How Not To Ride A Giraffe

So there I was, perusing my bookshelves the other day (as you do) looking for something to read, when I happened upon a little tome that was way off the beaten track for me when I first received it, but turned out to be one of my favorite reads ever, and it occurred to me that sometimes it’s not the shelves and shelves of similarly-themed stories that reveal who we are or make the greatest impression upon us, but those books that are a foray into the less frequented parts of the forest.

I suspect this thought had something to do with the frequency with which people have been asking me about my favorite books recently. I usually mention the ones that have the most to do with my own writing: children’s fantasy, science fiction and so forth. But there are other books, books that are out of the norm for me that I nevertheless really, really enjoyed. So I thought it might be fun to write an occasional post on some of those books and I thought why not start with a genre that usually bores me to tears: military history.

Don’t get me wrong, I love history, I read endless volumes of the stuff, but military history…battles and troop movements? Bleh. Which was why, when a friend gave me a copy of Queen Victoria’s Little Wars by Byron Farwell, I thanked him very nicely, stuck it on a shelf and promptly forgot about it until the day came when I was in the mood for a history book and, more particularly, in the mood for something I hadn’t already read. So I took it off the shelf and began to read. And it was great!

First, the title is really, really accurate. This book is not about the famous wars and major battles of Victoria’s reign—it’s about the smaller skirmishes, most of which took place on the outer fringes of the British Empire. The word “Empire” tends to suggest some highly organized, fiercely regimented, centralized state, controlling the lives of millions across the globe, but the British Empire was vastly over-extended and reached into parts of the world that might as well have been in another galaxy. Communication with London took months and by the time the government there made a decision and sent it back to its man on the ground, the situation had generally changed beyond recognition. The result was that very important decisions (like, say, taking over someone else’s country) were frequently made by fairly junior officers with little grasp of geo-politics and educations that could be described as sketchy at best.

In short, it was almost exactly like any space opera you’d care to name. Soldiers serving in isolated outposts in countries they probably hadn’t even heard of six months before, struggling to do the right thing without getting their men killed or ruining their own careers.  It was an adventure.   It was also frequently comical. In one case, a commander fighting in Afghanistan lost a major battle. The word of his shame made its way back to London where, after much discussion, it was decided to replace him.  New orders were drawn up and the replacement commander sent, but by the time he got there the first commander had won a splendid victory and was a hero again.   So the replacement went home.  Let’s hope he enjoyed traveling by sea!

The army had long been a way for boys of good but impoverished families to make their name—and their fortunes. If they could just scrabble together enough money to buy a commission, they were off. The result was, as you might expect, a bunch of upper class yahoos dashing around the globe looking for adventure. Many found only an early grave. Apart from the ghastly toll of tropical diseases, this was an age when officers marched in front of their troops, so they were generally the first ones killed in an assault.

This didn’t put them off one bit, however. Leading the way was an honor and a thrill and for every officer who fell, there were dozens at home eager to take his place. The book is full of stories of gallantry, bravery and stupidity, and it’s almost impossible to come away from it without a new-found respect for these uniformed adventurers. The same names recur all over the globe whenever it looks like there might be a good fight. Senior officers drop whatever they’re doing and race to the scene, hoping that the general in charge will give them something to do. We follow men who were little more than boys when they saw their first action through the century from skirmishes in Burma, China, India and South Africa until their retirement as respected generals. One of them, Garnet Wolseley, first served in Burma as a teenager in 1853 and went on to become a viscount and one of the most highly-regarded generals of his age.

Wolseley was noted for his efficiency and skill as a strategist. He constantly struggled with the powers that be and felt that the army would be a much more efficient body if promotions and commissions were given on the basis of merit rather than the ability to pay. The very idea! Still, for all his abilities, Woleseley was not the sort of man who sets imaginations racing—even Queen Victoria wasn’t very fond of him. The soldier she was fond of was dashing, successful…and unbelievably accident prone. His name was Henry Evelyn Wood.

Born in 1838, Wood joined the Royal Navy at the age of 14  as a midshipman.  Two years later, in 1855, he found himself on land in the Crimea as part of a naval brigade. Anxious to prove himself, he took part in an assault on a Russian position. This involved running across open land, sword in hand, followed by his men while the Russians tried to mow them down. Wood’s sword was broken by a bullet but he ran on anyway, even though he was now unarmed.  He ended up being shot in the hand and taking 5½ ounce ball in the elbow. The medics on scene wanted to amputate, but he managed to get away and make it to another medical station. They wanted to amputate too.  Finally he made it back to his ship, where the doctor saved his arm.  He then caught typhoid and ended up in the hospital at Scutari, where his mother found him so ill and emaciated that his hip bones had broken through his skin. She took him back to England, where he recovered, gave up the navy for the army and returned to war as a cavalry officer.

A year later, in 1856, he was sent to India to battle the Mutiny (also known as the Sepoy War).  Always dashing and brave, he fought well but “suffered from fever, several sunstrokes, indigestion, ague, toothache, ‘intestinal complaints’, neuralgia, and an inflammation of the ear that cost him half his hearing.”

He also had a run-in with a giraffe.

It seems a friendly maharaja was showing off his collection of animals when Wood, on a bet with another officer, leapt from a balcony onto the back of hi host’s giraffe.  He rode it around for a while without difficulty…and then he tried to get off. The giraffe’s knee hit him in the chest, knocking him on his back, where it then trod on his face, lacerating both cheeks. Wood recovered from this, then broke his collarbone, split his lip and broke his nose after galloping his horse into a tree. (Honestly, I’m not making this up!)

By December of 1859 the Mutiny was over but many mutineers had formed themselves into gangs of bandits and were roaming the countryside. Lieutenant Wood took fifteen men and a guide and tracked one of the gangs down. Their quarry was eighty strong, but Wood made a surprise night attack on their camp, killing several and forcing the others to flee. He confiscated their arms and released three Indian men they were holding hostage. He returned to base with a toothache, but was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery. The 22 year old Wood now had six medals and a promising career if he could just stay in one piece.

As if.  Even love was fraught with danger for the young soldier. In 1860 he fell in love with Miss Paulina Southwell, but her family was against the match because Wood was not Catholic and refused to convert. Seven years passed in which the two lovers didn’t communicate at all, then Wood sent a letter proposing marriage. Paulina accepted and the wedding was on. Wood went to England to tie the knot, but the actual ceremony had to wait until he recovered from another fever, more toothache, ‘neuralgia of the nerves of the stomach,’ double pneumonia and a hunting accident in which he fell from his horse and nearly broke his neck. Nevertheless, in 1867 at the age of thirty, Wood finally tied the knot with Paulina.

In 1873 the Second Ashanti War began. Eager officers from all over the empire raced to South Africa to try to take part. Wood, now a lieutenant-colonel, had recently broken his ankle (another hunting accident), after which his doctor had accidentally given him an overdose of morphine. Needless to say, this didn’t slow him down at all and he turned up in South Africa with his old friend Wolseley, who was in command of the whole enterprise. Wood was given the job of raising local regiments to fight and it was while at the head of these troops during a battle near the village of Amoafa that he was, inevitably, wounded. This time it was the head of nail, fired from a musket, and it lodged in his chest just above his heart. The surgeon was unable to remove the nail head and was sure he would die, but three weeks later Wood was hale and hearty and back with his regiment.

He then served in the Zulu War (without injury) before taking part in the Transvaal War in 1881. This is sometimes called the First Boer War and the British were completely unprepared for the skill of the Boer settlers, suffering defeat after defeat. When the British commander, Sir George Colley, was killed, Wood took over. The British government was eager to get out of South Africa (valuable minerals had not yet been found and the war was unpopular) and ordered Wood to make peace, which he did. (The peace was resented by some in the army and his old friend Wolesley never forgave him—he felt Wood should have refused to treat with the Boers and carried on fighting.) In 1882 he was sent to Egypt to serve as Sirdar to the Egyptian Army and in 1903 he was promoted to field marshal. In 1919, against all the odds, he died peacefully in bed at home at the ripe old age of 81, with the Ashanti nail head still in his chest.

Most of the wars fought by the British in the nineteenth century were pretty dodgy affairs, often little more than thinly disguised land grabs or retribution for some slight. But the soldiers and sailors who enforced the will of Victoria’s ministers were, like most armed forces, simply doing a job to the best of their ability. Many of them had come from nowhere in search of adventure and, in the last years before global communication made war a centrally-run operation, they found it.

Queen Victoria’s Little Wars tells the story of these men with affection and humor and what emerges is a tale of the last great era of adventure and those who fought, loved, marched and charged into battle on horses and camels, in deserts, jungles and mountain passes. 

And occasionally, just occasionally, one of them got to ride a giraffe.

Helen Stringer grew up in Liverpool, England, and currently lives in Los Angeles. Here in the U.S., she studied film, winning several student film awards, and was a Directing Fellow at the American Film Institute Center for Advanced Film and Television Studies. She is also the author of Spellbinder.


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