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The British Field Marshals 1736-1997 by T.A. Heathcote

This is one of those books that I read through, cover to cover, within hours of opening. There’s something almost holy about the British Field Marshal. Even more so since the 1995 Betts report recommended that senior officers should not be appointed to Field Marshal, Admiral of the Fleet or Marshal of the Royal Air Force, except in special circumstances. The feeling is that the Field Marshal is now a thing of history, and indeed there are very few surviving holders of this high rank alive. Added to this, Field Marshals never retire, and are on the active list for life. Anyone promoted to the top of the tree, and awarded the Prince Regent-designed Baton, is in exalted company indeed. Of the 138 men to hold the rank, there are some fine names indeed to consider – Wellington, Roberts, Kitchener, French, Haig, Plumer, Allenby, Robertson, Birdwood, Smuts, Gort, Wavell, Brooke, Alexander, Montgomery, Wilson, Auchinleck and Slim.

The interesting thing is, that Field Marshal as a rank has never been a condition, or benefit, or serving in a particular appointment. There were points in both the First and Second World Wars when the Chief of the Imperial General Staff  – the head of the British Army – was a General, while theatre commanders – technically subordinates – were Field Marshals. The rank can often be awarded by Royal approval, as it was to Haig in 1916 and Montgomery in 1944. It has also been awarded on an honorary level to 22 British and Foreign Monarchs, Royal Consorts of officers of commonwealth or Allied Armies – one of them being Marshal Foch, and also a certain Emperor Hirohito.

I was particularly interested to read the analysis of what arms Field Marshals came from. As someone who has critiqued the armed forces for the background of their leaders, I was intrigued to see how the Army fared. And it’s rather interesting. 20 Field Marshals came from the Cavalry, 4 from Armour, 10 from Artillery, 5 Engineers, 18 Foot Guards, 48 Line Infantry (including 8 scottish, 14 Rifles or Light Infantry and 1 Gurkha), and 11 from the old Indian Army. The schools attended by Field Marshals is also an interesting appendix –  15 for Eton, 3 from Charterhouse, 3 from Marlborough, 4 from Wellington, 6 Westminster, 5 from Winchester and 2 from Harrow.

The individual entries about each Field Marshal are informative, but concise as you would expect from a Biographical Dictionary. I particularly enjoyed reading about some of the older, lesser known Field Marshals pre-Wellington. We often think that the Iron Duke was the first Field Marshal. After he captured Marshal Jourdan’s Baton at Vitoria, the Prince Regent promised to send him the Baton of a British Field Marshal in return. No such Baton existed, however, so one had to be hastily designed!

It is of course a shame that we no longer, generally speaking, appoint Field Marshals. As much as the historian in me would love to see the Baton awarded more regularly, the realist in me acknowledges that our armed forces are so small, and the nature of warfare is so different nowadays, that it is perhaps not appropriate to automatically promote officers to the rank, when it is largely symbolic. If in the future we found ourselves in a mass-mobilisation war and generals were again commanding large forces in action, then by all means bring it back. But the clue is in the title – ‘Field Marshal’, he who marshal’s the field of battle. Is a Field Marshal’s place in Whitehall, in peacetime?

Funnily enough, a matter of days ago it was announced that General Lord Guthrie – Chief of the Defence Staff 1997-2001,  the last CDS not to be promoted to the highest level and the provider of the foreword for this book – was being made a Field Marshal in the Queens Birthday Honours. Also awarded the rank, along with Admiral of the Fleet and Marshal of the Royal Air Force, was Prince Charles. Illustrating succinctly how Field Marshals can be appointed after a lifetime of service, or as an honour.

The British Field Marshals 1736-1997 is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week

Tommy by Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes was, in my eyes, unique. As a military man and an academic historian, he actually managed to capture the public’s imagination with his work. I can think of no other academic military historian who has reached out to society at large like Holmes. And surely, that is a fine, fine achievement.

As Holmes himself states in his preface, his initial military history interests involved researching battles and generals. Note his accomplished biographies of Marlborough, Wellington and French. But along the way he developed an interests in the ordinary man at war, and this led to his series of books such as Redcoat, and this book, which I consider to be his greatest achievement.

It does not have the revisionism of a writer such as Corrigan, and historiographically it sits in between narrative and probing challenges of the perceived wisdom. It is emminently readable and makes prolific use of first hand sources. But what I think is the real achievement here, is that Holmes has examined pretty much every aspect of war on the Western Front, and successively passed them all under a historical microscope. He doesn’t fall into the trap of hindsight, but neither does he go for hero worship or a bland recasting of earlier works.

The subjects that Holmes covers are vast, and some are not for the faint of heart – crime, punishment, homosexuality, venereal disease, honours, ranks, officer-men relations, attitudes to the war, food, drink (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), uniforms, lice, mud, weapons, training, and so on. In fact no stone is left unturned; there is no literary no-mans land here.

Holmes’ progression from a soldier, to an academic military historian, to a social military historian, is perhaps the best example possible of how military history itself is evolving. Not only has the field opened up beyond career soldiers alone, but we are more and more interested in the experiences of the common man – the millions of Tommies – rather than the deliberations of a few middle aged men who sat at the top of the tree. Perhaps this is a reflection of a change in modern society overall. As a military historian with both feet firmly in social history, I can only hope that this movement continues.

This book is a military history tour de force, by the late great Professor. It is the kind of book that makes me, as a historian, hope that I could one day write a book 5% as good as this. This is exactly the kind of book to get historians in the right frame of mind for the centenary projects looming in the next couple of years. It’s going to sit on my bookshelf for some time to come.

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, western front, World War One

Thomas Picton

Sir Thomas Picton, by Sir Martin Archer Shee (...

Image via Wikipedia

I was interested to read this article about the Waterloo General Sir Thomas Picton. Picton was famously played by Jack Hawkins in the film Waterloo by Dino de Laurentis, complete with civilian top hat. A portrait of Picton has hung for many years in Camarthen Court in Wales. A criminal solicitor, however, has suggested that it should be removed, as there is evidence that Picton mistreated a young native girl whilst a colonial governor in the West Indies, prior to Waterloo. Picton was killed commanding the 5th Division at Waterloo on 18 June 1815, when his Division was repelling the attack of D’erlon’s Corps early in the afternoon. Picton’s uniform had not arrived, and he fought wearing a civilian coat and top hat.

Picton was known for being irascible. But he was a bloody good General. Wellington was known as cold fish. But he was a bloody good General. Montgomery was egotistic and abrasive. But he was a bloody good general. Churchill was a poor strategist and an alcoholic. But he was an inspirational leader. And Nelson was an adulterer and van. But he was a winning admiral. And it is more often than not these kind of people who go into battle for us and defend us, personality flaws and all, rather than lawyers safe in their chambers.

I can’t help but wonder whether some people tend to highlight cases such as this in an attempt to boost their own liberal credentials. All I’m saying, is that we need to be very careful looking back at history through modern lenses. Of course mistreating anyone, regardless of race, is wrong and should never be condoned. But we do need to remember that we have very different prevailing social attitudes to the early Nineteenth Century, and cruelty was happening all over the world – not least in the mills and factories of Industrial Revolution Britain. We need to bear that in mind before we come to screaming assumptions about people who are no longer around to defend themselves.

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Filed under Napoleonic War, News, Uncategorized

Wellington and Montgomery: General swapping?

The Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterl...

Mont... sorry, the Duke of Wellington (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the Battle of Normandy recently for my forthcoming book. And I have always been a big fan of Wellington.

Which got me thinking – what if Wellington had fought the battle of Waterloo in the style of Monty? And what if Wellington had been in command in the summer of 1944?

Montgomery after Waterloo:

Montgomery: ‘the battle went exactly as I planned. I fully intended to draw the French reserves onto my front, thus allowing the Prussians to arrive unhindered. Hougoumont was not important as long as I pretended to hold it. At all times I was in complete control of the situation. We will no crack-about south of Caen’.

At which point Blucher is mortally offended, and Prussian historians spend hundreds of years belittling his every move. Meanwhile, German film-makers all but obliterate Montgomery and the British from Waterloo, apart from oblique and stereotypical references.

Almost one hundred and 30 years later, at the St Pauls School Conference in May 1944…

Wellington, to the assembled crowd of Allied senior officers, politicians and King George VI: ‘what I intend to do depends on what Rommel intends to do, and as the Desert Fox has not informed me of his plans, then I cannot inform you of mine’

At Southwick House, 5 June 1944…

Eisenhower: ‘so Wellington, what are your plans?’
Wellington: ‘to beat the Germans’

Actually, were Wellington and Montgomery really that different? The only difference to me seems to be that American historians have had no reason to villify Wellington. Even so, during his lifetime Wellington was ridiculed and lambasted for both his adulterous affairs and his politics. Time, however, tends to see petty criticisms fall away and victories stand the test of time.

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Filed under Army, d-day, Napoleonic War, World War Two

The Fields of Death by Simon Scarrow

Like me – and, indeed, thousands of others out there – Simon Scarrow is obviously a big Sharpe fan. This book is the final instalment in his lightly-fictionalised series on the careers of Wellington and Napoleon.

The story of Wellington and Napoleon’s military careers is an epic one, and for the most part Scarrow does not overcook what are fantastic stories in the first place – the Peninsular War, the battles of Asspern, Essling and Wagram, the Invasion of Russia, the Battle of Borodino, the retreat from Moscow, the Battle of Leipzig and Napoleon’s defeat and abdication in 1814, before his return and final defeat at Waterloo.

The reader is left with a feeling that Napoleon, early in his career a gifted general, gradually became a tyrant, exactly of the kind that he fought to overthrow during the revolution. And Scarrow’s depth of understanding when describing British contemporary politics is clearly very good. The description of diplomatic intrigue between charcaters such as Talleyrand, Fouche and Metternich is insightful – after all, a good historical novel should inform as much as it entertains. And Sharpe fans will enjoy the respectful nod to Bernard Cornwell’s famous character during the Battle of Vitoria – something that could so easily have gone wrong, but works.

There are several downsides, however. I feel that by calling the Duke of Wellington ‘Arthur’, Scarrow allows the reader to develop a sense of familiarity with the him, that the man himself would almost certainly have not allowed in real life, given his well known coldness and aloof nature. Most of Napoleon’s Marshals come across as bumbling, disloyal and incompetent – Soult and Davout in particular have not been kindly treated here, compared to history’s view of them.

But most notably, the fictional meeting between Wellington and Napoleon just after Waterloo just does not work, not for this reader anyway. Wellington had no desire to meet Napoleon, and there was nothing to negotiate anyway. The great advantage of historical fiction is that the writer can take historical license. But in order to work and ring true; it has to be believable… which, sadly, is not the case here. But this is a difficult story to write, as anyone who picks it up is bound to know what the ending is. So its not surprising that Scarrow has looked for ways to freshen it up.

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Filed under Army, fiction, Napoleonic War, Uncategorized