Monday, 8 June 2015

The Scarlet Thief

I was thrilled to have Burke at Waterloo endorsed by Paul Collard, who writes the Jack Lark series, much praised by the likes of Bernard Cornwell. Unfortunately, I hadn't ever actually read any of them. (*Blushes*)

I have now and, to my immense relief (because this could have been very embarrassing), The Scarlet Thief is really rather good.

Jack Lark starts out as an officer's servant in a regiment garrisoned at Aldershot. After a run-in with an evil Colour Sergeant (something of a central casting villain) he is happy to be transferred with his major to the fictional King's Royal Fusiliers who are to join the expedition to fight the Russians in Crimea. Unfortunately, the officer dies en route. Lark cannot face the prospect of returning to his own regiment, so he takes on the major's identity and finds himself in command of a company landing at Kalamata Bay.

I've had a look at what other people have said about this on Amazon and, while most people seem quite relaxed with this, some have complained that it's entirely incredible. I'm not sure that it is. Collard takes care to explain that Lark is literate and experienced and the major has encouraged him to have some understanding of the campaign that he is about to find himself involved in. In peacetime, Lark's imposture would almost certainly be discovered very quickly, But there's a war on, he's been thrown in with people who do not know the real major, and everybody is too stressed and busy to spend too long worrying about some of Lark's apparently idiosyncratic behaviour. More to the point, though, this is a work of fiction. Setting up the situation in this way allows us to see the British Army from a uniquely qualified viewpoint. I've had similar criticisms (fortunately from a similar minority of readers) about John Williamson's role in The White Rajah. If readers want everything to be unquestionably true, I would recommend that they read one of the many non-fiction histories of this period. (As an aside, I'd note that I've been criticised as often for 'errors' that are actual historical facts as for mistakes or implausibilities.)

It is with the arrival in Crimea that the book comes alive. Collard does a good job of sketching out why the British are there and giving some idea of the chaos of the expedition. Unlike Sharpe, Jack Lark has not worked his way up from the ranks – he is an impostor, pure and simple. We see the officer class from his viewpoint: vain, arrogant, often incompetent. But Collard gives a much more nuanced picture of the role of the officers than we have grown used to in this sort of novel. Jack Lark comes to realise what the responsibility of command entails, both in terms of the interminable bureaucracy and the emotional stress of looking after the needs of your soldiers. Whilst he has a clearer view of battleground tactics than some career officers, he soon comes to realise that there are times when he is out of his depth. He learns quickly, though, and his company becomes an effective fighting unit, just in time to be thrown into the Battle of the Alma.

The Battle of the Alma is one of those 19th-century battles that have now become so deeply unfashionable that most readers will never have heard of it. For many serving soldiers (and Collard apparently looked seriously at an Army career) the Battle of the Alma still matters: to have 'Alma' as a regimental battle honour is a source of real pride. It was one of those battles (and we have seen all too many of them in recent years) where Britain sent fighting men to a war far away for reasons that made little sense and then pitched them, under-equipped and under-prepared, to attack the enemy on their own ground. At the Alma there was no strategy or subtlety. The Russians were dug in in a strong point at the top of a hill. The British forces had to cross open land under artillery fire, ford a river (the Alma) and then climb up the hill and take the fortified position at the top, under continual artillery and small arms fire the whole time. It was insane and should have been impossible. The strong point was taken by the bloody-minded stubbornness of troops who, for little in the way of pay or respect from the government at home, simply kept on going in the face of unimaginable casualties. It was a classic example of the approach described by the modern infantry as "bags of smoke and straight up the middle". It is never a good idea, but it works surprisingly often.

Unlike many people describing battles, Collard sticks closely to the point of view of one character. While the reader may therefore lose some sense of what is going on across the whole field, it is all too easy to understand exactly what is going on where the Kings Royal Fusiliers (in real life the 33rd Regiment of Foot) are climbing toward the Russian guns. Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe books try to communicate the horror of warfare with a lot of detail of amputation and evisceration, but, as in most war stories, Cornwell allows the good guys to survive. What makes 'The Scarlet Thief' different is that Collard confronts full-on the reality of the high casualty rates that were typical of this sort of warfare. Writers of military history do not generally give us finely drawn characters, but Collard's supporting actors are definitely three-dimensional. We may not care that much about them, but we recognise them and, as they move into battle, we are confident that most, if not all, will survive. As one after another falls we are brought, like Jack Lark, face-to-face with the reality of what an assault like the British attack on the Russian redoubt actually means. After it was all over, the British could understandably reflect on the glory of their achievement, but Collard shows that that glory was actually built on suffering and death on an appalling scale. Jack Lark himself is wounded and evacuated to Scutari, where he sees at first hand the horrors that were later to be addressed by Florence Nightingale. As he struggles to survive amidst the squalor, neglect and infection, he is not remotely interested in the progress of the war, what, if anything has been achieved, or why they are fighting there. What he is interested in is getting back to active service and marching under the Colours and into the fight. The reality of a soldier's life is that he (and it usually is 'he') fights and, all too often (although less so today) dies. If soldiers spent too long thinking about what they were fighting for, it's quite possible that they would refuse to do it.

Paul Collard has done a workmanlike job producing a highly readable account of mid 19th century military life and a conflict that deserves to be better known. I can thoroughly recommend it.

The Maharajah's General

There have been several more Jack Lark books since I wrote this. There's a review of the second one (The Maharajah's General) here:

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