Sunday, 21 August 2016

The scum of the earth

In November 1813 the then Arthur Wellesley, Marquess of Wellington, is reported to have said in a private conversation that:
A French army is composed very differently from ours. The conscription calls out a share of every class — no matter whether your son or my son — all must march; but our friends — I may say it in this room — are the very scum of the earth. People talk of their enlisting from their fine military feeling — all stuff — no such thing. Some of our men enlist from having got bastard children — some for minor offences — many more for drink; but you can hardly conceive such a set brought together, and it really is wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are.
I currently have some of Wellington's 'scum' (or at least wargame figures of them) on my work table in the process of being renovated, varnished, and based ... and to put me in the mood for the task ahead I am listening to a recording of SHARPE'S FURY, read by Paul McGann.

Paul McGann was originally cast as Richard Sharpe in the TV series based on Bernard Cornwall's books, but two weeks into the filming of the first episode McGann injured his knee whilst playing football, and he was replaced by Sean Bean. Instead he went on to portray another fictional fighting man of the Napoelonic era, Lieutenant William Bush ...


... the best friend of Horatio Hornblower, in the TV series based on C.S. Forester's books.

6 comments:

  1. It's funny how often that last line is omitted.

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    1. And the first two sentences are also often missing. Context is everything of course, which is no doubt why it is frequently excluded by people trying to win an argument (political or otherwise).

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    2. Conrad Kinch,

      The whole quote shows the regard that Wellesley actually had for his troops. The more I read about him, the more he impresses me as a general.

      All the best,

      Bob

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    3. Mike Hall,

      As you comment, context is everything ... and this statement is far too frequently and improperly quoted.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  2. Bob,
    Very true!
    The interesting thing is that the Duke's comment - and the historical outcome of many a Peninsular battle - would seem to suggest that a 'volunteer' army 'enlisted for drink' is, in fact, preferable to one raised fairly by conscription across the social classes. And he might well have had a point: would educated, respectable, law-abiding teetotallers have been as able to endure, and triumph in, the butcher's shop of black powder warfare as rough, hard-drinking, pugnacious labourers?
    Wellington appreciated the fighting qualities of the rank and file, but was brutally frank - and in modern terms totally incorrect - in describing the reasons that caused many to enlist. 'Gin is the spirit of their patriotism.'
    In more recent times, the best unit in the French Army seems to have recruited a similar type of men - the Foreign Legion!
    Today, wouldn't armies still do better to recruit and train - ruthlessly if necessary - the sort of till fellows who become football hooligans, rather than the typical wargamer?

    I was very interested to learn about Paul McGann: I thought he was perfectly cast as William Bush, but can't quite imagine him as Sharpe. Sean Bean certainly made the latter his own, rather like Robert Newton did Long John Silver, so it is now very hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

    Best wishes,
    Arthur

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    Replies
    1. Arthur1815 (Arthur),

      I once remember talking to a psychiatrist who specialised in stress-related mental illness. He told me that he rarely had what he termed 'drunken labourers' amongst his clients. When I asked him why, he told me that the drink and the hard physical work appeared to inure them to the stresses that other people seemed to suffer from. Perhaps that was true of the men that were recruited into the British Army during the Napoleonic era. Life back then – even for the middle classes – could be quite brutally hard and short when compared to modern life.

      Would football hooligans and their like may good modern soldiers? Certain of the more ‘aggressive’ infantry regiments seem to have no problem turning people with those propensities into soldiers, but modern warfare does require more than sheer aggression.

      Sean Bean did make the role of Richard Sharpe his own, and probably brought an edge to it that Paul McCann’s portrayal might have lacked.

      All the best,

      Bob

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