Allan Mallinson's new book is a wolf in sheep's clothing. At first glance it is an entertaining and sympathetic portrayal of the British army from Edgehill to the modern conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan but running through out is a considered and passionate outline of the challenges and threats the army faces today, from its own government and from chronic overstretch. As the book details there is nothing really new in that.
Mallinson was always going to be a sympathetic chronicler of the army's history. After thirty-five years service in both infantry and cavalry he wrote the excellent Matthew Hervey series and is now a commentator on defence matters for the Times and the Telegraph.
He starts his narrative at Edgehill in the English Civil War where a ragbag collection untrained bands and semi-proffesional soldiers met in a confused punch-up characterised by incompetence and blood-shed. Things could only get better from there. England's natural defences and reliance on the navy meant that a trained and organised army that could fight on the continent was only reluctantly realised. It was only when we get to the Duke of Marlborough and his great victories at Blenheim, Ramillies and Malplaquet that things start to take off.
He continues through to the glory years of the Peninsular War, Wellington and Waterloo, which as you can imagine he very comfortable relating. This is followed by a period of stagnation for which the 'Iron Duke' must bear some of the blame. As things move forward it is often a case of two steps forward one step back. And as usual when a war starts the army is often woefully prepared, under-gunned, inadequately equipped and badly generalled. it is only when something has gone wrong whether it be Isandlwana, Spion Kop or most of the Crimean War that the right men with the right equipment are sent to do the job.
By the First World War the army may have been small but it was perfectly formed. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) nicknamed the 'Old Contemptibles' was a spectacularly good army that acquitted itself admirably until it was blown away at Ypres and the battles of late 1914. Mallinson is very good on this and on the subsequent expansion of the army with first the Kitchener's volunteers and then conscription and the efforts that were made to retain its professionalism despite the horrors of the Somme and subsequent battles. After the Kaiser's Spring offensive (Kaiserschlacht) came, in the view of some historians, the British army's greatest victory of the Hundred Days a combined offensive of men, tanks, artillery and aircraft.
Many of the lessons learnt in these final offensives were forgotten in the interwar years but there remained a small cadre of officers who retained the brutal memories of their earlier careers. Bernard Montgomery was perhaps the supreme example of this and in his greatest victory at El Alamein he demonstrated an ability to manage combined arms and a willingness to take casualties to get the job done.
Mallinson takes the reader through World War II and the post-war years with confidence. He charts the development of two distinct styles of soldiering, one developed in the counter-insurgency operations of Malaya and Northern Ireland, one developed on the plains of Germany in the Cold War. He finishes his survey with the current British army, the respected regimental system severely compromised by cost-cutting exercises like 'Options for Change'. All the time whilst fighting with the effectiveness of a much larger army. As Mallinson explains:
'Except in passing... I have not tried to demonstrate that the British army is different from any other armies: I have taken it as self-evident that an army which is today smaller than that of Turkey, or of Greece, France, Germany or Italy, and not much bigger than that of Spain, and yet is still a major player on the world's military stage, must in some important ways be unique.'
He ends this inciteful analysis with an assessment on the current state of the army, one which he is well-qualified to give, and some advice on how the army should be organised in the future.
Mallinson is very good on the characteristics that have survived throughout the army's history including the British soldiers willingness to close with the bayonet. This was brought home by a recent heroic action in Afghanistan where that willingness was demonstrated once again. This is an excellent book that demonstrates how the British army became the finely tuned instrument it would evolve into, the characteristics that have made it great and the dangers it faces today as a consequence of over-stretch and underfunding.