Andrew Lambert

Courage Under Fire

Men of War: The Changing Face of Heroism in the 19th Century Navy

By

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Men of War connects David Crane’s previous books on the Byronic world of Edward Trelawny and the icy heroism of Captain Scott, using three nineteenth-century captains to examine the meaning of heroism. The first is Frank Abney Hastings, who stipulated that his sword, suitably inscribed, should be given to an officer noted for ‘Skill and Valour’. We should remember, however, that Hastings launched a career of unending violence when he fought at Trafalgar, aged eleven. Cashiered for insubordination in 1817, he was drawn into the Greek War of Independence. Despite the horror and the madness of the conflict he stuck to the cause, commanding the world’s first steam warship, the Perseverance. Red-hot shot from her furnaces added modern mechanical brutality to a primitive, barbaric conflict. He died of an untreated minor wound in 1828, aged only thirty-four, a few months after the Battle of Navarino had secured Greek independence. 

William Peel, son of the Prime Minister Sir Robert, joined the service a decade later. Clever, cultured and highly personable, young Peel had a lot to live up to, but by the age of twenty-three he had fought the Egyptians and the Chinese, sailed the South Pacific and conducted a major intelligence mission. Family connections made him the youngest captain in the navy, and the Crimean War made him a national hero. He commanded a battery at the bombardment of Sevastopol, where most of the guns, and gunners, were naval. Peel’s calm and professional style secured the admiration of generals, subalterns and hard-bitten seafarers alike. He won the VC leading the Guards at the Battle of Inkerman, and again for throwing a live shell out of his battery. Rewarded with a prize seagoing command, he fought his final battles a thousand miles from the sea, leading a naval brigade during the Indian Mutiny. Having again performed heroically he died of smallpox, beloved by all. While the Victorians reinvented him as a medieval Christian warrior, Crane suggests that Peel, a highly educated, sensitive man, consciously created his warrior persona. He helped others to be brave by showing that he was without fear. That was how he dealt with the burden of expectation placed on the son of a great man. His eldest brother was a complete failure. 

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