Andro Linklater

Uncle Bill, by Russell Miller – review

Given the outcome of recent military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is pertinent to look for one particular quality in our senior commander: honesty. In other words, after blaming vainglorious politicians for precipitating us into war without adequate preparation or resources, it is reasonable to ask, how capable are our generals of admitting their

Russian Roulette, by Giles Milton – review

Had Onan not spilled his seed upon the ground, he might have invented invisible ink. The possibility had not occurred to me until I read this account of the start of Britain’s intelligence services. Even then the implications seemed so startling as to be barely credible — that the entire trade in espionage, including the

Notes on…Walking in the Auvergne

The homicidal sheepdog that launched itself at me from behind a grassy hillock, had the look of a demented hearth rug but the fangs of a leopard. No self-respecting Border collie would have taken such a creature as a serious competitor in the herding business. But French sheep are different, at least those in the

Saving Italy, by Robert M. Edsel – a review

During the civil war, the Puritan iconoclast William Dowsing recorded with satisfaction his destructive visit in 1644 to the parish church of Sudbury in Suffolk: ‘We brake down a picture of God the Father, 2 crucifixes and pictures of Christ, about an hundred in all.’ The Taleban’s decision in 2001 to blow up two gigantic

The Men Who Lost America, by Andrew O’Shaughnessy – review

On Christmas Day 1776, the ambitious, well-connected war hero, General John Burgoyne, soon to be appointed commander of British forces in Canada, agreed a wager of 50 guineas with Charles James Fox ‘that he will be home victorious from America by Christmas Day 1777.’ Nine weeks short of that date, on 17 October, Burgoyne surrendered

The Tank war, by Mark Urban – review

In November 1941, Sergeant Jake Wardrop narrowly escaped being killed when his tank was crippled in the midst of a catastrophic battle in the north African desert where the armour and artillery of Rommel’s Afrika Korps destroyed scores of other British tanks. ‘It wasn’t a very healthy position to be in’, he wrote in his

Life and Letters, by Allan Massie – review

It is a safe bet that Alex Salmond has no immediate plans to embrace Allan Massie as one of Scotland’s National Treasures. A Unionist in an increasingly nationalist country, a traditionalist in a time of change, an ungoogler engulfed by the internet, and an amateur of creative activities, cultural and sporting, when the fashion is

The Real Great Escape, by Simon Read — review

The scene is chilling. Four men stand in the snow, all in uniform. The men are in pairs, one in each pair holds a pistol to the head of the man in front. Behind them two parked cars, 1940s models; in front a snow-filled ditch. What happens next? The right answer depends on which scene

Winning the war with wheezers

The Anfa Hotel in Casablanca has seen better days. Seventy years ago it was the grandest hotel in Morocco, good enough to house Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt when they met in January 1943 to devise a strategy that would win the second world war. The views remain as fine and the bedrooms as

Italy’s first Duce

There is something to be said for a bald-headed gnome with the power, according to his biographer, to seduce any woman he wanted, including the most celebrated and desirable actress of the day, despite being handicapped by red-rimmed eyes, bad breath and crooked teeth ‘of three colours, white, yellow and black’. And something more deserves

Eavesdropping on the enemy

Say ‘Colditz’, and the name immediately triggers an image of prisoners of war digging tunnels, building gliders and in general plotting outrageously to cross the barbed wire into freedom. You could shout ‘Trent Park’ from the rooftops and, until now, no one would have known what you were referring to. But this book should give

Selective vision

In 1904, the great Halford Mackinder, founder of the modern academic discipline of geography, published one of the most subversive maps of the century. It might seem unlikely that a scientific representation of the physical world projected according to mathematical principles onto a two-dimensional surface could mess with your head, but that is the unmistakable

Fading ambition

‘Despite 30 years of war,’ remarked General Stanley McChrystal, the commander in 2009 of NATO forces in Afghanistan, ‘civilisation grows here like weeds.’ Unfortunately for the Afghans, their tribal, rural, autarchic civilisation that grows so readily has never been acceptable either to the western allies or to the Taleban. However much NATO’s military goal has

The courage of countless generations

The most stirring sermon I ever heard was delivered by a company sergeant-major in the Black Watch to a cadre of young lance-corporals, barely 19 years old, who were about to experience their first deployment to Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Like an old-fashioned Presbyterian minister, he warned them of the dangers of the world,

Some legends flourish …

Confronted by the dead Athenian heroes of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles gave voice in his funeral oration to an idea that explains better than any other why we are so obsessed by our military past. The freedom intrinsic to democracy, he said, made the unconstrained decision of its citizens to risk their lives in war

Target man

John Bellingham dressed fastidiously. On the day that he committed murder, he wore exactly what the fashion magazine Le Beau Monde advised for a gentleman’s morning wear in 1812 — a chocolate broadcloth coat, clay-coloured denim breeches and calf-length boots, the whole set off by a waspish black-and-yellow waistcoat. By contrast, his victim, clad in

Not quite cricket

To the French, Albion’s expertise in perfidy will come as no surprise. But centuries of warfare have given them time to learn. With their experience only dating back to 1914, the Germans clearly found it difficult to grasp during the second world war that nowhere is the truth more expertly and instinctively spun than in

Triumph of the redcoats

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

To the Ends of the Earth by T.M. Devine

When Scotland’s rugby team landed in Invercargill for the World Cup, they were greeted by a piper in full Highland fig and a cheering crowd of more than 500 New Zealanders, bedecked in tartan and waving St Andrew flags. The significance of both welcome and dress went beyond sport or nationality. Two important currents of

Losing the rat race

This is a book for anyone whose blood ever ran chill on reading the most sinister recipe in fiction, Samuel Whiskers’ instructions on how to cook Tom Kitten: ‘Anna Maria, make me a kitten dumpling roly-poly pudding for my dinner, make it properly with breadcrumbs.’ With or without breadcrumbs, or indeed butter and flour as