The Story of a Soldier’s Life

Monday, September 26th, 2011

Lexington Green declared The Story of a Soldier’s Life (1903), by Field Marshal The Rt. Hon. Sir Garnet Joseph Wolseley, 1st Viscount Wolseley, KP, GCB, OM, GCMG, VD, PC, the best book he read in 2010:

Wolseley was the most distinguished British soldier in the later decades of Victoria’s reign. He is a clear, vigorous, honest writer. He is an acute observer, and he makes strong and blunt judgments. He describes the effect of wounds with clinical accuracy. His career beggars belief. In the book he describes fighting against bandits in Burmah, the long hard fight in the Crimea, a shipwreck on the way to China, turned around to fight in India during the Sepoy Rebellion, on to China during the Second Opium War and the destruction of the Summer Palace, observing the Tai Ping army, over to North America to observe the Confederate Army and meet General Lee, up into Canada, through pristine wilderness, to put down Riel’s rebellion, some time at the War Office, then organizing and leading the campaign against one of the many “races of virile savages” on the edges of British power, the Ashantee. Wolseley never got to a volume three, which would have included helping to finish off the Zulus and conquering the Sudan. There are books it is hard to put down. This one was so exciting that I could barely remain seated while I read it. To read it is to live for a while in a very different world, with a hard-edged moral code, with a man who speaks English very clearly, but who thinks and says things that we would not think or say today.

He describes Wolsely’s views on race:

The idea that “racism” is a unitary phenomenon is seriously wrong. To select a paired set of example. Hitler was a racist. So, in a way, was Garnet Wolseley, a Victorian officer whose memoirs I recently read. But they were “racist” in totally different ways. Hitler was an ideological fanatic, impervious to evidence, hating a “Jew” that mostly existed in his imagination. Wolseley was an extremely practical man who had limited resources with which to conquer and hold vast territories and populations under the potitical control of his government. Hitler made up a fantasy world based on racial myths. Wolseley observed that certain groups had certain characteristics, as a general matter, and he took those facts into account just like terrain, weather, and weaponry and other practical considerations. He did not have the luxury of living in a make-believe world where everyone was exactly the same, or where one group was generically superior. Hitler told himself a self-congratulatory and flattering story about his own group, which led him to make incredibly impractical decisions. Wolseley looked just as hard at his own group, the English, and saw its strengths and weaknesses. He admired and extolled the former, but admitted and tried to work around the latter. He treated these facts about his own people with the same cold practicality that he treated all practical questions. To celebrate “culture” when it suits us or pleases us or flatters us, but to deny its reality and force when it does not, is ultimately dishonest. We need to understand people in the past as they understood themselves, not merely as chess pieces in our current struggles.

Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday was the best book he read the year before. I still haven’t made time to read either. Sigh.


  1. ICR says:

    From my recollection of Speer’s memoirs, Himmler and Rosenberg were the ones who were into racial mythology and Hitler mocked them for that. I also recall that at least two of John Lukacs’ books dealing with Hitler tend to confirm Speer.

    I think Kershaw and other have established that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was of postwar origin. In the Table Talk Hitler says that his objection to the Jews is that they are a “reservoir of Bolshevism.” The evidence of history (see Yuri Slezkine, Benjamin Ginsberg and Albert Lindemann along with the usual suspects) shows that Hitler was not entirely wrong in his characterization. That doesn’t mean that any sane person would endorse his radical solution to the problem.

  2. Doctor Pat says:

    Wolsely sounds very much like a real world version of the George MacDonald Fraser fictional character Flashman.

    Of course GMF stole the entire character from a different author, so it’s not unreasonable that the story would also be “borrowed”.

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