For one brought up in the land of redcoats, where paintings of gallant officers decorated the walls of many stately homes and military heroes rode to glory across the pages of boys' reading, Byron Farwell's book brings back fond memories. His eight renowned generals had more than their share of glorious adventures in the near-century from 1815 to the death of Queen Victoria in 1901; only during the year 1868 was there no colonial war in progress. Thus the opportunities for British leaders were many and varied, though the plums more often than not tended to fall to a select few.
Of Farwell's eight heroes, two were born in the 18th century (Hugh Gough and Charles Napier) and five died after the queen (Frederick Roberts, Garnet Wolseley, Evelyn Wood, Hector Macdonald and Herbert Kitchener). And of the eight, two (Charles Gordon and Kitchener) died on active service in wartime, one committed suicide in shame (Macdonald, the only one to rise from the ranks, but not the only one fond of boys). Most lived to ripe old ages in spite of their numerous wounds.
Physically these heroes varied much in size, from the diminutive "Bobs" Roberts to the towering Kitchener. They came from a variety of backgrounds, though all except Macdonald were from the better classes, and their progress through the system depended on a combination of luck, action, connections, and in the early cases the wherewithal to purchase their commissions and to advance themselves. In other words, their careers reflected fairly accurately how the successful officer reached the top in the Victorian army, a professional organization which underwent some profound changes in the 19th century. Cadets were required to attend Sandhurst for the infantry or the cavalry or Woolwich for the engineers or the artillery, the purchase of commissions was abolished in 1871, and enlistments were changed from very long service to a short-term enlistment of 12 years. Lord Roberts, for one, argued that this reduced the efficiency and reliability of the army, since the percentage of soldiers over 30 years of age dropped from 30 in 1871 to less than 10 in 1891.
Typical of many heroes when plunder was shared out as prize money, and typical too of prima donnas, the majority of the generals complained at one time or another of not getting their due, either in promotions or in tangible rewards. Part of the problem was the lack of enough medals. Bravery in the field was either mentioned in dispatches or recognized with the Victoria Cross, but there was very little in between until the last quarter of the century. The letters that the seekers of glory wrote and those written by their supporters form part of the voluminous material which Farwell has used. His bibliography is but a select guide to the wide range of sources with which he has become familiar while doing his other works on allied topics.
One of the best things about "Eminent Victorian Soldiers" is that each of its 30-page treatments is longer and more readable, more modern, too, than those in the Dictionary of National Biography. The browser has his pick of heroes who can be loved, hated or pitied. For one who grew up with the names of "Chinese" Gordon and Roberts of Kandahar, it was fun to relive the memories in a short refresher course on their lives. Gordon really was an unreliable Christian fanatic and not a proper professional officer -- quite the opposite, in fact, of Lord Roberts. Both, though, still led from the front, and were visible in battle.
And for those who like their imperial and especially their Indian history personified, what better way to get it than in these potted biographies. Every one of these officers served at some time in his career in India, and all helped to bring the Empire into being and to protect it against those who would disturb its peace.
It is true that there are a few recent full-length biographies of some of these heroes, such as Gordon, Kitchener, Wolseley and Roberts, for those who wish a deeper understanding or more detail. For those who do not, Farwell limns the men who conquered the lands and set the standards that Paul Scott was talking about in "The Raj Quartet."