Charge of the slight brigade

The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Army
August 25, 1995

The compression of the British army's 500 years of history and evolution into a single volume is a demanding task. To attempt it without compromise of coverage or analysis is bravery indeed. David Chandler, as one of Britain's foremost military historians, would seem to be well qualified to lead the editorial charge. As the head of the war studies department at Sandhurst from 1980 until 1994 he gained a special insight into the army as an institution, and into its past, present and future. For this work he brought together a formidable company of contributors - historians, soldiers and writers - and allowed them full latitude limited only in length. Each chapter stands on its own, allowing the reader to delve freely, an approach that works much better than a straight read. The book is of the "coffee table" standard of presentation, but without the trivialisation that that compliment might imply. It is a serious work, copiously researched, designed to appeal as much to students of military history as the general reader.

The book sets out to be more than a battle-by-battle reiteration of the army's deeds. It seeks to examine its evolution as a social institution, and of the events and individuals that have influenced its development.

The army is far more than a structured mixture of manpower and technology wrapped in tradition. It is a society within society, drawn from it, reflecting it in part, but separated in culture and image by the needs of its unique purpose.

The long span of the transition towards a truly military British army, as distinct from formed bodies of soldiers, makes the choice of starting point difficult. Michael Prestwick's coverage of the medieval era is perhaps a mite early. Ian Roy carries the story forward to Cromwell, whose legacy bore more directly on the political context than on the military development of the army. John Childs follows the army's course through the turbulence of the Restoration, its inglorious part in the Glorious Revolution, and subsequent disbandment and re-creation. Although this was the point at which a legally constituted standing army came into existence, the preceding chapters illuminate a range of underlying characteristics some of which are still evident today. The challenges of recruiting, over-commitment and parsimony recur throughout the book.

Marlborough's place in the army's history is covered by Chandler in both military depth and political breadth. After his death it experienced success and then its only recorded defeat, and decline to the end of the 18th century. David Gates tells the story of its resurrection under the management of the Duke of York and the leadership of Wellington. The importance of Sir John Moore remains a matter of debate, and there are many who would not agree with the weight he is given here.

The coverage of the 19th century follows Wellington's transition from great commander to obdurate resister of reform and change, and the ossification of the army in the long European peace. It highlights the impact of the ever-growing burden of commitments, the consequences of long service overseas, and the growing separation between its component parts. In the face of military conservatism and a lack of political interest no effective reform ensued, despite the outcries after the Crimea and the Mutiny, until Cardwell became secretary of state for war in 1868.

Edward Spiers's chapter on the late Victorian period looks at one of the army's most formative periods, and examines the influence of and interaction of individuals such as the Duke of Cambridge and Viscount Wolseley and their increasingly directive political masters. In the 46 years from Cardwell's appointment via Haldane to the battle of Mons, the army advanced from technology and doctrine that Marlborough would have recognised, to a position that equalled - and in some cases surpassed - best European practice. The destruction of the Regular gem led to the successive exploitation of the Territorial, Kitchener's New and ultimately the mass conscript army, each of which brought their own influences to bear on the evolution. Their command and administration imposed demands beyond any previous experience, and which in many cases were antithetical to a culture embedded over centuries. The rapid reversion to traditional ways after the first world war underlined the strength of that culture and its inherent conservatism.

The long road out of the trough of the 1930s, through the early defeats, to victory in the second world war is taken at a gallop by Carlo d'Este in but pages. This remarkable condensation exposes the limitations of equality of contribution. What suffices for the small scale and walking pace of the 18th century is inadequate for world-wide mechanised conflict. Those limitations are re-exposed by the nine-page coverage of the Korean war, three of which are taken up by the Imjin, a battle involving just one brigade.

Major General John Strawson closes the narrative with the period 1963-93. His otherwise excellent chapter and some of those following are marred by poor selection and inaccurate editing of supporting photographs. One example stands out: the soldiers shown in chemical protective kit in the Gulf war are Americans. By the time one reaches Michael Yardley's closing chapter "Towards the Future" it is clear that this operation is well past its culminating point.

Ultimately this book is flawed by the limitations of its design and the imbalance these introduce from 1939 onwards. The analysis of the army's evolution as an institution is not carried through, and the editor thus fails to meet his stated aim. The outcome is similar to the charge of the British heavy cavalry at Waterloo: bold and colourful at the outset; effective at first; undisciplined and unsatisfactory in the end. Bravery is not enough - for soldiers or editors.

Colonel Charlton-Weedy is a member of the 1995 course, Royal College of Defence Studies.

The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Army

Editor - David Chandler and Ian Beckett
ISBN - 0 19 869178 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 493

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