Military subjects were clearly a favourite with McGonagall. They allowed him to combine his penchant for death and disaster with flag-waving patriotism. An action in which Scottish regiments took part was especially likely to inspire a “gem”, if only for commercial reasons.

Gems were inspired by stories in the newspapers about the various battles to preserve Queen Victoria’s empire, but also by events further back in history – a subject in which McGonagall seems to have had a keen interest. He must have had access to some fairly detailed sources, since while the likes of Bannockburn and Waterloo would have been known to any Scot, events like the capture of Havana or the siege of Matagorda are very obscure. Perhaps one of his patrons leant him some source books.

Late in his life, McGonagall claimed to have once been a soldier himself, having been in the Perthshire Militia as a young man. No records have been found to confirm this claim.

Medieval and Early Modern Warfare

The middle ages was a period which fascinated the Victorians, and McGonagall was no exception. Whilst he avoided those subjects already covered by his beloved Shakespeare, he found plenty more death and destruction to inspire his muse.

Jacobite Rebellions 1715-16 & 1745-46

The two risings in favour of the Stuart claimants for the British crown, the “fifteen” and the “forty-five” gave rise to some of the last battles fought on British soil. Romanticised accounts of these events were popular in Victorian Britain, a well-known example being Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped published in 1886.

Seven Years War 1756-1763

The Seven Years War was the first global conflict, fighting taking place in North America (where it’s known as the “French and Indian War”) and India as well as across Europe. McGonagall, however, has picked out a little-known action in the Caribbean…

French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars 1792-1815

For nearly a quarter of a century Britain was almost continually at war with France, initially under its revoultionary regime, then under the formidable Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Again, fighting took place across the globe, and many territories gained during this period went on to form the bedrock of the British Empire. McGonagall would probably have met veterans of this conflict in his youth (maybe even in the Perthshire Militia) and it inspired the largest number of his military poems.

Second Anglo-Sikh War 1848-49

During the nineteenth century, the British slowly extended their hold over the whole of the Indian subcontinent, fighting a series of wars to secure their gains. The Second Anglo-Sikh War saw the end of the independent Sikh nation and the incorporation of the Punjab into British India.

Crimean War 1854-55

Britain’s first European war for forty years, this war with Russia was conducted with quite extraordinary incompetence by the British generals. The most memorable event – and poem – of the war was the Charge of the Light Brigade, but McGonagall adds a couple more…

Indian Mutiny 1857-58

The rebellion of Indian soldiers, and much of the native population, sent shock waves throughout Victorian Britain. Marked by acts of barbarism on both sides, the events of the mutiny were still inspiring McGonagall to write twenty years later.

Third Ashanti War 1873

Typical of many of the “small wars” fought to maintain Queen Victoria’s empire, the Second Ashanti War saw a powerful West African nation brought to heel.

Second Afghan War 1878-1880

Zulu War 1879

Border disputes led to this conflict, remembered in the movie “Zulu”. Though successful at first, the Zulu nation was eventually destroyed.

First Boer War 1881

Egyptian Revolt 1882

Mahdist Uprising 1883-85

Reconquest of Sudan 1896-98

Second Boer War 1899-1902

Other Military Subjects