Victorian military history offers a range of texts, both fiction and non-fiction, for use in English.
Stories & Poetry
Perhaps one of the most famous Victorian poems is Tennyson's - somewhat cheesey - Crimean War epic, Charge of the Light Brigade. Less well known, and overshadowed by the war poetry of the First World War, is Thomas Hardy's Drummer Hodge, set in the South African War (1899 to 1902). Of course mention must be made of Rudyard Kipling's Barrack Room Ballads, of which Tommy is a good example. Considered patronising by some and with perhaps over-theatrical, sanitised Cockney dialect, they do, though, capture something of the Victorian soldier's life. As a journalist in India and later, South Africa, Kipling had first-hand experience of his subject. There is evidence that the real 'Tommy Atkins' appreciated at least some of his verse.
Stories with an 'Empire' theme were popular in their day, but were largely of the Boys Own Paper type and today would be considered racist and largely unpalatable for modern readers. None can be considered 'classics'. Kipling's Kim (set in British India) and some of his short-stories might be worth a look for older KS2 pupils. If you do not mind stretching the boundaries of the subject and straying into the American Civil War you could look at Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895), which is considered to be one of the greatest novels written about war and its psychological effects. Interestingly, Crane did not serve in that conflict and only experienced war as a correspondent after it was published.
This is not a subject that modern children's writers seem to have tackled. The only one I know (and as I read his books as a boy, they are barely modern!) is Ronald Welch who wrote a number of stories about a military dynasty, the Carey family, two of which have a Victorian setting (Ensign Carey and Nicholas Carey). It is not as if this was an entirely adult world. Drummer boys and band boys (often soldiers' orphans) accompanied their regiments across the Empire and it was a 12 year old Boer boy who is reputed to have shot and killed the British commander, General Colley, at the battle of Majuba Hill in the Transvaal War of 1882. Is anyone inspired to write a children's book?
The subject is particularly rich in non-fiction texts. Victorian soldiers wrote diaries, journals and letters and retrospective accounts of their campaigns, many of which were published. Victorian military history is a popular subject today and many anthologies of soldiers' writings have been published, if the Victorian originals seem too indigestible. Obviously the writings of officers predominate, but the increasingly literate 'other ranks' had their say too. Accounts of the 'other side' are also gradually becoming available as researchers unearth accounts of, say, the Zulu perspective of the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War.
The period saw the genesis of the war correspondent, one of the most famous being William Howard Russell of The Times, who reported on the shambles in the Crimea (several of his accounts can be found in these web pages). Before embarking on a political career, Winston Churchill famously reported on campaigns in India, the Sudan and South Africa, whilst still a serving army officer.
There are plenty of opportunities for examining persuasive writing. Pupils could argue for or against retaining flogging in the army; raise the issue of poor equipment (such as rifles jamming with sand in the Sudan and cheap bayonets bending - this has a modern ring to it!); complain about appalling conditions in the Crimea; and debate the rather dubious causes of the South African War.
Below are just two examples of Victorian soldiers' writings:
From the memoirs of Sergeant-Major Smith, 11th Hussars, who took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade:
It was on a bright May morning in 1833, that a cavalry regiment marched into a pretty country town and formed up in the market place directly opposite my master's shop ... This was the first time I had seen a regiment of cavalry with their mounted band and I became enchanted with them, particularly when I thought of what a glorious life theirs must be to mine ... condemned to stand behind a counter from Monday morning to Saturday night...
A soldier's letter home:
February 24 1900
Hospital train going to Cape Town
Just to let you know I am getting on famously and hope to be home soon. I was hit by a bullet in the right forearm at Pardeberg ... and they had to take it off below the elbow. They have made a famous job of it, I have no pain and am eating heartily. It will be quite easy to strap a hand on to the stump. We had three days in bullock carts after we were wounded ... coming ... to ... where the Hospital train picked us up yesterday evening. We are all very comfortable and hope to be on the way home before long. You must not worry about me as I am really all right. I am lying in bed smoking a cigar and dictating this letter. With much love I am your affectionate son,
George [Lance-Corporal George Harris, Essex Regiment]
Dictated. The above statements are true. Your son is coming on very well.