The papers of Sir Harry Paget Flashman, VC KCB KCIE, give a quite cynical description of major events and conflicts of the 19th century stretching well across the globe, from England to various parts of Europe, America including its Wild West, China, Africa and India, as well as “perceptive” descriptions of leading personages involved in them.
Flashman may not the most charitable recorder of their strengths and weaknesses, and his view is often jaundiced. But for a man, who is described as “illustrious Victorian soldier”, but unapologetically describes himself as “a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward—and oh yes, a toady” – one can not but lay credence to his assessment.
Let me share some of these with you….. I find them very amusing, especially when he labels that celebrated soldier and administrator, Sir Henry Havelock, as the “Gravedigger” (It was much later I found he had originally labelled Sir Henry, who appears in three volumes of his memoirs, as the “First Gravedigger” after their first encounter due to Sir Henry’s extreme religosity…. the sobriquet is shortened in later reminisces).
Another thing, I am not giving you much details about the personages I mention here – you should have paid more attention in your history lessons and developed the habit of reading beyond the hopelessly inadequate textbooks. Also in these days, you have the facility of internet and a whole host of online resources to help you…. in our days, we had to go and consult the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, luckily available in a local library). So lets start….
Lord Cardigan – known as the hero/idiot who led the Charge of the Light Brigade, and immortalised in the buttoned sweater named after him – was Flashman’s original commanding officer, and described as “amusing, frightening, vindictive, charming, and downright dangerous” and “too stupid ever to be afraid”.
Speaking of the Charge of the Light Brigade, we must deal with:
Lord Raglan, commander of the British troops in the Crimea and the man held by Flashman to be responsible for the Charge, : “He should have been a parson, or an Oxford don, or a waiter, for he was the kindliest, soft-voiced old stick who ever spared a fellow-creature’s feelings – and that was what was wrong with him…”
Another general that Flashman served under in his first campaign, and led one of the most humiliating defeats suffered by a British army was “Elphi Bey”. So it seems correct that Flashman describes General Elphinstone, commander of the Kabul army as “the greatest military idiot of our own or any other day”.
On the way to Kabul, Flashman meets Italian adventurer Paolo Di Avitabile, who joined service of Mahraja Ranjit Singh of the Punjab, ans was appointed Governor of Peshawar. Flashman said of him “the Sikhs and Afghans were more scared of him than the devil himself”.
Now lets get to some politicians, before dealing with other soldiers.
Benjamin Disraeli, still be the Prime Minister of Great Britain, is according to Flashman, a “cocky little sheeny”.
Abraham Lincoln is one of those rare people that Flashman respects and misses, though he once described the U.S. President as “a genial blackmailer.” Lincoln was still to be President when they met for the first time and described as “an unusually tall man, with the ugliest face you ever saw, deep dark eye sockets and a chin like a coffin”.
Flashman went on to say: “just why I liked him I couldn’t say; I suppose in his way he had the makings of as big a scoundrel as I am myself”.
Lord Palmerston, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in the 1850s, was for Flashman both “an impatient old tyrant” and a “decent, kindly old sport at bottom”.
And one of the fraternity, before I close this….
For William Howard Russell, the War correspondent for The Times, Flashman says, “He was a good fellow, Billy, and we got on well, but he always had an eye cocked towards his readers, and the worse he could make out a case, the better they liked it.”
To be continued….