Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/For valour
When we read the accounts of the great battles of the Peninsular war, and indeed of all wars of the past generation, in which Englishmen have borne their flag to victory, we are inclined to ask the question, What records have we of the deeds of daring of our subalterns and common soldiers? Successful generals have founded great families; and ministers, who have played with the lives of the rank and file as though they were so many inorganic pawns, have gone down to posterity as the saviours of their country; but what attempt has there ever been up to the present time to single out the simple soldier for honours and rewards for gallant deeds done on the field of battle? The Duke of Wellington used to say that the difference between himself and Marshal Soult was, that when the latter got his troops into a mess he used to run away from them, but that when he got his army into a fix it was sure to get him out of it. Yet the units of this splendid machine of war, which has so often compelled victory, were up to the Crimean campaign treated like so much inanimate material, worthy of a few platitudes published in the Gazette respecting their indomitable valour; but beyond that they did not dare to aspire.
Of all the heroes who fought and conquered at Waterloo, the figure of Shaw the Life Guardsman stands out prominently in the popular mind as the type of valour in that tremendous struggle; and his deed will pass down to posterity, none the less certainly because pompous historians do not condescend to notice him. We have been so be-Prussianised—led to consider our army as so many cogs and wheels, to be directed by some general who puts his hand upon the lever—that we have, or rather had, forgotten that there was such a thing as individual will and intelligence that might possibly be worth something, even in the subordinate officer and common soldier, on the field of battle. To help us out of this delusion, happily came the Enfield rifle; and with arms of precision a general relaxation of all the members of the old tight-braced machine; our army is beginning to find that to individual forethought, prowess, and skill—those small details which make up the grandest totals—some of the most glorious actions, and the most decisive moments of great events, have been owing. It must have been an early appreciation of this new light which led Her Majesty to institute the new and most democratic of all honours—the Victoria Cross. Other decorations may be peacefully obtained by political jobbing, or the silent but irresistible influence of the social screw; but the Victoria Cross must be borne fresh from some noble deed of daring, done under the eye of day. That the institution of this order will have a great effect upon our army, we have no manner of doubt. The British soldier, hitherto considered so stolidly unimpressible by any other than the most animal motives, will be found to be touched with the sacred fire for the mere hope of clutching this materially worthless bit of bronze.
In passing through Mr. Desanges’ gallery of pictures of the heroes who have won this much-coveted Cross, one cannot help reflecting that the inspiration of a single moment, sufficient only for the instincts to have play, has been sufficient to earn name and fame for ever. Sergeant Ablett of the Guards, seeing a shell falling in the midst of a number of ammunition waggons, seized and threw it outside the trench, where it burst. Mr. Hewett, acting mate of the Beagle, in charge of a Lancaster gun before Sebastopol, seeing a Russian party about to take the gun in flank, with the assistance of a few soldiers slewed it round, blew down the parapet, and checked the advancing column. Colonel Bell, finding a Russian gun limbered up and just about to be drawn off at the Battle of the Alma, seized the horses’ heads, and brought the captured trophy to a place of safety.
These actions, the work of a moment’s heroic inspiration, would have survived in the recollection of a few comrades only, as thousands of others have done in past wars, had not Mr. Desanges, in a happy moment, conceived the idea of rendering them patent to the world, as long as canvas and colour shall last, by the skill of his pencil. As one surveys the large exhibition room at the Egyptian Hall covered with vigorously painted pictures of the deeds of daring of the winners of the Victoria Cross, it is scarcely possible to believe that they have all been produced by one hand within these last two years. Never was there a better example of the difference between ourselves and France than this exhibition affords. Versailles is crowded with ill-drawn but stirring pictures of national heroism, lavishly paid for by the government: here a single individual undertakes the task, and accomplishes it on his own resources. And has he not added to the value of the Cross itself? We may, if we like, read a dry, bald account in the official Gazette of some glorious deed done by a private or officer in the presence of the enemy, but our artist reproduces the veritable action with all its accessories. Private John McDermond left his father’s cottage, perchance a raw boy, before the great Crimean fight; when he returns to the paternal roof, he may, if he likes, carry with him a photograph of the noble picture in which he is rescuing Colonel Haly from a party of Russians who had struck him down at the Battle of Inkermann. Private T. R. Roberts might, for all we know, have been considered a ne’er-do-well at home, and, possibly, his enlisting in the Indian Army was thought a good riddance of bad rubbish. But we know not the good that lies hidden in our hearts, only requiring an occasion to call it forth. Roberts, in the great mutiny, brought a wounded comrade on his back through one of the streets of Bolundshahur, under a heavy fire, in doing which he was himself wounded, and of which wound he has since died. But for Mr. Desanges, his glorious deeds of courage and humanity would have died with him, but now the sun-picture will hang on the cottage wall, with the Victoria Cross beneath it, to tell to generations to come of the true nobility of soul of the poor ne’er-do-well.
How can we count the value of the Cross thus illustrated? The English peasant, ill-used as he has been, is a dull clod enough; but, if anything would fire him, it would be such proof as these would afford that, even in the bloody turmoil of battle, his Sovereign’s eye was upon him, ready to reward his bravery, his self-denial, and his humanity regardless of personal safety, and that art was at hand to stamp his glory on the canvas, and bring it by means of the sun-pencil to the ken of his friends and kinsmen in his native place.
And the good of such a gallery as that of Mr. Desanges’ must tell on the upper as well as the lower ranks. We were too apt to think the officers of the Guards feather-bed soldiers, and to see a young ensign lounging down St. James’s Street, it would almost seem as though the smoke of a cannon would place him hors de combat. But look at Mr. Desanges’ picture of Captain Lindsay rallying his regiment of Fusilier Guards, with the colours borne aloft, when for a moment they were thrown into disorder by the shower of Russian shot, as they staggered up the hill-side at the Alma. The good old stuff will shine through the fine-laced coat, and the silken boudoirs of May Fair will not less prize some record of such a deed than the homespun people of the country cottage. Of the merits of Mr. Desanges’ gallery as an art exhibition it is not our province to speak. His facile pencil is too well known to require any flourish from us; but we think no Englishman can visit the Victoria Cross Gallery without a feeling of national pride, and without the conviction also that the Cross is enhanced in value by Mr. Desanges’ characteristic illustrations of the manner in which it has been won. We trust when the gallery is closed that these interesting pictures may pass into the national possession, and that on the walls of Chelsea College they may tell to future heroes how their forefathers fought and conquered in the Crimean and the Indian wars.