At a time when the British Army is going through something of a crisis — plucked from the frying pan of Iraq only to be plunged into the fire of Afghanistan, with inadequate equipment, a lack of clear objectives, mounting casualties and dwindling public support — it might not appear to be the best moment to publish a history of the Second Service’s achievements since the days of Cromwell.
At a time when the British Army is going through something of a crisis — plucked from the frying pan of Iraq only to be plunged into the fire of Afghanistan, with inadequate equipment, a lack of clear object- ives, mounting casualties and dwindling public support — it might not appear to be the best moment to publish a history of the Second Service’s achievements since the days of Cromwell.
Yet Allan Mallinson, a former soldier best known for his Matthew Hervey series of historical novels, has approached this book with a purpose: to explain how and why ‘his’ army has become what it is today — ‘extraordinarily capable in spite of its small size’ — by looking at the people and events that have shaped its past.
He rightly flags up the formation of the New Model Army — ‘superbly disciplined, equipped and trained’ — during the English Civil War as the model for the first royal standing army raised by Charles II in 1661 (the father of the modern British Army). But he is wrong to attribute the New Model Army to the vision of Oliver Cromwell; it was rather the brainchild of Sir Thomas Fairfax, the Commander-in-Chief of the Parliamentarian forces.
The author does, however, give due credit to George Monck, the former Cromwellian commander, whose march on London in 1660 made the Restoration — and the subsequent creation of the English (and later British) Army — possible. Monck believed it was his duty ‘to keep the military power in obedience to the civil’, and so have most British generals since. But not all have kept out of politics — as evidenced by General Dannatt’s recent comments on Iraq — and Mallinson might have had more to say on the subject if he had read Hew Strachan’s excellent Politics of the British Army.
Herein lies his problem. Mallinson seems unaware of the work of many historians of the army, and his grasp of certain details is a little shaky. He makes no mention, for example, of the many significant reforms of the army prior to the Crimean War, and his account of the lead up to the Indian Mutiny is riddled with errors. He has, moreover, a tendency to overpraise the army’s combat performance, noting that in the second world war it had ‘beaten the Germans (and the Japanese)’ as if it had done so without the vital contribution of the American and Russian armies.
Not surprisingly, the book concentrates on the high points of British soldiering with detailed accounts of derring-do at Blenheim, Dettingen, Plassey, Minden, Corunna (like Dunkirk a ‘victory’ snatched from the jaws of defeat), Waterloo, Rorke’s Drift, Omdurman and El Alamein. Yet, for a novelist, Mallinson’s descriptions of these battles are curiously anaemic and could do with more direct quotation from all ranks to liven them up. In general we get little sense of the social make-up of the army, or what life was like for an ordinary soldier at peace or war.
Mallinson is better at identifying the significance of certain battles. Of Blenheim, he writes:
The strategic-logistical brilliance of the march to the Danube, the tactical daring of the night approach to contact, the unorthodoxy of the infantry-cavalry deployments, the all-arms co-ordination, and the sheer aggressive use of the infantry in particular — all these set the standard for British troops.
The Corunna campaign ‘was a prelude to eventual victory over Napoleon as significant as Dunkirk to D-Day’, while Alamein ‘quite simply put fight back into the army’ and made the slog from ‘Normandy to the Baltic’ possible.
In charting three and a half centuries of army history, the narrative incorporates most of the key reforms, the creation of different corps, the advances in tactics and strategy, and the effects of new technology. It stresses the depressing cycle of savage budget cuts that inevitably follow a successful military campaign — so forfeiting most of the advantages gained — and notes, too, the innate conservatism of the army and its unwillingness to accept change unless it has to (usually during a war).
Yet Mallinson is surely right to stress the one enduring quality of the British Army: ‘operational resilience’. Despite many setbacks, he writes, the army has usually had the ability
to absorb the shock of tactical defeat, to adjust plans in the light of experience, to take the fight back to the enemy early and regain the initiative, winning the key battles of the campaign and in the end strategic victory.
Whether this quality will enable it to win the type of low intensity war that has characterised the opening years of the 21st century remains to be seen.