Mr. Kipling’s Army

Some years ago I read A Perfect Mess, a delightful book that sought to demonstrate the blessings of individuality in business and life.  The book centers on the basic idea that creating uniformity in how people work, process, and store information, though it looks efficient, will in fact harm the bottom line for 2 main reasons:

  • Acquiring the time and means to store information takes more time and money than we might think, and
  • It forces everyone into a mold few people (except the fussy bureaucrat) work well within.

The authors cited the real-life example of two newsstands on the same New York street.  One store had all the modern accoutrements, such as computer reordering systems, a large selection, beautiful decor, and a helpful staff.  The other was a father-son operation that had less of everything.  But only the father-son store stayed in business.  All that selection, decor, staff, and computer systems came with a steep price tag.  Somehow the poorly-lit, somewhat ramshackle father-son operation worked just fine.

I thought of A Perfect Mess reading the similarly entertaining Mr. Kipling’s Army by the pre-eminent military historian of the Victorian era, Byron Farwell.  Certain things about the British army of this period seem almost impossible to believe.

For one, no one commanded the army.  By this, I don’t mean that no one person commanded the army, I mean that no agreement existed as to whether or not the Crown or Parliament commanded the army.  No “Joint Chiefs of Staff” existed.  Different people commanded different sections of the army, but at root the army had no unity of command.

The practice of purchasing army commissions continued long into the 19th century, which allowed anyone with enough cash and enough desire to immediately assume the rank of Lt. Colonel.  True, some disagreed with this practice. But it had numerous supporters, among them, the Duke of Wellington, who argued that the purchase of commissions gave the upper echelon of officers a direct stake in the well-being of the army/country.

Furthermore, various physical handicaps had no bearing on one’s ability to serve.  Some generals could not hear.  Some could not walk.  Some could not even see, being legally blind.  No one seemed to mind.

The army never grew even close to the size of armies in other European countries such as Prussia and France.  But this same “pint-sized” army was also spread out further over the globe than the military of any other country at that time.

Despite all this, none can doubt that the British army of this period did more with less than anyone else.  Quite simply, they were an enormously effective force, and between 1815-1914, more effective than anyone else.*

Farrwell offers no direct answers to this seeming paradox, but he packs the book with so many choice nuggets that one can begin to answer the question for themselves.  A key feature of the British army in this period would surely be regimental pride and identity, though not, as we might expect, army pride and identity.

The numerous regiments had their own uniforms, customs, mascots . . . a unending list of distinctives.  Sometimes these distinctives included actual violent rivalries with other regiments, but no matter.  If the British had one sacred guiding principle in this era it amounted to this: Do not mess with regimental traditions.  They tolerated almost anything not to violate this sacrosanct dictum, including actual criminal behavior by some soldiers, i.e., “Smashed shop windows at Blenheim Square?  And today is the third Saturday of March?  Pay no mind, that’s just the boys of the 10th Essex.”

The British may have gone too far with their one sacred principle, but they chose well.  Various testimonials abound at how the accretion of tradition and custom built a very strong sense of unity and identity within each fighting line.  The Romans (another effective army!) did something similar for much of its history, grouping soldiers as much as they could by village.  You fought next to those you lived with.  Almost every officer hated getting pulled from regimental ranks into a staff job.  Parting with the regiment meant parting with family.

Armies get their modus operandi, hence their effectiveness, from the societies that create them.  When a natural meshing occurs between army and society, the armies will have much more power because they will have more confidence, consciously or not.  Military action has a greater chance of meshing with society at large, which again adds to the effectiveness of military action.

The British did this brilliantly, whether they realized it or not.  The 19th century in England saw a curious blend of aristocracy and democracy.  The power of the monarch and the House of Lords all underwent a steady transformation towards more democracy, but a strong aristocratic flavor remained.**  Even the “defensive” dress (as brilliantly put by Lord Clark in his Civilization series) of the middle and upper-middle class showed an aristocratic motive to distinguish themselves from the masses.  Chesterton’s early 20th century work  The Club of Queer Trades delightfully pays homage to the British mania for clubs at the turn of the 20th century.

The British saw to it that each regiment was its own club, its own mini-aristocracy with its own traditions, dress, and way of life.  Anyone in a regiment would immediately become part of a mini-society that would give them a holistic identity apart from the rest of society.  As even our modern political scene teaches us, people will fight hard to maintain their sense of identity.

All of this should make us ponder our current situation.  I remember reading an article some time ago that mentioned that over the last 10 years the military has seen a huge spike in those hoping to become snipers.  Maybe this is the result of video games, but maybe not.  Military movies for decades focused on the heroism of the average Joe.  Now our movies and many of our military operations focus on our special forces, a kind of aristocracy within the military at-large.  And yet, our country may be moving in a more populist direction.  If so, this would put some tension between our military and our society which in theory could damage its effectiveness.

Or, possibly what we think is populism is in fact an extension of a kind of hyper identity awareness.  We do see a rise in the role of personal identity with issues surrounding sexuality and gender, and perhaps race as well.  If this is correct, then our military and society may be moving in a more feudal/aristocratic direction, not in the sense of having a defined upper class by birth, but by the segmenting of “Society” into multiple different smaller societies and interest groups.

Or perhaps its instead some weird combination of things, as may often be the case with American history.


*For now we will leave aside the moral aspects of their military adventures.

**Barbara Tuchman discusses this aspect of English life at this time vividly in The Proud Tower.






Aristocratic Age

Spit and Polish v. Drill

Link to sp. forces



The Marriage of Handwriting and Architecture

It did not take me long to get miffed by Steven Greenblatt’s The Swerve.  Almost right away  he commits two cardinal sins in my book when discussing the Medieval period.
  • He brings up all the worst aspects of the Medieval period without any of its virtues, and
  • He asserts that the discovery of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things is one of the main causes for the “swerve” from the Medieval to the Modern world.  He does not assert this absolutely, but hedging all on one manuscript still seemed too reductionistic to me.

But Greenblat’s charm and narrative style kept me going.  In the end, I didn’t read the whole thing and skimmed some sections, but one thing in particular struck me forcefully — how handwriting can be a reflection of the personality of a society.

‘Gothic’ script dominated the ‘Gothic’ era, and it can be contrasted with the Carolingian script revived by many Renaissance scribes:

Petrarch complained that Gothic script, “had been designed for something other than reading,” and he was not whining, but speaking the truth.

Gothic Script

The height and cramped fashion of letters makes it difficult to read, and may subconsciously have been designed to be “seen and not heard.”  When we remember that very few could read, and that books were meant to educate visually just as much as textually, the Gothic “font” makes more sense.

Gothic Manuscript

Here are examples of the Carolingian script fashionable during the Renaissance:

Perhaps pro-Renaissance scholars do not exaggerate the real shift that took place as far as education is concerned.  Perhaps this shift in handwriting style helped pave the way for the printing press itself.

If the “font’s” a society uses reflect something of its larger worldview, we would expect to see this expressed in other aspects of their culture.  Gothic architecture mirrors gothic script in uncanny script in uncanny ways, with the “bunched up” nature of its space.

Flying Buttresses

True, the high ceilings of these cathedrals did give a sense of space, but it was space that meant to overpower you, a weight and bulk of a different kind.  The stained glass windows again reveal the same thing as the buttresses — the “cramming” full of space with color.

In the Renaissance we see something else entirely, a more “human” scale in architecture, and a greater sense of space.

The Pazzi Chapel

Michelangelo, the Medici Chapel

So apparently, handwriting can be an expression of a culture’s personality just as architecture can, which should not have surprised me.

When I realized that the Renaissance basically just revived Carolingian script, this gave new significance to the Carolingian Renaissance itself under Charlemagne six centuries earlier.  Those that invented the style and not merely copied it should get greater credit.  Some scholars dismiss the “Carolingian Renaissance,” as small potatoes, but the script they used showed an interest in reading, which sheds new light on the work of Nottker and Einhard.  So, what about architecture under Charlemagne — will it show that same sense of space?  Naturally we must consider Aachen Cathedral, the central building of Charlemagne’s realm:

Aachen Cathedral, Exterior


Well, it appears that we have a mixed verdict.  It is part Gothic, part Byzantine, and part something all its own.  Will I allow this to overthrow my theory of seeing links between handwriting and architecture? Perish the thought!  I can always say that Charlemagne’s time had so much going on that they had no time to be particularly self-aware of these choices, in contrast to both the Gothic and Renaissance periods.

Does America’s utter lack of defining architectural identity have anything to do with our confusion about teaching handwriting?