Military Men

What does Trafalgar Square mean to you? Maybe it's the Christmas Tree gifted by Norway every year. Maybe it is the fountains or nostalgia for Britain in its pomp. 

A visit is certainly more pleasant than it used to be when, if the traffic didn't get you, the pigeons would. Thank you ex-Mayor Ken Livingstone for rerouting some of the former and banning the sale of feed which attracted the latter. Enjoy the space, the fountains and the grand buildings around it. Compared with the ugliness of Leicester Square. This is the architectural muddle that is London at its glorious best, the phallocentric school of grand urban space planning. 

Then look again, once you have cricked your neck gazing up at Nelson, take a closer look at this national mantlepiece with the rest of its array of nicely contrived monarchic and imperial mementoes dating back to the time when this was a stage for the glorification of the military and ask, who? And why? Is it because they are part of the story we tell ourselves about who we are? Our identity? Or are they there because...well, they always have been, haven't they? And the story has changed. 

Once a road. Now the Gallery terrace. 

The Pigeons were a curse

In the posts that follow, I will tell the story of the stone and bronze occupants who are the meat of this series. I is not woke, as Ali G might say, but time has moved on. Now I would rather that the Square honoured a more eclectic group of national icons and and will suggest which of the current occupants retained, relocated or stored. You will disagree so this gives you something to argue about in the pub later. 

I have to start by tipping my cap to the well-known short fellow on the tall column. They put him up there to deter the hordes of selfie-seeking tourists.

Mrs Nelson might attest that Horatio was no saint (he deserted her) and his views on issues like slavery would now be regarded as antediluvian. But at school, they told us that after many other victories and the loss of a variety of body parts, he destroyed Napoleon's fleet at Trafalgar (somewhere off Gibraltar), a battle that was in every sense critical and ruled out any chance of a French invasion while securing Britannia’s mastery (mistressy?) of the oceans. A better record than Gareth Southgate’s. Rule Britannia and all that. Nelson (not Gareth!) was shot and killed at the moment of victory, but as we shall see, picking an opportune moment to croak was not a prerequisite to be glorified by a statue here.  

The Battle of Trafalgar 

The base of the column has four reliefs showing his key battles and his death 

     Death of Nelson 

Around the base are four lions. Of sorts. In fact, the bloke chosen to create them wasn't a sculptor but an artist and a pal of Queen Victoria and at that point had never actually seen a lion, so the zoo gave him a dead lion to use as a model, but he took so long over it, that the beast began to decompose. If it looks a bit odd, that is why.

I doubt these lions will suffer the same fate because, just to rub it in, they are made from the iron of guns captured at the battle. Legend has it that if Big Ben chimes 13 times, they will come to life. Really. 

Set into the wall under the National Gallery are three very appropriately smaller busts of early 20th c. admirals, Jellicoe, Beatty and Cunningham. In World War One Britain’s grand strategy hinged on effectively blockading Germany by denying it access to the open seas. The one major effort they made to escape this blockade resulted in the huge British fleet and the smaller German fleet engaging in the pivotal Battle of Jutland. 

Notwithstanding the odds, the British suffered more than the Germans and although it wasn’t 'up close personal’ like Trafalgar, this became the bloodiest naval battle in our history. By the end of it, the Royal Navy still did enough to achieve its objective and the German fleet never ventured out again.


Neither covered themselves in glory. Jellicoe was cautious, and like most defensively-minded football managers, was criticised for it by the ‘up and at ‘em’ brigade. But as Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, put it; Jellicoe was the ‘the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon’. At the battle, Beatty was commanding the vanguard of battle cruisers. He looks suitably imperious here, but was blamed for a series of tactical errors that led to the British losses. If you are interested, they are catalogued here:   Beatty at Jutland


Cunningham served as a junior officer in World War One and ended World War Two as First Sea Lord having spent much of it commanding the fleet in the Mediterranean, a dangerous and difficult job that he did well.  Here he is, ears pinned for the sound of gunfire or to catch a gust of the trade winds. He has a small hotel named after him in Bracknell, very convenient for Legoland. Thus we honour our heroes. 


To my mind, Jellicoe and Beatty led a great organisation but were not themselves great. Both survived the battle but many of those they led did not, and none of the majority that survived will still be alive today. So I don't think that these two still deserve their place on the mantelpiece and suggest that Jellicoe should be relocated and Beatty stored in a dusty museum cupboard somewhere. Cunningham is at least contemporary, he seems to have spent more time in harm's way, and some of those who served under him still be with us, so he can stay for a while. 

Nelson is Nelson. Just for saving us from a diet of cassoulet, croissants and continental philosophy, he deserves his place in the pantheon of national heroes. On the other hand, he was not at all woke and probably caused the awful Brexit debate. No matter, on balance he stays.

Two of the four plinths are occupied by far bigger memorials to commanders of the British armies in India. Comrade Ken famously said he didn’t have a clue who they were. Neither did I until I started this post. 


In the 1840s India was either being raped or civilised by the East India Company, depending on your point of view. General Sir Charles Napier, standing on a plinth in the southwest corner of the Square, came with a hard-earned reputation as a soldier and diplomat and ended up conquering and then governing Sindh, in what is now Pakistan. Legend has it that his official communique of this just said ‘Peccavi’ which as I am sure you know means ‘I have sinned’ in Latin. What a wit! 

Soldiers are rarely cuddly but this one does seem to have more than his ration of common humanity. Earlier, in England, he had been tasked with dealing with Chartist uprisings. He chose to use minimum force, partly because he agreed with the Chartists on many issues and thought that a root cause of the problems was 'Tory injustice and Whig imbecility'. 

He was consistent in his aversion to slavery as an Imperial general and abolished it in Sindh to the chagrin of the traditional rulers and the joy of the Harem girls. And his view on the Indians as a whole was quite positive, in contradiction of his boss he suggested that ‘a bit less violence and arrogance might be an investment’, failing which he foresaw trouble to come.

Napier was right. Some years later there was a widespread mutiny in India and General Henry Havelock, who occupies the southeast plinth, found himself at the sharp end of the action. 


He was a slight, fussy, stiff little man, not grand but an alumni of Dartford Grammar School, an 'honour; he shares with Mick Jagger. His reputation here was based on early ‘success’ in recapturing a city called Cawnpore (now Kanpur); but sadly not until after all the British inhabitants were massacred.  

He earned his perch here and a baronetcy through his fortitude in the siege of Lucknow, which was front-page news at the time. It was besieged by a large Indian army. Havelock tried to break this but failed until joined by Sir Colin Campbell, but was then in turn besieged but held out until, once again, relief arrived.  

Shortly after he died of dysentery and exhaustion, so never got to enjoy being a 'Sir Henry' the honours bestowed on him. But I am sure his shade is delighted to find pubs named after him and roads from Singapore to Sunderland as well as in Lucknow of course. Also, until recently, one of the remote Andaman Islands. If you want to visit to honour his memory, you can take your pick Apparently his troops liked him but I doubt that India was so keen and he appears in the Flashman novels as ‘Gravedigger Havelock’.  (In my book, Campbell deserves the military accolades more than Havelock but this is a capricious world and the only pub in London named after him is an excellent Irish establishment on Kilburn High Road). 

Havelock Road, Sunderland 

ex-Havelock Island, Indian Ocean 

What makes a bad man? Do we judge them by the standards of our age or their own? And in either case by the priorities of the rulers or the ruled? Here we have two mostly forgotten figures in the crowd of imperial military deities. Notwithstanding their popularity at the time and the deficiencies of the native administrations, both were basically involved in killing people who were staking a claim to their own country. 

Napier seems to have been a thoughtful man and although Havelock was also courageous, the vibes around him were not so sweet. Maybe he would tell you that 'he was only doing his job, mate'. In any event, his statue looks like he thinks he has the right to be there, casually posed with a pigeon on his head. But time moves on. For my money, Napier should be moved to a less prominent spot and Havelock should join Beatty in the cupboard. After all, he has enough other stuff named after him to give him a glimpse of immortality.

But wait! Another General has sneaked in, namely a slave-owning tax dodger who allegedly hated the British so much that he swore never to set foot in London again.  The statue standing in front of the National Gallery and carrying a bundle of 13 rather oversized fasces (which later became a fascist symbol) is General George Washington. 

This was an impolitic gift from the State of Virginia in 1921, to commemorate their 300th anniversary. He was once a servant of the Empire and later the commander of the American forces in the War of Independence and their President. To humour his prejudices they shipped in some native soil for him to stand on. 


Thankfully no one notices or cares. I see no reason to give him the air. He should go, at least to somewhere less conspicuous. A wheelie bin would suit me but you might be more generous. If we have to have an American, can we have Roosevelt please? 

In London, there is an active program for reusing graves in crowded cemeteries. I can't see why the same principle can't be applied to the placement of monuments. After all, if it's acceptable for Grandma, it should be acceptable for long dead generals. 


Popular posts from this blog

Start Here : Explanations

Mapping Apps Review

3. Mud