Empire’s martyrs: the British obsession with heroic failure

The British take a perverse pleasure in glorious defeat, as Heroic Failure and the British by Stephanie Barczewski examines.

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In 1799 the Scottish explorer Mungo Park published Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, which described his voyage across Senegal and along the River Niger in Mali, in search of the city of Timbuktu. In 1805 he returned, determined to complete his navigation of the Niger, only for his canoe to strike a rock in hostile territory. As he swam towards the bank, he was surrounded by members of a local tribe who shot arrows and threw spears at him. He was forced back into the water and drowned, having been swept away in the rapids.

From the outset, Mungo Park had been determined to keep exploring, even if it came at the expense of his life. “I shall set sail for the east with the fixed ­resolution to discover the termination of the Niger or perish in the attempt,” he had declared in a letter to his wife. Park became a posthumous hero in the Victorian age; his memoirs were turned into a bestselling book and were reissued many times through the 19th century, as the British empire grew to cover a quarter of the globe and its subjects continued to explore its farthest reaches.

It was not only mad dogs and Englishmen who went out in the midday sun. There were countless Scots, Welsh and Irishmen, too. The Celts were often the most ferocious of empire-builders, despite the heat of sub-Saharan Africa or the humidity of the Indian subcontinent. Linen shirts and khakis didn’t appeal to all, however. There were also legions of “polar heroes” who stretched the limits of human endurance, from John Franklin, who perished in 1847 while trying to navigate the North-West Passage, to Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who died in the British Antarctic expedition of 1912.

For Stephanie Barczewski, in this lively and entertaining book, such explorers were prototypes of a certain kind of British hero: the bold and often hapless explorer who gave his life in the course of seeking to triumph over nature, or who set out to go further than any others had gone before. An American historian of Britain, Barczewski has written on Captain Scott in the past and she has a good feel for the Panglossian adventurism of the English upper classes. Heroic Failure and the British taps in to a uniquely British tendency to take a perverse (and sometimes tragicomic) pleasure in glorious defeat and self-sacrifice.

If you detect a whiff of Monty Python in this, you would be right. At the outset, Barczewski takes her cue from a section in John Cleese’s autobiography that muses on this strange trait in the British national character. Recalling a visit to see Scott of the Antarctic at the cinema in 1948, Cleese includes this story in a litany of heroic British failures, including the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854 and General Gordon’s murder in Khartoum in 1885, when he was hacked to pieces by Sudanese rebels at the governor general’s palace.

As Barczewski notes, there are echoes of this tendency in the British attitude to sport, where honourable defeat has become an art form. One can almost hear the words of the Norwegian football commentator Bjørge Lillelien in 1981 echoing throughout: “Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Henry Cooper, Lady Diana . . . Maggie Thatcher, can you hear me? . . . Your boys took a hell of a beating!”

In recounting several strafes and bloody noses, the book works very well. It is when Barczewski tries to weave a series of anecdotes into a larger story that her thesis ­begins to break down. First, there is a rather loose connection between the Victorian ­appetite for exploration and the tradition of celebrating military sacrifice. It is certainly the case that the British devote much time to commemorating disasters, such as those at Mons, Ypres, Gallipoli and Passchendaele. Yet it is not clear that they are at all unique in treating such memorials with importance, particularly given the scale of tragedy.

Something that Barczewski is right to point out is that the British were often rather ineffective on the battlefield, in contrast to their predominance on the seas, especially when it came to the use of cavalry. Yet they were not as tolerant of heroic failures as is suggested here. A case in point is the Battle of Corunna, which was fought in Galicia in 1809, near the start of the Peninsular War. The British commander, John Moore, was hit in the chest by a cannonball as he led his troops on a rapid retreat from the French and he died. Moore was widely commemorated – but Barczewski neglects to add that those who survived the defeat were lampooned mercilessly, hauled before a military commission and threatened with court martial. One of Moore’s junior commanders was Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, whose career only just survived the humiliation. “The fact must not be disguised,” said the Times, “that we have suffered a shameful disaster.”

Nor does Barczewski mention the spectacularly disastrous Walcheren expedition of that same year, in which 4,000 troops died, mainly from illness (only about a hundred in battle), and the lengthy parliamentary inquiry (the Georgian equivalent of the Chilcot report) that nearly caused the Tory government to collapse. Britain did not fight another major land war after 1815 until the Crimean War of 1853-56 but, once again, the apparent failings of the command caused great anguish, precipitating reforms to the civil service and the structure of the military establishment (this is acknowledged here but is not given enough weight).

The embarrassing reverses suffered by malnourished British soldiers in the Anglo-Boer War were interpreted not as glorious defeats but as a stain on the national character – something that fed into the New Liberal welfare legislation of the 1900s. Likewise, the retreat from Dunkirk in 1940 is mentioned as a curious instance of “an eagerness to embrace heroic failure as a national ideal”. Yet it was the perceived failures in the defence of Denmark and Norway a few months earlier that led to the fall of Chamberlain’s government. The British stiff upper lip could turn very quickly into a snarl.

Heroic Failure and the British is, above all, a book about popular conceptions of the British empire – but it is in this regard that it is least convincing. Barczewski is right to raise a sceptical eyebrow at John Robert Seeley’s assertion that the British had “conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind”. Yet there is little evidence to support her alternative argument: that the British used the stories of heroic sacrifice (of explorers and soldiers) as some sort of emotional displacement, a product of their “desire to see their empire as just, benevolent and moral” when it was not.

Here the author is projecting the 21st century back on the 19th. There was no simple “moment when the British were forced to confront what it meant to rule over large numbers of non-white peoples”; the matter was debated almost every day. “It was an intoxicating vision for a small boy, for, as we understood it, all these people were ruled for their own good by strong, silent men, civil servants and soldiers as portrayed by Kip­ling,” said Attlee, who was raised in this atmosphere. As H G Wells explained in 1911: “We were all, you must understand, very distinctly imperialists also, and professed a vivid sense of the ‘White Man’s Burden’.”

This botched attempt at psychoanalysis of a nation takes away from an otherwise charming book about the odd mix of intrepidity and blunder that characterised Britain’s relationship with the world in the 19th century. Ignore the imposition of academic theory and enjoy the well-told stories on a Sunday afternoon before watching Michael Caine in Cy Endfield’s Zulu, or Tony Richardson’s Charge of the Light Brigade.

Heroic Failure and the British by Stephanie Barczewski is published by Yale University Press (267pp, £20)

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article appears in the 03 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis