Interview with Lord Wolseley, Concerns about Muslim Fanatics, Rising China

Lord Wolseley was the most distinguished British soldier of the Victorian era. My favorite book from last year was his two volume memoir. A third volume, full of further astonishing adventures was unfortunately never written. (I do wonder if there are any surviving notes or drafts, though? HIs papers are apparently housed at Hove, near Brighton. I wonder if you just asked around on the street in Hove if someone would direct you.)

Lord Wolseley gave an interview which led to this article in the Review of Reviews for September, 1890.

As I mentioned previously, his resume beggars belief:

1852. Second Burmese War—Ensign.
1854. Siege of Sebastopol—Lieut., Captain.
1857. Ordered to China. Wrecked near Singapore.
1857. India. Suppression of Mutiny—Lieut.-Col., V.C.
1860. Chinese War. Mission to Nankin.
1861. Canada. First Assistant, then Deputy, Quartermaster General.
1870. Red River Expedition—K.C.M.G.
1871. Assistant-Adjutant-General at War Office.
1873-4. Ashantee War—Major-General, K.C.B.
1874. Inspector-General Auxiliary Forces.
1875. Governor of Natal.
1878. Governor of Cyprus.
1879. Zulu War—Commander-in-Chief and High Commissioner, South Africa.
1882. Egyptian Campaign. Tel-el-Kebir. Peerage.
1884. The War in the Soudan.
1885. Adjutant-General at War Office.

The article fails to mention him sneaking into the South during the Civil War and meeting Robert E. Lee. It also cannot have known that he would be promoted to Field Marshall in 1894, and that he would finally ascend to the very top, being named Commander in Chief of the Forces, in 1895.

What is remarkable in the interview is the continuity of the Anglospheric defense considerations across twelve decades.

The English-speaking global hegemon, whether it wears a Red coat, a Khaki tunic, or Camo fatigues, is worried about the same things, once the Germans and the Russians are out of the way: troublesome Muslim “fanatics” and the prospect of a Chinese Leviathan taking over the East and challenging the Anglosphere for Dominion of the World.

About “fanaticism” he had this to say:

Speaking of the fighting value of fanaticism, Lord Wolseley said that in the Mutiny he had fought hand-tohand with fanatics, who are of all people the most dangerous to fight with. Fanatics, meaning men who are nerved up by religious enthusiasm to such a pitch that they have lost all care for their own lives, and who go straight for you, are the most formidable foes in the world. Twenty thousand fanatics such as those whom the Mahdi hurled against the English troops in the Soudan were far more to be dreaded than three times that number of French or German troops. No Continental troops would have ever faced the fire which almost failed to check the onward rush of the Mahdists. “Give me,” said Lord Wolseley, “20,000 fanatics, and I am not by any means sure that I could not take them through the Continent, regardless of any numbers that might be put upon the field against them. It is the same with English gentlemen. Give me 20,000 English gentlemen, and I will march them to the other end of Europe and back again.” “Of course,” he said, laughing, “this is nonsense, if you take it too literally; but you have no conception of the terror which 20,000 resolute men, who always go forward and never turn back, would have in the hearts of armies many times their number. The sentiment of honour in an English gentleman is as good a fighting force as religious fanaticism. There is a great deal of hollowness about modern armies. The real soul of the army consists of comparatively few.”

(Emphasis added) Note that fighting Muslim fanatics is a challenge, and a difficulty, but not insurmountable. Further, Wolseley sees the fanaticism of the Mahdist, or what we would now call a Jihadi, as being matched by the moral character of his own troops. The distinction he makes with European armies, which is not expressly stated, is between the English who are all volunteers and the Continental armies composed of draftees. I suspect he would see the American All Volunteer Force as having a similar sentiment of “honour” though in the American variant the word chosen may be professionalism.

He had this to say about the rise of China, where he had served in 1860.

“The Chinese,” he said, “are the coming nation. The Chinese will, I think, overrun the world. The Battle of Armageddon will take place between the Chinese and the English-speaking races. There will be, I assume, another war between France and Germany, and it will be about the bloodiest war or series of wars which we have seen in Europe. But, some day, a great General, or Lawgiver, will arise in China, and the Chinese, who have been motionless for three centuries, will begin to progress. They will take to the profession of arms, and then they will hurl themselves upon the Russian Empire. Before the Chinese armies—as they possess every military virtue, are stolidly indifferent to death, and capable of inexhaustible endurance—the Russians will go down. Then the Chinese armies will march westward. They will overrun India, sweeping us into the sea. Asia will belong to them, and then, at last, English, Americans, Australians, will have to rally for a last desperate conflict. So certain do I regard, this that I think one fixed point of our policy should be to strain every nerve and make every sacrifice to keep on good terms with China. China is the Coming Power. These people—intelligent, active, ingenious; so industrious that at twelve o’clock at night you can hear the hammer of the smith in the forge—have for the last 300 years been ruled by the simple method of having all the more active, capable, and progressive heads shorn off by their Tartar rulers; that is a simple, literal fact. … But these rude Tartars will not always be able to control the nation. Another Moses might change it, or a Mohammed, or a Napoleon.

He was right about another round of war between France and Germany, but seems not to have foreseen that Britain would participate in it. The notion of a Pan-Anglospheric alliance against China is not completely alien to current thinking. However, Wolseley seems to want to avoid conflict and remain on good terms with China, whose ascent he seems to see as inevitable.

His assessment of the United States is worth noting:

In America you have a pure democracy, and a pure democracy is capable of doing much more in the direction of strong measures and of war than a mixed system such as ours. When democracy is thoroughly established in England the chief security against war will have disappeared. It is democracies that make wars, oligarchies that are afraid of them, especially an oligarchy like ours, which is timid and hampered by the party system. Our system, by dividing the nation into two halves, each of which opposes on principle what the other one proposes, paralyses our strength when a Minister is tempted to go to war. If our people were as unanimous in cases of affront as the United States we should go to war many times oftener than we do. In America, questions of foreign policy, involving the maintenance of the honour of the flag or the rights of American citizens, are outside the area of party dispute. The whole nation acts as one man. Hence, Russia, Germany, and France habitually show the United States a deference which they never show England.

So much for the idea of a Democratic Peace. His observation that affronts to America’s national dignity cause the whole country to “act as one man” seem to have been borne out on several occasions, including the responses to Pearl Harbor and 9/11.

He also correctly foresaw the Anglo-American alliance that would shape the 20th Century:

He ridiculed the idea that America would be an enemy of ours, and asserted, with a tone of deep conviction, that if ever the old country were, in a time of difficulty, to appeal to our American kinsfolk and to cry across the Atlantic for help, the American nation would respond enthusiastically. The only weakness, said he, is the Irish element in the States.

He was almost right. The Irish were one element, as well as a large, indigenous isolationist and pacifist element, and the presence of many Germans. But, eventually, the USA got into both world wars on Britain’s side.

The fact that the Americans used these opportunities to displace and dismantle British power while we were at it would have come as no surprise to him.

19 thoughts on “Interview with Lord Wolseley, Concerns about Muslim Fanatics, Rising China”

  1. He was right about another round of war between France and Germany, but seems not to have foreseen that Britain would participate in it.

    Britain did not participate in 1870/1. It only involved itself in Continental affairs again when it became clear that the united Germany wished to challenge Britain’s global hegemony.

  2. Hi Lex:

    That’s a fascinating post.

    As you might expect, I’m not entirely at ease with your phrase “the Mahdist, or what we would now call a Jihadi” — I do think, obviously, that there’s a Mahdist strand in contemporary jihadist thinking, but the jihad of AQ, LeT and their peers hasn’t become a mahdist movement as such, yet.

    Even so, I’ll definitely be quoting this:

    Fanatics, meaning men who are nerved up by religious enthusiasm to such a pitch that they have lost all care for their own lives, and who go straight for you, are the most formidable foes in the world. Twenty thousand fanatics such as those whom the Mahdi hurled against the English troops in the Soudan were far more to be dreaded than three times that number of French or German troops. No Continental troops would have ever faced the fire which almost failed to check the onward rush of the Mahdists.

    — and attempting to live up to the standards of the English gentleman, too.

    Thanks again.

  3. Charles, I do not mean to say that there is an ideological identity. I only mean to say that the degree of “fanaticism” they display, to use Wolseley’s word, as he defines it, are effectively the same from the perspective of those who have to fight them. Many nuances will exist, and may be important, so stipulated.

  4. Lukas, correct. In 1890 Britain’s main foreign rivals were Russia and France. Germany was a more or less friendly power.

  5. The machine gun became the scourge of the fanatic. In the Philippines, the Colt 45 was able to deal with the Moros, Muslim fanatics who sought independence rather than world domination. Now, the weapons of the advanced nations are equal to the task when they are wielded by professional soldiers. The jihadis still use advanced technology as it is made available to them, like the cell phone. But they are unable to develop more complex plans, even with the west’s inventions of the internet and social media to help them.

    Boeing just flew their fighter sized drone this week. The Grumman version has been flying several years and will make carrier takeoffs and landings this year or next. I wonder how long the Air Force will survive as an independent service when they use so few pilots? Marines now have observation drones that are the size of model airplanes and are hand launched.

    Now, if we could teach lawyers to fly drones instead of write rules of engagement.

  6. The technology is great.

    But as Wolseley notes, sometimes you have to go nose to nose with fanatics.

    The Mahdists managed to get into the square at Abu Klea (where Burnaby was killed), despite the hail of gunfire directed against them.

    Then it helps to have your own highly motivated individuals, to match and to overmatch their fanaticism.

  7. The guys on the Somme, on day one, falsely believed their artillery had pulverized the Germans.

    But you cannot fade to black at sunset on the Black Day, July 1, 1916.

    You have to keep watching the movie, for weeks, and months.

    See Through German Eyes: the British and the Somme 1916. To the Germans the Somme was a meatgrinder that would not stop. The first day was a lucky one-off.

    The match for the Maxims was artillery, trench mortars, grenades, Vickers light machine guns, infantry attacking in mixed-weapon squads in open order, tanks, close support aircraft.

    In other words, the British had to invent the whole panoply of 20th Century warfare on the fly, during a war, against a very skillful and deadly opponent.

    They were fast learners, and great innovators.

    And they did it.

    We remember the Somme. We forget Amiens and The 100 Days.

  8. Lex,

    Note that this is stuff from the 1890s and shows that in certain instances not a lot changes over decades. Orwell after listed the Britain-based Oceania’s main adversaries as Eurasia (Russia) and Eastasia (China) in a forever war of totalitarians. It also would tend to fuel the conspiracy theorists view that somehow the Anglosphere has always been under some evil cabal’s mesmerizing spell (Illumaniti, Rothschilds, Bildebergers, et al)

    Very interesting that someone dug this up from the 1890s (!), supporting my theory that the interpretation of ‘Gog and Magog’ as ‘Russia’ or ‘China’ in the Book of Ezekiel really took off after the British Empire started getting some pushback from the Russian and Chinese empires in the 19th century. And hence, all the more reason why sincere believers ought not to confuse geopolitics with Biblical prophecy, Hal Lindsey style, and reject such ‘modern fad’ doctrines as what they are — mixing political propaganda and abusing Christianity for political ends. There’s a reason both Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy never bought into the Rapture. Certainly Orthodox believers after hundreds of thousands if not millions died at the hands of Stalin (and later Hitler) can accept that the Almighty’s going to Rapture everyone out and spare His elect.

    Mr. X

  9. “Very interesting that someone dug this up from the 1890s (!) …”

    The funny thing is, the 1890s are very easy to dig from.

    Everything on Google Books before 1923 is full text online.

    So, the world of printed books and many other publications is full text online for free, before that date. By the time you get into the late 19th Century pretty much everything is there, for free.

    On the other end, much of the world’s non-book publications are free online in the last ten years or so, though the books are copyrighted.

    The 80 or so years in the middle are the problem, where copyright and the pre-Internet world overlap.

    The entire written corpus of the Victorian and Edwardian world is very, very easy to search in.

    Since I like to spend my time there anyway, it makes life easy and fun.

  10. One of the speakers at the Pritzker Military Library pointed out that U.S. foot soldiers were outnumbered during Second Fallujah because there was more hajjis in the city that military intelligence had estimated. Considering the ROE restrictions and the super jihadis who were hopped up on adrenaline and amphetamines and took a long time to kill, it was much more of a mano a mano battle than it should have been. The poor bloody infantry went head to head with the hajji all stars and triumphed in spite of efforts to the contrary.

  11. JF, quite so. Did you read House to House by David Bellavia? Be was there and ended up in a literal knife fight with the last jihadi on the roof of the house he assaulted. His depiction of the “jihadi all star team” is pretty hair raising. I have no idea why the USA allowed it’s infantry to get into the mud with these assholes. We should have nerve gassed them, like insects. But is good to know that even if their leaders stupidly send them into battle on as level field with these fanatics, American professionalism can carry the day. Still, as Kipling taught us, the Arithmetic of the Frontier will always put the smart money on the cheaper man.

  12. Was there anytime after Falluja II that the jihad party attempted to ‘hold’ a town or used infantry tactics? (perhaps Najaf).
    I always regarded Fallujaas a turning point when when the jihadi all-stars learned that the propaganda aboutAmerican soldiers wasn’t true and were forced to revert to ied s and suicide bombers which are political tactics not occupational tactics.

  13. As far as I know they didn’t try that approach again.

    The Faluja battle always seemed less a matter of strategic rationality and instead a mutual and and almost paleolithic desire to stop dicking around and just have at it and kill each other face to face. It was more like a duel than a battle. It was about pride, not cost / benefit cslculation. Both sides got their wish.

    You are probably correct that the jihadis thought the Americans lacked the balls to just walk in there and fight. Showing the world how wrong that idea is may have some utility.

  14. The strategic rationale for holding Fallujah (such as it was) was to try to:

    1) Cause so many American casualties that the home front yelled uncle and brought the troops home. The prevailing storyline of American weakness after Vietnam, Iran, Beirut, and Somalia in the Arab world made this seem plausible.
    2) Cause so many Arab casualties that Iraqis rose up against the Americans. This almost happened after Fallujah I so there was a precedent.
    3) A happy mix of 1 and 2

    The entire city was a giant booby trap. Reading Bellavia’s and other accounts made me realize that life for the contemporary poor bloody infantry, especially in Fallujah II, was pretty awful and closer to that of their infantry forebears than the reputation of our “high-tech military” lets on. Bellavia’s vivid description of the chronic gastric distress he and his fellow soldiers suffered from over the course of the operation was a strong indictment of the decision to wage a manpower intensive style of urban combat without intensive manpower. Petain’s dictum from WWII holds true here: artillery conquers, infantry occupies.

  15. That should read WWI. Petain’s role in WWII was less productive. I like this anecdote:

    “In July 1944, Pershing was visited by Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle. When Pershing, by then semi-senile, asked after the health of his old friend, Marshal Philippe Pétain (who was heading the pro-German Vichy regime), de Gaulle replied tactfully that when he last saw him, the Marshal was well.”

  16. Yeah, the conditions Bellavia describes are similar to the filth and squalor on, say, Okinowa as described by Eugene Sledge. Not much had changed.

    Good story about Pershing and Degaulle. Degaulle’s tact and sympathy toward the dying old warrior show him in a good light.

  17. You’d think one of the advantages of a high-tech military would be the ability to stand up a fully-staffed Taco Bell 50 meters behind the front line in 20 minutes or less. Imagine the slogan: “Be All You Can Be, Now With Better Catering”.

    I’ve never been a huge DeGaulle fan but that response was classy. DeGaulle was honorable for a Frenchman but he never forgave the U.S. after Kennedy was less than resolute towards the Soviets in 1962. His form of honor was more practicable (if not often practiced) in the aristocratic Europe of old than the new democratic age where politicians have to bend to the winds. Dan’s perspective on DeGaulle here might explain this:

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