Daily Archives: 3 January, 2010

Marlborough: Britain’s Greatest General by Richard Holmes

Britain’s Greatest General? A brave statement indeed! But then again, if anyone can make such a statement, Richard Holmes can.

Richard Holmes is probably best known for his series of ‘war walks’ programmes some years ago. In recent years he has turned his attention more towards writing, with an acclaimed biography of the Duke of Wellington, and some interesting studies of British soldiers through the ages. Neither is Holmes a mere TV Historian (yes, you, Dan Snow!) – he is Professor of Military Studies at Cranfield University. Not only that, he is a former senior TA Officer too. Clearly, this guy knows his military history.

John Churchill (yes, an ancestor of THE Churchill) was born during the reign of Charles II. Rising to prominent military rank during the reign of James II, Churchill was caught up in the dilemma of James’s overt Roman Catholicism. Originally on the side of the monarch, his switching of sides before the battle of Sedgemoor tipped the balance and helped lead to William of Orange acceding to the throne, jointly with his wife Mary. Churchill fell out of favour somewhat during the reign of William and Mary, such was the turbulent nature of late Stuart high society.

What really seems to have advanced Churchill’s career was his wife’s friendship with the next monarch, Queen Anne. Although Churchill was a gifted soldier, as always in military history some social connections go a long way in aiding a rise to the top. Churchill was eventually ennobled as the Earl and then Duke of Marlborough, after decisive victories at Blenheim, Ramillies and Oudenarde during the war of the Spanish Succession.

So what makes Marlborough Britain’s Greatest General? Well, he was probably Britain’s first true professional commander. Prior to Marlborough, Royals tended to take command. Cromwell might have been a commoner, but his career was driven by politics. Marlborough heralded a new age of military competence and professionalism. Military command was no longer something that the great and the good turned to when they had to. And with the existence of a standing army for the first time in British history, there was now the potential for men such as Marlborough to hone their skills. Marlborough also made a first class Allied commander – Eisenhower would have done well to read up on his Marlburian history.

But what makes Marlborough really iconic is his grasp on the simple matters of command. In particular, logistics. He lacks maybe the drive of a Napoleon, but he was always totally in command of his supply lines. Only by organising his army so well could he march so deep into Europe as he did in the Blenheim campaign. And, as Holmes states, he had a rapport with his soldiers – Wellington’s redcoats, by contrast, would never have called him ‘Corporal John’, as they did Marlborough. But all the same, we can see the start of a clear progression, from Marlborough, to Wellington, to Montgomery.

Holmes makes the point very well. At times it feels that the story is too enmeshed with Stuart society, but that is difficult to avoid – it explains much of Marlboroughs career and his significance. This is an eminently readable book with a refreshing down to earth style.



Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Early Modern History

New documents released by National Archives

The National Archives have released a new selection of official documents, dating from 1979. Records relating to the intelligence services, strikes and the civil service are now in the public domain.

Interestingly, in 1979 it was suggested that an official history of the intelligence services in the second world war might be ‘laying up trouble for ourselves in the future’, according to Prime Minister Jim Callaghan. At the time the Government did not even acknowledge that the intelligence services existed. An authorised History was published only in 2009, as part of a new policy of openness.

On 11 January 1979 the Transport and General Workers Union voted for a strike among lorry drivers. There was much concern that essential, supplies would be put in danger due to secondary picketing. Troops were put on standby as the Government was on the verge of declaring a state of emergency. Documents released show robust correspondence between the Prime Minister and Union officials, at a time of much unrest.

When the new Conservative Government, by Margaret Thatcher, came to power in 1979 they immediately set upon schemes to freeze and then reduce civil service manpower and running costs. There was much heated debate among ministers about whether they could a 10% cut in budgets. In particular the Chancellor and Secretary of Defence were concerned. Also, Margaret Thatcher also refused to send a goodwill Christmas to civil service staff.

In Northern Ireland, the new Government took a robust position. After the US Government refused to supply weapons to the Royal Ulster Constabulary Margaret Thatcher took up the issue personally with President Carter. There were suggestions that the powerful Irish-American lobby were behind the problems.

New year always brings an interesting release of documents from thirty years ago. Under the 30 year rule most documents are closed for that period of time, unless they are deemed harmless enough to be released early, or sensitive enough to be closed for longer. 2013 should see the release of many documents relating to the Falklands War that aren’t already in the public domain.

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Filed under News, politics

Falklands then and now: Land Forces

Although it is the job of the Royal Navy to defeat the enemy surface threat and make conditions favourable for any amphibious landing, it is only the Royal Marines or Army who can take the fight to the enemy on land.

Historically the British Army has by and large been a small, professional force that has been described elsewhere as a bullet to be fired by the Royal Navy, and then retrieved. This happened in numerous imperial conflicts, and the Falklands was perhaps the last example of this kind of operation.

The picture in 1982

Paras guarding POW's in Stanley

Paras guarding POW's in Stanley

1982 found the British Army in a curious position historically. For the first time in its history it had something of a primacy within the armed forces, with its huge treaty commitment to NATO in the shape of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR). In 1982 a whole British Corps was stationed in Germany, consisting of 4 Armoured Divisions. This was largely of deterrence value, against the Warsaw pact across the inner German Border.

Alongside Germany, Northern Ireland represented a major commitment to the British Army from 1969 onwards. In 1980 11,000 troops were deployed in the province. The commitment to Northern Ireland also weakened BAOR, as troops from Germany also took turns serving there. Although this represented a drain on the Army’s manpower, it also had benefits. Referred to as a ‘Corporals war’, it gave young soldiers a steep learning curve.

Britain did maintain a small force designated for ‘out of area’ operations or to reinforce NATO’s flanks: in the main, this comprised 3 Commando Brigade of the Royal Marines, and 5 Airborne Brigade. In public consciousness Paras and Marines always appear whenever there is a crisis. In 1982, however, armoured warfare in North Europe dominated British military thinking.

That 3 Commando Brigade and 5 Brigade comprised the land forces sent to the Falklands was natural, as they were the forces on high alert for out of area operations – BAOR could not be weakened, nor could Northern Ireland. The other troops sent to the Falklands – the Welsh and Scots Guards – had just finished public duties, but were all that could be spared.

By and large the performance of British land forces in the Falklands was exemplary. Even when heavily outnumbered, without air superiority and with scant helicopter support, their training, motivation and leadership won out. The reputation of units such as the Paras, the Royal Marines and the Gurkhas had a powerful psychological effect on the young Argentine conscripts.

The picture in 2009

Royal Marines conducting an amphibious exercise

Royal Marines conducting an amphibious exercise

The British Army has been radically reduced since the end of the Cold War, as part of the so-called ‘peace-dividend’. In addition the peace process in Northern Ireland has led to a draw-down in Army commitments there. This has also led to cuts.

Any future Falklands land war would again fall upon the infantry, given the terrain in the Falklands. In 2009, the Army consists of 37 Battalions of regular infantry. 22 of these are light infantry, 7 armoured, 4 Air Assault, 3 mechanised, and 1 demonstration. Of these 3 are performing public duties.

The Royal Marines 3 Commando Brigade would be the ideal spearhead of any land forces to retake the Falklands, given their expertise and experience in Amphibious warfare. The Brigade currently consists of 3 RM Commandos and an attached Army Battalion. This would probably require reinforcing by at least another Army Brigade, as in 1982, as well as their supporting arms – logistics, engineering, artillery, and so forth.

At the time of writing over 10,000 British soldiers are in Afghanistan. Currently this consists of 4 infantry Battalions as well as supporting troops. Brigades serve in Afghanistan for 6 months, in some cases with 18 months in between deployments. When we consider work-up training, post-deployment leave, etc, the overstretch is even starker. If any Argentine invasion of the Falklands took place this would severely restrict the troops available, in the same way that BAOR and Northern Ireland did in 1982. If it happened while 3 Commando Brigade, the specialist amphibious infantry, were in Afghanistan, then any land force would be severely handicapped.

There are positives, however. Virtually all of the Army’s Battalions have been deployed on operations in Iraq or Afghanistan in recent years, against a formidable enemy in the Taliban. This can only have heightened professionalism and fighting edge, particularly among line infantry Battalions who are perhaps not as glamorous as the Marines or the Paras. An average line infantry Battalion would probably be more capable of fighting a Goose Green that it would have been in 1982.

However, the Argentine forces will in all likelihood also have improved on their 1982 state. The ending of conscription will have led to a more professional army. It can no longer intervene in internal politics, and hence resembles a modern Army that is soleley focussed on soldiering. It has also been able to co-operate more with allies, such as the US, and a thaw in relations with Chile has removed the need to station large forces on that border. This would free up specialist mountain warfare troops, unlike in 1982.


Although the British Army is much leaner than in 1982, it is in a lot of ways meaner. In addition, it is more flexible, both structurally and doctrinally. It is less focussed on one particular theatre, and out-of-area operations are now the norm rather than the rule. The line infantry on the whole is more experienced than it was in 1982.

Having said that, overstretch caused by operations in Afghanistan would severely limit the kind of force that could be generated. A best case scenario would see 3 Commando Brigade and 16 Air Assault Brigade both available; a compromise situation would either of the Commando or Air Assault Brigades reinforced by another Army Brigade, and a worst case scenario would see neither the Commando nor Air Assault Brigades available.

In the Argentine Army, it could also expect to face a more professional, better trained and better motivated enemy, who would be able to deploy more reinforcements, particularly elite troops and specialist mountain warfare units.


Filed under Army, Falklands War, Royal Marines, Uncategorized