During World War I, a major in the U.S. Army was visiting soldiers in a French hospital outside Paris. Stopping at one young man’s bedside, the major bent down and asked the wounded occupant if he was an American. "No Sir," came the hoarsely whispered reply, "I'm a Marine."
A soldier’s overarching loyalty is to his corps, a trait that’s particularly strong within the British Army. Each regiment functions as a family, its honor carefully guarded and its traditions faithfully maintained. Although it might be argued the need for this system has passed, life in the British Army still revolves around the regiment. Regimental esprit de corps may seem an insubstantial thing in this age of high-tech weaponry, yet it has been credited with snatching victory from the jaws of defeat on more than one occasion. As General George S. Patton, Jr. once said, "Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men."
Popular culture presents a simplified version of the military, alternately jingoistic (images of brave young soldiers making the ultimate sacrifice) or dismissively cartoonish (Beetle Bailey and Colonel Klink bumbling along with predictable ineptitude). In between lie the complex realities of military life, enigmatic to outsiders. My own perceptions of the military are filtered through a second-hand glass, darkly. My step-father was a lieutenant colonel in the Marines and my uncle a naval captain. The military was a "given" in my upbringing.
And so it was that when I passed by the Military Museum of Devon and Dorset while walking around Dorchester, my curiosity led me inside. The Keep, in which the museum is housed, is an impressive structure, built in the late 19th century as a prison and armory. Its massive towers and battlements achieve a pleasingly formidable effect.
I was surprised to find I was almost the sole visitor. In contrast to chaotic events unfolding in the world outside, within all seemed peaceful, with the stories of past conflicts presented in a reassuringly orderly fashion. Within The Keep, the long history of the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment unfolds in roughly chronological order, from its earliest days, when the Devonshire Regiment helped suppress the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, through all the varied campaigns of the British Empire conducted in far-flung places. Particular emphasis is placed on moments of regimental glory, such as the Charge of Agagia in Egypt (1916), when 160 cavalrymen charged more than a mile across the open desert, routing an opposing force of more than 600.
The present-day regiment was formed when the Devonshire and Dorset Regiments were combined in 1958. I couldn’t help but wonder how the two groups viewed this forced marriage. At The Keep the history of the Regiment was presented seamlessly, as a unified history of one, rather than two, entities. I found this interesting. It was as if two sovereign states had met and found greater glory reflected in a merger.
The regimental badge cleverly symbolizes this. It features the Castle of Exeter along with the motto, "Semper Fidelis" (Always Faithful) from the former Devonshire badge. But there is also the Sphinx, symbol of the Dorset Regiment’s service in Egypt during the Napoleonic Wars, as well as the mottos, "Marabout," referring to the capture of Fort Marabout in Egypt in 1801, and "Primus in Indus" (First in India), a reference to the Dorset’s victory at Plassey in 1757.
There are many ways to look at the British Empire, but the temptation is to regard it either with some nostalgia or with politically correct feelings of guilt. I resist both viewpoints, and it occurred to me that those who designed the displays at The Keep must have engaged in a similar struggle. The displays of medals and military paraphernalia speak for themselves. Hard won, those honors were. As I wandered through room after room of regimental relics, the years of unfaltering loyalty to regiment – to comrades – was self-evident.
Salamanca, the Pyrenees, Sebastopol, Afghanistan, Ladysmith, Mons, Ypres, Somme, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Normandy, Arnhem, Sicily, Mandalay, Burma… the names of military campaigns stretching back some two and a half centuries featured in one display after another.
I’ve always been fascinated by what historian Byron Farwell called "Queen Victoria’s Little Wars," the wars from 1837 to 1901, in Asia, China, Africa, and elsewhere undertaken to protect British interests, avenge insults, and suppress rebellions.
Thus, I spent some time at The Keep contemplating a medal commemorating the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-58. It had a red and white striped ribbon which represented the European women and children killed by the Indian mutineers. It is odd how something so simple can conjure up such vivid images. I felt a sense of baffled frustration. Had that butchery been preventable? Had the British response been justified? How little I understood past events! What hope was there to understand the present?
At Maiden Castle I had felt the past and present converge, but here the present echoed the past in a display on Mesopotamia -- what we now call Iraq. Nothing set this particular display aside, only the knowledge of what had happened in the region during World War I and what is happening there today. Until recently, the events in Mesopotamia from 1914-1919 had been overshadowed by the horrors of trench warfare in Europe during that time. Now, however, they merit a closer examination.
Without going into great detail, the British, protecting their access to Gulf oil (the navy having recently converted from coal to oil) and the all-important Suez Canal, were unwisely drawn further into the region. They hoped to capture Baghdad and defeat the Turks. However, the British commanders underestimated both the terrain and the Turks; worse still, they were unwilling to commit the resources needed to do the job properly.
Encouraged by early victories at Amara and Nasiriyeh, the British pressed on to Kut, hoping to reach Baghdad. It was an appallingly bad decision, resulting in the tragedy of Kut. where over thirteen thousand British soldiers were surrounded by a much stronger Turkish force. Hundreds died during a prolonged siege, thousands during failed attempts relieve Kut, and an even greater number after the British finally surrendered.
Kut was one of the most humiliating defeats ever suffered by the British. The Turks, who treated their own soldiers cruelly, treated the captured men with astonishing brutality. Two-thirds of the POWs died on forced death-marches to Turkey or during captivity. Among the 12,000 taken prisoner were men of the Dorset Regiment.
Kipling, in a poem entitled "Mesopotamia," vented his fury at the "idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they [the troops at Kut] died." Ever the champion of the common soldier, he railed at the needless suffering resulting from bad decisions made in high places. In the case of Mesopotamia, thousands died as three vast British bureaucracies – one based in India, another in Cairo, and a third in London – "quibbled" over the course of action.
Later, the course of events in Mesopotamia turned more favorable. Baghdad was at last taken and the Turks driven from the region. The Keep’s rather stiff-upper-lip display noted that the Dorset Regiment, in particular, was distinguished during the fighting. Still, on the whole the Mesopotamian campaign is remembered for the unusual and arguably unnecessary hardships the British Army endured.
I later read in John Mack’s biography of T.E. Lawrence that before the British surrender at Kut, Lawrence had been sent on a secret mission to the Turkish pasha, hoping to secure the release of the men at Kut through a bribe. While this technique had worked in previous dealings with the Turks, in this instance it was an embarrassing failure.
All this took place before Lawrence became actively involved in the Arab Revolt. Speaking with hindsight in his account of the revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence editorializes that had the Arabs in the region been persuaded to join forces with the British earlier, the British would have been spared a painful defeat. The lesson of Kut, for Lawrence, was the foolhardiness of embarking on a military campaign on foreign soil without a full sense of the culture, character, and political aspirations of the local people. He later wrote:
"I went up the Tigris with one hundred Devon Territorials, young, clean, delightful fellows, full of the power of happiness.… And we were casting them by thousands into the fire to the worst of deaths, not to win the war but that the corn and rice and oil of Mesopotamia could be ours." (Seven Pillars of Wisdom)
However, as I stood contemplating The Keep’s Mesopotamian campaign relics, I was not thinking of Lawrence, but only of the approaching conflict. Perhaps he was on the periphery of my consciousness, but I cannot say this was so. I had no inkling that he would soon be standing front and center in my mind.