Why the British make a virtue of defeat

The peculiarly British tendency to glorify disaster certainly doesn’t stem from guilt about the empire, as Stephanie Barczewski insists

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

Heroic Failure and the British Stephanie Barczewski

Yale, pp.266, £20, ISBN: 9780300180060

When Henry Worsley died last month attempting the first solo, unaided expedition across the Antarctic, he was 30 miles short of the finish line. He fits right in with a long British tradition of heroic failures: General Gordon killed at Khartoum; the defeat of the British by the Zulus at Isandlwana. And the most precise parallel with Worsley’s tragedy, Captain Scott, who also died in the Antarctic, just 11 miles short of the next food depot.

Stephanie Barczewski, Professor of History at Clemson University in South Carolina, is on to something when she identifies a peculiarly British propensity for glorifying disaster. Where she is crashingly wrong is in her interpretation of the reason why: that it’s all down to the desire to show the British empire in a good light.

According to the professor’s theory, Gordon’s heroic death gave a bene-volent face to the increasing aggression of British imperialism in late-19th-century Africa. Likewise, the glorification of the defeat at Isandlwana helped disguise the broader success of the brutal, violent expansion of the empire. And Captain Scott’s death was so celebrated because it apparently reassured us that the empire was still powerful, just as we were losing top dog status to America.

I’m afraid it’s all utter cobblers. Barczewski has become so brainwashed by life in the American academy that she projects the modern white man’s guilt on to historic figures who felt no such thing. When it came to their imperial mission, British soldiers and sailors in the 19th and early 20th centuries felt differently to 21st-century American history professors. There was no need for them to go in for elaborate displays of self-flagellation at their wickedness. Brutality and violence were neither here nor there; the British felt a duty to colonise much of the planet.

Nor did the officers involved feel any guilt at their elite status, as Barczewski
crazily claims. Her first example — the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 — is a case in point. She is right to describe the battle as a terrible British failure in the war of 1812 against America; her accounts of the various battles and expeditions are all perfectly fine, if workmanlike. But it is just plain wrong to say that Sir Edward Pakenham, the British leader at New Orleans, was turned into a hero to provide ‘a justification for continued upper-class domination of wealth, status and power in Britain’.

Pakenham happens to be my great-great-great-great uncle, so I’ve read up on the Battle of New Orleans and I’ve been to the battlefield where he died. The idea that his ‘sterling qualities and noble spirit’ were used to conceal ‘pragmatic motives of territorial expansion and economic gain’ is nonsense. Pakenham, his fellow officers and his brother-in-law, the Duke of Wellington, took it for granted that the army, and the government, were largely run by the upper classes. Just because that’s odious to Barczewski’s ears, it has no retroactive effect on those of Pakenham or his contemporaries.

Barczewski’s tin ears, I should have said. She has no real understanding of the British, and I don’t just mean their titles — though she wrongly calls Sir John Franklin’s wife ‘Lady Jane Franklin’, and the Earl of Uxbridge ‘the earl of Uxbridge’. Those mistakes on their own don’t mean much; but they are symptomatic of a greater misunderstanding of the British. When Stanley allegedly said, ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’, galumphing Barczewski says it’s ‘comical by its obsequious politeness and its absurdity: the question was uttered… by one of the only two white men for thousands of miles to the other, and the answer was hardly in doubt.’ That, professor, is the point.

There is certainly something in the theory that the British value heroic failure. I put that down to the national cult of self-deprecation — the pride that apes humility — and the fact that strength in the face of failure is more admirable than strength buoyed by success. Strength in the face of death — as displayed by Captain Scott and Lieutenant-Colonel Worsley — is even more admirable.

I’m not saying my theory is definitely right; just that Professor Barczewski’s is definitely wrong.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • steve taylor

    The 1812 war “the British against America”. The war of 1812 was an American instigated affair, basically a land grab whilst British forces were depleted as they were occupied elsewhere, ie the Napoleonic Wars. Nor was the war a British failure, although she suffered defeat in some battles. Despite American propaganda, the war was for the Americans, at best a pointless and costly exercise, and from a neutral viewpoint, essentially an American failure. None of the American objectives were met.

    • Toy Pupanbai

      It would seem to be the time to burn down the White House again, preferably with it’s occupants?

  • commenteer

    Liberal Americans see everything in terms of their own overblown guilt about slavery.

  • WFC

    Orwell (as usual) had it right (writing in 1941):

    “In England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities. The patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious. They do not retain among their historical memories the name of a single military victory. English literature, like other literatures, is full of battle-poems, but it is worth noticing that the ones that have won for themselves a kind of popularity are always a tale of disasters and retreats. There is no popular poem about Trafalgar or Waterloo, for instance. Sir John Moore’s army at Corunna, fighting a desperate rearguard action before escaping overseas (just like Dunkirk!) has more appeal than a brilliant victory. The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction. And of the last war, the four names which have really engraved themselves on the popular memory are Mons, Ypres, Gallipoli and Passchendaele, every time a disaster. The names of the great battles that finally broke the German armies are simply unknown to the general public.”

    • Zalacain

      What balls.
      I’ve met English people that cannot name a single defeat in battle or war lost. Everybody knows about Trafalgar or Waterloo or the Battle of Britain. How many ordinary people know anything about the battle of Singapore. Ask schoolboys about the Spanish Armada, then ask them about the English Armada, the following year. Was Nelson always victorious? Countries such as Britain with a long military history have an endless list of victories and defeats, but history is skewed to remember the victories much more than the defeats.

      • Cobbett

        There’s Yorktown, France 1940(Dunkirk) and Singapore for starters.

        • Todd Unctious

          Hastings and Bannockburn too.

      • Goinlike Billio

        Don’t know even that nowadays. There is no ‘module’ on British victories.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        History 101 begins at 1901.
        Face it, Brits are dead ignorant, because in UK Trash Culture, education and learning are belittled as elitist.

        • Todd Unctious

          A friends daughter completed a History degree at Exeter without knowing who James Watt was.

  • James Chilton

    Making a virtue of defeat: Harry Mount’s theory of British self-deprecation seems right. I don’t know whether we are losing our gift for understatement in the modern world of emotional incontinence.

    • logdon

      Understatement is lost when its bittersweet, heroic irony is misunderstood as statement of absolute, literary fact.

      We are breeding a nation where patriotism, spirit and backbone are regarded as relics and ’emotional incontinence’, once the province of the blubbering and weepy is taking over.

      Watch any QT, (if you can stand it) and it’s all there.

      These people are just as judgmental as the old whip ’em and hang ’em brigade, only rather than defending our corner, they opt for the other side.

  • Migru Ghee

    Another failure to fund coming up soon, I am guessing.

  • Landphil

    Clemson university?

  • Lawrence James.

    Excellent review. It is appropriate that the book’s author is based in the heart of that lost cause, the Confederacy. Perhaps she will turn her attention to Custer’s Last Stand, or, dare one say it, Pearl Harbor.

  • Mr Marginalia

    I don’t think it’s so much making a virtue of failure as it is recognising the persistence of virtue during failure. The old stiff upper lip, I suppose.

  • Goinlike Billio

    Our most famous sportsman is Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards who famously dribbled off the end of a ski jump ramp. Another member of the ‘ Not terribly good at it ‘ club.

    • JohnM

      More famous than Roger Bannister, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, David Beckham, W G Grace, Geoff Boycott, Fred Perry?

      • Goinlike Billio

        Complete nobodies .

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Kids today, many have never heard of Sterling Moss.

        • amicus

          I remember Sir Stirling Moss. I even remember how to spell his name.

          • Todd Unctious

            A true great. A hero . First man to complete the Mille Miglia in 10 hours, averaging over 100 mph on open Italian roads.
            Read the Last Road Race by Richard Williams about the 1957 Pescara Grand Prix. Watch the YouTube footage of Moss at the Aintree Grand Prix in 57 too.

      • Enoch Powell

        John Charles, Gareth Edwards, Andy Murray, Dame Tanni-Grey Thompson, Mo Farah, Sir Steve Redgrave, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Roy Keane, Alfie, Shane Williams, James Hill, Jimmy Hill, Tim Henman, Jimmy White…

        • Todd Unctious

          Or even Jim Clark or Stirling Moss.

      • Todd Unctious

        Or Graham Hill ,Ian Botham, Lewis Hamilton, Frank Bruno, Jessica Ennis.

  • Ralph

    Making a virtue out of defeat is universal to the species and not just limited to us.

  • walstir

    “a peculiarly British propensity for glorifying disaster”

    Being unafraid of heroic defeat requires that one is not defeatist. The Siege of Khartoum was followed by Kitchener’s recapture in 1892. Isandlwana was followed by British victory in the Zulu Wars. The Charge of the Light Brigade was followed by victory in the Crimean War. Dunkirk was followed by later victory. An opponent who refuses to realize that they are beaten probably has to fight less often than someone who creates the impression that they will do anything to avoid a defeat.

  • sidor

    An American professor of history. Sounds funny. Something like Fukuyama.

    There has never been history as a science in the US. What they learn about it in their universities is just a form of public entertainment. It is peculiar that a country with the knowledge of history on the level of New Guinea aborigines is trying to rule the world.

  • WTF

    What virtues has Cameron got for his defeat at Brussels ?

  • JohnJ

    One of the great Australian traditions is ANZAC day. On that day every year, the Australians remember the soldiers who died on the shores of Gallipoli in 1915. It was a humiliating defeat.
    In deference to the English who host this site, I won’t bring up the causes 😉 .
    But it is always moving and never ‘warlike’. I regard the commemoration of this defeat as highly civilized and respectful.

  • Goinlike Billio

    I regret my flippant remark about this book. I made it because I get fed up with pointing out what seems to me obvious and which I can never quite believe is not understood ; that the past is different. The people were different and they thought differently.
    There is a belief that our ancestors were simply imperfect versions or ourselves but lacking our liberal attitudes and even historians seem to fall for it. What Harry Mount highlights in this short review is some part of the brain that is lacking in the liberal left universities.
    You would have thought that programs like ‘Who do you think you are ‘ would show people the entirely different lives people led in the past. I will always remember Jeremy Paxman’s final remark after looking at the wretched lives of his ancestors. about ourselves : ‘we don’t know we are born’