failed heroes

by Jeff Worley

close focus - light charge brigade web res In the Crimean War’s disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade, the British cavalry was sent on a frontal assault against a Russian artillery battery that resulted in a massacre. Library of Congress.


Why do the British celebrate a lack of success so enthusiastically?

Stephanie Barczewski explains that the topic for her new book, Heroic Failure and the British (Yale University Press, 2015), came to her largely by way of Antarctica.

“In my previous work on two prominent British explorers of the early twentieth century, Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton, I was intrigued by the fact that although these men failed to achieve the primary goal of their expeditions to the South Pole, they became celebrated heroes in England anyway,” says Barczewski, who has taught British history at Clemson for twenty years. Her book on these two explorers, Antarctic Destinies: Scott, Shackleton and the Changing Face of Heroism, was published in 2007.

In doing research for this earlier book, Barczewski noted a curious trend: British explorers and military leaders who failed to achieve their goals, sometimes in costly and dramatic fashion, were often celebrated and honored—by widespread public acclaim, with statues, and in some cases, knighthood. Trying to understand this puzzling mindset led her to write her recently published book.

“In my research I wanted to answer two basic questions,” she says. “Do the British celebrate heroic failure more frequently and more enthusiastically than other cultures? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then why are they so enamored of heroic failure?” Barczewski speculated that the answers to these questions might reveal a great deal about British identity.

close focus - terra nova web res
Scott (left) led the doomed Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole. Barczewski questions why Scott’s failure is commemorated in London. Library of Congress.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

One of the best-known military episodes in British history, the Charge of the Light Brigade exemplifies how failure became enshrined as heroic in Britain. The charge took place on October 25, 1854, during the Crimean War. In the Battle of Balaclava, Lord Raglan, commander of the British forces, ordered the Light Brigade to pursue a retreating Russian force, a task well-suited to light cavalry. Due to miscommunication in the chain of command, however, the Light Brigade was instead sent on a frontal assault against an artillery battery—one well-prepared with excellent fields of defensive fire. The battery was deployed at the end of a mile-long valley and flanked on both sides by additional guns that fired down from above.

The Light Brigade’s action was in defiance of every basic principle of the use of cavalry in warfare, Barczewski states. Of the approximately 670 men who participated in the charge, almost three hundred were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, and this massacre took barely twenty minutes from start to finish. The assault ended with no significant gains.

But despite the fact that the charge was a debacle, the survivors came home as heroes, even those officers who may have been involved in the string of errors and misunderstandings that led to the slaughter of so many British troops. Barczewski chronicles this public reaction in her chapter titled “The Charge.”

Captain Soame Gambier Jenyns, for example, returned from Balaclava to his familial home, Bottisham Hall in Cambridgeshire. A large crowd cheered him as he rode into the village on his horse, Ben, another survivor of the charge. The parish priest observed that “it must have been gratifying to our gallant friend to see the welcome accorded, while there was not a man, woman or child, but what turned out to do him honour.” Two years after he retired from the army, Jenyns died. His funeral cortege in Bottisham featured a military band and a column of Hussars; Ben, now twenty-five years old, was led behind the coffin. Hundreds of people packed the church and the surrounding streets. After the coffin was placed in the family vault, three volleys were fired by a rifle team, followed by a trumpet flourish. A memorial was later installed in the chancel of Bottisham church, highlighting the fact that Jenyns was a survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

“Jenyns’s example illustrates how this military debacle was enshrined as a heroic failure,” Barczewski says. “The survivors became celebrities who were feted at annual banquets and, as the decades passed, were given lavish public funerals. This was despite the fact that the charge had been a total disaster.”

Finding her academic calling

During her two decades at Clemson, Barczewski has written books, articles, book chapters, book reviews, and given presentations at conferences in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ireland—all focused on British history.

Where did this intense interest come from?

“My passion for British history can be pinpointed to a very specific moment,” Barczewski explains. “In January 1989, when I was beginning my second semester as a junior at Columbia University, I was an English major but needed a fifth class to fill out my schedule. I decided, somewhat arbitrarily, to take David Cannadine’s British History Since 1832 class and was enthralled from the minute I sat down. Professor Cannadine, who now teaches at Princeton and is one of the most distinguished British historians in the world, was the most amazing lecturer I had ever heard. I loved the class.”

In her senior year Cannadine agreed to supervise an independent study project Barczewski wanted to undertake. “He spent hours patiently and enthusiastically discussing and improving my work,” she says, and at this point her English degree was, so to speak, history.

“I was well and truly hooked,” Barczewski laughs. “I knew I was on the right academic path.” Barczewski went on to attend graduate school at Yale University, where her dissertation was supervised by Cannadine’s equally distinguished wife, Linda Colley. “So I was incredibly lucky to be mentored by two such brilliant British historians,” Barczewski says.

But what if…?

But when asked what she thinks she might have done professionally if this academic path hadn’t opened for her, Barczewski doesn’t hesitate.

“If I could do anything else in the world besides what I am doing now, I would be an Imagineer for the Walt Disney Company, a history consultant to help them design Disney theme parks. I think it’s fascinating to try to present meaningful history to a mass audience whose entryway to history is through simply having fun.”

When she was a child and a teenager, her parents took her to the Magic Kingdom “quite a few times,” Barczewski says, adding that the experience somehow became embedded in her DNA.

“And actually I go more now than when I was a kid!”

Race to the South Pole

Heroic failures in Britain were not only military. In her research, carried out over four years in over a dozen archives in the United Kingdom and the United States, Barczewski discovered that from 1850 on, numerous British explorers were unsuccessful in achieving their primary goal. Captain Scott’s second expedition—which attempted to be the first to discover the South Pole—is a prime example.

Scott’s march south began in October 1911. Leaving nothing to chance, Barczewski explains, Scott devised an elaborate system of transport, using newly invented motor-sledges (the precursor to today’s Sno-Cats), ponies, and dogs, all of which were loaded on in New Zealand. He realized the limits of man-hauling (sleds pulled by men), but even so, decided it was to be the sole means of transport for the crucial last stages of the journey to the South Pole and for virtually the entire journey back.

The task was demanding enough in itself, but at the eleventh hour Scott was surprised to learn that he had competition. The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who had led the first expedition to sail through the Northwest Passage from 1903 to 1906, had intended to be the first to reach the North Pole, but after Frederick Cook and Robert Peary both claimed to have gotten there in 1909, he turned south instead.

It was not until Scott reached Melbourne in the summer of 1910 while on his way to Antarctica that he received a telegram simply stating: “Am going south Amundsen.” Amundsen had sent Scott the telegram because explorers honored an unwritten code requiring them to be straightforward about their plans. Scott readily understood what this meant: Amundsen was a veteran polar explorer whose abilities were not in doubt. He was, moreover, only trying to reach the South Pole, whereas Scott intended to carry out an extensive scientific program as the team made its southern journey. Scott opted not to alter his plans, but he recognized that Amundsen was likely to win the race. He did: The Norwegian reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911. Slightly over a month later, on January 16, 1912, Scott and his men were ten miles from the Pole when they saw a black flag fluttering in the snow, irrefutable evidence that they had been beaten.

Scott’s journey had been a struggle from the start, and after being trumped by Amundsen, a series of tragedies befell the five-man polar party. They burned an enormous amount of calories daily due to the physical exertions of man-hauling, and their food supply was dwindling. The men were gradually starving to death. Their progress slowed so that they reached their next supply depot (laid by the expedition the previous season) with little food or fuel to spare. One man collapsed and died. Another, who had been suffering badly from frostbitten feet and from scurvy, bid his mates goodbye and left the tent one night to die in the cold. Two days later, Scott and his remaining two companions were pinned in their tent by a blizzard. The tent became their tomb.

Justifying failure

The news of Scott’s death did not reach Britain until February 1913. By this time, a narrative had taken shape that justified Scott’s failure to beat Amundsen to the South Pole by claiming that the Norwegians had cheated. By not telling Scott, and the world, that he was going for the South rather than the North Pole until the last minute, Amundsen had not played the game fairly and had not allowed an honest competition to take place.

From all across the United Kingdom, people sent condolences, poems, and other communications to the families of the dead. These expressions of sympathy flowed in from all ranks of society. There were frequent descriptions in newspapers and elsewhere of the kind of heroism Scott and his companions had represented, which focused on their endurance, fortitude, and self-sacrifice. The unpredictable Antarctic weather was seen as the main reason for the disaster, not any errors of planning or deficiencies on the part of the explorers.

Commemorating failure

In Waterloo Place in central London, just south of Piccadilly Circus, a statue of Scott stands alongside memorials to the Crimean War and the Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, who died along with 148 of his men while leading an expedition to discover the Northwest Passage in the 1840s.

“Waterloo Place represents a strange use of London’s urban space for commemorative purposes,” Barczewski says. “Most of its monuments recall events—the Crimean War and the polar expeditions of Franklin and Scott—that were failures rather than triumphs. Why, one might ask, would such a prominent and precious space in London be used to commemorate these particular events and persons?”

The answer, she says, relates to a strain in British culture that embraces the nobility of suffering, defeat, and heroism in the face of disaster over triumph and the glory of victory.

“In this conception of heroism,” Barczewski states, “effort, perseverance, pluck, and grace under pressure are seen as more important than winning.”

But why is heroic failure so prominent in British culture?

Barczewski argues that answering that question requires an understanding of the role of the British Empire, which reached a peak of economic and strategic importance in the nineteenth century. “A growing number of historians in recent years have reminded us of the true nature of the violent and coercive forces that built and sustained the empire,” she says. “It was important for the British to see themselves not as aggressive, authoritarian, and violent imperial conquerors, but as benevolent administrators who had acquired much of their colonial territory by accident, who ruled it with a velvet glove rather than an iron fist, and who often sacrificed their own lives in order to benefit the places over which they ruled.

“Heroic failure arose from British power and dominance, and from the need to provide alternative narratives of empire that distracted from its real-life exploitative and violent aspects by emphasizing an idealized version of the nation’s character,” Barczewski says. “The British wanted to be seen not as conquerors but as representatives of a nation that was doing good in the world.”

Stephanie Barczewski is a professor of history in the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities. Jeff Worley is a freelance writer and poet who lives in Lexington, Kentucky.
, , , , ,