One of the phrases that has crept into circulation, mainly by way of films like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘Band of Brothers’, based on the work of historian Stephen Ambrose, is the idea that the Second World War generation is the greatest we have seen. It’s more an American notion, but it has spread over here too, the idea that after the last war the people of the West are lesser somehow than they were before, as if our civilisation peaked during the sacrifices of the struggles against Nazi and Japanese brutality.
I don’t want to knock the idea that it was a great generation. Indeed, I grew up surrounded by members of it, and they were wonderful people, almost universally modest, kind, interested in others, not materialistic, just decent, but with steel beneath.
But we British are not given to the transient hyperbole of the Americans and I struggle to see that the WW2 generation are any greater than the WW1 generation. In some ways their struggle was more desperate, a more climactic battle between Good and Evil, but then I think of the sheer stoical courage of the men who spent four years in the trenches of WW1, who obeyed orders to get up out of the ground and cross hundreds of yards of wire, muddy, mined and exposed ground into a hail of lead, gas and TNT.
Britain was a greater and stronger country in WW1 without doubt, far better prepared for the outbreak of war, but that was irrelevant to the individual soldiers and others who joined together to defeat what was a terrible foe (Imperial Germany wasn’t that far behind the Nazis in some respects), in often unbearable conditions, and so one is led to conclude that it was no less a generation than that of its children twenty or so years later.
And that idle thought got me thinking. Have there been greater generations in history, our past, who are more justifiably to be accorded the title? Controversial ground I know, but the GP audience is one that likes to entertain such ideas.
It’s a controversial thesis in itself, but I’m an ancient historian by training and wrote my doctorate on one of the Generals and Successors (Diadochoi) of Alexander the Great who conquered pretty much the known world. The guys who came after him were equally extraordinary and weren’t up against soft Persians and the rest, but against one another and predominantly Greek and Macedonian professional warriors and administrators hardened from campaigning for twenty five years under Alexander and his father Philip. Seleukos who was murdered at the age of 80 as he was about to take control of 90% of the Empire, Lysimachos who created what was to re-emerge later as the Byzantine Empire and died in the final battle against Seleukos at the age of eighty over fifty years after Alexander’s passing, Ptolemy who secured Egypt and held it against all comers until he abdicated in favour of his son in his late seventies, Eumenes of Cardia, a Greek administrator who fought his opponent Antigonos all over Turkey and Central Asia for years despite having an army he couldn’t trust and who was a military genius, Antigonos Monopthalmos (One Eyed) who died fighting in the front ranks in a decisive battle against Seleukos and Lysimachos at the age of eighty, his son Demetrios the Besieger, an unstable military genius, Kassandros, probably the most cynical, devious and ruthless of them all with possible the exception of Lysimachos his great ally, and so on and on.
Never did the Greek world produce such an agglomeration at one time of huge personalities, statesmen and leaders. Some accident of birth and environment produced an extraordinary concentration of talent. Alexander, with such men, could have ruled pretty much everything if he hadn’t died so young.
So yes, it was the Macedonian, probably the Greek, Greatest Generation. It flowered, passed away and left something lesser to remain. So what was ours? There are some candidates. A case could be made for those of the Civil Wat era – Cromwell (natch), Blake, Ireton, Fairfax, Fleetwood, Jones, Milton, Warwick, Pym, and others, some Royalists too. Great men, and not just leaders, but in fields of art, science, literature… But as it pains me to admit, there is another strong candidate, much less well known today, perhaps less known in their own times: the men who built the Empire in the second and third quarters of the 19th century.
I first encountered them in the Flashman novels of George MacDonald Fraser who wove his fictional anti-hero into the true events of these men’s lives as a contrast to their immense stature. The author clearly admired them, even if they were uncomfortable people for today’s snowflake generation. In the 1820’s the Empire was loose and pretty flakey, the public and government disinterested, India not secured fully and under the rule of the East India Company, which wasn’t interested in the cost of Empire building, and the army pretty amateurish, still living on the memories of Waterloo.
Then came the disastrous First Afghan War led by one of the old Waterloo officers and the annihilation of a British Army. It had the effect of clearing away much of the deadwood and a new generation came thorough, just in time for the two wars against the Sikh Raj, arguably every bit as strong a military power as British India, using the latest European training and equipment. The ups-and-downs of this struggle are well worth reading; it was climactic and was won largely by the courage and discipline of the new officers and their men, who then had to move into government, controlling huge new territories with little resource. Men such as:
James Abbott (Abbottabad where Bin Laden was killed is named after him), who had to subdue a fanatically warlike Muslim mountain province on the North West Frontier with only a small group of Sikh soldiers. Hazara was a province which the entire Sikh army hadn’t been able to control. Somehow, by force of personality and a little fighting he did it, so much so that when the Second Sikh Way and Indian Mutiny broke out a few years later the inhabitants swore fought for the British. Seventy years after he left, an English administrator encountered a Hazaran chief who told him of his memories of Abbott, “I was in the Jirga when he (Abbott) asked if we would stand and fight the Sikhs if he stood by us. We swore we would, and there were tears in our eyes, and a tear in Sahib Abbott’s eyes too. And we did! He was our father and we were his children. There are no English like Abbott now”.
- Harry ‘Joe’ Lumsden, who as a mere lieutenant raised and trained the Corps of Guides, the elite SAS of the Frontier and Khyber Pass, recruited from Pathan tribesmen who proved incredibly loyal to Britain until the end of the Raj.
- Herbert Edwardes who with 1500 Sikh troopers was told to bring Bannu and Waziristan to heel, which the Sikhs had never managed. Given that Waziristan is the Al Qaeda heartland today and that the might of the USA and Pakistan haven’t been able to secure it properly, this was a tough job. He succeeded by judicious force of arms and personality such that the unruly tribes ended up supporting Britain in the Mutiny when normally they would have tried to take advantage.
- John Nicholson, who succeeded Edwardes in Waziristan and later died in the siege of Delhi in the moment of victory. Likened to an Old Testament prophet he so impressed the natives that a sect formed to worship him, despite him flogging them if he caught them, and which was still going fifty years after his death.
- Henry Lawrence, in some way the glue for most of the younger men. The effective governor of the Punjab, they were his protégés. Clearly a shrewd political operator with an eye for talent (not that sort SP) and the ability to inspire hard men to devotion. Later transferred to Oudh, he died in the defence of Lucknow from the Mutineers.
- John Lawrence, Henry’s brother who worked with him in the Punjab and succeeded his brother on transfer. When the Indian Mutiny broke out the newly subjugated Sikhs could have tipped the balance if they had risen too, but by then the Lawrence brothers, assisted by Nicholson, had ensured that the Sikhs rallied to fight for their recent conquerors and their support in the recapture of Delhi was decisive.
- William ‘Rake’ Hodson. Another of the Lawrence circle, described by some as Britain’s best leader of irregular cavalry or Britain’s JEB Stuart, he was different from the others in being even wilder and was almost a savage.
- James Hope Grant, another cavalry genius, who fought in the Sikh wars and Mutiny with great success, and later led the expedition of 1860 to Peking, which has been described as ‘the most successful ‘little war’ in our Imperial history. The officer Flashman admired most.
- Robert Napier, who likewise fought in the Sikh war, Mutiny and China under Grant, and ended up successful commander of the Magdala expedition, which I would regard as the most extraordinary military expedition in Britain’s history: to rescue from deepest darkest mountainous Ethiopia a group of Europeans held hostage by the lunatic Emperor Theodore, something he achieved with no British losses.
These are just some of that Golden Generation. I could list many more such as Henry Daly, Fred Roberts (later Field Marshall and CinC of the army), Henry Havelock, Outram, Colin Campbell (who also commanded the thin red line of Highlanders at Balaclava), Neville Chamberlain, Fred Mackeson, Charles Nicholson, Reynell Taylor and last-but-not-least James Brooke, a privateer who founded his own dynastic state in Borneo hacked out of a cannibal jungle and was called the ‘White Rajah of Sarawak.’ One or two were of Henry Lawrence’s generation, but most were of a close-knit group, and Henry Lawrence was at the centre.
They saved the Raj, turned it into Britain’s military power base, achieved dominance throughout the Far East and with few exceptions died out East or retired in obscurity. What did they have in common? Disproportionately Anglo Irish or Ulster Scots Protestant
and Scottish, but still mainly English, the products of spartan public schools which made them tough and self-reliant from an early age, sometimes not seeing their parents for many years at a time, overwhelmingly evangelical Christians with a service ethos, determined but flexible of mind, patriotic with a belief in Britain’s exceptional role within God’s purpose, natural leaders and soldiers, able to inspire suicidal devotion from Britons and alien cultures alike, unmaterialistic…
For me they were our greatest generation alongside those who at home were turning Britain into the industrial, financial and scientific powerhouse of the world. To some extent we have been living off their achievement ever since. What would they make of us today?
Post-scriptum. Many ancient cultures believed that mankind was descending, not ascending, and classified it into Ages of Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron (their own time, hard, savage and competitive). The Greeks added another age before Iron, that of the Heroes, demi-gods and men of more than human stature such as Hercules and Odysseus. This was their own conception of their Greatest Generation.