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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Biographies

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

Riley, Jonathon. A Matter of Honour: The Life, Campaigns and Generalship of Isaac Brock. Canada: Robin Brass Studio, 2011. United Kingdom: Frontline Books 2011. 352 pages. Paperback. ISBN#  9781896941653. CDN$ 28.22. £19.99

With the upcoming 2012 commemoration of the War of 1812, we can expect an increase in the publication of new titles on personalities and events connected to the war.  One such personality will certainly be British Major General Sir Isaac Brock, long regarded as the “Saviour of Upper Canada.”  In fact, two new biographies have been published in 2011 within months of each other. One is the subject of this review and the other is a hardcover by Canadian author Wesley B. Turner titled, The Astonishing General: The Life and Legacy of Sir Isaac Brock.

The author of A Matter of Honour is Lieutenant-General Jonathon Riley, CB, DSO, PhD, MA, currently the Master of the Armouries, responsible for the Royal Armouries collection held in the  Tower of London. He has served for over 30 years in the British army, holding military commands in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Iraq, and, as Deputy Commander of NATO ISAF, Afghanistan. He is also an author of note on a number of military subjects including Napoleon as a General: Command from the Battlefield to Grand Strategy and Decisive Battles: From Yorktown to Operation Desert Storm.

The book is divided into a Foreword, Preface, Prologue, Sixteen Chapters, Endnotes, Bibliography and Index. The forword is nicely written by well-known Canadian author Donald E. Graves who is, himself, certainly no stranger to the War of 1812.  The book has twenty-one excellent maps and numerous black-and-white illustrations. All of which are carefully selected to compliment the appropriate text.

The book is well researched and is written with an easy style in a straight forward manner. A welcome touch by the author is the use of footnotes, in addition to the endnotes, to quickly expand on or identify persons mentioned in the text for the reader to easily follow.  The author is to be commended for providing such full identities of persons named in the text. I’ll take the liberty of updating some information. Lieutenant-General Edward Stopford (1732-1794) is misidentified with his nephew, also Edward Stopford, who served in Wellington’s army. I can confirm that Lieutenant Richard Ginn, of the South Middlesex Militia, was appointed an ensign in the 49th Foot, without purchase, by 23 August 1799.

Although it is noted by the author, “this book is, however, a biography, not a history,” chapters also include adequate background information applicable to the period in Brock’s life covered in that chapter. This helps to put into context Brock’s experiences, concerns and actions at that time. The author has relied upon Brock’s correspondence as well as some by others including that of James Fitzgibbon, a ranker who was promoted an officer by Brock.

The author has written an even-handed book presenting Brock with all of his opinions and prejudices clearly shown, but has also tried to show how these came about. He has furthermore looked at a number of the myths and apocryphal stories told about Brock and wherever possible either validates them, debunks them or leaves it to the reader to decide.    As befits an author who has extensive military experience, he also examines Brock’s generalship against both contemporary and modern criteria, sometimes with references from the author’s own personal knowledge. In this, however, he has not neglected the political and personal sides to Brock’s life. For Brock not only held a military command, he was additionally a political leader serving as President of the local Provincial government and treating with the First Nations Indians. In his personal life for example, among other issues, the author looks at his relationship with Sophia Shaw, whom some believe was his fiancée. In Niagara-on-the-Lake today, it is thought her ghost still haunts the town lamenting his death.

There is little to quibble about in the book; although, I would clarify that Brock was a substantive lieutenant colonel and brevet colonel when he was promoted major general in the army (in a General Brevet of 4 June 1811 which saw approximately 90 brevet colonels promoted ) and he was retained upon the staff in Canada in that rank.  In the discussion on Brock’s decision to remain in Canada, the author suggests that Brock would have reverted to a substantive colonel if he left Canada to serve under Wellington in the Peninsula. This is not quite accurate as Brock was never a substantive colonel in the army and would have only had to resigned his staff appointment in Canada, not his army rank and, if the offer held, would then have been appointed on Wellington’s staff in his army rank of  major general. Otherwise if not employed, yes Brock would have lost only his pay as a major general serving on the staff and would have been paid in his regimental commission as a lieutenant colonel while retaining his army rank of major general.  As a personal preference, I do wish that the author had expanded on the quote of the letter by Lord Bathurst to the Duke of Wellington, October 1812, by adding where Bathurst wrote, “Major-General Brock seems to be a man of energy and resource: I wish we had had him at Alicante.” These minor issues do not detract from either the enjoyment or value of the book.

While overall favourable to Brock, this is not a hero-worship biography by any means. It is a welcomed objective look at the early days of the war and at the life of one man who made a difference then.  The author states, “His name is unknown now to most people in Britain, even in the British army...’ This new book will, hopefully, rectify that situation.

Having made General Brock my entry in an elementary school speech contest and having many times walked most of the same paths that he did, I fully recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the War of 1812.


Reviewed by Ron McGuigan

Placed on the Napoleon Series: February 2012



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