Daily Archives: 5 October, 2009

The problem of the military biography

It has long been a tradition that when somebody proves their worth in battle, particularly in high command, sooner or later someone will write a book about them. Beyond books, absolutely anything to do with them becomes hot property. Nelson, Wellington and – to a lesser extent – Montgomery are good examples.

Often when someone is elevated to a status of virtual saint, it then becomes almost sacrilege to say anything negative about them. For years no one would have dared utter the fact that Nelson had a mistress, or that Wellington was a cold character who had more than one mistress. Montgomery hasn’t got away with it quite so much, thanks to the attention of mainly American historians keen to drag his reputation down.

Even with less senior officers, the tradition of the military biography pervades. The usual routine is that when somebody dies, their family allow somebody to write the official biography, and gives them full access to all papers and documents. As a result, they are very unlikely to be impartial or objective. In fact, the family are surely likely to pick a writer who they trust to be favourable to their relatives reputation in the first place.

the Pursuit of Exactitude - Roy Fullick

the Pursuit of Exactitude - Roy Fullick

A great example is the biography of General Sir John Hackett, ‘the Pursuit of Exactitude’ by Roy Fullick. A keenly awaited book, it promised much and delivered little. Given that Hackett was one of the most interesting characters to serve in the British Army in the second world war, and was absolutely pivotal to one of the most famous battles in history, it really disappoints. While it is no doubt interesting to read about the social conventions of pre-war Egypt, or what Hackett got up to when Chancellor of Kings College London, that does not jusity the minimal chapter on Arnhem. The title really is ironic, given Hackett’s well known academic nature and quest for the truth, his biography does nothing of the sort. This really was an opportunity missed. One cannot help but wonder if there is a reason that the Arnhem chapter was so weak.

Horrocks - the general who led from the front

Horrocks - the general who led from the front

Slightly more useful is the biography of Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks, by Phillip Warner. It gives fair emphasis to each part of Horrocks’ life, not seeking to cover up anything unpleasant. Uncomfortable questions are asked too, such as those regarding Horrocks performance in the Market Garden campaign, and his ongoing ill-health. But Horrocks was an interesting character, and his life needs no embellishments or cover-ups.

Not long ago I became interested in researching the life and career of Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Browning, ‘Boy’ Browning of Bridge too far infamy. I came across some very interesting sources, regarding Browning’s background, first world war and inter-war careers, and later life. Seen in these contexts, his performance over the Arnhem debacle makes much more sense. Unfortunately, part way through the research I was informed by the Grenadier Guards Archivist that somebody else is already well advanced on a biography. The message, a clear ‘leave off’. I would hope for a balanced, objective, scholarly study, but I won’t hold my breath. Sadly families and regiments are all too often concerned with reputations than truth.

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Filed under Arnhem, Book of the Week, debate

Soldier’s troops plea to minister

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth

A British soldier in Afghanistan has told the Defence Secretary ‘more troops are needed on the ground, BBC News reports.

Bob Ainsworth had asked Staff Sgt Kim Hughes, a bomb disposal specialist, what was his “top desire from right here at the chalkface”.

Staff Sgt Hughes explained: “More equipment’s ideal, I mean we have lightweight equipment coming in gradually … but more troops on the ground, more equipment, less troops on the ground, less equipment.”

Ainsworth went on to explain that any boost in troop numbers had to be borne across the coalition of countries deploying troops in Afghanistan, and not just the UK. And he certainly has a point. The British Army is already at a critical point of overstretching, with many troops having to return to Afghanistan for 6 month tours within a year of their last tour. The statistics also suggest that Helmand is one of the most challenging assignments in Afghanistan, compared to some of the relatively peaceful areas where other countries troops are based.

In many ways not having enough troops could be as dangerous as having none there at all. Without the men to hold ground, troops frequently have to withdraw and let the Taliban return after they have been routed. More men on the ground should mean more security, and more of a visible presence that ISAF is a much more viable alternative than the Taliban.

Given the long-running controversy about lack of equipment and safe armoured vehicles for the Army to use in Helmand, the Government will probably be happier for attention to fall on troop numbers. Britain is quite clearly doing more than its bit and the general public probably feel that it is the responsibility of others to contribute more.

But even so, this should not detract from the fact that the Government has a duty to provide our servicemen and women with the very best that they can.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Army, News

new Navy chief on RN’s ‘vital role’

Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope

Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope

The Royal Navy has a vital role in protecting Britain’s imported energy supplies, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope has told the Portsmouth Evening News.

With North Sea supplies fast running out, Britain is becoming incxreasingly reliant on imported supplies of gas and oil, 30% of which comes from Qatar and the wider Middle East region. ‘If we fail to protect that, an energy crisis is likely’, explains Admiral Stanhope, ‘the general public don’t see the four minehunters we’ve got in the Gulf’.

He will also be urging Government planners to look over the horizon, beyond current deployments. ‘There were challenges before Afghanistan and there will be challenges after Afghanistan’.

On the new supercarriers, Admiral Stanhope stressed that their importance goes beyond purely Naval requirements, ‘It’s about defence as a wider concern, its about the ability of the UK to underpin its position in the world’.

More broadly, the head of the Navy argued that the public have very little understanding of the importance of the sea to Britain’s prosperity and freedom, and that we are ‘therefore highly reliant on the stability and security of the globalised world’.

For many years known as the ‘silent service’ for its inability to promote itself, it seems that the Royal Navy now has a powerful advocate in the Ministry of Defence. He is quite right to argue that Britain’s security is inherently linked to security abroad, history has shown that time and time again. Its not enough to pull up the drawbridge and look inwards, especially given the ever-increasing globalisation of the wider world. On the importance of long term planning he is also correct – service chiefs have to plan for the next war, not just the current one. Unlike politicians, who plan for approval ratings and the next election.

How much Admiral Stanhope will be able to achieve, given the perilous finding situation remains to be seen, however.

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Filed under Navy, News