'For the British soldier is keenly sensitive to honour': Military History, Heroism and British Identities in the Works of William Napier

Eleanor N. Morecroft (2011). 'For the British soldier is keenly sensitive to honour': Military History, Heroism and British Identities in the Works of William Napier PhD Thesis, School of History, Philosophy, Religion & Classics, The University of Queensland.

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Author Eleanor N. Morecroft
Thesis Title 'For the British soldier is keenly sensitive to honour': Military History, Heroism and British Identities in the Works of William Napier
School, Centre or Institute School of History, Philosophy, Religion & Classics
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2011-05-17
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Andrew Bonnell
Marion Diamond
Total pages 284
Total black and white pages 284
Subjects 21 History and Archaeology
Abstract/Summary This dissertation explores the writings of William Napier (1785-1860), the British army officer and influential military historian, whose career straddled the Regency and Victorian periods. It pivots around his major work, the six-volume History of the War in the Peninsula (pub. 1828-1840), which became definitive in its field until the early twentieth century. The theme of identity - especially, though not exclusively, national identity - is strong in all of Napier's writings. Especially within the History, there is an image of Britishness that, because of the subject matter around which it was constructed, is necessarily masculine and military; yet Napier made it applicable to the nation as a whole. This dissertation argues that Napier's image of Britishness was applied in this way, and that the influence of his major work made both Napier's writings, and his public character, instrumental in the development of nineteenth-century British cultural and imperial identities. The History was popular with general as well as military readers. The British reading public admired Napier’s evocative narrative style, and his celebration of British soldiers as masculine ideals. Napier’s History therefore helped to popularise and glorify public memory of the Peninsular War: the 'Great War' of their time. It credited Britain with the liberation of Spain and Portugal, which had the unfortunate effect of marginalising the efforts of the Iberians themselves. Napier's derogatory treatment of the Spanish in particular has had long-standing historiographical consequences that only began to be rectified in the late twentieth century. But the History's glorification of Britain was not only at the expense of foreign Others, and its influence was not only in military history. Its praise and idealisation of ordinary British soldiers, and its author's avowed 'radicalism,' meant that the History became associated with Reform-era politics, and some passages quoted in a political context. Therefore, the influence of the work went beyond its field; Napier was tagged with the epithet 'Historian of the Peninsular War,’ and the war itself became an exemplar of the British national story. To the British reading public, the History was bound up with Napier's public character, and vice versa. Napier praised soldiers in general terms, but he also cited individual examples of heroism. His History was an important precedent for the imagining of British heroes that became so prevalent in the late nineteenth century: the ‘age of imperialism.’ Napier himself helped construct an imperial hero out of his elder brother, Sir Charles Napier, who played a major role in the controversial 1843 invasion and annexation of Sindh to British India. However, by arguing that his brother acted out of necessity, providing a solution to a problem that others had created, Napier managed to defend and lionise him without producing an imperialistic text. The Sindh controversy epitomises the uneasy relationship between Britain and the empire that existed before the 1857 'mutiny' in India transformed the popular view of Britain's role in the wider world. As well as presenting a study of an important yet relatively neglected figure, this dissertation contributes to existing scholarship by demonstrating the usefulness of interpreting military history within a broader cultural framework. Scholarship over the past three decades has shown how the writing of history informed, and was informed by, contemporary culture, including the construction of national identities. Social history of warfare and the soldier has also received attention, focusing, for instance, upon the paternalistic ethos in the British army, and the role of warfare in developing a sense of Britishness. However, these fields have not yet been combined. By placing William Napier’s life and work in historical and cultural contexts, this dissertation will help to achieve this, and thereby enhance understanding of the period. It charts Napier’s early life and military career, his transformation into successful man of letters, and the re-imagining of his and his brother’s characters through mid to late nineteenth-century life writings. At the same time it charts the construction and development of British identities in this period, especially the attempt to create a cohesive national identity through the encapsulation of masculine and military ideals in the British soldier-hero.
Keyword napier, william, peninsula, war, history, heroism, nationalism, britain, militarism

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Created: Fri, 19 Aug 2011, 19:35:20 EST by Miss Eleanor Morecroft on behalf of Library - Information Access Service