Profiles of individual British soldiers, by accomplished biographer Ziegler (Osbert Sitwell, 1999, etc.).
In the 21st century, it seems apparent that men carrying rifles and inhabiting trenches have in general been made obsolete by bombs of all sorts. This sea change has brought waves of adulation for the 20th-century combatants who were in all likelihood the last soldiers in the traditional sense, admired for a type of personal heroism that seems distant in the age of technological warfare. Ziegler’s narrative serves as a mausoleum for this kind of bravery. It focuses on nine residents of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, a retirement home for military pensioners. Though the men came to the military in varied ways and left with different experiences, they are united by a seemingly lost sense of duty and stoicism that is particularly poignant from the British perspective. Whereas American war efforts in the 20th century were part of the nation’s ascent, the soldiers whose lives are chronicled here oversaw an epic decline. Service took them to withering bastions of British power like India, Hong Kong, Palestine, and Egypt. Though the Empire lost strength, the men gained from their service. Most entered the army poor and left with healthy pensions and solid middle-class standing. For each, the military experience was the most important part of their lives; bloody battles and hours of boredom resulted in a strong sense of camaraderie and belonging. Ziegler clearly admires these men, not because they were exceptional but because they were not. Their lives were shaped by uncomplicated notions of honor in exceptionally violent times. Ziegler’s approach is equally simple: The British Empire, as depicted here, was the rule of reason and courage enforced by simple, strong men.
A nostalgic look at soldierly virtue.