Saturday, December 11, 2010

Window to the past

I admit it. I've been watching the Sharpe Series again. I wasn't going to, honest, but I saw a piece on Napoleon, with an actor reading from Captain Mercer, an artillery officer who wrote of his time during the conflict, and I had to revisit a more stark period in history.

The Regency era is noted for heroism and romanticism, with language that beautifully brushes over the brutality of war. The politics, the militarism, society, is all so different from what we have today. When aristocratic men bought their commissions, where noble sacrifice was the ultimate honour and ordinary soldiers were the 'scum of the earth', flogged or executed for misdemeanors and still fought for the King's shilling.

Life for ordinary folk was hard and brutal, poverty rife, and yet many men saw the army as a better option - if they survived the battle, then the loot was theirs to spend as they wished.

Even at the aristocratic level, women's rights were what their husbands gave to them - unless they were independently wealthy - and gossip was considered sport.

It's a fascinating part of history, of astonishing bravery. Standing in line, one-shot rifles facing an enemy in a similar formation, waiting for that bullet, the soldiers must have prayed very hard indeed for luck. It seems madness to march 'in good order' towards the enemy like that, into the teeth of cannon and hot lead. To be briefly mourned by colleagues and then buried quickly, without the accolades and respect soldiers of today receive was simply... the way it was.

The Industrial Revolution was yet two decades away (although some would argue it began in the late 1700s), classes were distinct between the aristocracy and the rest, politics was all about favours and royal connections more than what the politicians could do for the poor and the working class; and yet moves were afoot to change the face the industry even as class warfare was waged in Europe.

I suppose every 'Age' in history has its attractions for various reasons - at least, for me it does - but the modern era is more global and more difficult to distil because of the vast wealth of information combining to affect us all. Pre-20th century, individual nations' history is more easily understood because of the tyranny of distance and isolationism; post-20th century we are all interwoven politically, socially, economically, militarily - a global village where nations consult and act for a variety of reasons and makes the study of history that much more difficult.

History isn't simple any more, but for Richard Sharpe and those who, in reality, fought the Napoleonic Wars, his life is encapsulated by 'I do my duty, sir'. Concise and to the point. Not such a bad idea, even today.

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