O is for James O’Malley

I wasn’t exactly spoiled for choice for Os. I chose O’Malley because his book gave me a chance to lament the regrettable transparency of the internet. As you can see his book was published in Canada. I’d guess his sales in the United Kingdom amounted to precisely none. Back in the old days, before the internet, if you lived over here and wanted a copy of O’Malley, you could whistle. There weren’t any to be had. You needed to go to a grand bookshop like Maggs that had contacts in Canada through the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers. (And yes, you’ve guessed correctly: then and later, ILAB’s main aim was not to sell books cheaply.) Today if you go into the out of print part of www.addall.com you’ll find thirty eight copies. Some of these are duplicates, the result of a single bookseller listing the same copy on more than one site, but all the same there are at least twenty different copies of O’Malley’s book for sale. Here is a screen shot of the bottom of the list.

Numbers 34 and 38 appear to be copies of the original edition. 38 is probably fairly evil, but 34 sounds as though it would look all right on the shelf and is a good deal cheaper than mine. It’s numbers 33, 35 and 36 I want you to take a look at. Diamond geezers, Hanse Books, aren’t they? Fancy going to so much time and trouble to preserve “historical literature” for the future. Actually no: they’ve gone to very little trouble; they own a digital printing machine which uses laser imaging to transfer data direct from a source, usually a CD nowadays, to paper. A few years ago, an underpaid hack went through O’Malley page by page taking photos and transferring them to a CD. Once that had been done, the owners of the CD can print off copies whenever they get an order. It is called Print On Demand or POD for short. Wherein lies the catch? Simple. The technology reproduces exactly what is in front of it including library markings, marginalia and the like.

Having mentioned them, I can’t resist a comment about marginalia. I’ve already referred to Coleridge whose marginalia take up six volumes of his Collected Works. Unfortunately your POD copy is unlikely to have been annotated by Coleridge. Nor even by Joe Orton, who in 1962 was convicted with his lover, Ken Halliwell, for defacing library books belonging to Islington Library, an institution that now displays them proudly. Librarians themselves don’t always resist temptation: A N Wilson in Our Times gives examples of how Philip Larkin and Monica Jones enjoyed themselves amending Iris Murdoch’s Flight from the Enchanter. But any obscenity you encounter in a POD won’t have been penned by Larkin. More likely your POD will have meaningless underlinings and asterisks. What it won’t begin to match is the chapter on marginalia in Kevin Jackson’s Invisible Forms.

Kevin Jackson also has a chapter on dedications, another part of a book that the careless reader often overlooks. By way of example he dedicates Invisible Forms “To Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II” pointing out that while “Her Majesty only authorises dedications in exceptional circumstances….Her Majesty does not positively forbid such dedications.” Perhaps the same thing was true of Governor Generals because O’Malley dedicated his book to Lord Stanley, Governor General of Canada, and his publisher went a step further by using the royal arms on the front cover instead of the regimental badge.

This Gale and Polden postcard shows the badge of the 17th (The Leicestershire) Regiment in 1910. As with most regiments, the badge evolved. When he enlisted in 1852, O’Malley’s cap badge displayed a fiercer animal. Colonel E A H Webb, the regimental historian, records how on 25th June 1825, the king approved the regiment “bearing on its colours and appointments the figure of the ‘Royal Tiger’ with the word ‘Hindoostan’ superscribed, as a lasting testimony of the exemplary conduct of the corps during the period of its service in India, from 1804 to 1823.” Thus the regiment’s association with tigers antedates The Leicester Tigers Rugby Club by sixty years. In the years before the First World War the 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment had a fifteen of its own called – unsurprisingly – The Tigers. The Tigers, captained by Clive Liddell, who was a founder member of the Army Rugby Union in 1906, won the army rugby cup in 1908, 1911 and 1912. They missed the first cup in 1907 because they were in India.

O’Malley remembers the sergeant who recruited him calling the regiment the ‘Royal Bengall Tigers’. The reason is obvious: the recruiting sergeant wanted to use the word ‘royal’, despite the fact that the 17th wasn’t a royal regiment, and didn’t in fact gain royal status until 1946, so he took advantage of its badge being a royal tiger. O’Malley on the cover of his book went a step further; he not only pulled the same Royal Bengall Tigers trick, but also used the royal arms. In these circumstances, I think Lord Stanley may have regretted allowing a “dedication by express permission to His Excellency, Lord Stanley K.C.B. Governor General of Canada, by his grateful servant, the author.” Anyway, the nickname Royal Bengall Tigers is rare. Bengal Tigers and Green Tigers were both in common use. O’Malley has the recruiting sergeant refer to “lilly white facings.” Lily Whites was another nickname used in O’Malley’s day and refers to the “greyish white” facings which were replaced by plain white in 1881. The facings of a dress uniform are its inside lining which is only visible at the cuffs in the Simkin drawing below.

This is the scarlet uniform the recruiting sergeant of the 17th will have worn when persuading O’Malley to take the queen’s shilling in Galway in 1851. In place of the helmet O’Malley describes how he wore a “neat jaunty little forage cap” from which “a bunch of gay coloured ribbons floated in the air….”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The first thing I did when pulling the book from its shelf was to look up Balaclava. Having just written N is for Captain Nolan, I wondered what, if anything, O’Malley made of the charge. (I should have known that the 17th landed in the Crimea after Balaclava but didn’t.) Pages 133 to 145 are taken up by a first hand account of the battle supposedly delivered by “one of the Enniskilliners who was employed in despatch duty on General Pennyfeather’s staff, whose tent stood in convenient proximity to ours.” It is a farrago of nonsense. Nolan is described as an Enniskillin Dragoon who was allowed by Lord Cardigan to lead the Charge and “rushed through the enemy’s ranks backwards cutting them left and right before a bullet laid him low.” As you’ll know from N is for Nolan, Nolan was a light cavalryman and was killed by a Russian shell hundreds of yards before the Charge reached the Russian lines.

O’Malley’s chapter 6 (pages 69 to 76) contains an equally bad, supposedly firsthand account of the battle of Inkerman delivered by “Michael Kelly, a friend of mine from Galway, who was in the 88th regiment….” Likewise his chapter 2 (pages 14 to 28) is given over entirely to an account of the Battle of Waterloo supposedly delivered by the sergeant who recruited him. The speech is clearly cobbled together from a general account of the battle and has nothing specific either to the sergeant, who was “an active participant”, or to the 17th, which was in India at the time. The recruiting sergeant concludes with a rendition of The Soldier’s Dream by Campbell. But as T Ho demonstrates pretty conclusively in The Afterlife of Thomas Campbell and ‘The Soldier’s Dream’ in the Crimean War the poem was effectively rediscovered only in 1854. It had been out of print until 1853 when a collected edition of Campbell’s works was published. So it’s really not at all likely that a recruiting sergeant would have been spouting it in 1851. It’s possible O’Malley heard the poem in the Crimea but I’d bet he first read it in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury first published in 1861. Ho’s article, which is a lot more interesting than it sounds, is at https://19.bbk.ac.uk/article/id/1622/

The Soldier’s Dream is a good deal better than most of the poems used to further bulk out O’Malley’s narrative. Two of them are lifted straight from Thomas Faughnan’s Stirring Incidents in the Life of a British Soldier. Here is the beginning of Faughnan’s

Faughnan, who describes himself proudly on his titlepage as “late Colour Sergeant 2nd Battalion 6th Royal Fusiliers”, was a great deal more successful as an author than O’Malley. His book went into at least three editions. He had been in the 17th prior to 1860 and is described as “my dear old comrade” by O’Malley who acknowledges his “valuable assistance” in his preface.

What O’Malley doesn’t copy from Faughnan or any other author are several evocative descriptions of events in which he was personally involved. The six page description of his recruitment in the first chapter lacks life and was probably written at the last moment at the behest of his publisher. By contrast, his third and fourth chapters about garrison life in Dublin are vivid. They include information about the visit of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1852 and the funeral of the Duke of Wellington in London when O’Malley was one of the men selected from the 17th to accompany the cortege. The core of the book is his seventh, eighth and ninth chapters, from pages 76 to 133, about life in the trenches before Sebastopol from 2nd December 1854 to 8th September 1855 and the expedition to Kinburn in October 1855. Two high spots are an excellent description of collecting supplies by mule from the harbour at Balaclava and an account of the failed attack on the Great Redan. The rest of his service in Canada from 1856 to June 1862, when he took his discharge, occupies less than a page. That he was corporal in charge of the regimental police is a detail we owe to Colour Sergeant John Snasdell of the 17th whose letter of introduction precedes the preface. We know nothing about his life before or after he was in the army.

The photo above is from the regimental history, a book which follows the model of Cannon’s Historical Records series. Its account of the assault on the Great Redan is pedestrian. Captain Croker on the extreme right of the photo commanded the grenadier company and died in the assault. The action is described from page 29 onwards in The Leicestershire Historian number 42 (2006). Here you will find extracts from O’Malley’s account juxtaposed with those of several other soldiers who sent letters home that were subsequently printed in the Leicester Advertiser and other local papers. Robin Jenkins’ article, which has excellent pictures of the Russian defence works at Sebastopol, is at


One of the letter writers, John Dexter, was, like O’Malley, a grenadier in Captain Croker’s company. There are differences of detail between the two men, but none that aren’t explicable by O’Malley’s own caveat, “Nobody but those who have been in the battle, can form any opinion of how little any individual knows of what is going on around him, except just in his immediate vicinity, consequently if any one particular attack were described by say half a dozen men, each description would differ widely from the others as probably no two men would have the same experience even in the same battle, although they might be separated by only a few yards during the action.” O’Malley’s account of the Great Redan is as immediate as any of the others. You wouldn’t guess it was written more than thirty years later. Perhaps it wasn’t. When he enlisted in 1851 he will have been between eighteen and twenty five years of age. In his preface he writes that no man of less than forty “should undertake to be his own biographer” and that, since his career as a soldier has ended, he feels justified in offering his memoirs. This suggests to me very strongly that he may have written his three central pieces for a Canadian newspaper or magazine, shortly after he reached the age of forty, so sometime in the late 1860s or early 1870s.

O’Malley introduced his book with yet another of Thomas Faughnan’s poems. Risible stuff with none of the melancholy grandeur of Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade. Still we shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. This is the way these two old soldiers chose to remember their war.

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