The British Empire Library

A Question of Honour: The Life of Lieutenant General Valentine Baker Pasha

by Anne Baker

by R.T.S.
Valentine Baker (1827-87) was, according to the present Marquis of Anglesey in his authoritative History of the British Cavalry, 'one of the most remarkable cavalrymen of the age ... one of the few really thoughtful, progressive innovators in the British cavalry'. A brave, keen, professional soldier with war experience in Southern Africa and the Crimea, who had studied cavalry on the continent. He was the successful and innovative commanding officer of the the 10th Hussars from 1860 to 1873. He had wealth and was a close friend of the heir to the throne. He was publicly praised by the Duke of Cambridge as one of the best officers in the army, and was expected to have an outstanding career. But in 1875, following an incident with a young lady in a first-class railway compartment between Woking and Esher, he was convicted of indecent assault, sentenced to a year's imprisonment, and dismissed from the army, 'Her Majesty having no further occasion for his services'. He joined the Ottoman service, fought with distinction in the Russo-Turkish War, became commander of the Egyptian police, fought in the eastern Sudan, and died in Egypt in November 1887. The Times obituary stated that his career 'but for one lamentable blot might have been among the most brilliant in our service.

Although there is an article on Valentine Baker in the Dictionary of National Biogiaphy and another by Michael Barthorp in the British Army Review (1984), and aspects of his life are covered in various books. In 1996, however, Leo Cooper published his first biography, Mrs Anne Baker's A Question of Honour: The Life of Lieutenant General Valentine Baker Pasha. Mrs Baker's biography is not in the style of the odious Strachey. She is apparently by marriage a member of the same family as Valentine Baker, and she has written a loyal, affectionate biography apparently suffused with family pietas: essentially a eulogy of and apologia for her hero. It describes Baker's family background, early life, military career, study of horses and cavalry, the 1875 episode, his later career, the attempts of the Prince of Wales and others to obtain his reinstatement in the British army, the deaths of his daughter and wife, and finally his own death with 'a broken heart'. It is an interesting, if sometimes sad story. Mrs Baker's biography draws on family and other letters and the Royal Archives. It is well illustrated with photographs of Baker, his family - including his beautiful daughter Hermione who, had she lived, would probably have married Kitchener - and portrayals of scenes of the Sudan war. The book has maps and a list of sources, but few and inadequate footnotes.

There is much of value in the book, yet regrettably it is flawed by inaccuracy, omission and dubious interpretation. The 1875 episode is, though distasteful, crucial. According to the book. Baker was the victim of a hysterical girl whom he had attempted only to kiss, and at the trial Miss Dickinson 'had only said that he had "insulted her'". The authoress states that she used 'The Times' report of the trial. However, her use was selective. That report shows that Miss Dickinson said much more than that she had been 'insulted'. One could consider in detail the evidence, but perhaps this is not the place: anyone wishing to decide for themselves can read the report on page 10 of The Times of 3 August 1875. This reviewer's own conclusion from the total evidence - not just what Miss Dickinson said but what she did, and witnesses' testimony on what the authoress tactfully calls the 'disarray' of Baker's clothes - was that The Times and Queen Victoria may well have been right in their view of the episode. The Times editorial claimed 'the jury took a lenient view of the case ... we feel that Colonel Baker may think himself fortunate.' The Queen wrote to her eldest daughter, 'Was there ever such a thing and such a position for a young girl?' However, while the Queen's sympathies were for Miss Dickinson, those of the present authoress are for Valentine Baker. Indeed, throughout the book there is apparently a tendency to rose-tinted spectacles in viewing him and his associates, and to omission of what might be considered detrimental to him. That his father was a slave-owner and the family fortune gained partly from slave labour are omitted, as are his buying most of his promotions and his command of the 10th Hussars. The description of the Prince of Wales' set as 'light hearted' is unduly favourable for a clique characterised by gambling, gluttony, adultery and bullying - notably of the unfortunate Christopher Sykes. The authoress omits that when Baker was inspector general of the Egyptian police he concentrated on the paramilitary gendarmerie, leaving the civil police in the provinces unreformed so that, as Milner wrote, 'the police proper suffered in consequence'. One odd omission is of any mention of the attempt at Gumurdjina in early 1879 to poison Baker and Burnaby.

The book is in places dissatisfyingly vague. For example the tragic early deaths of Hermione and of Mrs Baker - so important to Baker - are unexplained: in fact they were from typhoid. The authoress's historical knowledge is somewhat shaky. Among the book's errors are statements that the 10th Hussars had been armed with muskets and lances; that Arabi Pasha was young in 1882; that the bombardment of Alexandria was 'followed by immediate support from the British Army under Sir Garnet Wolseley' - in fact Wolseley arrived over a month later; that when he saw Gordon off from London Wolseley 'hastily pressed three hundred gold sovereigns into his hand'; and that at Khartoum Gordon flew the Union Jack. The Illustrated London News special war artist is in the text called Melton Bird, and in the picture caption Welton Prior. The editor of the Pall Mall Gazette is called W.T. Head, and Sir Philip Magnus is cited as the author of Kitchener, Architect of Victory.

The absence of a biography of Valentine Baker had been an odd gap in the historiography of the Victorian period. Despite its limitations, A Question of Honour is certainly well worth reading.

British Empire Book
Anne Baker
Leo Cooper


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