Although I am no longer very young – or perhaps because of this – I am greatly drawn to vintage books for children and young adults. The stories told and the values they embody are often vastly different from those we encounter today. The world of these books is a world where Westerners struggle in love, war, work, and school without the burden of guilt based on race, sex, and the like. One common theme is personal courage and the triumph of brave individuals over adversity.
One such book, A Book of Brave Deeds (Chicago : Auxiliary Educational League, 1947), collects famous stories of heroism, mainly in times of war, for the benefit of its readers. Here, I encountered a story I’d never heard before: Sergeant Custume’s heroic sacrifice defending the Irish town of Athlone from English and Dutch forces during the Williamite War in Ireland (1689-1691). The war was fought between the supporters of Protestant William III (William of Orange) and those of the Catholic James II, over who would be King of England, Scotland, and Ireland. James had been deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 by William, who ruled jointly with James’s daughter Mary.
At the peak of James’s efforts to recover the crown, Irish and French forces (James was supported by Louis XIV) controlled most of the major towns in Ireland outside of the province of Ulster. James affirmed the independence of an Irish Parliament and promised to restore lands to the Catholic Gentry which had been confiscated in the 1652 Act for the Settlement of Ireland. Williamite forces, including English, German, Dutch, Danish, and French troops, gained significant ground with their victory in the Battle of the Boyne (June 1690), but failed to dislodge the French and Irish from Limerick.
William entrusted the Dutch general Godert de Ginkell with the taking of the strategically important town of Athlone on the River Shannon. The bloody siege of Athlone was the occasion of the “brave deed” here related. The east part of the city had already been taken by Ginkell, but the Irish occupying the west part – across the river – bunkered down. Ginkell proceeded to reduce the Irish section of the city to rubble with his guns, but was prevented from entering it by a break in the bridge. To solve this problem, the “wily” general made use of a wheeled drawbridge designed by a German engineer (!) and was able to outmaneuver Irish opposition to set it in place. Athlone was doomed. At this moment the hero appears:
A sergeant in Maxwell’s dragoons, Custume by name, grasped the situation at a glance, and cried aloud, as he stepped out from the huddled ranks of his comrades, in words that Irish history will never cease to preserve —
“Are there ten men here, who will die with me for Ireland?”
Not a second’s pause now—there were not ten, but hundreds upon hundreds; and from amongst the strongest and most active of them the devoted sergeant picked out the number he had stated. All of them were in the full armour of their corps-back-piece and front-piece of wrought steel, thigh pieces that stood out over the knee as well, and great jackboots of horsehide, stout enough to ward off most bullets, and to resist any sabre-slash the arm of man could deliver.
“Fling aside your swords, men; ’tis axes we want!” was the sergeant’s next order.
Immediately he was obeyed, for there were plenty of tools all around, and then, with the simple words, “Follow me, boys – for Ireland!” Custume ran up to the inside of the Irish breastwork, climbed over it with the agility of a cat, and landed on the opposite side face to face with the English, was closely followed by his sacrificial ten, and forthwith all set to work to hew away the gallery, to wrench up and fling into the river the planks just laid down, to destroy the dire machine designed to destroy themselves, their comrades, and their cause!
The eleven are mowed down by artillery, but not before doing considerable damage to the gallery, and they are followed by another nine who manage to destroy it, sending an “exultant scream of triumph” up from the Irish soldiers. Of these, only two are able to return to their side alive. The story does not end in victory, for Athlone was eventually captured “chiefly owing to the absurd conflicts between [French general] Saint Ruth and the Irish commanding officers,” but the English “never made the slightest impression by way of the bridge which the twenty Irish Heroes died in defending.”
The story perhaps does not need any particular comment; but why do we not tell our boys stories like this anymore? The broad reason is the proliferation of a kind of pacifism within our culture: celebration of battle and of the sacrifice of one’s life for one’s country is supposed to be what got us into the carnage of the First World War and beyond. While there may be some truth to this, I am more impressed by the fact that these stories celebrate courage regardless of the affiliation of the courageous person. Thus the English have long admired their enemy Joan of Arc, for instance. Americans once were capable of admiring the bravery of American Indians without regretting that the Indians were ultimately defeated.
The story of Sergeant Custume is taken from Stephen J. Mac Kenna’s Brave Men in Action: Some Thrilling Stories of the British Flag (Sampson Low: London, 1878), and can be found in part on Google Books. The author explains his purpose as follows:
In the mass of Military and Naval history which we have as a nation by this time accumulated, individual efforts, in contra-distinction to the greater operations of Armies and Fleets, are apt to become forgotten – we lose sight of the Soldier or Sailor in the vast labours of the Commander-in-Chief or the Admiral.
“Brave Men In Action” is intended to make the Person more prominent than the Force, and therefore in most of the articles Incidents are brought boldly into the foreground of the picture, while the Action is only outlined so far as is needful to the proper comprehension of the selected deed of daring.
Some stories of this sort are true and others mainly fiction, but they show a true side of man, one upon which civilization depends. I think we need to go back to teaching our children, and ourselves, the “proper comprehension” of brave deeds.