Military Subjects:  War of 1812

The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 17: January 2012


Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera

A Matter of Honour: The Life, Campaigns and Generalship of Isaac Brock

Reviewed by John Boileau

Jonathon Riley, A Matter of Honour: The Life, Campaigns and Generalship of Isaac Brock. Robin Brass Studio, Montreal, 2011, 336 pages, 68 illustrations and 21 maps.  Notes, bibliography and index.  ISBN-13: 978-1-896941-65-3, $24.95 CA, soft cover.

Four fifths of the way through his excellent new book about Isaac Brock, retired British general and author Jonathon Riley makes the somewhat startling claim that “This book is, however, a biography, not a history...” which provides him the opportunity to “skate over some details while concentrating on Brock’s role and decision-making during the early stages of the battle” [of Queenston Heights].  I beg to differ with the general, as I found his book very much a fascinating blend of biography and military history.  In fact, it would be hard to imagine weaving a tapestry of Brock’s life that did not contain large swaths of military history.

In A Matter of Honour Riley delves deeply into Brock’s life and character, casting his net widely to discuss several aspects of the British Army, from the purchase of officers’ commissions to the daily routine of ordinary soldiers.  The author also describes an earlier key tactical debate: whether the British army should adopt the light infantry tactics developed during the American Revolutionary War or continue to follow the strict formations of the Prussian School.  In the long run, the resulting mishmash of doctrines—along with the contemporary problems of regimental dispersion—hampered the army’s ability to train and fight for several years.

Riley does full justice to Brock’s early life (including a large amount of new information about it) and his army career before he arrived in Canada, including the various locations at which he served, battles in which he fought and his promotions, a concern that was never far from his thoughts.  Although Brock was highly regarded by his superiors all the way to Horse Guards, the headquarters of the British army, he viewed his posting to Canada as somewhat of a dead end.  Europe, in particular the Peninsular War, was where the action was and where the best chances for promotion were to be found.   Yet when an opportunity arose for a command in Spain, he turned it down.  Being very much a man of honour, once he was committed to his responsibilities in Upper Canada, he could not simply walk away and did his utmost to prepare the colony for the expected American attack.  Additionally, the financial incentive for the indebted Brock to remain in Canada was simply too good to pass up. 

Perhaps one of the most powerful arrows in Brock’s quiver was the successful coalition forged between British, Canadians, natives and French-Canadians.  Although he was not responsible for the coalition, Brock did play a major part in ensuring the support of the natives for it.  Riley believes that “of all his many achievements, this was perhaps Brock’s most significant.”    

Riley also discusses at length the difference in opinion between Prevost and Brock as to how to best defend Canada against the United States.  Prevost’s instructions to Brock were clear: he was not to defeat the Americans offensively, but to defend Canada against American incursions, with tactical offensives where necessary.  Brock’s interpretation of Prevost’s “tactical offensives” is well known; resulting in British victories at Mackinac and Detroit.  Interestingly, throughout their debate, Prevost and Brock never met.  Riley describes the immediate effect that Brock’s surprise victory at Detroit had on the United States, Canada and Britain.  The Americans were shocked, while the British and Canadians were spurred on to greater efforts.  The victory also had an immediate effect on Brock; he was made a knight of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath.  

Riley has an interesting assessment of Brock’s actions at Queenston Heights.  In his opinion, the responsibility for the order for Captain John William’s light company of the 49th Foot (Brock’s old regiment) to descend the heights—what he terms “a fatal error”—lay with Brock.  He also believes that Brock “followed the course of action with the highest risk: a frontal attack, uphill over open ground, against an enemy of unknown strength.”  The author might also have added, “with outnumbered forces.”  Riley puts to rest some of the myths that have adorned Brock’s story at Queenston Heights, such as the presence of his charger, Alfred (a “highly dubious” claim), a side trip to visit his supposed fiancée, Sophia Shaw (whom Riley mistakenly calls “Sophie”), during his ride to Queenston (“dismissed as fantasy”), the location where Brock fell (“not at the current marker”) and his dying words (“the nature of his wound would certainly have prevented him from speaking”).

Jonathon Riley served in the British army for 36 years, rising to the rank of lieutenant-general.  During his career, he saw service in the major theatres of the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in several smaller operations such as Cyprus, Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland and Central America.  He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for commanding the Royal Welch Fusiliers in the defence of Gorazde in Bosnia, during a six-month siege by the Serbs.  He also has a doctorate in history and has written or edited thirteen other books.  On retirement in 2009, he was appointed Master of the Armouries, responsible for the collection of arms on display at the Tower of London and other museums in Britain.

Donald Graves, an acknowledged dean of the War of 1812, wrote the book’s foreword and accompanied Riley during two battlefield tours of the Niagara Peninsula.  Graves sees this book as particularly different from other accounts of Brock’s life as “it is a study of a man by a fellow general—a member of the same profession and a peer...and thus the ideal person to examine the life of Isaac Brock.”  It is his “firm belief that historians who write about war and the military should have worn a uniform at some time.”  While I certainly agree with Graves’s assessment, once this very valid point has been made in the foreword (and by Riley in his preface), it is not necessary for the author to remind the reader of it throughout the book.    

This is my only real complaint with the book—Riley’s tendency to insert himself into the story.  For a book discussing the events of two hundred years ago, I find it oddly jarring to be suddenly reading about the author’s own experiences during his army career or elsewhere.  For example, while discussing the importance of the officers’ mess in transmitting regimental folklore, history, traditions and ethos from one generation of officers to the next, he launches into a mini-diatribe about the loss of the officers mess today due to various reasons.  However true this may be (and it definitely is), such a discussion is out of place in this book. 

Similarly, in describing the problems of medical support during the War of 1812, Riley notes how it has changed today, except for “irregular combatants in remote parts of the world, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, as I can testify from personal experience in these theatres of war.” 

Later, when describing the route that American Captain John Wool and his men took to the top of Queenston Heights, Riley notes that “Some accounts speak of a path but there is no sign of this—I, the author, having made the climb.”  At best, such ruminations belong in the author’s preface or elsewhere, but certainly not in the main body of the text.  In fact, Graves makes the point about the climb in the foreword.  He accompanied Riley as the author walked the ground at Queenston Heights and describes a difficult ascent through the bushes, although about a third of the way up the steep hillside, Graves wisely decided that he “could best serve by only taking photographs.”

Some readers may take a different view of the author’s contemporary comments and not regard them as unwelcome intrusions.  In any case, such interruptions are thankfully few and are generally outweighed by the excellent job that Riley has accomplished.  A Matter of Honour is unquestionably a first-class addition to the literature on Isaac Brock and his generalship.   

John Boileau served in the Canadian Army from 1962 to 1999.   He is the author of Half-Hearted Enemies: Nova Scotia, New England and the War of 1812 (Formac, 2005).   His new series on the War of 1812, titled “War of 1812 Journal: Then & Now,” begins in the May/June issue of Legion Magazine (published by the Royal Canadian Legion) and will run until the November/December 2014 issue. 


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