The Book of Snobs, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter ix

On Some Military Snobs

As no society in the world is more agreeable than that of well-bred and well-informed military gentlemen, so, likewise, none is more insufferable than that of Military Snobs. They are to be found of all grades, from the General Officer, whose padded old breast twinkles over with a score of stars, clasps, and decorations, to the budding cornet, who is shaving for a beard, and has just been appointed to the Saxe-Coburg Lancers.

I have always admired that dispensation of rank in our country, which sets up this last-named little creature (who was flogged only last week because he could not spell) to command great whiskered warriors, who have faced all dangers of climate and battle; which, because he has money, to lodge at the agent’s, will place him over the heads of men who have a thousand times more experience and desert: and which, in the course of time, will bring him all the honours of his profession, when the veteran soldier he commanded has got no other reward for his bravery than a berth in Chelsea Hospital, and the veteran officer he superseded has slunk into shabby retirement, and ends his disappointed life on a threadbare half-pay.

When I read in the GAZETTE such announcements as ‘Lieutenant and Captain Grig, from the Bombardier Guards, to be Captain, vice Grizzle, who retires,’ I know what becomes of the Peninsular Grizzle; I follow him in spirit to the humble country town, where he takes up his quarters, and occupies himself with the most desperate attempts to live like a gentleman, on the stipend of half a tailor’s foreman; and I picture to myself little Grig rising from rank to rank, skipping from one regiment to another, with an increased grade in each, avoiding disagreeable foreign service, and ranking as a colonel at thirty; — all because he has money, and Lord Grigsby is his father, who had the same luck before him. Grig must blush at first to give his orders to old men in every way his betters. And as it is very difficult for a spoiled child to escape being selfish and arrogant, so it is a very hard task indeed for this spoiled child of fortune not to be a Snob.

It must have often been a matter of wonder to the candid reader, that the army, the most enormous job of all our political institutions, should yet work so well in the field; and we must cheerfully give Grig, and his like, the credit for courage which they display whenever occasion calls for it. The Duke’s dandy regiments fought as well as any (they said better than any, but that is absurd). The great Duke himself was a dandy once, and jobbed on, as Marlborough did before him. But this only proves that dandies are brave as well as other Britons — as all Britons. Let us concede that the high-born Grig rode into the entrenchments at Sobraon as gallantly as Corporal Wallop, the ex-ploughboy.

The times of war are more favourable to him than the periods of peace. Think of Grig’s life in the Bombardier Guards, or the Jack-boot Guards; his marches from Windsor to London, from London to Windsor, from Knightsbridge to Regent’s Park; the idiotic services he has to perform, which consist in inspecting the pipeclay of his company, or the horses in the stable, or bellowing out ‘Shoulder humps! Carry humps!’ all which duties the very smallest intellect that ever belonged to mortal man would suffice to comprehend. The professional duties of a footman are quite as difficult and various. The red-jackets who hold gentlemen’s horses in St. James’s Street could do the work just as well as those vacuous, good-natured, gentlemanlike, rickety little lieutenants, who may be seen sauntering about Pall Mall, in high-heeled little boots, or rallying round the standard of their regiment in the Palace Court, at eleven o’clock, when the band plays. Did the beloved reader ever see one of the young fellows staggering under the flag, or, above all, going through the operation of saluting it? It is worth a walk to the Palace to witness that magnificent piece of tomfoolery.

I have had the honour of meeting once or twice an old gentleman, whom I look upon to be a specimen of army-training, and who has served in crack regiments, or commanded them, all his life. I allude to Lieutenant-General the Honourable Sir George Granby Tufto, K.C.B., K.T.S., K.H., K.S.W., &c. &c.. His manners are irreproachable generally; in society he is a perfect gentleman, and a most thorough Snob.

A man can’t help being a fool, be he ever so old, and Sir George is a greater ass at sixty-eight than he was when he first entered the army at fifteen. He distinguished himself everywhere: his name is mentioned with praise in a score of Gazettes: he is the man, in fact, whose padded breast, twinkling over with innumerable decorations, has already been introduced to the reader. It is difficult to say what virtues this prosperous gentleman possesses. He never read a book in his life, and, with his purple, old gouty fingers, still writes a schoolboy hand. He has reached old age and grey hairs without being the least venerable. He dresses like an outrageously young man to the present moment, and laces and pads his old carcass as if he were still handsome George Tufto of 1800. He is selfish, brutal, passionate, and a glutton. It is curious to mark him at table, and see him heaving in his waistband, his little bloodshot eyes gloating over his meal. He swears considerably in his talk, and tells filthy garrison stories after dinner. On account of his rank and his services, people pay the bestarred and betitled old brute a sort of reverence; and he looks down upon you and me, and exhibits his contempt for us, with a stupid and artless candour which is quite amusing to watch. Perhaps, had he been bred to another profession, he would not have been the disreputable old creature he now is. But what other? He was fit for none; too incorrigibly idle and dull for any trade but this, in which he has distinguished himself publicly as a good and gallant officer, and privately for riding races, drinking port, fighting duels, and seducing women. He believes himself to be one of the most honourable and deserving beings in the world. About Waterloo Place, of afternoons, you may see him tottering in his varnished boots, and leering under the bonnets of the women who pass by. When he dies of apoplexy, THE TIMES will have a quarter of a column about his services and battles — four lines of print will be wanted to describe his titles and orders alone — and the earth will cover one of the wickedest and dullest old wretches that ever strutted over it.

Lest it should be imagined that I am of so obstinate a misanthropic nature as to be satisfied with nothing, I beg (for the comfort of the forces) to state my belief that the army is not composed of such persons as the above. He has only been selected for the study of civilians and the military, as a specimen of a prosperous and bloated Army Snob. No: when epaulets are not sold; when corporal punishments are abolished, and Corporal Smith has a chance to have his gallantry rewarded as well as that of Lieutenant Grig; when there is no such rank as ensign and lieutenant (the existence of which rank is an absurd anomaly, and an insult upon all the rest of the army), and should there be no war, I should not be disinclined to be a major-general myself.

I have a little sheaf of Army Snobs in my portfolio, but shall pause in my attack upon the forces till next week.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00