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Warrior Generals: Winning the British Civil Wars

John Childs looks at a military history of the British Civil Wars that concentrates on its generals

Published: July 23, 2010 at 7:27 am
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Reviewed by: John Childs
Author: Malcolm Wanklyn
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £25


This book investigates the “importance of generalship in bringing” the British Civil Wars “to a successful conclusion”. While Malcolm Wanklyn accepts that the outcome of the British Civil Wars was determined by several factors – social, economic, demographic and political – he argues that the impact of individual military decisions has been under-valued. Because general officers of the mid-17th century were responsible for formations as small as brigades as well as various ad hoc ‘detachments’, the book is actually a study of what would now be termed the operational and strategic level of war although Wanklyn properly eschews such inappropriate modernisms.

The result is a decidedly old-fashioned military history, reminiscent of the days when the study of war rarely descended beneath politico- strategic considerations. Sir Michael Howard has reminded historians of the danger of removing military history from its social and political context but this book verges towards heresy by providing only the barest minimum of necessary background. Commanding an army in line of battle amidst the din, clouds of powder smoke and confusion of action demanded abilities possessed by very few. Despite having some experience as regimental officers, the majority of the Civil War generals failed to make the grade as army or corps commanders. Even Fairfax, according to Wanklyn, was at his best leading smallish detachments and the victories of the New Model Army largely depended upon the initiative of his subordinates. Fairfax’s principal contributions were steadiness and caution. His success was mainly due to the fact that he managed to secure some degree of operational independence from the Committee of Both Kingdoms, the body which had over-supervised the campaigning of Waller and Essex. Indeed, the impression is given that the enhancement of Parliament’s political control over its armed forces was one of the influences for the formation of the New Model Army.

The origin of this centralised parliamentary supervision of its generals is not investigated but it must have been based on the practice of the States General of the Dutch Republic with its field deputies. Waller was another who excelled leading corps and detachments but lacked the strategic judgement for higher command. King Charles I’s military acumen improved as the war progressed but not enough to justify personal command of an army in action. Prince Rupert and Cromwell were the stars, although the latter was only able to demonstrate his true talents during the Second Civil War and at Dunbar and Worcester.

Overall, the standard of generalship was not high: if it is no longer correct to describe the Civil Wars as fought by amateurs, it is equally wrong to say that they were conducted by expert professionals. Conclusions and analyses are those of a 21st-century armchair soldier and, often, insufficient attention is given to what generals on the spot actually knew about a situation. The book would have benefited from some consideration of the qualities contemporaries expected of a competent general officer.

Despite some stylistic infelicities – there is an unfortunate fondness for colloquialisms that will cause the book to date quickly – Wanklyn provides a useful, well-researched, general narrative of the higher direction of the Civil Wars. Finally, his interpretation of the terminal phases of the battle of Naseby challenges the fashionable orthodoxy of ‘battlefield archaeology’.


John Childs is emeritus professor of military history at the University of Leeds. He is currently writing biographies of Lieutenant General Percy Kirke and the 1st Duke of Marlborough


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