Corps de l’article

Jerome Christensen has recently remarked that we might think of war as becoming modern at precisely the moment that it was transformed into an “all-engrossing” media spectacle. Modern war, he argues, operates in large part through the “strategic representation” of conflicts fought away from the bulk of the public and yet requiring the co-option and involvement of large segments of that population (4). Though Britons were increasingly called upon to be involved in the nation’s wars throughout the eighteenth century, the imperative to mobilize the population became critical through the years of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and the period is now widely viewed as seeing the emergence of the first modern or ‘total’ war.[1] Debate remains as to whether the emergence of total war had a lasting impact on post-war British society, but during the war years, at least, there was a vital necessity to bridge the gap that existed between the soldier at war and the ordinary citizen (Cookson 30). The period’s print culture and popular entertainments responded to these demands as a media spectacle emerged that would imaginatively transport the public to the scene of war.

Reports on war, largely derived from government despatches, circulated in Britain via newspapers, broadsheets, and ballads throughout the eighteenth century (Cardwell 160). By the end of the century, official government despatches were increasingly supplemented by personal accounts of war and the media itself came to be the prime means for representing and guaranteeing the truth of war (Favret 180). The period thus saw correspondence and accounts of war from eyewitnesses emerge as a key locus for the cultural representation of war and these accounts were visualised in prints and public entertainments in order to fulfil the demand “for contemporary metropolitan audiences to envisage conflict” (Bonehill 11).[2] Spectacular celebrations or theatrical military spectacles, such as military parades, would continue to be an important part of British culture, but traditional spectacles operated in a climate associated with eighteenth-century elite warfare, in which, as Gillian Russell observes, “[w]ar is not distanced from the rest of society but instead is assimilated and celebrated as an integral part of aristocratic sociability” (26). The media spectacle of war involved the creation of a far more diffuse, serious, and all pervasive spectacle, bringing the wider population into contact with war through the constant circulation of factual information and representations of the war that could remap daily life as wartime experience.

Sir Robert Ker Porter’s work had a prominent role in the development of this media spectacle of war in Britain. He was an enormously popular and influential painter of military panoramas in the early 1800s, and published an account of his own experiences on campaign with the staff of the British army in 1809. Mediating war for his audiences through the period’s print and visual culture, his work can be seen to reflect shifts in the cultural representations of war towards a media spectacle. Placing enormous emphasis in his work on accurate depictions of warfare and utilising personal correspondence from eyewitnesses, he sought to enable the citizen to share the soldier’s view of war, allowing him or her to visualise and imagine war from the vantage point of the soldier and his subjective experience of war. Daniel O’Quinn has recently drawn on John Brewer’s work on the development of the British military-fiscal state through the eighteenth century to argue that the spectacle of war, particularly as it emerged in the entertainment industries through the late eighteenth century, helped to enable the development of a militarised subjectivity amongst the British public, bringing the “standing army” into the very “body” and “soul” of Britain’s populace (268). Porter’s work can be understood in very similar terms, enabling audience identification with the military through his representations of the figure of the citizen-soldier. By examining, in particular, his representations of the suffering body of the junior, or subaltern, officer, this article will explore the ways in which the spectacle of war provided by Porter’s work could be seen to have contributed to just such a development of militarised subjectivity.

In doing so, it will extend arguments presented by O’Quinn about the development of British militarised subjectivity in the late eighteenth century, by considering their relevance to Porter’s work through the early nineteenth century, during the closing years of the Napoleonic Wars. Employing Manuel De Landa’s analysis of eighteenth century warfare as being built upon the highly regimented discipline of what De Landa terms “clockwork” armies, O’Quinn shows how theatrical representations of Britain’s East India Company army, which operated in India during the 1790s and was arguably the last ‘clockwork’ army, regulated the audience by inviting it to contemplate military drill (315). Through spectacular, pre-cinematic entertainments, the audience was being asked to identify with the national and racial superiority of its highly disciplined, modern military. As De Landa shows, however, the Napoleonic Wars introduced decisive shifts in the way that the military and warfare were imagined and fought, with the end of the clockwork armies and “robot-like warriors” of the eighteenth century, and the development of what De Landa terms “motorized” armies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in which the increased scale and changing style of warfare meant that authority and initiative had to be diffused throughout the army (127, 67). Reintroducing, therefore, a “human” element into warfare, these motorized armies depended not on the soldier’s docile operation as a clockwork automaton, but on soldiers who would internalise the demands of war, motivating themselves with their own citizen loyalties (De Labda 127). Military effectiveness would come to rely on soldiers who possessed, as John Levi Martin suggests, “subjective motivations” to fight, just as the citizen was being called upon to individually volunteer their services for the nation (264).

This change took time to unfold in Britain across the nineteenth-century, and De Landa suggests that it was not decisive till the arrival of railways and telegraph later in the century (67). But shifts in the management of the army were starting to take place, particularly amongst the army’s subaltern officers. As E.S. Turner observes, “[s]ince the standing army was formed no war had seen such a widening of the officer class”, with officers increasingly being drawn from what might broadly be termed the urban ‘middle classes’ and offering their services as part of what was widely viewed as a crusade against Napoleon’s tyranny (133). More widely, the cultural imagination found itself recoiling from the idea of mechanical or clockwork war, imagining warfare instead in terms of personal heroism and sacrifice and it is possible to see by the 1800s a widespread and growing understanding of the soldier as possessing a shared humanity with the citizen.[3] Wordsworth would insist in TheConvention of Cintra (1809), that when the British army travelled to fight the French in the Iberian Peninsula, every soldier would take with him, “not only the virtues which might be expected from him as a soldier, but the antipathies and sympathies, the loves and hatreds of a citizen - of a human being - acting, in a manner hitherto unprecedented under the obligation of his human and social nature” (225). Captain Charles Pasley, writing at the same time, insisted Britain was a truly military nation; its power lay in “fifteen millions of brave, active and ingenious people” (74). This ‘unprecedented’ reciprocality between the soldier and the citizen would see Wordsworth speak on war as a “private individual”, just as it impelled Captain Pasley to write “under the feelings similar to those of a poet or novelist” (Wordsworth 369; Pasley 55). The ‘all-engrossing’ spectacle of war would construct the truth of war as this fusion of the citizen and the soldier, highlighting each individual’s personal responsibility to protect the nation.

Alongside the regulatory potential of forging audience identification with the political or biological mass of the nation, as emphasised by O’Quinn, therefore, we need to recognise the importance of representations of individual service and sacrifice. As the editors of War and the Cultural Construction of Identities in Britain attempt to show, wars are central to the formation of national identity, but, somewhat paradoxically, they habitually highlight the significance of individual as well as communal identities (Korte 2-3). Porter’s work was, arguably, instrumental in a process of establishing the individuated, ‘human’ citizen-soldier as a key icon of military effectiveness and national identity. But there is a transgressive aspect to Porter’s work implied by this reciprocal alignment of the citizen and the soldier. His work involves a privileging of the soldiers’ personal view that could conflict with the state’s attempts to control information about the war. The Duke of Wellington, for instance, railed against what he believed were “stories which all have read” in the “gazettes and newspapers” that emphasised individual soldiers’ efforts and heroism rather than celebrating the army as a corporate whole (qtd. in Turner 152). Porter’s own later account of Napoleon’s 1812 Russian campaign operates less through this individuation of soldiers than a representation of warfare as a mass activity, and his work certainly operates in terms of an “ideology of sacrifice” that sought to interpret individual suffering as a necessary and willing sacrifice for the nation (Shaw, Waterloo 21). But so too, his work undertakes this depiction of sacrifice by revealing a horrifying truth about war that could be unsettling, eliciting affective responses far removed from the pressing needs of a militaristic state. The articulation of a subjective experience of war, implied by his pivoting of views of war on the citizen-soldier, could induce an appalling spectacle of horror in response to war.

I. The Storming of Seringapatam and the Subaltern’s Wound

Sir Robert Ker Porter’s contemporary reputation has been partly eclipsed by the success of his sisters, Jane and to a lesser extent Anna Maria, who both became commercially successful novelists through the Romantic period. The family’s origins were relatively humble, their father was a surgeon in the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons and died in 1779 two years after Porter’s birth. Like his sisters, however, Porter would go on to achieve a considerable degree of fame, becoming one of the leading military artists in Britain through the early 1800s. He was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools in 1791 and worked initially on religious subjects, developing his talents as a scene painter for the theatre (Armstrong 38-40). He would compose several paintings depicting historical battle scenes during the 1790s (Harrington 61), but his reputation as a military artist rested primarily on the basis of his painting The Storming of Seringapatam (1800), which depicted the victory of the British forces over those of Tipu Sultan at the storming of Seringapatam on 4 May 1799, during the fourth Anglo/Mysore war in India (see image 1). Tipu Sultan, who was killed during the fighting at Seringapatam, was allied with the French and represented a significant threat to British interests in India (Barua 601). There were celebrations across Britain when news of Seringapatam was received, and the action was commemorated and reproduced in a number of popular entertainments at the time (Harrington 59-61). Catching the mood of this public enthusiasm for the victory, Porter’s Seringapatam would become an enormously successful painting. Executed in just 6 weeks, it was exhibited at the Lyceum only a few months after news of the event had been received in Britain and it rapidly attracted “record-breaking crowds”.[4] Its success saw Porter included in a volume Public Characters for 1801, and he followed Seringapatam with a number of similar battle paintings in the following years, including TheBattle of Alexandria (1802) and The Battle of Lodi (1803) (Oettermann 115-17).

Figure 1

The storming of Seringapatam, in India. Engraving. By John Vendramini, after Robert Ker Porter (1802). British Library Shelfmark P779.

Copyright The British Library. All rights reserved.

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Porter composed Seringapatam as a panoramic painting, utilizing techniques for creating panoramas that had been developed by Robert Barker through the 1790s, and which Barker himself had used for creating several panoramas of naval battle scenes (Oettermann 105-8). The panorama sought to produce works that were far more mimetically realistic than traditional paintings. To achieve this effect, panoramic paintings were executed on massive canvases that were curved through a full 360-degrees to form a “cylindrical canvas” that would encircle the viewer (Altick 128). By thus removing any framing devices, a far more “successful illusion of reality” could be produced than traditional artistic forms, and it was intended that the audience would be able to view the painting that enclosed them as though they were actually present at the scene depicted (Hyde 20). Porter’s Seringapatam was distinctive in that the canvas was only extended through a semi-circle, and the audience occupied a stage area to its front. It was, nonetheless, undertaken on an equally massive scale and the canvas was over 120 feet long (Harrington 62).[5] Depicting several scenes from the events of the storming and portraying hundreds of figures, Seringapatam was considered at the time to have been painted “on a scale of magnitude hitherto unattempted in this Country” (Narrative Sketches v). Porter also took incredible pains to ensure that he depicted the storming as accurately as possible, and the guide to the painting proudly announced that it was “designed from the most authentic and correct information” (Lee). He obtained numerous eyewitness accounts of the action from officers to assist in his composition of the painting, paid careful attention to reproducing exact details of the soldiers’ uniforms and the “Scenery of the Place” (qtd. in Galperin 50), and included portraits of a number of officers who had been present at Seringapatam (Narrative Sketches v). So impressive was the resulting work that the president of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West, described it as a “Wonder of the World!” (qtd. in Altick 135).

Russell has argued that in the realism and vast scale of the panoramas, it is possible to see a “detheatricalization” of war, in which the public was invited to contemplate accurate and authoritative scenes of war that were central to the process of enabling the imaginative participation of the viewer in war (77). Augmenting more traditional forums such as the art galleries or the ‘spectacular’ depictions of war in the legitimate theatre, the panoramas would refashion the representation of war away from a theatrical war of elites and towards an authentic and serious national war. Thus, rather than operating in terms of polite or elite artistic taste, the panorama located itself within a commercial art market and its attendance was open to anyone who could afford the price of admission. We can see the enormously popular spectacle of war in Porter’s panorama, therefore, as facilitating, at least amongst the urban crowds who attended the exhibition, a far more democratic reception of and participation in war, one in which all viewers could share a certain reciprocality with each other and the soldiers through their shared “vicarious participation” as witnesses to the war (Miller 55).

William Galperin cautions, however, that Porter’s work itself resists some of the panorama’s impulse to create a truly democratised experience for the viewer, in large part because of the “explanatory descriptions” that accompanied the painting (50). Galperin suggests that unlike other panoramas, Porter’s work did not offer the populace a ‘homogenised’ view of itself. He insists, on the contrary, that the accompanying material, which individually named a number of the soldiers depicted, underscored a deferential distinction between the military scenes represented and the wider population viewing these scenes (51). Philip Shaw has extended Galperin’s argument to his commentary on Henry Aston Barker’s later panorama, the Battle of Waterloo (1816), observing that the accompanying ‘key’ to the work identified Wellington as “the primary figure in the scene”, and thus encouraged the viewer to defer to the perspective established by Wellington as commander of the British forces (Waterloo 88). Though the panorama appeared to produce a vision of war that offered an equality of viewpoints, enabling the audience to share the view of the ordinary soldier, the effect of the accompanying material, Shaw argues, is that “we are trained to view all other images from the point of view of the state” (Waterloo 88). Notably, the accompanying key to Porter’s Seringapatam also draws our attention to the centrality of the commanding general, and it observes of the painting: “[t]he centre object is General Baird, surrounded by his Staff” (Lee). A reviewer concurred that Baird dominated the painting, stating “[t]he most striking group meets the eye in the centre of the picture. It consists of General Baird, attended by his aid-de-camps” (“Mr. Robert Ker Porter” 140-41). Directing our attention to his centrality helps to ensure that the viewer regards the action as directed and arranged by Baird, himself the representative of the British sovereign and state.

We could see Porter’s work as thus deferring any identification between the soldier and the wider population, but such a reading would fail to engage with the unprecedented nature of the representation of ordinary subaltern officers offered by Seringapatam. The emotional centre of Porter’s painting does not revolve around the commanding general, but is constituted rather by a series of images of dying or wounded subaltern officers. Rather than providing a “death tableau” of the commanding general, Porter provides a series of tableau of subaltern officers (Harrington 67). David Solkin shows that whilst in West’s earlier The Death of General Wolfe (1770), the dying Wolfe was surrounded by a group of subaltern officers, the painting depicts these officers simply as a sympathetic community of mourners. In their contemplation of the general’s death they represent the very way in which the audience itself is meant to respond to the painting. The painting represents elite warfare in which the audience is asked to contemplate national service but is held at bay from contemplating their own participation in the life of the nation; it reminds the viewer that the ordinary individual has “no more right to command the attention of historical artists than to lead Britain’s armies or engage in the exercise of political power” (Solkin 213). Porter’s individuation of officers operates differently and needs to be read as emphasising the vital necessity for personal sacrifice in the evolving military situation of Britain’s war.

Baird’s central presence in the painting is largely occluded by the scenes of heroic and wounded subaltern officers that surround him. Though the key to Seringapatam points towards Baird’s centrality and reminds us that he directs the activities, “calling his men to follow Serjeant Graham of the Forlorn Hope”, it is Sergeant Graham to whom our attention is immediately drawn. We are told that the Serjeant, “having snatched the Colours from the Ensign, planted them on the breach, and as he gave the 3d huzza of Victory, an Indian with a Pistol shot him through the Heart” (Lee n.p.). Depicted with the British flag and standing alone on top of the breach, Graham is a significant figure in the painting, and the narrative surrounding his actions, relating his death and exemplary heroics, presents him as a highly sympathetic individual. Though Graham has neither the social status nor political authority of Baird, the painting and accompanying material grants him a degree of agency, heroism and sympathy that forges a reciprocal relation between the general and his men.

The painting as a whole is composed as a series of minor actions or tableau that focus on individual subaltern officers. Although the Indian and private British soldiers remain anonymous and largely background figures, the painting and the accompanying guide are replete with sympathetic references to the wounding and death of these individually named subaltern officers. As one reviewer observed:

Captain Cormicke, a brave officer is seen falling headlong down the steep, being killed near the upper part of the rampart. Halfway up the breach is a sally of Tippoo's guards, who are repulsed by the 74th regiment. Lieutenant Prendergast appears mortally wounded by a musket shot; and Lieutenant Shaw lies among the slain in the thickest groups of the battle. In the foreground, to the left of the battalion, lies Captain Owen, of the 77th. He rests upon a cannon, is supported by an artillery-man, who points towards the Indian from whom he received his death wound.

“Mr. Robert Ker Porter” 140-41

Porter’s painting is constructed so that the subaltern officers are still linked to the commander through his central and governing presence, but they are no longer represented merely as a community of observers. Rather, these subalterns become active elements within the scene and stand as sympathetic figures in their own right. Though the fighting at Seringapatam was led by the East India Company’s army, Porter’s painting does not depict ‘clockwork’ warfare. Indeed, the very fact that Porter directs attention to the storming of Seringapatam, rather than the siege, shows the extent to which his painting is articulating a different conception of warfare. Established rules of warfare through the eighteenth century located the siege as the epitome of scientific or rational warfare and essentially precluded storming of fortifications. Once artillery had made a ‘practicable’ breach in the walls of a fortress, its demise was deemed inevitable and the laws of humane warfare dictated that its governor must surrender in order to avoid the bloodshed that would occur if the breach were stormed. Porter’s valorisation of the storming would presciently predict the later fighting in Europe and the breakdown of such humane restraints on warfare through the Napoleonic period (Haythornthwaite 224-6).[6] The storming represents something beyond regulated, clockwork warfare, something that rests on personal valour, courage and effort rather than rationalised systems of war. Individually naming these men is not, then, about holding them at a remove from a homogenized population, so much as it underscores the personal sacrifice that was becoming so crucial to military effectiveness and was being increasingly demanded of the wider populace.

Thus, whilst a hierarchical response is engendered by the painting’s textual key, which insists that we see the action through the dominating presence of the commanding general, reinforcing, as Shaw would suggest, that “it is the politicians and generals who underwrite the order of history” (Waterloo 88), Porter’s panoramic work simultaneously demonstrates that it is the subaltern officer, a recognizably individuated citizen-soldier, who equally has a role to play in underwriting that history. And at least one reviewer concluded of the work that “it will prove a gratifying promise to the perspective of military prowess, that the names and persons of the most distinguished of Valour's sons, will live to after ages in the glowing colours of the canvas, as well as in the annals of their country” (“Mr. Robert Ker Porter” 140-41). Peter Paret suggests that “TheDeath of General Wolfe is witness to an early stirring of militant nationalism” (48); we could view Porter’s enormously popular and influential work as extending this militant nationalism even further. As Porter would write elsewhere in 1809 of his soldierly feelings whilst contemplating West’s The Death of Nelson (1806):

To die like a Wolfe or a Nelson, is a destiny so great, that cold must be the heart which is not awakened to enthusiasm and patriotic zeal when it recalls their life and death to remembrance. Who would not partake their bed with joy? Defending your country, opposing your breast as a shield between England and her enemies, let the balls come: if they strike, it is for thousands your life is given. Victory! Safety to your country, the preservation of relations, friends, countrymen, all are in that word!

Travelling Sketches I: 135

For Porter, the heart of any of his countrymen must be awakened to enthusiasm and zeal by images of heroic sacrifice. His painting clearly seems to have functioned as an effort to invoke a patriotic response in just such a way. Notably, one commentator on Seringapatam, Thomas Dibdin, wrote that though as a young man he shuddered and retreated at the sight of the “carnage” in Porter’s work, he nonetheless “carried it home, and did nothing but think of it, talk of it, and dream of it”. For Dibdin the painting created a “longing to be leaping from crag to crag with Sir David Baird, hallowing his men on to victory.” Porter’s work could enable war to ‘come home’ by rendering war’s horrors through the lens of personal sacrifice for the nation, enabling the citizen to imaginatively join with Baird and the state to engage in war’s “hot and bloody fight” (qtd. in Altick 135). Certainly, Porter was not inviting any body to participate – the private soldier still remains anonymous and relegated to the background. Yet, his work seeks to refashion a certain middle-class subjectivity around this militarised identity; offering an individuated, ‘human’, soldier’s subjectivity to the ‘middle-class’ citizen viewer, Porter’s painting could interpellate the citizen into a nationalist framework as just such a citizen-soldier, helping to make the home a site for bloody dreams of military glory.

II. The “Melancholy Journey” of Letters from Portugal and Spain

The artist Joseph Farington also visited Seringapatam. He recorded his visit in his diary but commented little on the painting itself – his diary shows more interest in the events leading up to and surrounding the storming of Seringapatam and at one point he recalled “Lyson called read a letter from Major Lambton dated Seringapatam. Duke of York says best acct. of taking that fort that has been recd. –” (IV: 1405). Farington’s comment implies that the subaltern officer could hold a particularly significant location in understanding and circulating knowledge about war, just as officers’ eyewitness accounts would be one of the core elements in the production of Porter’s Seringapatam. But such accounts needed to be located correctly in relation to state sanctioned views of war. Farington defers to the Duke of York’s authority in order to ground the significance of Major Lambton’s letter, just as Porter grants Baird a central position in his painting in order to unite the personal sacrifice of subaltern officers with the state’s military effort. This very act of deferral nonetheless raises a spectre of a sociable soldier speaking on war as a ‘private individual’, implying the possibility of other perspectives of war than those sanctioned by the state.

Porter would come to write correspondence about the war as just such a personal eyewitness. Seemingly following his own injunction to become a citizen-soldier, Porter travelled with the British army in Portugal and Spain in 1808 as part of General Sir John Moore’s staff, and wrote about this experience in his Letters from Portugal and Spain (1809). Porter had already attracted enormous praise for the heroic efforts he had exerted in producing the massive Seringapatam in only 6 weeks (qtd. in Altick 135). The Narrative Sketches that accompanied the Seringapatam exhibition observed that the “popularity” which surrounded the painting was “universally attached to the enterprise of the Soldier, and the labours of the Artist” (vi). His work showed that military prowess could exist as firmly in the ‘annals of the country’ as on his canvas, suggesting that the (unknown) artist, as much as the (unknown) soldier, had a role to play in helping to secure the defence and glory of the nation. Porter had twinned the roles of the citizen and the soldier in producing his art, and would equally twin these roles in accompanying Moore to Spain.

But his resulting Letters would show that however much the citizen-soldier’s view might correspond with those of the state, the foregrounding of a humanised, citizen soldier is an act that inherently retains within itself the potential to reorient views of war, enabling war to be profoundly ‘misread’ as personal or domestic. In his The Face of Battle, John Keegan points out that by the time of the Napoleonic Wars, “[i]t was the receipt of wounds, not the infliction of death, which demonstrated an officer’s courage” (qtd. in De Landa 249). As De Landa observes, wounds operated for the officer as a physical marker of their self-motivated obedience to the demands of the army. This shift towards ‘passive’ courage had taken place since the introduction of ‘clockwork’ warfare, but such issues come to the fore in ‘motorized’ warfare as the officer’s exemplary courage, and not simply his maintenance of iron discipline, came to be a key ingredient in military management, helping to foster an ideology of self-sacrifice amongst soldier and civilian alike. But it is precisely in this foregrounding of personal wounds that the mass, corporate activity of warfare can most clearly come to seem solitary and corporeal. Foregrounding these wounds could produce the very kinds of sentimental responses to war that ‘state-centred’ views of war habitually sought to hold at bay (Favret 175-6).

Thomas Dibdin had observed just such a ‘misreading’ of war when he visited Seringapatam – though he left the painting longing to be fighting alongside General Baird, he reported too that he had observed women in the audience who fainted at the sight of the “wounded and dying” in the painting, and who had to be “carried out swooning” from the gallery (qtd. in Altick 135). Personal stories of war might achieve the very same effect. When, in Mansfield Park (1814), Austen imagines the midshipman William Price relating a personal tale of war, it is precisely a tale of “bodily hardships” and “suffering” that he will tell. Hearing his story, Henry Crawford would respond much like Dibdin and “longed to have been at sea, and seen and done and suffered as much”; Lady Bertram, however, recoiled in horror at the tale, asking how “any body could ever go to sea” (248-9). Foregrounding the efforts of the subaltern officer meant introducing an affective dimension into representations of war as personal wounds and suffering came to be key markers of military achievement and heroism. Where such representations were read in a personal or feminine manner, unmediated through an ‘ideology of sacrifice’, they could produce a wholly different response to war. Porter wrote his account as an anonymous individual, leaving his work dangerously unmediated by any reference to an acknowledged authority on war. The potential for an affective or sentimental dimension thus comes to the fore and it is precisely this affective dimension that will be reproduced through Porter’s Letters, as he recoils in horror from his personal encounter with war’s brutality.

Porter certainly attempted to legitimate his Letters by reproducing the kind of individuated heroic sacrifice he portrayed in Seringapatam. Through his Letters, Porter recounts his experiences during the months between the battles of Vimiero and Corunna, battles that Porter advises us were related to the British public in two extraordinary editions of the London Gazette and which he regards as having a glorious place in the “annals” of English military history (2). Though the campaign would witness the failure of British military objectives, with the British retreating after their march on Madrid, he insists on the virtues of the army itself, observing that despite their failure their spirit was dauntless. Linking the soldiers into a pantheon of historical British military heroes he observes “I see in every man who passes me the worthy son of our resistless ancestors of Blenheim and Dettengen” (222). As with Seringapatam Porter draws particular attention to the heroics of brave wounded and killed officers: he writes about the death in battle of Stanhorpe and Napier (297) and he reports on the wounding of Brigade-major Roberts, “a brave veteran, whose right hand was carried away by a shot, but not until he had gallantly buried the point which it held repeatedly in the hearts of those whose bayonets threatened him on all sides” (278). Just as Seringapatam was almost wholly based on reproducing factual, eyewitness accounts of soldiers’ personal suffering, so too, his Letters will insist that it is as this suffering solder that he can provide the truth of war. Porter specifically portrays himself in his Preface as just such a heroically wounded officer, claiming of himself: “as a soldier he felt, as a soldier he writes; and to a soldier who bled in the fields of Spain he hopes his readers will grant their indulgence” (iv).

But Porter fails to adequately draw his narrative back into line with a state centered view of war. What is striking about his Letters is, indeed, the extent to which he fails to achieve his stated aim of relating an account of the “march and actions” of the British army (iii). On arriving in Portugal, he is confronted with a scene of confusion and uncertainty and is unable to tell his reader anything about the military situation around him. He feels that he is less able to understand the situation around him than those at home in Britain who at least have access to information about the war through the newspapers; “on the spot” he states, “we find a bewildering labyrinth” (3). For Porter, to be present at scenes of war means to be in an environment in which circulate a “thousand fabrications … in the shape of information” and he advises his friend simply “all is doubt and wonder” (19, 3). Throughout his narrative, he and his fellow soldiers are consistently unable to obtain reliable information about military events, and writing later in the campaign he can only advise his friend, “I am sorry to say that information respecting the military movements … is very difficult to obtain” (146).

Porter registers the fact that he is unable to compose his own experiences according to what he regards, in relation to his sketching, as the “military rule” (21). As Porter begins to describe his experiences travelling through Portugal and Spain, he takes upon himself the task of describing what he views as “civil”, rather than “martial news” (48). His attention is primarily directed towards the landscapes, people and places around him. He specifically offers to be his friend’s “second eyes” (24) in the country, thus situating himself in the narrative as a double for his private friend rather than the commanding general. The narrative that results is an account of his travels through Portugal and Spain, and he largely downplays any mention of military activities. As the personal intrudes, so his narrative generically collapses into travel writing rather than a recognisable narrative of the campaign. Indeed, military matters are only ever dealt with perfunctorily - after writing to his friend with an account of the marches of the various commands in the army, for instance, he begins his next letter by stating “[m]y last was on military matters: being in those respects just as we were, I shall change to a more promising subject, and describe the beauties, ancient and modern, of Salamanca” (148). His travels constitute the more promising, and far more prominent, subject throughout his Letters.[7]

Though Porter will suggest, as the army closes on Madrid, that the array seemed delightful and to “promise a happy recontre with our enemies” (201), he is soon led to conclude, as the army begins its retreat: “[n]o pursuit of man produces such various feelings in the human breast as the events of a campaign. Scenes of exultation and regret chequer the path; but the latter, I am sorry to say, are generally most frequent” (210). Where Porter views war as a traveller, he comes to see the regret that is linked to war and a language of sensibility, with its intimate concern for human suffering, comes to the fore in his work. Indeed, as Janet Todd argues, sensibility was increasingly displaced from British culture through the 1790s and early 1800s, precisely because of the demands of nationalism and the war effort (131). As Timothy Fulford has observed of the period, the language of sensibility “risked seeming womanish and weak in an age in which manhood was increasingly defined in terms of a willingness to go to war” (Romanticism and Masculinity 10). Here, though, where Porter’s account no longer coincides with a nationalist framework, sensibility and its horrified recoil from suffering become the dominant mode for recounting war. He confesses that he had hoped to write encouraging letters of British military victories but instead, in responding to war simply from the sociable position of the gentleman traveller, the private citizen, he finds himself writing of the horrors he witnessed as an altogether different kind of suffering comes to press against this story; “far different” he advises his friend, “were the letters I expected to write to you from this land of vaunted enthusiasm” (258). He comes instead to relate an account of exhausted women struggling on the march with their new born infants, horses dying on the roads, dead bodies stripped of their uniforms by peasants, a “fearful paleness” (235) on the countenances of the soldiers, and he is forced to observe that “[f]amine, pestilence, and death are said to be three furies ever attendant on war! We have found the remark a just one!” (274).

If Porter comes to identify himself primarily as a traveller it is through a scene of desolation that he will ultimately travel, whilst the war will turn travelling itself into a form of suffering. Indeed, he repeatedly comes to complain about his suffering on the march and what results is not a celebratory vista of war, but war narrated as a “melancholy journey” filled with “raking spectacles of misery and death” (261). As he comes to view war as a traveller, the military become an intrusive force within the natural surroundings. The soldiers are viewed as a “discordant” accompaniment to romantic scenes through which he travels (251), whilst, with “all deference to orders” lost, the soldiers will come to destroy the landscape, setting fire to the villages and houses as they pass and “committing every excess” (254). Viewed from outside of a national perspective, he registers the destructive impact of the soldiers’ presence and war itself comes to seem brutal, no longer a means for national celebration or glory but a force of horrifying destruction. As the miseries attendant on war come to the fore in his account of the army’s retreat to Corunna, he will conclude to his friend, “I shall never forget the horrors of these dreadful days. The field of battle is a festival of honour; a sublime pageant. But this is war!” (264).

Though he is repeatedly unsettled by images of suffering, Porter does frequently attempt, at some level, to educate his audience into a correct reading of war’s miseries. He advises his reader after the battle of Corunna, for instance:

[o]fficial communications having been yesterday dispatched to ministers at home, in a light-sailing vessel that must arrive many a day before our heavy laden transports; you may be mourning the result of our action, the details of which, though steeped in blood, would make the proud consciousness of an Englishman check his lamentations, to break forth in glorying admiration of the slain.


Though he acknowledges that news of war may be mournfully ‘steeped in blood’, he insists that a proper response is to admire the slain, to glorify them as Englishmen. Repeatedly he will twin accounts of the soldiers’ bleeding with recognition of their “dauntless courage” (295) and “deathless laurels” (297), relocating the potential for sentimental pity into admiration and glory. He, indeed, argues that the “military philosophy” is precisely the ability to stoically endure suffering. Arguing that such a philosophy is as central to the soldier’s identity as being armed with “swords or firelocks”, he seeks to displace his own status as a traveller by effacing his personal suffering, claiming that sufferings which “though of consequence with the mere traveller to the soldier are of secondary moment” (76). He thus displaces his own feminine response to war by showing that soldiers suffer but asking us to recognise the stoical glory and national splendour that result from such suffering, indeed, asking us to recognize a military philosophy precisely in this stoical endurance of suffering that can, as Martin Jay argues, “transfigure horror into something culturally elevating” (18).

Nonetheless, he ultimately comes to refuse the ‘ideology of sacrifice’ that dominates thinking on war. He concludes his narrative by describing how he and his fellow soldiers returned home to Britain ravaged by illness and wounds. Observing that the local inhabitants kindly received “the sick officers into their houses” (313-4), he laments that even with such attention, “the numbers we have buried are incalculable. Our officers are dropping off hourly”. Summing up the campaign and the victorious battle of Corunna, Porter concedes,

[e]ven victory, that victory which cost us our commander, while it restored to us our rifled honour, and gave us the power of returning home as became free-born Britons, could not re-awaken the dead, could not revive the expiring soldiers whom Spanish deceit, by exposing them to want and unmentionable miseries, had even murdered.


If we again follow Martin Jay’s argument that the fraud of war is “the very belief in the resurrection of the dead, their symbolic recuperation through communal efforts to justify their alleged ‘sacrifice’ and ignore their unrecuperable pain” (24), we can see that, despite his rhetoric of victory and honour, Porter concludes his work by refusing any such recuperation of the dead. He seems incapable of escaping a “woe-begone tone,” viewing war simply as a “melancholy” experience (228, 281). Porter concludes, “[w]e few convalescents are overwhelmed with questions relative to our sufferings and our losses. I regret that my answers are even more dismal than the expectations of the interrogators” (316). He thus subverts his own ‘military philosophy’. The soldier is meant to arrest suffering through exulted glory and stoicism, but here, surrounded by his dying friends and comrades in a home in England, his story becomes even more dismal than anyone might expect. The awe with which the viewer of a panorama might witness war’s horrors, where wounding and violence become a “marvellous” sight of “shuddering awe” (qtd. in Altick 135), has been rendered instead through what Porter describes as “horrid scenes” of illness, hunger and death (261). War becomes a spectacle, he tells his friend, which would, if he were to relate in its entirety, “unman your heart, and send my reader weeping from the tale” (266). The individual reader is assumed to retreat into a private and mournful contemplation at the sight of war’s horrors rather than to participate in a communal celebration of wonder and awe.

III. Conclusion

Porter’s work can help to show that images and accounts of soldiers’ personal suffering did circulate through the Romantic period, in some contrast to recent assertions that there was an absence of such imagery (Shaw, Romantic Wars 3). Porter’s Seringapatam, indeed, was largely based on its reproduction of factual, eyewitness accounts of soldiers’ personal suffering. The period was invoking personal suffering as a specific mechanism for forging a wider identification with masculine militarised sacrifice. The subjective experience of soldiering that was thus being foregrounded could, nonetheless, be as much linked to horror as national splendour. Porter would recoil from war after personally travelling with the army on campaign, encountering not the spectacle of heroic death but the disturbing horrors of what Christensen describes as the “intimate, blind, and chronically tactical” world of the frontline soldier (4). As one commentator would observe in the Edinburgh Review in 1805, what was interesting and useful in reading of war was “our sympathy with the combatants, and the mingled emotions of pity, horror, and admiration” that we feel (“Military Memoirs” 468). Whether it engendered a response of horror or admiration, this ‘sympathy with the combatants’ emerged in the period as an important element in cultural representations of war. Perhaps most significantly then, we can see the spectacle of war that unfolds in Porter’s work as being centrally organised around an affective response to the individuated, humanised citizen-soldier; as a reviewer of his Letters commented “the Readers of his Letters will feel considerable gratification in reflecting they were written by a bleeding member of that brave army which suffered dreadful calamities to ensure their safety” (“Review” 848). Though his Letters seem to offer a melancholy view of war, refusing to sublate death into national glory, he still constructs a sympathetic identification with the soldier for his audience. Dibdin’s phantasmic identification with the heroics of general Baird’s men would see him bringing the painting ‘home’, but so too, at the conclusion of Porter’s Letters, we can see the convalescent soldier brought into the British home as a sympathetic individual.

It is precisely through forging links between the citizen and the soldier in a media spectacle that we could say modern or total war had emerged. Notably, we can see a growing cultural interest in the figure of the soldier, particularly the subaltern officer, through the period. Recent critical commentary has drawn attention to the way Austen emphasised the virtues of subaltern naval and military officers in her novels, but there is an even wider cultural context in which the subaltern officer was beginning to have a degree of cultural prominence.[8] Austen’s attitudes towards naval officers were reflected by Southey and Coleridge who both saw the British naval officer as coming to define national characteristics of “self-command, devotion to duty, and courage”, in contrast to a corrupt aristocracy (Fulford, ‘Romanticizing the Empire’ 165). Scott and Byron both found themselves uncomfortable with modern armies and the cold calculations of modern warfare, but even though their post-war writing would draw attention to war’s miseries they were both enamoured by the idea of personal involvement in the military (Gaull 165).[9] Scott would turn to the subaltern officer and reflect on individual military service throughout his Waverley novels, helping to establish the presence of the soldier hero in British culture (Dawson 72), whilst George Mosse regards Byron’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence as profoundly influencing what he terms the “Myth of the War Experience” in nineteenth century Europe, as voluntary service and personal death in battle came to play a crucial role in imagining war and national identity (30-2). J.E. Cookson suggests caution in supposing that there were larger impacts on British society in response to the period’s total war, but in this wider valorisation of the subaltern officer we can see a certain relocation of national identities (30). The citizen-soldier, as figured in the subaltern officer, was emerging as a prominent element for imagining a relationship between self and nation.

To some extent, we could see the media spectacle of the romantic period as a pre-cinematic forerunner of our contemporary media spectacle of war. But the prevalence of the subaltern officer underscores the fact that there are differences between this earlier Romantic spectacle and our own spectacle of war. Rather than taking the audience to sites of military conflict in an imaginative identification with the soldier, we might say that our contemporary media spectacle denudes war of humans, it offers us a ‘weapon's-eye view’ of war, the view from smart bombs and machines, asking us for political acquiescence in the face of a war machine that increasingly has little role for the citizen soldier.[10] Michael Shapiro observes that “specific, suffering bodies” have been removed from representations of contemporary war, as “war discourse has increasingly moved from images of flesh to images of weapons and logistics” (75). But we can see these ‘specific, suffering bodies’ clearly emphasised in Porter’s work; the suffering soldier is central to the way he imagined war. The romantic spectacle of war set out to locate the human into war, to create the citizen-soldier.