Honour…

It’s one of those concepts which often seems to belong wholly to the past, isn’t it?  

And yet, without a better understanding of it, much of early 19th century history must remain an wholly closed world to us, because it will have coloured and tinged almost every aspect of their daily lives. 

Over the past few days, I’ve been reading a tremendous book, Russia Against Napoleon:  The Battle for Europe, 1807-1814 by Dominic Lieven. 

And he has this to say about honour in regards to the Russia’s officer class.  Though his words might just as easily be applied to Britain’s officer and upper classes of the same period. 

“Honour, publicly displayed courage, and loyalty to regiment and fellow-officers all mattered greatly.  So too did living up to one’s status and rank.  The battlefield, like the duel, allowed honour to be publicly displayed and defended.  In some respects the ‘field of honour’ –  in other words the battlefield –  was also the ancestor of today’s sporting match.  ‘Winning’ meant holding one’s ground and capturing trophies such as cannon and standards.  These male warrior values appear not just archaic [today] but also sometimes childish:  nevertheless they mattered greatly because they affected morale and kept officers steadfast in the face of death and mutilation.”

I could not, not in one hundred years, say it better than has Professor Lieven in the above-quoted passage. 

And whether one takes this enhanced understanding of honour into the reading of Patrick O’Brian’s work, or uses it to better appreciate Jane Austen’s portrayal of men in society, either way, it must deepen our perception of the motives and characters of those who lived two hundred years ago. 

Equally, because I am so greatly impressed by this work of Professor Lieven’s, I hope to give a greater overview of its many fine points later, when I’ve finished it and am able to analyse coherently – as opposed to my current panygeric-prone state.

Back to the book…

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6 comments on “Honour…

  1. cavalrytales says:

    But don’t you think it’s the last twenty years of grab-as-much-as-you-can-and-the-devil-take-the-hindmost attitude of the few, so widely reported in the media, that’s sounded the apparent death-knell of such an intrinsically British trait?
    (Whew…that was a long sentence).
    Honour’s still there – bubbling away quietly within ordinary decent people. Biding it’s time until some unexpected crisis brings it bursting out into the open.
    Not quite in the same league as firing into the air when your opponent’s duelling-pistol ball misses you, but honourable none the less.

    That is my theory…ahem…which is mine.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I don’t think it’s dead at all. I was thinking so much about it–and this coincided–as the mother of that young man who was killed out in Afghanistan last year was reading out his diary the other evening (it was on the news) about how he couldn’t protect him men because the kit was inferior or just not nearly enough…and his own men risked their lives to bring his body back when he was shot…

      I put this post up though because we tend to dismiss its importance back then. Yet, it’s essential to understand it–without it even Wellington as a commander doesn’t make sense.

  2. Piotr says:

    Field of honour, my mind’s already on over drive for a story there.

    But I am with you on this, honour on the battlefield was a big thing back then. Even in modern day military it’s a big thing, with much of dating back three centuries back.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Joseph Conrad wrote quite a story about it, called The Duellists. And Ridley Scott made a film of it.

  3. Janet O says:

    I’ll have to check out this work. I really enjoy the Sharpe books in which the field of honor has its own reflection for the men of ranks.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      As Lieven is relying on Russian, Prussian and Polish sources, all of which have only been available to us since 1991, to say it’s an eye-opener, doesn’t quite give the full impression.

      It’s my new favourite book, to be honest.

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