Badge of Glory
by Douglas Reeman
This book is the first of five books in the "Royal Marines Saga," a.k.a. the "Blackwood Novels," by a still-active master of naval fiction whose career has spanned over 50 years. I understand that the novels depict succeeding generations of a family whose men were officers in Britain's "sea soldier" service. If you've been reading the type of naval fiction I have (the Hornblower, Aubrey, and Ramage series, all set between about 1770 and 1820) you'll already be familiar with this red-coated band whose quarters, even on board ship, are called "barracks," who live separate lives from the sailors, and whose officers have a separate chain of command from that of the Navy.
These are the bluff figures who, most of the time, seem to be on board mainly for ceremonial purposes, a little sentry duty, and firing muskets out of the main top. Now and then they distinguish themselves in an on-shore expedition, where they are really in their element, or when battle spills over the sides of the ship and onto the enemy's decks. But when the story is mostly about the captain of the ship, how he handles his vessel and commands the men under him, you can sometimes pass several chapters together (if not a whole book) without even noticing the Marines are there. This series is different, and it begins with a young Marine Captain named Philip Blackwood, around 1850.
Blackwood is a third-generation Marine officer, following the footsteps of his father and grandfather in the tradition of a family that had previously been noted for its army service. When we meet him, he already has a good deal of field experience, including a terrible battle with the Maori of New Zealand in which too many comrades, including his commanding officer, were killed--thanks, in part, to the recklessness of one Admiral Sir James Ashley-Chute. Now Blackwood finds himself, once again, serving on Ashley-Chute's flagship, this time in command of the ship's Marines, as well as his own half-brother, Second Lieutenant Harry Blackwood.
The date is in the 1850s, sometime after the fall of Napoleon. A new power is risingsteam power. On land, at least in England, one can travel by train instead of horse and carriage. By sea, paddle-wheels and (later) underwater screws provide the power to maneuver quickly, regardless of the wind. Being a new technology, steam isn't accepted by everyone. One of the last to recognize its potential is Ashley-Chute, while Blackwood himself longs for a change from the slow-paced world of ships under sail. Steam power has its weaknesses. It requires a constantly replenished supply of coal. It produces scandalous amounts of soot and dust, to say nothing of the oven-like heat of the engine room. It breaks down at the drop of a hat, and even when it's working (at least in the paddle-boat stage) it makes for a sickening ride over the tops of the heaving seas, whereas wind power pushes a ship straight through them.
But speed is on their side when Blackwood commands a Marine force in a mission to rescue the survivors of an African trade outpost who have been besieged by black natives and Portuguese slave-traders, who have their own sinister interests to protect. Blackwood takes his first serious injury here, even while leading his pitifully outnumbered Marines to victory. Returning to duty as quickly as he can, he is soon put in even greater peril. First he must rescue the woman he loves from the hands of brutal slavers; then, without a moment to rest, he must snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in a battle botched by a cowardly superior officer who, naturally, takes all the credit while Blackwood slowly recovers from an even worse injury.
But that's only the appetizer for a dramatic adventure that combines the anguish of hopeless love, anxiety over his father's illness, his stepmother's infidelity, and his brother's sexcapades (adult content advisory!!), before rising to a climax in the trenches of the Crimean War. Which, I bet you didn't know (unless you're British), was a war between Russia and Turkey over part of what is now Ukraine, in which the British fought on the Turkish side. Whether you've heard of it or not — I mean, really! Florcence Nightingale? Charge of the Light Brigade? Balaclava? Sebastopol?? —you'll find it offers amazing opportunities for a Marine officer, from a nearly disastrous naval engagement in the Black Sea port of Varna to a (then) new type of battleground where troops dig in, instead of marching towards the other side, and lob artillery shells at each other.
It's about the world of warfare in the midst of turblent changes, driven by technological improvements such as rifled gun-barrels, grenades, and ships that could switch from wind power to steam in the time it takes to read this paragraph. The conditions that made World War I the bloodbath that it was, were already starting to take shape. At the same time, the role of the Royal Marines was changing, even as Philip Blackwood's place in the service and in the civilian world was changing. All this makes this book a fascinating snapshot of a dynamic moment in military history, as well as an appropriate launch-slip for a series celebrating the original Marine Corps and its ever-evolving way of life.
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 14+
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