Paul Skrebels

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Cocked Hats and Firelocks:

Robert Graves’s Ethnography of Soldiering in the Sergeant Lamb Novels

Paul Skrebels

As soon as the hero of Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth (1940) enlists in the army in Chapter 2 of the novel, Robert Graves embarks on what is effectively an ethnography of military life in the eighteenth century and, by cleverly reworking his original sources’ techniques of narrative digression and projection, of soldiering and warfare generally. Ethnography is a genre usually associated with anthropologists; it is premised on a ‘concept of culture’ that, in the words of one of its better known advocates, Clifford Geertz, ‘is essentially a semiotic one’,1 semiotics being defined by Jonathan Culler as ‘the science of signs’.2 Ethnography, therefore, is ‘what the practitioners do’ (Geertz, p. 5) as they write their way towards an understanding of a particular culture by sorting out the ‘structures of signification […] and determining their social ground and import’ (p. 9), or – as more succinctly put by Ferdinand de Saussure – by studying ‘the life of signs within society’.3 This discussion will explore the ways in which a couple of such signs are developed and deployed in the Sergeant Lamb novels. It will do so based on a comparison between Graves’s work and the original Lamb texts, to demonstrate that the ethnographic strand running through the novels owes more to Graves’s talents as a scholar and writer, as well as his sensibilities as an ex-soldier in one of Lamb’s own regiments, than to the content of his source texts: Roger Lamb’s An Original and Authentic Journal (1809) and Memoir of His Own Life (1811).

The narrative style and plot framework of Graves’s novels nevertheless evolve out of Lamb’s rather quirky autobiographical-historiographical-geographical-anthropological hybrid originals. Lamb’s topics include not only soldiering, but also the customs, habits and environments of Native American and European settler groups, together with character sketches, anecdotes and various discourses of a philosophical and moral nature, all recounted via a predominantly first-person narrative written some thirty years after his service in the American War. Comparisons between the two œuvres, however, dispel any notions that the novels are simply derivative; that the material is all there in Lamb’s Journal and Memoir ready simply to be edited and rearranged accordingly.

In the Foreword to Proceed, Sergeant Lamb (1941), Graves warns us that:

Lamb’s own rather disjointed Journal and Memoir, published in Dublin in 1809 and 1811, provide the bones of the story: the body has been built up from a mass of contemporary records, British, American, French and German.4
Even so, it comes as something of a shock to discover just how little of the ‘body’ is derived from Lamb’s original works. The Journal was intended as a broad history of the war – ‘a Summary and Impartial View of that momentous and interesting Subject’5 – interspersed with some additional information based on his personal experiences and partialities. It contains nothing about his pre-war enlistment in the army, and the sections dealing with his own part in the war tend to be recounts of events, often in actual diary form, with the occasional digression on the flora, fauna and topography of the regions where he served. Lamb avoids descriptions of the commonplaces of soldiering, possibly out of some neoclassical regard for the decorum of whatever genre he believes he is working in. Indeed, he is so self-conscious about imposing details of his own service in the Journal that at one point he adds the footnote, ‘this passage being literally copied from the author’s private Journal, he hopes pardon for narrating it in the first person’ (p. 142).

As an ethnography of soldiering from a personal perspective, the Memoir of His Own Life is in many ways an even more disappointing document.6 To take a crucial example: Graves devotes almost all of Chapter 2 of Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth to describing drill and equipment; in Lamb’s Memoir, when he at last enlists in Chapter 4 (having taken three lengthy chapters to cover what Graves deals with in one, which in itself points to the priorities of each author), he dismisses the whole process thus:

On the 24th [of August 1773] I joined the regiment, and was put into the hands of a drill serjeant, and taught to walk and step out like a soldier. This at first was a disagreeable to me. During twenty-one days I was thus drilled four hours each day. However, having at last rectified the most prominent appearance of my awkwardness, I received a set of accoutrements, and a firelock [the contemporary generic term for a military flintlock musket], and was marched every morning from the barrack to the bowling green, near the water-side, to be instructed in the manual exercise.7
What exactly ‘like a soldier’ means is never properly explained, except by implication, and herein lies the fundamental difference between Lamb’s project and that of Graves. Lamb apparently assumes that his general readership is either already familiar with or uninterested in the stuff of soldiering; there is also more than a hint that he may have found his early army life traumatic. As the quoted passage shows, it was initially ‘disagreeable’ and he suffered from ‘awkwardness’, and later he mentions how ‘some of the old drill-serjeants were unnecessarily, if not wantonly severe’, but praises the Duke of York’s post-American Revolution reforms which, in a blatant piece of circular argumentation, by Lamb’s time of writing see the recruit taught drill and exercise ‘like a man and a soldier’ (Lamb, Memoir, p. 62).

Whatever the psychology behind Lamb’s Memoir – he spends a good deal of Chapter 4 (and elsewhere) expounding on issues of control, punishment and morality in the army, for example – it is apparent that the minutiae of soldiering are topics of little moment to him, and that he prefers instead lengthy digressions about almost anything else: the biographies of officers and prominent personalities, gossipy tabloid anecdotes, and, as in the Journal, much detail about the inhabitants, natural history and topography of North America. Indeed, Lamb’s intellectual meanderings hark back to when Renaissance humanist scholars wrote elaborate treatises which, at an individual, virtuosic level were a means of showcasing their scholarship, while at the level of public service imbued learning with a moral dimension, yet in as diverting a fashion as possible. Certainly a didactic agenda is consistent with Lamb’s post-military profession of schoolmaster, and is reinforced in the so-called Advertisement prefacing the Memoir, where he declares his aim to be ‘to instruct as much as possible the young and unguarded, by furnishing the example of his own life without self-disguise or vanity’ (p. iv). But the reader is left with a sense that the impetus of the Memoir is away from its putative subject of service in the American War, rather as that famous English treatise, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (first published 1621), employs its many digressions – of anatomy, of the misery of scholars, of the air, of love, and so on – so that both writer and reader might forget and subsequently conquer melancholy itself. Lamb’s technique is similarly Burtonesque, in that it is divergent in content and therefore centrifugal in effect, allowing readers only small glimpses of Sergeant Lamb at war as they are made to observe a world in which he and his service record are minor events. Graves instead adapts the broad humanist goal of delightful instruction to create an ethnography of warfare: within the framework of a lively and interesting tale his digressive strategies are convergent and thus centripetal, in that they keep drawing us back towards Lamb and the profession of soldiering, making these the centre of the reader’s imaginative orbit.

In dealing with the topic of warfare itself, Lamb prefers an abstract and often indirect approach. For example, stimulated by Benjamin Franklin’s suggestion that the patriot army might make effective use of bows and pikes when it can’t obtain sufficient firearms, he slips on his schoolmaster’s gown and discourses at length on medieval archery and classical spear formations, eventually coming out in favour of firearms (Lamb, Memoir, pp. 122–26). Later he weighs up the value of levies versus regular troops, drawing his examples from the battles being fought by the armies of the French Revolution and Napoleon (pp.195–98). And when at last he does hit on a matter of more immediate consequence, namely the British soldier’s success in battle with the bayonet – arising out of his account of Gates’s army’s unwillingness to close in and finish off the tattered remains of Burgoyne’s force at Saratoga – he does so in terms of vague and contentious theories of national characteristics, rather like old Corporal Jones in the TV comedy Dad’s Army, whose argument in favour of ‘cold steel’ is that other nations’ soldiers ‘don’t like it up ’em you see, sir, they don’t like it up ’em!’8

This is in marked contrast to Graves, for whom the bayonet’s success is more effectively dramatised in the context of Lamb’s actual service. Thus after the battle of Hubbardton, Graves’s Lamb tells how his comrade-in-arms Smutchy Steel had kept loading his firelock without priming it, so that the powder and ball mounted up in the barrel without being discharged at each shot. This was a not uncommon occurrence in the heat and noise of battle in the black powder era, with muzzle-loading weapons recovered from the field often found to have multiple charges still down the barrels. Smutchy is unperturbed, countering ‘there was no confusion as to my baggonet’; but the sight of it triggers a stronger reaction in Lamb:

glancing at it, I observed blood upon the blade. There was a sudden sick revulsion in my belly at the sight of a fellow creature’s blood smeared on the steel, and I went apart into the bushes and vomited. (Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, p. 211)
In Graves’s hands the concrete may still give rise to the abstract; in this case Lamb takes the opportunity to muse over fate, the psychology of battle, and quite another way of looking at national characteristics with ‘the agreed rules of civilised warfare’ seemingly ‘despised’ or ‘not well understood’ by the New England militia (Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, pp. 212–13).

Graves’s manifesto justifying his reworking of Lamb’s works takes the form of the clever and decorously fictional ‘Roger Lamb’s Note of Explanation’, supposedly produced in December 1814 as a preface to this ‘rewrite’ of the ‘original story’ (Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, p. 7). Here ‘Lamb’ professes his ‘vexations and disappointments’ (p. 5) over his publisher’s decision to divide that story into first the Journal, ‘in which he would include the more general and striking parts […] and fat it up with extracts drawn from dependable works of travel and biography’ (p. 6), and then the Memoir, turned into ‘a sad hotch-potch of religious sentiment and irrelevant anecdote’ (p. 7) by ‘a hackney writer, some hedge-parson or other, who could strike the note of contrition that the middling public would heed’ (p. 6).9 His damning critique of Lamb’s works aside, Graves’s case for the significance of his project rests on the achievements of the British soldier. His narrator argues

that the present hostilities with France would greatly favour the book, as calling attention to the thankless heroism once displayed in America by the same regiments then triumphantly engaged under Lord Wellington in the Spanish Peninsula. (Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, p. 5)10
More specifically, his rhetoric hinges on those markers of the soldier’s trade – the details of his uniform – that signify tradition, comradeship and unit pride:
I asked this question of old Mr Courtney: ‘When is it, sir, that old campaigners speak most earnestly about the hazards, fatigues, triumphs, and frolics that they have lived through together?’ ‘It is’ (I informed him in the same breath) ‘when a new war is in progress and when the regiments whose badges and facings they once wore are again hotly engaged.’ (Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, p. 6)
While Graves is writing for a readership for which the particulars of life and warfare in the eighteenth century are no longer common knowledge, his inclusion of ethnographic detail such as the dress and drill of the British soldier does not represent a descent into what Carter and Nash, in discussing style in popular fiction, term ‘a paradox of unrealistic realism’.11 They note how works of popular fiction, especially those with exotic or unfamiliar settings and characters
are often elaborately ‘researched’, in historical, technical, topographical, institutional and sartorial detail, documenting reality with overwhelming care [...].

The authors of such fictions spare no effort to engross their readers, making them accept as credible – because the cars, the guns, the cocktails, the hemlines and street-names are so ruthlessly right – narratives which at another level invite scepticism. (Carter and Nash, p. 99)

The Sergeant Lamb novels have been quite correctly labelled ‘picaresque’, and Graves unquestionably stretches credibility to the limit in his employment of both coincidence and chance as devices for turning Lamb’s story into a ripping yarn.12 But nowhere is he guilty of indulging in the populist stylistics that characterise this passage from a more recent novel set during the same war:
The thronged pavements went silent a moment later as a company of Grenadiers goose-stepped past. At their head, pacing magnificently, a sergeant led a black bear on a silver chain. At times, prodded by its keeper, the bear reared hugely on its back paws and flailed the air. Behind their prancing mascot the soldiers were helmeted in mitred shakos faced with brass, while their faces had huge, thick moustaches that were waxed into upturned tips. They had silver buttons on yellow waistcoats and silver cords hanging from the shoulders of their dark blue jackets. Short golden-hilted swords hung from white leather straps by their hips. Their muskets had scarlet slings and fittings of gleaming brass. Meaty white-breeched thighs rose in the grotesque march before the gaitered boots slapped down into the mud.

‘Hessians!’ a voice near Caroline said, and the hiss went through the crowd.13

The struggle for authenticity here, down to the last buttonhole, conforms to the Carter and Nash formula, although the author tries so hard to find suitably militaristic terms to evoke the ‘demonic’ Hessians and their ‘doom-laden march’ (Cornwell, p. 70) that the specificity of the period, and thus accuracy itself, goes out the window: the mention of goose-stepping and shakos is anachronistic, and the bear mascot is a ludicrous addition to the company.14 Here the soldiers are depicted from a completely alien and unsympathetic perspective that has more in common with early accounts of circus freak shows or visits to Bedlam than to serious attempts at understanding the past. The Hessians’ behaviour and appearance is merely another contribution to a taxonomy of the strange or bizarre other designed to excite certain, usually negative, reactions in the reader. Contrary to the aims of the ethnographer, there is no attempt to contextualise the soldiers’ costume and drill and so arrive at some appreciation of their actual cultural significance. By contrast, Graves offers quite a different picture of the uniform of the German grenadiers among the royal army’s auxiliary troops, ‘with their enormous swords, long-skirted clothing, heavy brass-fronted caps and big canteens’ (Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, p. 224) – in a passage closely based on Lamb’s Memoir (pp. 178–79) and one of the few occasions when Lamb actually details soldiers’ accoutrements – as an example of the severity of the ‘common soldier’s labour’ (Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, p. 224). This is not grotesquery for its own sake, but an insight into what labour actually might entail for the different contingents making up Burgoyne’s army as it struggles to march and fight through the forests of North America.

In describing the ethnographic mode of writing, Geertz uses the term ‘thick description’ for the method by which the observer seeks out the ‘hierarchy of meaningful structures’ in what the observed is doing (p. 7). The method involves analysis and interpretation as well as observation: ‘Doing ethnography’, says Geertz, ‘is like trying to read (in the sense of “construct a reading of”) a manuscript – foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries’ (p. 10). For Graves, wading through and making sense of the ‘8000 pages’ of research he reckoned he had made into ‘American War of Independency [sic] literature’ the process was even more literal than Geertz intended by his allegory.15 So, while Graves’s writing obviously lacks the participant observer dimension which the ethnographer undertaking fieldwork usually can draw upon, his close reading of Lamb and other memoirists and integrating their first-hand experiences and observations into a single coherent text are consistent with the ethnographic project at large: ‘anthropological writings are themselves interpretations’, notes Geertz, ‘and second or third order ones to boot’ (p. 15). Indeed, given Graves’s own service in one of Lamb’s regiments, and that the novels – ‘prompted by the pertinence of his subject (war)’ (Zilboorg, p. vii) – draw upon trans-historical aspects of soldiering and warfare as yet another war is played out, it might be said that Graves actually operates along a cline of interpretation from first to third order. Unlike the thin description to which the popular fictional style already alluded to is prone, Graves’s digressions regarding headgear or firearms are intended to raise questions about ‘what their import is: what it is […] that, in their occurrence and through their agency, is getting said’ (Geertz, p. 10). And what is ‘getting said’ – what the hats and firelocks signify, because the ‘shaped behaviour’ that constitutes culture must be seen as ‘symbolic action – action which […] signifies’ (p. 10) – has to do with concepts underpinning the culture of the military: honour, comradeship, discipline, tradition, and so forth on the one hand; and with the ability to get on with the job of fighting effectively on the other.

The induction into army culture begins for both Graves’s hero and his reader with the instructions of the redoubtable drill-sergeant, Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick’s career represents an inverted version of the trajectory Lamb’s will take, in that Fitzpatrick transferred from the Twenty-third Royal Welch Fusiliers to the Ninth Foot, while Lamb will eventually join the Twenty-third as a sergeant and achieve his apotheosis as a soldier after escaping captivity with the Ninth. Part of the novels’ raison d’être lay in the tribute being paid to the Royal Welch Fusiliers, as George Orwell recognised in 1940 when he connected ‘Lamb’s fierce loyalty and the passion Graves felt for his old regiment’ (Seymour, p. 284). But this hagiographical dimension, which is confined largely to the second novel, Proceed, Sergeant Lamb, only really makes sense to the reader because Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth highlights and helps unravel some of the ‘webs of significance’ (Geertz, p. 5) that constitute military culture at the level of the ordinary soldier.

Sergeant Fitzpatrick’s instructions introduce Lamb and the reader to one of the most significant aspects of the soldier’s trade, which as soldiers they must work at in order to perform effectively as a unit on campaign and the battlefield. This consists of deportment and marching drill on the one hand, and the Manual and Platoon Exercises, involving the handling and use of weaponry, on the other. Graves goes into considerable detail concerning both Fitzpatrick’s methods for training the recruits to carry themselves like soldiers, and to learn the Manual Exercise. In particular, the reader is given a list of the commands for loading and firing the firelock, a complex series of motions whose mastery was essential for maintaining battlefield discipline and unit cohesion in volley firing, as Graves has Lamb explain:

A trained platoon could fire two aimed volleys in the space of one minute, following these orders, and the motions became so mechanical that I have seen a man who had been knocked senseless in battle with a blow to his skull, yet continue loading and firing in exact perfection of discipline. (Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, pp. 24–25)
Graves then historicises the process to show that the drills are not ends in themselves; they have a life and a purpose, in that they evolve according to historical and technological imperatives – chiefly the types of firearms being used at any given period – and exist in order to make best use of the technology to hand under changing battlefield conditions. He does this first by comparing Lamb’s drill to the ‘old words of command […] of ninety years before’, which involve no fewer than thirty-one instructions for handling the matchlock musket with its burning fuse and forked rest, and constitute ‘a sermon in themselves’. Lamb knows this because, conveniently, a copy of the old exercise ‘hung in a frame in our Sergeants’ Mess’ (p. 25). Then he projects the reader forward into 1814, the narrator’s own time of writing – ‘the present trousered, booted, and short-haired days’ (p. 23) of the British infantry’s supremacy over the French Napoleonic columns – when ‘a great improvement has been made even upon our expeditious orders; so that only ten words of command’ are required for loading and firing (p. 25).16 The implication is, of course, that this process of narrative projection can be carried forward to Graves’s era and to that of subsequent readers, in order to appreciate that drill in whatever form it may have evolved is a crucial part the soldier’s trade.

Along with the specialised work come the specialist clothing and tools of the soldier, as Lamb notes: ‘we were each given his regimentals – coat, waistcoat, breeches, hat – a set of accoutrements and a Tower musket with its bayonet and ramrod’ (p. 23). There is also a lengthy ‘complement of necessaries’ (p. 23) that make up the kit, and we are informed about the soldier’s responsibilities for their use and upkeep. The lists are accurate and authentic, not to mention demanding for the reader unaccustomed to the details of eighteenth century warfare, but it is the hat which, together with the firelock, in Graves’s deft authorial hand becomes a focal marker by which we come to a better understanding of the day-to-day life of the soldier.

Graves introduces the military headgear while explaining the procedure for saluting, and has Lamb pass on a small but significant piece of information:
These hats were wide awkward affairs, not looped three-corner-wise, as in the time of the German wars, but only before and behind, so that they afforded neither shade to the eyes nor protection against sunstroke. (p. 23)
The reference here is to the change in military fashion during the 1760s that saw the front corner of the cocked hat pushed gradually higher until, with the Royal Warrant of 1768 governing all aspects of regimental uniform during the American Revolution, it sat virtually flush against the front of the crown. This transitional shape – called by the French retapé, literally ‘straightened out’17 – between the old tricorne of ‘the German wars’ of the 1740s and 50s and the ‘lofty bicorne’ of the 1790s,18 represented a move towards the hat as primarily symbolic item at the expense of its functionality. Consequently, as we shall see, it became a particularly strongly contested cultural site where ordinary soldiers (aided by sympathetic officers) struggled to reassert the utility of military headdress while at the same time having to acknowledge – during this period when ‘military uniforms […] started to move away from the styles of civilian dress and began to develop features of their own’ – its value as a sign of their profession (Strachan, p. 11).

The semiotic position of hats in relation to soldiering in Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth can be better understood when read against the problematic utility of late eighteenth century uniforms generally. Sylvia R. Frey remarks on ‘the costume look of the uniform, popular among all European armies in the eighteenth century’,19 which for the British Army fighting in America ‘was an anachronism; ill-designed for military operations and ill-provided by the government’ (Frey, p. 34). Thus immediately prior to embarking on the Saratoga campaign, the troops in Canada are told to make do with their by now rather ragged issue of clothing, the new annual supply not having arrived: ‘but, to make them more presentable, all with long coats were told to reduce them to jackets, and their hats into caps’ (Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, p. 192). The order, which is historically correct, and which Graves probably gathered from the memoirs of Thomas Anburey, an officer serving with Burgoyne’s army, had as much to do with the serviceability of the uniform in the forests of Canada and upstate New York as it had with presentability, and in appearance at least made the British contingent an all-light infantry force.20 The fine balance between utility and show is well illustrated in the efforts taken by Lamb and his comrades to procure the ‘cockades of hair’ required for the new caps (p. 192), as they comically raid various supplies of animal hair on the hoof in order to fulfil a ruling that will add nothing to the caps’ functionality.

That military headgear under the 1768 Royal Warrant constituted a particularly hotly contested cultural site arose from the ordinary infantryman’s recognising the significance of the various types of headdress in marking out his role within the regiment, while being only too aware of their ineffectiveness in the field. In each regiment, the regulation cocked hat was worn by the eight so-called battalion companies, consisting of the standard troops of the line who, because of their headgear, were commonly referred to as hatmen. Then there were two different flank companies, the grenadiers and the light infantry, who in Lamb’s time were usually separated from their parent regiments and clumped together with others of their ilk to form discrete grenadier and light infantry battalions. The elite grenadier company, made up of the tallest and strongest men who could be called on for shock action, wore a tall bearskin-covered cap (this was also supposed to be worn by all except the light companies of fusilier regiments). The light company, made up of agile men who did skirmishing duty as well as fighting in the line, wore short-tailed jackets and small jockey-style caps with upturned peaks.

In reality, all three species of headgear were unpopular; none offered adequate protection from the weather, and all could be difficult to maintain. Consequently, contemporary inspection reports of individual regiments are peppered with comments such as: ‘Men’s hats not according to regulation’ (Strachan, p. 239). Within a few years many regiments were taking it upon themselves to improve the functionality of the headgear, particularly in the light companies, whose work involved being out and about rather more. Surprisingly, perhaps, some senior officers approved of these efforts, as in this report made of the Seventeenth Foot – a regiment which was to see much service in America – while stationed in Ireland in 1773, the very year that Lamb enlisted in the Ninth Foot in Dublin:

The caps of the Light Infantry are of a better size and better fit than any other regiment yet under my inspection. A flap has been added since they were sent to the regiment which makes them without comparison more serviceable and adds greatly in my opinion to their appearance. (Strachan, p. 212)
Clearly in this case form and function were shown to be not mutually exclusive qualities, and in fact a number of regiments, the Ninth included, adopted handsome leather caps with regimental badges and protective peaks at the front and which, as a member of the Ninth’s light company, Lamb himself would have worn.21

Then, upon joining the Twenty-third Fusiliers, Lamb probably would have been issued a bearskin cap. Probably, because this was a particularly problematic item of dress and, compared to the old pre-1768 cloth grenadier mitre, ‘appears to have been much less popular and generally reserved for formal occasions’ (Reid, p. 42). It is far more likely that, by the time Lamb joined them, the Twenty-third were wearing a much simpler and more practical form of headgear: the plain round-brimmed hat, either the cocked hat uncocked, or a locally procured civilian item. If so, the regiment may have decorated it with three feathers arranged in imitation of the Prince of Wales’s crest, one of its badges; the Twenty-third definitely were wearing such a headdress in 1784, immediately following the regiment’s return from America (Strachan, p. 216). This in turn throws into question the accuracy of the episode, at the Battle of Guilford Court House in 1781, where Graves has Lord Cornwallis recognise Lamb’s regiment by ‘observing the White Horse on my cap’ (Proceed, Sergeant Lamb, p. 403), that is, the bearskin cap.22 Modern scholarship suggests that the brimmed hat was indeed widely employed by the British soldier in America (see Reid, p. 44, and Mollo and McGregor, pp. 186–87), so much so that the soldiers’ experiences in this war led to the round hat becoming regulation for British troops ‘serving in warm climates’ in the 1790s (Strachan, p. 27). Thus the contest over the hat resulted in a victory of sorts for the common soldier.

At the expense of the strictest historical accuracy, then, Graves makes his hero an every-soldier issued with virtually any of the types of military headgear then current: the cocked hat in its original and cut-down forms, the light infantryman’s cap, and the bearskin cap of the grenadiers and fusiliers. Regardless of whichever hat or cap Lamb should be wearing at any particular stage of his career, the importance for Graves is not in getting the exact model right, but in providing the reader with an insider’s view of what wearing the headgear actually involves, in order to better understand the workings of the culture of which it forms a part. The incident already cited where Lamb and his men go searching for animal hair to decorate the newly-cut down hats is a case in point. Technically, as a light infantryman who already wears a cap, Lamb has no need to modify his headdress; the episode therefore has more of an ethnographic function than a purely historical one, in that it says as much if not more about comradeship and unit pride as it does about the simple act of redesigning hats into caps.

Graves’s method reaches its highest symbolic point at Bemis Heights, one of the final battles of the Saratoga campaign, when Lamb is stripped, as it were, of the two most distinctive features of his military costume as a prelude to his temporary removal from the theatre of war: ‘A bullet carried off my cap, another grazed my side, a third broke the lock of my fusil, which I was forced to abandon’ (Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, p. 242). Here and elsewhere the narrative ventures beyond realism in the banal sense of the term – and in the process diverges markedly from the popular fictional mode of authenticity for its own sake – towards the realms of literary truth, where objects and events that constitute the world achieve a metaphorical significance. And it is exactly this mode of fictiō – of ‘something fashioned’ – that, according to Geertz, lies at the heart of ethnographic analysis and interpretation (p.15).

If the hat is more of a symbol by implication and association in Graves’s novels, the firelock remains the more obvious marker of what is, after all, the profession of arms. Its significance is made very clear when Lamb emblematises himself on a map presented as a gift to a Native American ‘as a lamb holding a firelock in the Make Ready position’ (Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, p. 181). Yet it is also evident that the connection, while nurtured by the Manual Exercise, is by no means completely governed by it, as Lamb’s description of the fighting in the thick brushwood at the Battle of Hubbardton illustrates:
I was proud to find how steadily our men behaved, though we could preserve no sort of order or dressing, nor use the manual exercise for platoon firing in which we had been perfected during our training. We made an improvement ex tempore upon it, however, by abstaining from any use of our ramrods: after loading and priming we merely struck the breech of the firelock to the ground, which sent the cartridge down, brought it to the present, and fired. (p. 210)
The point here is that under difficult conditions the men reveal an individualistic skill at arms that has progressed beyond mere slavish adherence to the Manual Exercise. At the same time they maintain their cohesion as a unit, which is marked by their ‘singing in unison Hot Stuff’ (p. 210), a popular and rousing song in the style of ‘Liliburlero’ or ‘The British Grenadiers’, as they keep up a steady fire. Graves’s soldiers therefore are not the redcoated automatons caricatured in contemporary revolutionary propaganda or current popular books and films. These are men bound by a pride in their profession which is inextricably linked to loyalty to and love of regiment and each other; it is to Graves’s credit as both novelist and cultural commentator that he can dramatise this through the symbolic bond between soldier and weapon.

Nowhere is the significance of this bond more evident than when it is at last broken, and the British troops are marched into captivity:

There were soldiers who now wept at being parted from the muskets that they had carried so long and cared for so well, and that seemed almost a part of themselves; and I own that for days I missed the familiar weight of my piece upon my shoulder, and felt in a manner naked without it. (Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, p. 262)
Eventually in the second novel, Lamb, Smutchy and Harlowe escape captivity and make their way back to the British lines, where the first soldier they meet is their old comrade Mad Johnny Maguire standing guard with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Smutchy’s immediate reaction typifies the means by which the good soldier defines his cultural identity:
‘Give that Tower musket into my hand, dear Johnny. Let me feel its weight. I have been a sick man these thirteen months without my old musket, Johnny – a sick man and a slave.’ (Proceed, Sergeant Lamb, p. 330)
Following the groundwork set by Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, where significant outward aspects of day-to-day military life are thickly described to build up a complex and multi-layered portrait of the soldier, Smutchy’s request seems perfectly natural to the reader. And because the first novel has so effectively carried out its ethnographic project of induction into the culture of soldiering, we are not surprised by the apparent paradox in the second when Lamb, now a sergeant in a crack regiment whose officers are ‘persons of substance and with a pride in their profession’ (p. 342), finds not only fulfilment but also a sense of liberation through his symbolic rebirth into a higher order of soldiering:
Martial finery can be an encouragement to formal discipline and clean drill, and I must confess that it did my heart good to be included in a parade of this regiment: it took out of my mouth the taste of drills perfunctorily performed in captivity, with sticks instead of muskets, and the memory of the awkward squads who had been set as guards over us prisoners at Prospect Hill and Rutland. (Proceed, Sergeant Lamb, p. 340)
With his self-professed ‘great love of the regular, the orderly and the neat’ which he is now free ‘to indulge to the full’ (p. 342), Lamb has become the very model of the professional soldier, proud of his trade and at home in his world, and by this stage in the narrative we ourselves are acclimatised to that world. Geertz points out that ‘understanding a people’s culture exposes their normalness without reducing their particularity’ (p. 14), implying that the ethnographic processes ideally involves a conjunction of, and some empathy between, the worlds of writer, subject and reader. The goal is no less applicable to projects such as the Sergeant Lamb novels, where the analytical lens focuses on past rather than present cultures. Greg Dening uses the term ‘ethnographic history’ to describe ‘an attempt to represent the past as it was actually experienced in such a way that we understand both its ordered and disordered natures’.23 The link between writer, reader and subject comes when we realise that
we live in a world that is at the same time full of meanings that are simple and meanings that are multiple. These qualities of the world of the present, we must assume, were qualities of the world of the past. (Dening, p. 5)
In bringing to life the actual material circumstances of soldiering – what Geertz terms the ‘things of this world’ (p. 10) – and imbuing them with a deeper cultural significance, Graves rescues Lamb and his comrades from the oft-vilified and misunderstood ranks of anonymous redcoats, lobsters and bloody-backs, and finds a place for them within the reader’s world as well.

According to Geertz, the ‘claim to attention’ of an ethnography

rests on its author’s ability […] to clarify what goes on in [faraway] places, to reduce the puzzlement – what manner of men are these? – to which unfamiliar acts emerging out of unknown backgrounds naturally give rise. (p. 16)
The same claim surely can be made of the Sergeant Lamb novels. In the Advertisement to the Memoir, Lamb maintains that ‘it has […] been his endeavour to demark the right line of duty and behaviour which the soldier in the ranks ought invariably to pursue’, adding that ‘he may lose his aim, but, even in its failure, he trusts his motive will be thought laudable’ (p. iv). Graves puts almost those exact words into the mouth of his narrator at the end of the first novel (Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, p. 270), but with considerably more justification. For whether or not the reader of the Memoir agrees about the motive, few could help but concur that the wide-ranging digressions employed in both this work and the Journal too often cause Lamb to take his eyes off the avowed object of his writing. Not so Graves, whose skill as a historical novelist results in a more coherent and interesting narrative than Lamb’s originals, and whose equally remarkable abilities as an ethnographer of military culture really do help ‘to bring us into touch with the lives of strangers’ (Geertz, p. 16), such that he much more faithfully discharges the old sergeant’s duty.
Paul Skrebels was formerly Senior Lecturer in Writing and Creative Communication at the University of South Australia. He is editor of the journal of the Military Historical Society of Australia, Sabretache.


 Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic, 1973), p. 5.

2 Jonathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (London: Routledge, 1981), p. vii.

3 Jeremy Hawthorn, A Concise Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory (London: Arnold, 1997), p. 211.

4 Robert Graves, Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth and Proceed, Sergeant Lamb, ed. by Caroline Zilboorg (Manchester: Carcanet, 1999), p. 273. All subsequent quotations are from this edition.

5 Roger Lamb, ‘Preface’, An Original and Authentic Journal of Occurrences during the Late American War, from its Commencement to the Year 1783 (Dublin: Wilkinson and Courtney, 1809; repr. New York: New York Times and Arno Press, 1968).

6 The Journal has been frequently cited by historians. The Memoir is obviously a much rarer work, as Graves himself pointed out in a letter to the military historian Basil Liddell Hart: ‘The memoir book is never quoted by the usual authorities and is excessively rare [...]. It does exist, but only just, apparently’ (quoted in Robert Graves, Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth and Proceed, Sergeant Lamb, pp. viii–ix). To my knowledge the Memoir has not been reprinted.

7 Roger Lamb, Memoir of His Own Life (Dublin: J. Jones, 1811), pp. 61–62.

8 Jimmy Perry and David Croft, Dad’s Army: The Lost Episodes (London: Virgin, 2002), p. 48.

9 Miranda Seymour surely has grasped the wrong end of the stick when she speaks of Graves’s research involving a letter asking his son David in November 1939 ‘to hunt […] for a missing document, a memoir which Lamb had kept of the year 1812’ but which David ‘failed to find’; Miranda Seymour, Robert Graves: Life on the Edge (London: Doubleday, 1995), p. 285. Graves’s letter to Liddell Hart written that same month indicates that he was in fact referring to the 1811 Memoir, which he hadn’t yet read. But read it he must have done, for there are passages from the Memoir that appear almost verbatim in the novels.

10 Graves’s narrator’s general line also reminds us that knife in the back theories of the sort made after the First World War by right wing German elements and more recently by revisionists of the Vietnam War – that ‘it was not we [the soldiers] who had lost the war […] but that it was lost by a supine and ignorant Ministry seconded by an unpatriotic and malignant Opposition’ (Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, p. 6) – are long-standing complaints among the politically and socially disaffected.

11 Ronald Carter and Walter Nash, Seeing through Language: A Guide to Styles of English Writing (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 99.

12 Miranda Seymour, Robert Graves: Life on the Edge, p. 284.

13 Bernard Cornwell, Redcoat (Dingley, Victoria: Hinkler, 1994 (1987)), p. 70.

14 Redcoat is riddled with such errors – too numerous to list here – which, while small in themselves, collectively undermine the plausibility of the narrative, and make a mockery of Cornwell’s note of gratitude to a named secondary source to which his novel ‘owes much of its accuracy’(p. 405). While Cornwell’s inclusion of a bear in the Hessian company is pure sensationalism, nevertheless some regiments did have mascots, among them the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who had, and still maintain, a billy goat. Graves mentions ‘our fine regimental he-goat, with horns gilded’ in his description of the Twenty-third’s insignia and traditions (Proceed, Sergeant Lamb, p. 340).

15 Caroline Zilboorg, ‘Robert Graves’s Sergeant Lamb: An Introduction’, in Robert Graves, Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth and Proceed, Sergeant Lamb, p. viii. Graves’s biographers point out that Graves employed Alan Hodge as a research assistant on this and other writing projects, but Graves’s own scholarship and involvement in the preparation for the Sergeant Lamb novels is beyond dispute. See Martin Seymour-Smith, Robert Graves: His Life and Work (London: Hutchinson, 1982), p. 346, and Miranda Seymour, p. 285.

16 Even so, Graves may be guilty of comparing apples and oranges here. John Tincey points out that ‘in fact drill manuals were training aids, not regulation procedures. Many “postures” were illustrated as distinct “motions” to make them clearer’, which would account for the multiplicity of moves which, if actually carried out in the field, would mean ‘that a matchlock would take three to five minutes to load and fire while the same could be achieved with a flintlock in just 15 to 30 seconds’ (The British Army 1660-1704, Men-At-Arms Series 267 (London: Osprey, 1994), p. 20). Training with the flintlock could be just as arduous, as a comparison of the 1685 drills for each type of firearm, with thirty-two motions (rather than Graves’s thirty-one) for the matchlock and thirty for the flintlock, reveals: ‘the difference is a matter of seconds’ (Tincey, p. 20).

17 Liliane and Fred Funcken, The Lace Wars, Part 1 (London: Ward Lock, 1977), p. 102.

18 Hew Strachan, British Military Uniforms 1768–96 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1975), p. 12.

19 Sylvia R. Frey, The British Soldier in America: A Social History of Military Life in the Revolutionary Period (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 35.

20 See John Mollo and Malcolm McGregor, Uniforms of the American Revolution (London: Blandford, 1975), p. 188. Anburey, ‘a volunteer in the 29th Regiment’, had a two-volume memoir of his American service published in 1789 (Frey, pp. 99 and 193). His work is twice cited as an authority by Graves’s narrator, but he is identified as a lieutenant ‘of The Fourteenth’ (Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, p. 207, p. 262).

21 See Stuart Reid, King George’s Army 1740–93: (1) Infantry, Men-At-Arms Series 285 (London: Osprey, 1995), p. 42.

22 Graves’s attributing the White Horse of Hanover as one of the Twenty-third’s badges (which he also does earlier, see Proceed, Sergeant Lamb, p. 340) is almost certainly mistaken. I have found no mention of its use this way in any studies of British Army uniforms of the period (see, for example, Alan Kemp, The British Army in the American Revolution (London: Almark, 1973), p. 71). Before the 1768 Warrant, the White Horse was worn on a flap at the front of the cloth mitre caps of every line infantry grenadier company (see Funcken, p. 107); after 1768 it remained a distinctive badge of another fusilier regiment, the Seventh Foot (Royal Fusiliers); see Kemp, p. 71. The apparent confusion is hard to reconcile with Graves’s detailed personal knowledge of and research into the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

23 Greg Dening, Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 5.

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