Given the choice between philosophising in the company of Socrates or fighting in the army of the soldier-monarch Charles XII of Sweden, most men, Dr Johnson observed, would prefer arms to argument. That physical danger should offer a more appealing prospect than logical thought remains one of the Great Cham’s more provocative insights. At one level, it explains why universal peace will not soon arrive, and at another why military history commands a larger readership than philosophy.
In recent years, a golden generation has set the bar pretty high in this field. Enthusiasts for vicarious soldiering have grown accustomed to the acute analysis of fighting and tactics provided by eloquent academics like John Keegan and the late Richard Holmes, and to the intense drama of war conveyed by such outstanding writer-historians as Max Hastings and Anthony Beevor.
Among the promising newcomers is Professor Saul David, whose well-received book on imperial warfare, Victoria’s Wars, spurred expectation that he might continue this rich seam. His new work on the exploits of the British army in the century and a half before Waterloo explores that vital period, bookended by Marlborough and Wellington, when Britain lost its American empire but emerged from being an offshore irrelevance in Europe’s affairs to become its social and industrial arbiter.
All the King’s Men is grounded in the letters and journals of private soldiers, a device that leaves the early years thinly covered — only one such source exists for Marlborough’s campaigns — but pays off handsomely in the Peninsular Wars when an increasingly literate population encouraged a rush of this kind of writing. What the writers convey is the immediacy of the period’s warfare. Battles were won by muskets fired at a range of less than 50 yards, and by bayonets wielded in hand-to-hand combat. Here is Private Thomas Pococke’s account of his part in the victory of Fuentes in 1811:
During our first advance, a bayonet went between my side and clothes, to my knapsack which stopped its progress. The Frenchman to whom the bayonet belonged fell, pierced by a musket ball from my rear-rank man. While freeing myself from the bayonet, a ball took off part of my right shoulder wing and killed my rear-rank man, who fell upon me. Narrow as this escape was, I felt no uneasiness.
By David’s account, it was the infantry, not cavalry or artillery, that was the crucial arm in deciding these confrontations. He has surrounded their gripping accounts with his own helpfully clear descriptions of how the larger battle was developing. From this close-quarter perspective, he succeeds undeniably in demonstrating the bloodiness and brutal physicality of the foot-soldiers’ fighting, and their compelling need for shoulder-to-shoulder discipline.
This is well-trodden ground, however, and his narrative offers no other cohesive theme to explain the army’s role in Britain’s changing fortunes. David is undoubtedly aware of more suggestive developments during the period, such as the urbanisation of recruits, the army’s increasing Britishness, incorporating Highland and Irish regiments in place of continental mercenaries, and above all the vast increase in military spending that enabled India to be conquered and the balance of European power to be altered irrevocably. Yet he leaves their significance unexplored. One campaign follows another, interspersed with brief biographies of the great commanders, quick references to the introduction of the bayonet and the improvement of artillery, and superficial sketches of the diplomatic background.
The author is best known for a series on military history he presents on television, and it is difficult not to suspect that this is related to the frustratingly episodic nature of his book. The writing of Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama, once exceptional in originality and incisiveness, now increasingly gobbetised and presentational, offers an awful warning of the price to be paid for attempting to shape history to the demands of a television series. Indeed, with the possible exception of Richard Holmes, who lectured to the camera like a latter-day A.J.P. Taylor, no modern historian has been able to resist the medium’s corrosive insistence that ideas be dispensed in easily absorbed chunks and subordinated to the personality of the presenter and the availability of images.
Yet, if this suggests that the future of written military history looks bleak compared to its golden past, its visual rival may be about to come of age. The proliferation of YouTube footage and Facebook messaging from Basra and Helmand has unmistakably created the modern equivalent of the Peninsular War diaries. To make proper use of those images the military history of today’s wars will have to be told in pictures, in smart ebooks. But there is no reason why viewers should not find the ideas explored and the analysis offered as far-reaching as those once provided to readers.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.