he first time I read about Viscount Hugh Gough, a relatively minor military hero in the British Army of Queen Victoria, I was rather struck by the image of his white battle coat.
This was a man who, during the First Sikh War in 1845, would wear a conspicuous white coat in battle so as to draw fire towards himself and away from his troops. As inexplicable and perhaps deranged as that may seem to us (I would expect now he'd land time in an asylum with such antics instead of a title), he was lauded at the time by his troops that viewed such foolhardy stunts as courageous. Now we are more cynical, looking upon a figure such as Gough as a man not right in the head (or maybe just a little touched if we wanted to be a bit kinder), suffering from PTSD, or perhaps following a vainglory hardly seen these days.
Maybe 'touched' is a bit more accurate, for he was also a man very fond of the bayonet, ready to rely on it, and no end of pluck from the lads of Belfast, London, and Glasgow, far more than the concentrated firepower of the musket. As equally difficult as it is to imagine Gough in his white battle coat pacing before the muskets and cannon of the Sikhs, willing them to fire upon him to save his poor troops, it is equally absurd to imagine him ordering those same poor troops forward, in slow-moving lines of two, into the hellish maelstrom of those Sikh canon and muskets. Then again, the soldiers did it, much to their credit.
All this rambling to say, I've pondered as a writer, if I have done an adequate job of capturing the emotions of combat and its likeliness of maiming and death with my characters in Europa Rising as well as with Alexander 'Sikunder' Armstrong in The Scarlet Bastards and Fremantle Freya. The problem I have is that in my twenty-five years in the RCN, I've never seen combat - the RCN last hearing shots fired in anger in Korea though some .50 cal rounds in Libya may change that in the record books. This poses the conundrum of writing about combat without actually seeing it, which is not unusual for a writer since we prose about many things we have no experience in save for a vague wiki knowledge. That being said, though shots may not have rang about my ears, danger was often present - both real and imagined.
As a young Ordinary Seaman, I certainly had my fears when I first encountered the ham-fisted attentions of the Soviet Navy. Missile locks, frigates dogging our wake, submarines and daily bombing runs by Badger bombers was more than enough to wrench my attention from the preoccupations of seasickness and homesickness. Did I think I was going to die? Not really. Was it exciting as hell? Absolutely. But I'd be a liar if there wasn't the occasional nagging thought that some Soviet rookie like myself might accidentally pull a trigger or push a button. In the years that followed, I found myself in the occasional dangerous spot - due more to weather and Search and Rescue than anything else.
So then here I sit, pounding keys and describing the rush of emotions as Sikunder charges in with a line of Ossayulns from Gliesium against the dreaded Black Hand or fighting off a wave of Sindhi pirates on a paddlewheeler on the Seleucus Lacus, or Commander Charles Kwetche maneuvers the ancient NASS Cabot in combat. Did I capture that rush of fear, helplessness, and perhaps excitement, or did I come up short with a narrative that a veteran would chuckle at? Hard to say. Then I think of Gough and his white battle coat and the British Tommie that would willingly walk towards a canon with an extended bayonet. Maybe it just isn't fear that dominates the emotions - I think courage, pride, a need to belong and a need to protect your friends drives one far, far more than the fear of dying. I would think it must be, otherwise every sailor and soldier would simply flee.
Here's to you Viscount Gough!
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