Daily Archives: 30 November, 2009

The Anglo-Afghan Wars 1839-1919 – Gregory Fremont-Barnes

The Anglo-Afghan Wars 1839-1919

The Anglo-Afghan Wars 1839-1919

On a recent visit to Pakistan, a British military official wondered out loud why the Pakistani Army was having such trouble fighting tribal militants in the Waziristan hinterland areas. After all, the British Army was fighting exactly the same war, in exactly the same place, in the 1930′s. The training manuals are still there to be read.

This story might be apocryphal, but it does illustrate how it simply will not do to shut past events in the past and forget about them. Particularly in military history, lessons are there to be learnt. Weapons may change, but terrains and societies remain relatively unchanged. The British soldier in Helmand province fixes Bayonets and clears compounds much the same as his ancestors did in the 19th century.

Therefore, this edition in Osprey’s Essential Histories series is very timely. At a time when many commentators are doubting our role in Afghanistan and whether we can achieve our goals – usually peppered with simplistic comments such as ‘the Russians couldnt manage it’ and ‘we couldnt defeat the Afghans in the nineteenth century’. This book certainly blows apart some misleading assumptions.

Gregory Fremont-Barnes is a Doctor in Modern History and a senior lecturer in War Studies at Sandhurst. Therefore, you probably couldn’t hope for a better qualified writer. And his background is crucial – this is not nostalgic history, it will make essential reading for young – and indeed older – officers serving in Afghanistan today.

The British Army has been fighting in Afghanistan since 1839, not too many years since Waterloo. British interest in Afghanistan arose from fears that Russia, just to the north, might threaten India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. Therefore repeated attempts were made to secure Afghanistan as a bulwark against Russian ambitions. Much as in the same way security in Afghanistan today is crucial to the security of Pakistan, and the wider region.

As with so many British campaigns, involvement in Afghanistan was hallmarked by initial failures, followed by which the local leadership rallied and secured the situation. Therefore, popular talk about the British Army failing in Afghanistan is largely inaccurate. The British Army was not trying to conquer Afghanistan, the strategic aim was to secure the north west flank of India, something that was achieved. Whilst Afghanistan has frequently been a hard fight for British soldiers, it has given some heroic tales, such as the Battle of Maiwand.

The overarching lesson from Britain’s experiences in Afghanistan seems to be that the real challenge lies in defeating the irregular forces at large in the country is a complex problem, that can be contained by military force but ultimately will be nullified by a sound ‘hearts and minds’ policy. And above all, an understanding of Afghanistan’s history, topography and society is crucial.

ISAF is not trying to conquer Afghanistan, that is the crucial difference. To do so would be impossible and counter-productive, as shown in this book. That such a learned and well-presented view is espoused by one of the very people instructing our future Army officers is very encouraging indeed. This book is well researched – as shown by the exhaustive bibliography – and contains Ospreys trademark detailed maps and fine artwork.

The Anglo Afghan Wars 1839-1919 is published by Osprey Books

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Filed under Afghanistan, Book of the Week, debate

Matt Frei’s ‘Berlin’

Matt Frei

Matt Frei

Regular readers will know that I have a bit of a soft spot for Berlin, where historical cities are concerned. Therefore I was excited to see Matt Frei’s recent series on the German Capital, which was timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As his name suggests, Frei is is of German ancestry. Born in 1963 in Essen, West Germany, he left Germany at the age of 10, studied at Oxford and became the BBC’s Washington correspondent. As such he is ideally placed to commentate on the complex and unique story of Berlin. This isnt somebody commenting on Berlin from the outside, but from the inside.

Rather than taking a purely chronological approach – as Andrew Marr has done recently in his ‘Making of Modern Britain’ – Frei quite wisely avoids this easy but confusing option. Berlin has such a twisted and complex history that it makes much more sense explained thematically. That is, to take a theme, and follow it through the ages. As such, the three programmes in the series are each themed on Politics, Architecture and Society. And it makes for quite a balanced and well structured approach.

Frei makes use of some very interesting eyewitness accounts, and some moving interviews. Overall it is very watchable indeed. I hope this isnt his last attempt at history-making. Although a political correspondent, he doesnt dwell too much on high politics. The statesmen and ordinary people do not compete for air time, their experiences complement each other – as seen in JFK’s famous speech in Berlin in 1963.

Like perhaps no other city on earth, Berlin WAS the 20th Century in case study. It is incredible how much change, tension, bloodshed, division, but also creativity and freedom can fill one city in such a short space of time. Its quite a unique place with a character all of its own, and this is something that Matt Frei puts across very well.

The series is still available to view on BBC iplayer, and you can also obtain a free acompanying guide to Berlin from the Open University.

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Filed under Architecture, News, On TV, politics, social history, World War One, World War Two

Portsmouth Heroes – Boy 1st Class Gordon Ogden

HMS Royal Oak

HMS Royal Oak

So far, the youngest person I have found who came from Portsmouth and died in the Second World War was Boy 1st Class Gordon Ogden, from Milton. He was aged 16 when the battleship HMS Royal Oak was torpedoed in Scapa Flow on 14 October 1939. The Royal Oak was a Revenge Class battleship, sunk at anchor by U-47, captained by Gunther Prien, who had avoided extensive anti-submarine defences in the area. 833 men died, out of a crew of 1,244. Many of these men came from Portsmouth, as the Royal Oak was manned from Portsmouth. Over 100 of the crew who died were Boy Seamen under the age of 18, the most ever killed in one incident.

The recruiting of Boys into the Royal Navy was nothing new – we have all heard of the Powder Monkeys. But up until the Second World War, when the Navy required a huge pool of manpower to crew the ships required to police the Empire, Boys were recruited to fill various tasks onboard ship. This also provided valuable training for young men who wanted to progress on to be Seamen.

Gordon Ogden would have enlisted with the rank of Boy 2nd Class, suggesting that he had served for some time before being promoted. As Naval service records are only available to next of kin at the time of writing, so we can only guess at how young Ogden would have been when he joined up – but it will almost certainly have been younger than 16. By the second world war the minimum age for joining the Royal Navy as a Boy rating was 15, and had to be approved for a Boys parents. The minimum terms of engagement for a Boy entering the Navy was at least 12 years. A boy had to have served at least 9 months as Boy 2nd Class, show proficiency in seamanship and gain at least one good conduct badge for promotion.

Once a Boy reached 18 he was automatically rated as an Ordinary Seaman and became subject to the Naval Discipline Act.

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Filed under Navy, portsmouth heroes, Remembrance, World War Two