Author: Ian F.W. Beckett
Publisher: Army Records Society (2008)
Many of our readers already know the red-jacketed volumes of the Army Records Society. Founded in 1984, some ninety years after the Navy Records Society, the A.R.S. publishes original records of the British army, edited by historians. The Society's current chairman is Professor Ian Beckett, and he has edited its latest volume, Wolseley and Ashanti: the Asante War journal and correspondence of Major General Sir Garnet Wolseley 1873-1874. The Society's publications are now available only through membership, see its website www.armyrecordssociety.org.uk.
Membership is good value at £25 per annum which entitles a member to that year's volumes, plus the right to buy at reduced rates earlier volumes. The latter include Roberts in India, Lord Roberts and the War in South Africa, and Lord Kitchener and the War in South Africa.
Ian Beckett needs no introduction to most of our readers, but for any new to our field and without facilities for a quick 'Google', suffice it to state that he is a leading military historian, formerly at Sandhurst and currently enjoying his fifth professorship, and is the apparently indefatigable author of works of military history including Riflemen Form, The amateur military tradition, Victoria's Wars, and the recent official centenary history Territorials. He was an associate editor of the prestigious and invaluable Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and wrote its article on Wolseley.
Wolseley and Ashanti comprises six long chapters, each an historical introduction followed by letters - private, semi-official, and official for possible publication - and journal extracts, on Wolseley's Ashanti campaign from causes to aftermath, and six appendices, a bibliography, and a full scholarly apparatus of endnotes. It reveals, through Wolseley's eyes, the unfolding of the campaign as it happened, with its problems, deaths, and final victory. Wolseley's first problem was to obtain the British troops he believed essential, against Gladstone's and others' reluctance to send them to that notorious 'white man's grave', West Africa. He went to the Gold Coast without them: he complained he was 'a General without an Army'. His denigration, in his correspondence, of his native levies and allies, though sincere, was also purposeful. He obtained British troops, including the 42nd (the Black Watch). His next problem was logistic. Transport was by carriers, male and female, and he was initially unable to obtain enough, causing a crisis in December 1873. By drastic and arguably illegal conscription and using West Indian troops, he finally obtained sufficient for the British advance, defeated the Asante, captured Kumasi, and withdrew.
Particularly in the privacy of his journal and the letters to his wife, Wolseley expressed his values and his antipathies. Free from negrophile prejudice, he came to loath the coastal Fante whom the British were fighting to protect, as despicable, lazy cowards, and he preferred the brave Asante enemy. He wrote that 'the Fantees are only fit to be slaves to the Ashantees.' He despised the war correspondents, 'curses to armies' and 'drones': Henty, for example, he considered 'an obese vulgarian without any pretension to be a gentleman, and a fearful coward.' Yet concerned for his reputation and that the press might turn against him, he helped and conciliated the correspondents. He also disliked 'high church humbug' and deaf men. In addition to his military command, he was Administrator of the Gold Coast Settlement. He knew he had insufficient time for his civil role but, a true Victorian in his concern for sanitary reform - his \ campaign shortly preceded Disraeli's public health act - he ordered the building of 'large public latrines for both sexes' and advised his successor to improve the water supply. He returned home to public acclaim, promotion, a GCMG and a £25,000 grant. 'Our only general' was ascendant.
Thorough and scholarly, Ian Beckett's Wolseley and Ashanti is a worthy successor to previous Army Records Society volumes. Moreover, Professor Beckett and the Society deserve our gratitude for resisting 'political correctness' and presenting an honest, accurate and unexpurgated edition. Most definitely recommended.