Book Review: A British Profession of Arms: The Politics of Command in the Late Victorian Army


by Ian F. W. Beckett

Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018. Pp. xviii, 350. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 080616171X

How to Become one of Victoria’s Generals

Beckett, author of The British Army and the First World War, The Victorians at War, and numerous other works on British military history, takes on the factors affecting a Victorian era officer’s career, making a case that despite appearances military service had by then become as much of a “profession” as law or medicine. Some of these factors are obvious and still with us, such as the need for officers to possess mastery of their trade, their battlefield performance, and their ability to network. Others are less obvious today, though often still of importance, such as family ties, political connections, mentors, and even branch of service. Beckett divides his text into two parts.

“The Context” discusses the patterns of influences on a man’s career, the degree to which the “profession of arms” was in fact “professional”, and how officers rose in the service. It examines how networks – “rings” that formed around particular senior commanders – affected an officer’s opportunities, and how external factors could work for or against a man as well, such as social standards, by which even a touch of “scandal” might scuttle a man’s career.

In “Case Studies” Beckett shows us how these factors affected selection and performance of officers in the highest command levels and during three notable campaigns, the Second Afghan War (1878-1881), the Anglo-Zulu War (1879), and the South African War (1899-1902), all of which began badly for the British, albeit that they were able to eventually secure in the latter two..

Overall, Beckett helps us see how a seemingly obvious bumblers such as Lord Chelmsford or Redvers Buller could make it to high command, but also how more capable officers, such as Kitchener, Woseley, or Roberts, could do as well. This bring to the fore one of the most persistent problems in educating and training senior commanders, that is ultimately generals, even those raised in the Victorian era with its numerous “Little Wars” don’t often get to practice their craft.

A volume in the Oklahoma “Campaigns and Commanders” series, A British Profession of Arms is a very good book, and one not without lessons for the contemporary American armed forces.


Note: A British Profession of Arms is also available in several e-editions.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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