The Making of the British Army

Ashley Jackson enjoys a general history of the army, from the English Civil War to the war on terror

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Reviewed by: Ashley Jackson
Author: Allan Mallinson
Publisher: Bantam Press
Price (RRP): £20

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Bantam Press have sent in the colonel, deploying Allan Mallinson’s history of the British Army since the battle of Edgehill. There have been far fewer general histories of the army than one might think, and so the soldier-turned-novelist’s book marches into a literary battlespace that he might well dominate for some years, if not permanently occupy. 

Mallinson has written an extremely readable book that offers a shrewd, elegant and confident account of the army’s history, well-timed because of the attention that this famous institution is currently attracting as a result of recent operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mallinson serves up a narrative of the army’s evolution that derives authority from the fact that the author spent decades as an officer, attaining the rank of full colonel. The book is aimed squarely at the general reader, is uncritical, and resolutely avoids engagement with the manner in which this potent instrument of national policy has been employed.

Mallinson’s lucid account features set piece battles that reveal the organisation, ethos, and fibre of the army and an understanding of the operational level of war as well as the tactical that elevates the book beyond the ordinary. He has a knack of distilling the reasons why a particular general was ‘great’ and pithily analysing the ingredients that together add up to morale and fighting efficiency. He makes good use of sparing footnotes to add useful snippets of information and points of elucidation – what, specifically, fusiliers were employed for, why we have a household division, why colours such as ‘buff’ and ‘green’ are attached to regimental names, why the platoon was adopted as an organisational unit, and why it is correct to say that field guns are ‘laid’ and not ‘aimed’. Having said that, and while today’s officer corps would recognise Mallinson’s military background, he avoids jargon just as skilfully as he avoids misplaced romanticism. This is no mean feat in a book of this nature written by a former soldier who evidently has a deep admiration for the institution and the men and women who make it.

The book tours the major battlefields on which the army has fought, both home and away, including those of the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, Blenheim, Dettingen, the Seven Years’ War, the American rebellion, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the Crimea, the Indian mutiny-rebellion, and the three most obvious 19th-century African wars. Entering the 20th century, Mallinson covers aspects of the world wars, though is astute enough not to try and shoehorn everything in. Following this we get the inevitable dose of Imjin, decolonisation deployments, the British Army of the Rhine, Northern Ireland, and the Falklands. 

In between his well-handled battle and campaign descriptions, Mallinson considers the relationship between government and the army, and society and the army, while also covering major reforms (Cardwell, Haldane, etc) and the impact of new strategic challenges (including that of the era after 9/11). Ending up with post-Cold War deployments in the Balkans, Sierra Leone and, more egregiously, Afghanistan and Iraq, Mallinson reaches some unsurprising conclusions. 

He claims that recent operations are closer to “Victoria’s wars” than “network enabled” futurism. No matter how much the strategic situation appears to change, or ‘revolutions’ in military affairs appear to usher conflict towards cyberwar and unmanned drones, there will always be a need for men prepared to take cold steel to the enemy. As likely as not, those men will come from what Mallinson, echoing many other sympathetic chroniclers of this venerated institution, describes as the “proud, plodding, peerless” personnel of the British Army.  

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Ashley Jackson is senior lecturer at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London