, academics, artists, poets and novelists cheered. It was John Ruskin, who provided an acceptable moral argument for colonial warfare. His ethical system united art, coloniser, colonised and warrior. Art was a route to moral order, managed landscape depicted in art was order out of chaos, Empire was a large-scale managed landscape, “and force through the colonial campaign was the means to that management” (Richards 1992b: 87).

21The imagery of chivalry penetrated deeply into the fabric of late Victorian culture. The subaltern–the instrument of imperial force?–now frequently portrayed as a mystic pre-medieval paladin. Imperial heroes were regularly compared to Knights, and Empire was the Holy Grail. Baden Powell’s Scouting for Boys is heavy with chivalric images. He had originally intended to call his scouts “The Young Knights of the Empire” (Richards 1992: 5-6). Romantic impulse led Ruskin also to espouse colonial rather than modern war. It offered greater opportunity for individual chivalric heroism. In this view, he was at one with many of his contemporaries (MacKenzie 1992a: 6). In one regard, Ruskin, however, was quite out of step. In his view “the knight has a shield and sword, not a bat and ball.” For Ruskin sport was not war and war was not sport. Many differed with him–not least the plethora of public school officers who considered colonial wars more or less as sporting events. Colonial battlefields were exotic versions of the playing fields of Eton and elsewhere.

22Such were some of the conditions for the emergence–as well as the ingredients–of imperial mythologies. Their source was not the official mind of imperialism but its enveloping culture (MacKenzie 1992b: 134). And it was the culture of the “community” comprising upper middle class society, the parents of the public schoolboy, and the public school and its masters which created and sustained the image of the sacrificial subaltern as a sacred icon of the late imperial age. This heroic cult required mediators–priests who constructed, interpreted and sustained the myth (Mangan 1988: 141-162). These existed inside and outside the schools, as we shall now see. They mastered the presentation of a powerful and simple iconography and passed it passionately on from one generation to the next. It is now time to consider at least some of them.


23Certain important aspects of the pre-Great War Weltanschauung, it has been suggested, have been lost from sight (Gooch 1975: 88-93). In particular, the extent to which British society was conditioned to accept militarism as necessary and desirable. Consideration of this conditioning requires a long overdue examination of the ideal of self-sacrificial service inculcated in schools and universities through an investigation of the “advocative impact” of serious literature (Gooch 1975: 89).

24War, militarism, imperialism and sacrifice are nowhere more idealised than in J. A. Cramb’s, Reflections on the Origins and Destiny of Imperial Britain (1900). For Cramb, the Anglo-Saxon race “dowered with the genius for Empire is compelled to dare all, to suffer all, to sacrifice all for the fulfilment of its fate “appointed task. And this task was nothing less than to subdue the world, to establish there her peace, governing all in justice” (1900: 17). Cramb preached this Mandate of Destiny to his students and to the wider public. Imperialism, he told them, is the supreme form of political organization–the acme of a historic linear progression: “The civic, the feudal, or the oligarchic... passes into the national, the national into the imperial... irresistibly, as by a fixed law of nature” (1900: 132). He lost no time in praising the radiance of military martyrdom in pursuit of imperialism. It was not the “diamonds of the mines” that took British soldiers to South Africa to die: “No man can believe that,” he wrote, “The imagination recoils revolted... it was simply not British.” Cramb saw them “... self-devoted to death, with a courage so impetuous, casting their youth away as if it were a thing of no account, a careless trifle,... to bring imperial justice to the world as a natural presence as normal as air” (1900: 35). Britain’s unique Empire upraised by the sword and valour, Cramb warned, could be maintained only by the sword, a death-defiant valour and a heroic self-renunciation (1900: 36). Not only did Cramb acknowledge the existence of militarism, he justified it:

“There is nothing in our annals which warrants evil presage from the spread of militarism, nothing which precludes the hope, the just confidence that our very blood and the ineffaceable character of our race will save us from any mischief that militarism may have brought to others.” (1900: 154.)

25Safe, therefore, from the militaristic excesses of lesser races, the Anglo-Saxon would wage war for freedom and justice, exalted by the ideal of Empire and conquering less for herself than for humanity. In turn, the ideal of Empire would exalt the soldier, “hallowing the death on the battlefield with the attributes at once of the hero and the martyr” (1900: 160-61).

26J. A. Cramb addressed students; Sir Henry Newbolt addressed schoolboys; but the message was the same: struggle is inevitable, imperial war is righteous, only the warrior is truly fulfilled. Newbolt’s The Book of The Thin Red Line, published in 1915, contained “A Letter to a Boy.” Newbolt wrote, “I have written you... a book about soldiers... all of them were boys, and they took war as boys take their games, with a mixture of fun and deadly earnest: like Ulysses, they enjoyed greatly and suffered greatly” (1915: V-VI). In his later The Book of the Happy Warrior (Newbolt 1917: 256), a title borrowed from Wordsworth’s famous lines,

Who is the Happy Warrior? Who is he
That every man in arms should wish to be?

27Newbolt addressed himself “To All Boys” informing them that he had made available to them, for the first time in the English language, stories of some of the great warriors of history including Roland, Richard Coeur de Lion, St. Louis, King of France, Robin Hood, Bertrand du Guesclin, the Black Prince and Bayard. In reality, however, these stories were merely a means to make a point about modern chivalry and the modern English public schoolboy who, in Newbolt’s view, in the admirable pursuit of Empire, had “fought without haired, and conquered without cruelty, and while doing so had preferred death, and even defeat to the deliberate use of foul means” (Newbolt 1917: 256). There were two great principles of chivalry, Newbolt told his boys of the Empire, service to country and membership of a warrior caste–a brotherhood, past and present–founded on chivalrous team games because their great merit was that they made men not bookworms. In a chapter entitled “Chivalry of Today” Newbolt argued that it was left instinctively to the boys outside the classroom to “keep the traditions of the Knights alive for nearly all English boys are born to a love of fighting and service.” However with the Boer War a sad truth was out: “You may get from the playing fields the moral qualities such as leadership and endurance and fair play which are indispensable for war, but you cannot get the scientific training which is also indispensable” (Newbolt 1917: 222). He concluded that if games were to be a thorough training for war they would have to include throwing the bomb as well as the cricket ball and racing not only in boats but in aeroplanes and armoured cars (1917: 274).

28Newbolt, like Cramb, was both an admirer and advocate of War. The soldier, providing he is chivalrous, he advised his readers, could find tranquillity, probably for the first time, from “the sense of service, of brotherhood, of self-sacrifice” (1917: 275). He ended his book with a typical Newboltian militaristic verse that summarised his message to the young:

Hic Jacet
Qui in hoc saeculo fideliter militant.
He that has left hereunder
The signs of his release,
Feared not the battle’s thunder
Nor hoped that wars should cease;
No hatred set asunder
His warfare from his peace.
Nor feared he in his sleeping
To dream his work undone,
To hear the heathen sweeping
Over the lands he won;
For he has left in keeping
His sword unto his son.
(Newbolt 1917: 283.)


29The glorification of war in juvenile fiction was a feature of late Victorian and Edwardian Britain and has been extensively discussed. It requires only relatively brief consideration here.

30Magazines and weeklies for boys of the middle and upper middle classes containing serialised novels of England and Empire with tales of war, sport and adventure first appeared in the 1860s (Penny Dreadfulsand Comics 1983: 42). They multiplied thereafter, and quickly sold in their millions (Dunae 1980: 106). In time, the great writers of the period novels for boys wrote for them and “many of their serialised novels were set in far-flung corners of the Empire where might was right, duty was duty, and native unrest was put down by the application of ‘the glorious rightish upper-cut’ coupled with the glorious English maxim gun” (Penny Dreadfulsand Comics 1983: 42).

31In the late Victorian period the most famous was G. A. Henty. Few would disagree with Roy Turnbaugh’s description of him as “a publicist for the British Empire, [and] a recruiting officer for a generation of schoolboys” (1975: 734). The main features of Henty novels, says Turnbaugh, is his preference for killing rather than wounding (more final, less troublesome), the cool, casual nature of the violence and the aggressive nationalism. For Henty the Empire was “won and held by force of arms” (Turnbaugh 1975: 736) and the purpose of conquest was the “unrestrained quest for glory” (Turnbaugh 1975: 735).

32Not all of Henty’s young heroes are public schoolboys but they are all well-born, strong and courageous. Henty was a publicist for robust and reticent masculinity as much as Empire. “He had a horror of a lad who displayed any weak emotion and shrank from shedding blood, or winced at any encounter” (Richards 1989: 70-71). For Henty, at least in his stories, the Empire was essentially a ritualistic theatre of war. His heroes after passing through the trial of battle, invariably return successful from Empire to England. Imperial wars in effect were “rites of passage” into manhood (Turnbaugh 1975: 735).

33Henty’s books are, therefore, militaristic romances, as Jeffrey Richards states (1989: 82), conforming to the timeless qualities of the Romantic novel, as outlined by Northrop Frye–sensational, unambiguous, hierarchical, conservative, mystical, chivalric with a clear, moral message and a strong didactic purpose–in this case to perpetuate an Anglo-Saxon imperial code committed to domination at home and abroad in the moral interest of itself and others! It alone had access to a chivalric code. Henty was an unabashed racist who subscribed to the view that the Anglo-Saxon was superior in all important aspects to any other comparable racial or cultural group in the world. The Empire was where the young Briton fulfilled his destiny as “schoolboy master of the world”–more often than not behind the barrel of a revolver or the blade of a sword. Henty was “in step with the mood of an age in which militarism and hero-worship marched hand in hand” (Turnbaugh 1975: 735). Britain’s imperial wars supplied an endless succession of military heroes who became household names. Henty deployed them in his books as imperial icons, blessing and promoting, praising and preserving his boy heroes: Gordon, Wolseley, Kitchener, Roberts, Baden-Powell (Richards 1989: 82).

34Henty, says Richards, is the acknowledged king of boys’ writers of his time. Memoirs are full of references to his centrality to boyhood reading. And since literature exposes the inward thoughts of a generation Henty is essential reading for the social historian (Richards 1989: 73). Huttenback claims that Henty was read by virtually all boys who grew up at the turn of the century and by most of the generation that followed. Consequently his books are significant as social commentary if not literature (Huttenback 1970: 47).

35The juvenile literature of 1880s and 1890s was saturated in heroic military imagery. Henty was one of many who were products of, propagandists for, and monuments to a concept of Empire that emerged then and contrary to what is often alleged by historians, survived at least into the thirties (Richards 1992: 81).

36To a degree lack of preparation for a European war characterised the juvenile press in the Edwardian era. Young patriots had new responsibilities and new anxieties. There were, says Dunae, important differences between late Victorian and Edwardian adventure stories: “The former were assertive and confident, while the latter were insular and xenophobic” (1980: 121). The explanation lay in social tensions in Britain, political unrest in Europe, and the growing naval and military strength of Germany. These factors, coupled with the memory of Britain’s military reverses in South Africa, contributed to the anxious, self-conscious mood which pervaded the spy stories, the aerial adventures, and the futuristic tales of invasion. Vigilance was the key word in boys’ literature during the years which immediately preceded the Great War, and readers must have realised that they were being exhorted to prepare for the defence of Great Britain-not for the expansion of Greater Britain.


37In late Victorian and Edwardian Britain military heroism, the martial spirit, service and sacrifice suffused popular poetry (Richards 1989: 80).

38This poetry of martial patriotism was written by an extraordinary wide group of patriots–including in not always exclusive categories–major poets, minor poets, poet laureates, schoolmasters and schoolboy poets, obscure citizen poets and hitherto mostly neglected women poets. They are numbered in their hundreds. The most famous included Kipling, Newbolt, Conan Doyle, George Barlow, Francis Doyle and W. E. Henley and the poet laureates–Alfred Lord Tennyson, Alfred Austin and Robert Bridges.

39It is seldom appreciated how complete was the support for martial masculinity by those “unacknowledged legislators of the world”, as Shelley once called poets. Lord. God of Battles, a war anthology compiled by A. E. Manning Foster in 1914 contained poems on warriors and war by Tennyson, Campbell, Wordsworth, Austin and Gerard Manley Hopkins (Foster 1914). Hopkins, a Jesuit ascetic, contributed a verse, entitled “What Shall I Do?”:

Where is the field I must play the man on?
Ο welcome there their steel or cannon.
Immortal beauty is death with duly,
If under her banner I fall for her honour.
(Foster 1914: 35.)

40while Alfred Austin, in the same volume, asserted:

So long as flashes England’s steel,
And English trumpets shrill,
So long as One Flag floats and dares?
So long as the One Race dares and grows?
Death-what is death but God’s own rose?
Let the bugles of England play
Over the hills and far away!
(Foster 1914: 51.)

41Well into the Great War, and indeed after it, ordinary and obscure men and women, deeply moved by tragic events, struggled to put a naive and intense patriotism into verse of a sort that owed nothing to the perceptions and experiences of the celebrated war poets, but spoke still of a sacrificial, obligatory duty:

For he died for England’s sake
If thou so live
If thou so give
That road thyself shall take.
(Fielding-Hall 1916: 108.)

42and the nobility, honour and fearlessness of “golden boys”:

These happy boys who left the football field,
The hockey ground, the river, the eleven,
In a far grimmer game, with high elated souls,
To score their goals.
(Letts 1917: 16.)

43The icons were preserved. Perhaps they needed to be. For the many, rather than the lew, their retained sacredness was a means of existing with horror, death and loss.

44Women versifiers of the Great War were numerous but have been mostly ignored, Scars upon my Heart, edited by Catherine Reilly and published in 1981, sought to remedy this situation. Her voices from the past all mourn for the dead. Reilly admits, perhaps reluctantly, that “sentimentality and patriotism certainly went together during the Great War years.” “Now,” she states correctly, “we have less time for Rupert Brooke and his solemn young heroism.” We hear only Sassoon and Owen, “reluctant heroes [who] both stayed submissive to the high-minded macho ethic of the English officer” (Reilly 1981: XVI). The self-protective emotional reticence of male combatants draws far less sympathy from Reilly than the expressed emotions of female non-combatants. In their verse, she writes, patriotism and religion became inter-changeable. The soldier became Christ crucified as in Alice Meynall’s elegiac “Summer in England, 1914” which ends:

Chide thou no more, Ο thou unsacrificed!
The soldier dying dies upon a cross,
The very cross of Christ.
(Reilly 1981: XVIII.)

45“This,” remarks Reilly, most perceptively in my view, “is the poetry of England, inalienable from Honour, Duty, God, Christ and Sacrifice,” celebrating not war but the sacrifice of youth–a sacrifice expressed with gratitude: “All flows from Duty.” Reilly, herself, read many of these patriotic poems with mixed emotion. They read to her of neither superficiality nor hypocrisy but of “fearsome desperate nobility.” She fails to make the point, however, but it should be made that this acceptance of “the rightfulness of Sacrifice” was the legacy of history.

46John Bain, a Marlborough College Master between 1879 and 1913 was equally moved when in retirement he read the obituaries of former pupils killed in the Great War:

  • 2 Marlborough 1898-1901. Killed in action in Flanders, 8 May 1915.

47In Memory of Lieutenant E. S. Phillips2

I read–It all rushed back again–
The merry games we played together,
The old squash court, the shine, the rain,
The Boy who’d play in any weather,
The heart not pinned to Honours Lists–
That knew the joy of hard fought matches;
The steady eye, the supple wrists,
The sinewy hands that gripped the catches.
Aye, Marlborough knows you played the game,
Dying you set the gem upon her,
Giving her yet another name
To sparkle on her Roll of Honours.

(Bain quoted in Mangan 1981: 262-263.)

48In his valediction to E. S. Phillips and to other school heroes of gamesfield and battlefield Bain continually linked games and was seeing a logical relationship between them and a logical progression from one to the other. Self-sacrifice according to Bain, brought its own reward-the contentment of duty done:

  • 3 Β. H. G. Shaw killed in action at Neuve-Chapelle, December 1914. A. G. Shaw killed in action in Fl (...)

49In Memory of Captain Ε. Α., Lieutenants Β. H. G. and A. G. Shaw3

O, Mother, mourning for your splendid dead, Let proud drops mingle with the tears you shed. On English fields life’s happiest years they spent, Now dead for England, lo! They lie content.

(Bain quoted in Mangan 1981: 264).

50These versifiers, men and women, largely unknown, have their place in history. They are not to be dismissed by virtue of their crude metre, stilted language or conventional expression. Whatever their literary qualities, they are genuine voices of period idealism. It can only be fully understood by reference to them, and other like them.


51”The visual is sorely undervalued in modern scholarship,” Camilla Paglia has claimed, with the result that literature and art remain unmeshed (Paglia 1990: 33-4). Whatever the present relationship between literature and art, throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, “the heroic image of the army and of war conjured up by the words of the war correspondents was given visual life by the work of war artists and battle illustrators” (Richards 1992: 83). Literature and art were one in their depiction of the heroic dead. Furthermore, the period from 1874 until 1914 witnessed a marked increase in the number of battle paintings in public exhibitions, while the period 1885 to 1914 saw an increase of the graphic production celebrating the military glory of the Empire (Hichberger 1988: 75).

52War artists, studio painters, campaign painters and engravers, depicted the images of imperial war for public consumption. These images, as befitted an age besotted with Camelot presented the young officer in Empire as an Arthurian knight-errant. However, he owed as much to the playing field as the tilting yard. A boyish British officer appeared in quantity in Academy paintings in the 1890s. The works of Richard Caton-Woodville, for example, who painted the Zulu war of 1879, the Invasion of Egypt of 1882, the Sudan expeditions of 1885 and 1896-98, the Matabele and Boer wars and the Chitrel campaign, portrayed the schoolboy officer, “exhibiting sporting dash” (MacKenzie 1992a: 17). And among some of the most striking examples of the “manlines” genre typical of the period were pictures of sport and sportsmen carrying an unspoken assumption “that sport is the best preparation for battle” (Usherwood 1992: 173). As Wingfield-Stratford has recorded:

”To anyone born in the twentieth century it must seem incredible that there was actually a time, within living memory, when war was regarded almost in the light of a glorified test match–a thrill of all thrills, more to be looked forward to than feared.” (1945: 78.)

53The Victorians greatly respected, and invariably required earnest moral messages. War, as depicted by the war painters, was valued largely for “its expression of warrior qualities” portrayed in scenes of individual heroism, sacrifice, glory and pathos (Stearns 1986: til). Amongst the most famous paintings of the sacrificial subaltern were Elizabeth Thompson, Eady Butler’s Floreat Etona! and Alphonse De Neville’s Saving the Colours. Floreat Etona! (the title is the motto of Eton College) was painted in 1882 and depicts two Etonian subalterns in a charge at Eaing’s Neck in the First Transvaal War. Alphonse De Neuville’s Saving the Colours records the efforts of Lieutenants Melville and Coghill to save the colours of the 29th at the Battle of Isandwana. Both paintings deal with disasters-Elwes, Melville and Coghill were all killed. Bravery in death was what mattered: it led to ultimate triumph-for others, and the dead.

54War as pictorial journalism appeared first in the Illustrated London News in 1842. It was also a feature of The Graphic founded in 1869 (Hitchberger 1988: 75). Both gave extensive coverage to British colonial wars which became the most important single subject in both papers: “Military scenes formed nearly 40 per cent of all illustrations in an average year from 1875, and almost every issue carried news and illustrations of the campaigns being fought in outposts of Empire” (Stearns 1986: 56). Although photography pre dated pictorial journalism artists continued to paint war and battle, partly R. T. Stearns has suggested, “because they could fulfil the public’s expectations of the heroic” (Stearns 1986: 58). He added that illustrated news items were, in all probability, the most influential of painted scenes of war. Artists such as Melton Prior, Frederick Villiers, Archibald Forbes and Frank Viozetelly shared and presented the conventional view of war, based on “a warrior ethos and acceptable attitudes to heroes and to death” (1986: 58). Images of war were dramatic. In sketches with both brush and pen they portrayed dead and wounded in a style that omitted the horror and the suffering. Stearns reports that Villiers, wrote of the dead highlanders at Tel-el-Kebir as “resting in easy attitudes on the desert as if in deep slumber” (198b: 58). These deaths, and the stylised deaths of Melville and Coghill, were acceptable to the public, the public schoolboy and his parents. Pacifists, remarks Stearns, alleged that they misrepresented war! And there is no doubt that there was deceit in the depiction. The prose, poetry and painting of subaltern selfsacrifice presented a carefully sanitised view of warfare. It adhered to stylistic conventions–a euphemistic imagery distancing, reader and viewer from the reality of conflict.

55The boys’ magazines of the period frequently borrowed from the illustrated news weeklies. Consequently illustrations in the magazines included pictorial representations of Victorian officer heroes of fiction and fact. In Chums (volume 2, 1893-1894) the frontispiece was of an officer standing, revolver in one hand and sword in the other, defending a wounded comrade in a desperate last stand. This illustration, in adapted form, was carried on the spine of Chums annuals from 1893 to 1908 (MacDonald 1988: 31). In the view of Robert H. MacDonald, the illustration symbolised imperial masculinity: manhood is fighting, fighting means dying, dying is sanctified by chivalric brotherhood (1988: 33). Through such imagery, courage, loyalty, duty and patriotism were given iconographie form. It constituted a visual vocabulary of martial patriotism. MacDonald is convinced that Chums attempted through its constant heroic images of battle “the social reproduction of aggressive virility linking the battles of the playing field to the glorious sport of war, repeating the familiar theme of Newbolf’s ‘Vitaï Lampada’ with its twinned scenes of the cricket match and the last stand in the desert” (1988: 4b).

56There is a final set of martial images to be reviewed before the consideration of visual indoctrination is complete. The illustrations in books for boys. One example must suffice–Newbolt’s The Book of The Thin Red Line. The pictures of The Charge of the Scots Greys (at Waterloo), The Third Light Dragoons Charging the Sikh Guns (at Aliwal), The 78thHighlanders at Lucknow, The 9thLancers at Chillean Wallah are all “close ups” of apparently fearless officers–images for imitation, and models for life. Mary Cowling has suggested that much of the appeal of Victorian art, painting and illustration was anthropological–in the sense, that the physical man revealed the moral man. To this end, the human face and figure were invested with a special significance-which today we no longer recognise (Cowling 1983: 4bl). It is a point of view worth reflecting upon. Alan Swingeword has argued that it is literature, in literate societies that carries a major responsibility for establishing and sustaining the communal symbolism necessary for the survival of ideologies: “the ‘styles’ and ‘forms’ of living, dying, fighting and mating, is taught us in modern society through literary depictions” (Mangan 1988: 142). The argument may also be usefully extended to include art–and now the media. Structuralists like Roland Barthes have argued that the “language” of a culture, defined as its whole system of signs, reflects the culture. However, it has been suggested that “refraction” with its implications of a more subtle relationship, is a more useful term than “reflection”. Others yet again, press for a more active role of “language” in society, as an agent of change, conservation, dominance or resistance. All these points of view are concerned with cultural “signs” as forms of power–both direct and indirect: Lévi-Strauss’s aphorism, “we do not think with myths but myths think themselves in us” is apposite here (Burke and Porter 1987: 12-17).

57These brief reflections raise the issue of the role of systems of signs in creating social reality. More specifically, it raises the question of the influence of the militaristic “language” of late Victorian and Edwardian Britain. There is no way, of course, to measure with any accuracy the impact of images of war as a game, battlefields as playing fields and conflict as a match on schoolboy minds just as “there is no way to measure precisely,... the effect of militant literary [and artistic] outpouring upon actual historical events” (Eby 1987: 7). Eby suggests that probably in most cases the writer, and we will add the painter, like sensitive radar, responds to frequencies already pulsating in the ether (1987: 7-8)–and that in the period before 1914 popular literature, and we will add art, was so steeped in militant nationalism that the Great War, when it finally arrived, came like an ancient prophecy at last fulfilled (1987: 8). Whatever the truth of this assertion, the intention here has been to present the ideals, arguments and images of the writers and painters of late nineteenth and early twentieth century military patriotism rather more fully than is customary today, but much more than this, to suggest that they played a not insignificant part in the indoctrination of an elite community of sacrificial subalterns from the upper middle class, and imbued them with an uncomplicated concept of patriotism, imperialism and masculinity.

58Of course, within the elite and within society some responded avidly, some less avidly, some remained unconvinced, some became disenchanted, but it is reasonable, in my view, to claim that many were convinced of the appropriateness of the projected martial image of masculinity.

59And this image was functional, in at least three critical respects: it produced young men confident of their duty to fight and die; it offered psychological support for the bereft; it provided a martial culture to facilitate and sustain imperial expansion.

60It could be argued that in the age of Empire the imagery of militarism was a cultural imperative and the nature of the imagery of militarism was a necessary deception; to revisit Gilmore, it socialised upper middle class schoolboys into a “male nurturing role” appropriate to the period, and it disguised, sanctified and glorified their death in battle assuring society of the appropriateness of their sacrifice.



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1 This is a slightly amplified version of “Duty unto Death: English Masculinity and Militarism in the Age of the New Imperialism” which appeared in the Special Number of The International Journal of the History of Sport in August 199.5, entitled Tribal Identities: Nationalism, Europe and Sport. The paper later appeared in the associated volume of the same title published by Cass in the Autumn of 1995. The source of both article and chapter was the earlier presentation at the international conference “Old and New Aristocracies, 1880 to the Present” at the université de Toulouse-le-Mirail, September 1994, organised by Didier Lancien entitled “Crown of Self-Sacrifice: A Self-Sacrificial Subaltern in the Age of the New Imperialism.”

2 Marlborough 1898-1901. Killed in action in Flanders, 8 May 1915.

3 Β. H. G. Shaw killed in action at Neuve-Chapelle, December 1914. A. G. Shaw killed in action in Flanders, December 1915 and Ε. A. Shaw killed in action on the Somme, October 1916. All three were pupils at Marlborough before the Great War.


De Monfort University, Leicester

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