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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

British Military Spectacle: From the Napoleonic Wars Through to Crimea

Myerly, Scott Hughes. British Military Spectacle: From the Napoleonic Wars Through to Crimea. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. 293 pages. ISBN# 0674082494. $35.00. Hardcover.

British Military Spectacle cover

This book certainly reads like a thesis having gone to print, but in the best possible sense. It is well illustrated, with copious footnotes (over 100 pages of the book); and I found the writing style every easy to read, the subject matter fascinating and his discussion thought provoking.

Basically Myerly discusses the conflicts and associations between military life and society in the first half of the nineteenth century and the changes in attitudes and structure. Does this sound a bit dry? Well it isn't. Myerly presents it well, with some exceptionally interesting perspectives on the British military in this period. It is not so much a book on what happened, but on why and how it happened.

I think it is easy to read because Myerly manages to put his points in deceptively simple language and with the minimum of fuss. "Martial images," he writes, "have always been a basic element of English state spectacle. But from the mid-eighteenth century, European armies imitated the Prussian art of war, which was essentially a creation of Frederick William I and a focal point for his martial obsessions, including a fixation on military uniforms."

He has also divided his chapters into logical subject areas such as uniforms ("The Spectacular Image"), recruiting, command, discipline, and morale. These topic areas do occasionally overlap and this is more noticeable towards the end of the book. I must admit I did lose a bit of interest there but the first chapters were I found compelling reading, they put into perspective the changing attitudes of officers, recruits, and the public during this period.

This is not a re-hash of technical details, it is a thoughtful, and very readable, discussion of why the British army structure developed as it did in this period. For people who enjoy reading contemporary biographies of British officers and soldiers this is a very useful addition to their libraries.

Reviewed by Anne Woodley, editor of the Regency Collection On-Line.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2000