There is something about coming second or even outright failure and disaster that is important about being British because, unique amongst nations, we have a talent for turning disappointment into success and accepting failure equally as we embrace victory and triumph. This ability to absorb failure and turn it into a triumph is an exclusive characteristic that contributes to the British Bulldog spirit.
Captain Robert Falcon Scott was a Royal Navy officer and explorer who led two expeditions to the Antarctic regions, the Discovery Expedition, 1901–04, and the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition, 1910–13. During this second venture, Scott led a party of five which reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, only to find that they had been preceded by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition. They Failed! Let’s not misintepret this, they Failed! On their return journey, Scott and his four comrades all perished from a combination of exhaustion, starvation and extreme cold. And here is the point because even though he failed in his quest Scott became an iconic British hero, a status maintained ever since.
History is in fact littered with failed military battles and disasters that we have perversely turned into iconic moments of British history. 1066 and the Norman invasion – we were invaded and conquered! Dunkirk and the Charge of the Light Brigade but my favourite example is the Battle of Isandlwana on 22nd January 1879, which was the first major encounter in the Zulu War between the all conquering British Empire machine and the Zulu Kingdom of South Africa. Eleven days after the British commenced their invasion a Zulu army attacked a portion of the British main column consisting of nearly two thousand mixed British and colonial forces. The Zulus were armed with the traditional assegai iron spears and protected by cow hide shields and the British were armed with the then state of the art Martini-Henry breech loading rifle. Despite a vast disadvantage in weapons technology, the Zulus ultimately overwhelmed the poorly led and badly deployed British, killing over one thousand, three hundred troops, whilst suffering only around a thousand casualties of their own.
The battle was a decisive victory for the Zulus and caused the defeat of the first British invasion. The British army had received its worst ever defeat fighting against a technologically inferior indigenous force. However, the defeat of the British forces at Isandlwana was turned into a victory just a few days later with the successful defence of Rorke’s Drift which simply erased the memory of the ignominious defeat!
Other disasters have also been turned into iconic successes. The RMS Titanic was the largest passenger steamship in the world and pronounced unsinkable when she set off on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York on 10th April 1912. Four days into the crossing, at twenty to midnight on 14th April, she struck an iceberg and sank just over two hours later the following morning, resulting in the deaths of 1,517 people in one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history.
In sport, the boxer Henry Cooper became a national hero for failing to beat Cassius Clay in a 1966 World heavyweight championship fight, Tim Henman is revered for only ever reaching the Wimbledon tennis semi-finals which is another example of the British stoic acceptance of failure and in the world of entertainment we actually seem to enjoy the annual ritual humiliation of the Eurovision song contest.
And it would seem that we can as a nation get mixed up about heroes and villains. I think that few would disagree that Winston Churchill was probably the greatest Briton of all time. I know that I can say this with some confidence because in 2002 the BBC conducted a nationwide poll to identify who the public thought this was. The result was a foregone conclusion and Churchill topped the poll with 28% of the votes. Second in the poll was the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel who received nearly 25% of the votes. These two I fully agreed with but in third place, and goodness knows what the public must have been thinking, was Princess Diana! Now, the only thing that I can see that Princess Diana ever did was to whine a lot about having to live in palaces, wear expensive jewellery and eat gourmet food and try to undermine and destroy the Royal Family. Not so long ago you could have your head cut off for that sort of thing but by some bizarre twist the British have turned this disastrous woman into a heroine.