"War Walks, presented
by Richard Holmes, could both reduce to tears and raise to comprehension."
- Bryan Appleyard, "The Times"
#01 - War
Walks 1 (TV Series)
#02 - War Walks 2 (TV Series)
#03 - War Walks (Companion Book)
#04 - Fatal Avenue (Book)
#05 - Battlefields (TV Series & Companion Book)
#06 - Western Front (Companion Book)
#07 - Rebels and Redcoats (TV Series)
#08 - In the Footsteps of Churchill (TV Series)
#09 - Epic Land Battles (Book)
#10 - Redcoat (Book)
#11 - Soldiers (Companion Book)
#12 - Wellington: The Iron Duke (TV Series)
WAR WALKS (SERIES 1)
"In October 1415, starving and riddled with disease, a tiny English army defeated a French force that outnumbered it by 5 to 1. This epic victory has flashes of storybook heroism, set against a darker backdrop of horror and butchery. Today, you can still follow in King Henry V's footsteps on the road that leads to Agincourt." (Opening Narration)
"Miles from home, stranded in a foreign country, marching in the driving rain, outnumbered... it's small wonder that many saw this as more of a dangerous pub crawl than a crusade." (Narration)
Napoleon escapes from exile and once again announces himself Emperor of France. He raises an army and prepares to meet the British & Prussian forces under Wellington at Waterloo.
"In August 1914, the war to end all wars blazed through Belgium and northern France. Over the next few months, an old world of swords, lances and bugles would be shattered by the machine gun and the howitzer. Most of the troops of the British Expeditionary Force marching to their first battles of the Great War would not survive this new age of industrialized slaughter. In the first few days, they marched across a landscape that previous generations of British soldiers might have recognised." (Opening Narration)
1916 The Somme
In a desperate attempt to break the deadlock in the trenches on the Western Front, the British launch their first major offensive of the war with their volunteer army.
"In 1940, the German army launched one of history's most dynamic invasions, unleashing a lightning war that simply overwhelmed Allied forces. This is the story of that invasion, and of how a small British force, fighting near the French town of Arras, almost delivered it a stopping blow." (Opening Narration)
1944 Operation Goodwood
"In July 1944, the British Army staged its biggest ever tank attack. Many hoped that it would be the great breakthrough, a massed cavalry charge that would shatter the Germans, and win the battle for Normandy. With a reference to the glories of British horseracing, it was codenamed Operation Goodwood. Landing in Normandy had been relatively easy, breaking out into France beyond it was to prove infinitely more difficult." (Opening Narration)
"By the end of August 1944, the struggle for Normandy was over. A historian should never say never, yet we may hope that it marks the end of a barbarous dynasty of battles, which have ruled Western Europe for more than five centuries, since English archers and French knights fought to the death on the fields of Agincourt." (Closing Narration)
WAR WALKS (SERIES 2)
"1066 was the year that invasion changed the course of English history. A duke became a conqueror. He landed here, beat King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, and brought about the end of Anglo-Saxon England." (Opening Narration)
"His helmet encircled with a golden crown, Richard III, King of England, prepared himself for ordeal by battle. He rode out against the man who had vowed to wrest the crown from his head, and sought to kill him in hand-to-hand combat. That spectacular flourish took place here, on the 22nd of August, 1485. These fields, near the little town of Market Bosworth, saw the last battle of the Wars Of The Roses, that bloody clash between the Houses of York and Lancaster." (Opening Narration)
"This is the battlefield of Naseby, the Civil War's decisive clash. It was here on the 14th of June, 1645, that Charles lost the war and began his slide down the long slope that ended on a scaffold in Whitehall." (Narration)
1690 The Boyne
"Few battles are commemorated as passionately as the Boyne. The clash between two kings, James II and his son in law, William of Orange, still resounds through Irish history. This street, in a Protestant area of Belfast, is dominated by an image of William crossing the River Boyne. His victory over King James II in 1690 became a powerful symbol of Protestant ascendancy. It lies at the heart of the divisions and distrust that separates Ireland's two communities." (Opening Narration)
"Nearly 60 years ago, thousands of men waited on this beach for days, under repeated attack from the air. They were members of the British Expeditionary Force, now surrounded by the German army. Most of their guns and their few tanks had been destroyed in battle, or smashed to prevent capture. They were running short of food, and even drinking water was scarce. Their only hope lay in rescue from the sea. It was a desperate situation. To the British, evacuation would be a miracle. To their French allies, it would seem like a betrayal." (Opening Narration)
1940 The Blitz
"From mid-September 1940, London faced night after night of continuous bombing. It became almost a matter of horrific routine, with wardens helping people to the shelters as the sirens wailed over blacked-out streets. But one night, and one image encapsulate the London Blitz - the 29th of December, the Second Great Fire of London, when St. Paul's rose in its glory amongst the smoke and flames. On that night the Cathedral was surrounded by a ring of fire, as centuries of history went up in smoke. The landscape of London was changed forever and those who were there will never forget it." (Opening Narration)
WAR WALKS (COMPANION BOOK)
If you want a book about strategy then you have already read too far, for this is a book about men, most of them very ordinary, and the ground they fought on. In a sense this is an unfashionable book, for historiography has long moved away from 'scraps and chaps'. Yet battles and the men who fought them are important: more so than we might wish to admit in an age when war's credibility as a means of pursuing political aims is increasingly questioned.
It is also aimed at travellers who intend to view the fields themselves. It is not a guidebook in the strict sense. Instead it identifies those pieces of ground best able to take, like Dr. Who's TARDIS, from the present to the past.
In time we march from Hastings in 1066 and Agincourt in 1415, fought with weapons which might not have dismayed the Romans, to the break-our from Normandy in 1944, whose veterans still enrich Remembrance Day. In the process we touch many of the developments that have shaped the face of war. For the men of Hastings, battle centered on muscle-power, applied to bowstring or sword-hilt, for this, like Agincourt, was war in its first age. Waterloo saw war in its second age. Although raw muscle still played its part the real killer was flying iron or lead, impelled by gunpowder from the products of the Industrial Revolution. The process accelerated in the First World War... a generation later, gull-winged Stukas provided German armour with flying artillery, while the preparation for Operation Goodwood in 1944 used strategic bombers to transform the landscape, up-ended Tiger tanks, and transform languid Norman countryside into a latter-day version of the Somme. It was not simply the tools of killing that changed. Styles of command and the technology on which they depend are rarely as eye-catching as weapons, but they are every bit as important. At Operation Goodwood we can glimpse the dawn of war's third age, as information technology began to dominate steel.
Our first battles show
generalship in its heroic guise: William, Duke of Normandy, and King Harold,
a clash of the Titans at Hastings... Heroic generalship never ran smoothly:
what might have happened had the French swords which lopped off part of
Henry V's crown bitten deeper? When Henry shouted, "Advance banners!" he
could see his whole host move off across the muddy plough at Agincourt.
Although Wellington's army was much larger, he could gallop across the
whole Waterloo position in a few minutes. In 1914 this old machine broke
down at last... nevertheless, many generals displayed courage denied them
by popular mythology and, in doing so, paid the supreme penalty. Of the
first seven British divisional commanders who went to France in 1914, three
were killed in action, and one was wounded.
There were still times, even during the Second World War, when heroic leadership tilted the balance. Henry V or Wellington might have had little in common with Major-General Erwin Rommel, commanding 7th Panzer Division at Arras in 1940. Yet they could scarcely have disapproved of his instinct, as British tanks ploughed deep into his division, to position himself at the crucial point, animating a defence which might not have proved successful without his leadership.
I have strong views about "television history". As a medium, television is complementary to, not in competition with, the written word. What television gains in immediacy it can so easily lose in detail: but in contrast, some academic prose seems designed to be impenetrable to all but the most committed.
[#1 Hastings 1066]
Hastings was more than an epic struggle between two towering personalities. It was that rare event, an utterly decisive battle. One side defeated the other — and killed its leader into the bargain — in a clash which decided the war. The long-term political, social and economic changes that flowed from it were nothing short of revolutionary. It was the end of the Saxon England of ale-bench and bright mead, folk-moot, earl and churl, of monarchs who were sometimes little more, and occasionally rather less, than first amongst equals... the echoes of 1066 reverberated for centuries.
William's knights fought on horseback at Hastings. But this was not inevitable: at the battles of Tinchebray (1106) and the Standard (1138) Norman knights fought on foot. Their weapons and equipment were not notably different from those of the well-equipped foot soldier. A mail shirt (hauberk) made from interloced iron rings hammered or riveted together was the main defensive garment. Worn over a thich tunic, the hauberk was heavy and uncomfortable, and was donned only when battle was imminent. Hauberks were expensive, and there were never enough to go round: the Bayeux tapestry suggests that while fighting was in progress the dead were stripped of their hauberks so that the unarmoured living could put them to good use. The conical iron helmet, with a nasal to protect the nose, ws the common form of Viking military headdress in both England and Normandy. The helment is comical, inducing blows to glance off, and the nasal offers protection against a stroke to the face.
Richard Glover concludes that there were indeed archers in the English army in 1066, but they had gone to Stamford Bridge with Harold and were not available to him as Hastings. The infantry of the day would have had no chance of covering the 250 miles distance in a dozen days: the only men to fight in both battles would have been the housecarls and thegns who made the journey on horseback.
Stamford Bridge would be better remembered were it not obscured by Hastings. It ended the last of the great Viking invasions, and was the ultimate revenge for years of burnt farmsteads and butchered peasants. The battle, and the campaign which led up to it had shown Harold Godinwson at his best: whatever the twists and turns on his path to the throne, he had proved himself a decisive leader.
"The cohesion of the
shield-wall was the fundamental principle of Anglo-Saxon battle tactics."
- Nicholas Brooks
Both armies had distinctive banners and war cries. Harold's men fought beneath the dragon of Wessex, rather like a wind-sock, and the king's own banner, and embrodiered figure of a fighting man. The Norman banner bore the leopards of Normandy.
[#2 Agincourt 1415]
The Hundred Years War (which lasted from 1337 to 1453) was an intermittent struggle between nations whose identity solidified as it went on; a coalition war, with the English often supported by Burgundians and Gascons, and even a civil war, whose combatants looked back to a heritage that was partly shared.
The dominant military instrument of the age was the man-at-arms, a warrior armoured from head to foot and trained to fight on horseback, known in popular shorthand as a knight. The charge of the mounted knight was often decisive, but it had acute limitations were ground did not favour massed cavalry or where infantry was prepared to stand and fight. It was a blunt weapon, yet its appeal to a knightly class, bred to fight on horseback and despire spurless peasantry on foot, was enormous.
A chevauchee was a large-scale raid which sought to avoid battle but to inflict damage on the areas it passed through, weakening an enemy's economic base and moral authority. A chevauchee might be forced to fight, and the greatest English victories of the period — Crecy, Poitiers, Agincourt — took place when chevauchees were caught by superior French forces. Battles did not ensure territory passed from vanquished to victor. To secure territory, a commander needed to take the key towns in it, and this usually demanded sieges which were costly in lives and time. As a chevauchee moved through enemy territory there were great opportunities for profit. Michael Prestwich has identified "patriotism, desire for chivalric renown, and hope of financial gain through plunder" as motives which led men to fight for Edward III.
By the time of Edward III growing numbers of archers were mounted, using horses for mobility on campaign and dismounting to fight on foot. Archers became men of recognized status, lower than knights but higher than ordinary foot soldiers. This was not enough to ensure that they would be captured rather than killed out of hand, for they ranked below the level at which the medieval laws of warfare offered theoretical protection. There was little point in keeping an archer prisoner because his family could not buy his release. So he might be killed, or so mutilated as to be militarily useless. The derisive gesture of waving two fingers of waving two fingers at an opponent dates from this period, for the French would sometimes cut the forefingers off captured archers so they could not draw a bow.
An archer could dispose of 10 or 12 arrows a minute, shooting to a maximum effective range of some 300 yards.
Henry was right to on his guard against drunkenness, for soldiers across the centuries have found alcohol a relief from the shock of battle and the rigours of campaigning. German troops attacking to the north in the Merch offensive of 1918 drank their way through gallons of captured alcohol: one officer complained that his men were held up not by a lack of German fighting spirit but by an abundance of Scottish drinking spirit.
It is easy to cast
all the English archers as hardy yeomen led by brave and generous gentlemen,
forerunners of the men who stood in square at Waterloo and those footsore
warriors who rifle-fire at Mons was the 20th century's answer to the arrow-storm.
The truth is a good deal less romantic...
Few men felt deep hatred for the French enemy — although archers might experience a frisson of pleasure when killing social superiors — but most displayed callous disregard for an opponent who was simply different.
The first French 'battle' set off for the English line. The ground was heavy going for men in full armour carrying shortened lances or pole-axes. It would have been evident to the archers that this was the moment for their maximum effort, and they would have stepped up their rate of fire to that there may have been 80,000 arrows a minute hitting the advancing French... it speaks volumes for the courage of the French knightly class that any of the first battle pressed on to engage the English men-at-arms.
The melee whicn ensued is best described as bloody murder. This was no place for elegant swordplay: men hacked at one another for the minutes that their strength lasted, trying to beat in an opponent's helmet, hew his legs from under him or shove a lance through his visor. Fatigue or a missed footing often meant death, for once a man was down he was easily finished off.
If it was not easy for a French knight to surrender to an English one, coming to terms with archers presented particular problems. Few of them spoke French: many of the Welsh spoke no English.
Agincourt did not end the war, and bitter fighting followed until the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. On the death of Charles VI the crowns of England and France were to be united in the person of Henry or his successor, although the French were to be allowed to retain their language and customs. Henry married the Princess Catherine shortly afterwards, and expressed the hope that "perpetual peace" was no assured. He was wrong, for not all Frenchmen were prepared to accept the verdict of Troyes, and Henry was campaigning south of Paris when he fell ill, probably of dysentry, in August 1422. He was taken back to the castle at Vincennes where he died, at the age of 35 and just six weeks before Charles VI: he never became King of France.
As we conclude our chevauchee it is chastening to remember that the Channel, now so easily crossed, has shielded Britain from things which, in their way, were as ghastly as the aftermath of Agincourt.
[#3 Bosworth 1485]
It was the last hurrah of English chivalry, Richard III, in full armour, gold crown around his helmet, led a handful of his closest adherents down the hill. His target was the knot of knights surrounding his rival, Henry Tudor, and so great was his impact that he killed Henry's standard bearer. It could not last. Some of Richard's supposed supporters turned against him, and his little band was encircled and outnumbered... even those who had no love for Richard, or were writing when Henry or his descendants were on the throne, cannot deny Richard the honour of his last moments.
Edward III's death saw the first stirrings of another conflict. It title, "The Wars of the Roses", had irritated some historians, who have pointed out that red and white roses were only two of the many badges used by the Houses of Lancaster and York. Instead of a long-running dynastic struggle, John Gillingham identifies three distinct wars. The first was caused by Henry VI's failure as a king, the second by the discontent of the Earl of Warwick and the third by Richard III's seizure of the throne. These conflicts all occured within a single society and the space of one generation. They were largely wars within the political nation, and much of the country's social, economic and religious life went on around them.
"Between 1483 and 1485," writes Michael Bennett, "it is tempting to see all roads leading to Bosworth. This quiet market centre, in the heart of champion England, seems almost to have exercised a gravitational pull on the actors in the tragedy of Richard III." And tragedy it was, for in two short years the sun of York burned out for ever, scorching many who came close to it.
It was typical of Henry's wily nature that he dated his reign from the day before Bosworth, making traitors of those who fought against him. Yet he was relatively merciful.
[#4 Naseby 1645]
The process of taking sides in the Civil War was infinitely more complex than the simple terms Royalist or Parliamentarian imply. If men at the political or religious extremes found it easy to decide where their loyalties lay, it was harder for most of the political nation. Economic interests, religious senisibilities, political, personal, family and local loyalties all played their parts, and many strove to remain neutral until they were drawn into the conflict... William Waller called it "this war without an enemy".
the Earl of Manchester, "I beseech you let's consider what we do. The King
need not care how oft he fights... If we fight 100 times and beat him 99
he will be King still, but if he beats us once, or the last time, we shall
be hanged, we shall lose our estates, and our posterities be undone."
"My Lord," replied Oliver Cromwell, "if this be do, why did we take up arms at first? This is against fighting ever hereafter. If this be so, let us make peace, be it never so base."
Parliament's alliance with the Scots, its possession of most major ports, and its control of the fleet and the wealth and manpower of London, and a central tract of territory meant that it was likely to win a war of attrition. It could not do so, however, without an army capable of closing the deal... this was to be the New Model Army, instrument of Parliament's victory.
Cavalry tactics had been warmly debated. Disciples of the Dutch school maintained that each rank of horsemen should trot up to pistol range of their enemy, fire, and wheel about to reload. At the other extreme, followers of the Swedish school argued that cavalry achieved the best results by shock action: pistols ought not to be used until horsemen had charged home. By the time of Naseby the Swedish school was in the ascendant... The dragoon was a hybrid. Although he was mounted, his horse was primarily a means of transport rather than a fighting platform, and was much cheaper than the cavalryman's steed. He had no armour, and carried both sword and musket.
[#5 The Boyne 1690]
The Boyne was not a big battle. It was not even the bloodiest battle of the Williamite War in Ireland — that honour goes to "Aughrim of the slaughter", fought a year later. Yet it struck a particular chord. It was the only battle where the contenders for the British thronem James II and William III, met in person, and they did do on the banks of a river which courses through Irish history... but the Boyne has cut a deeper grooce in history than its military importance might suggest. To the Protestants of the North it became symbolic of the defeat of Catholicism.
The fate of Ireland was bound up in all the battle described thus far.
In Elizabeth's reign perioidic rebellions by the Gaelic chiefs, together with the risk that Ireland, scarcely touched by the Reformation, might provide a springboard for a Spanish attack on England, persuaded the Queen to embark on full-scale conquest.
William was prepared to take the risk of coming to England because victory would enable him to mobilize Britain's financial, naval and military resources against his long-standing enemy, Louis XIV of rance... James might yet have won. As a young man he had fought bravely on land and sea, but now his nerve deserted him and he fled to London. He was soon captured, allowed to escape, inconveniently recaptured and permitted to escape once more: the crown was then offered by Parliament jointly to William and Mary... the settlement embodied the crucial notion of contract between rulers and ruled. William and Mary reigned not because of Divine Right, but because of the will of the people as expressed by Parliament. If the 'Glorious' revolution was largely bloodless in England, it was less so in Scotland, where James's supporters — the Jacobites — had to be defeated by force of arms. In Ireland its consequences were even more bloody.
In the 45 years separating Naseby from the Boyne the art of war had moved on apace. The matchlock musket was being superseded by the flintlock. Flintlocks were more reliable than matchlocks, but more expensive to manufacture and the Jacobite army was always short of them. Not only were most of its muskets matchlocks, but there were never enough even of them.
James was outnumbered... his only chance was to face William behind the best obstacle he could find: the Boyne water. Yet even the Boyne was far from perfect. It had two chief disadvantages. The first was that the Boyne swings around north near Rossnaree to loop round Oldbridge before resuming its journey eastwards to the sea. Classical military theory warns against defending the curve of a river which faces the enemy, for an opponent who attacks where the river bends is effectively behind the defenders of the loop, who risk being cut off if the attack succeeds. Worse still, the Boyne was fordable in many places.
The Boyne did not end the war, which dragged on for another year... the Treaty of Limerick allowed the French to return home and guaranteed safe conduct to Jacobites who wished to do the same or to serve abroad. Jacobite estates would not be confiscated and Catholics would receive "no less toleration" than they had enjoyed under Charles II. The treaty was not ratified. A million and a half acres were confiscated, and penal laws bore down on Catholics and dissenting Protestants alike.
The Irish did not find it easy to forgive James for using them as a mere tool for his political ambitions... after the Boyne Irishmen fought to drive out the English, not in support of a King who had betrayed them. James must bear a great share of the blame for what happened that day, and many Irish officers could not but compare the soldierly William with the irresolute James. Let us leave the last word to the gallant Sarsfield: "As low as we now are," he declared, "change but kings with us and we will fight it over again with you".
[#6 Waterloo 1815]
The Waterloo campaign is a bloody addendum to the Napoleonic Wars.
It is ironic that most men who fought at Waterloo carried weapons which, in range, accuracy and rate of fire, were inferior to the longbow. There were many reasons for the bow's decline. England ran short of archers, partly because of the decline in practice. The Wars of the Roses (1455-85) were at least as important in creating a shortage of archers. Firearms represented fashionable modernity which made them attractive to monarchs forging nation states. It was easy to teach men to use them, and also to make them, as the hard-won skills of bowyer and fletcher were blotted out by the smoke of the Industrial Revolution.
When Michael Roberts produced his thesis on the "military revolution" of the 17th century he laid emphasis on the rise in firepower produced through reforms instigated by Maurice of Nassau. These led to standardization of drill and weaponry and the creation of a disciplined army, with the Swedish army of the Thirty Years War as its paradign. The thesis linked changes in military organisation with the shift of power within the state. New tactics demanded larger, more professional armies, which in turn aided the rise of absolutist states by taking power from subjects and concentrating it in the hands of monarchs.
Even if the changes bridging the gap between Agincourt and Waterloo do not pivot on a single revolution, more a succession of key developments, with as much migration of ideas as genuine innovation, their effects on the way men fought were nothing less than revolutionary.
Armies grew bigger and were maintained in peace as well as war.
In the age of the French Revolution and Napoleon, war broke free of many old bonds. Napoleon's techniques were as much a reflection of their 18th century background as sparks flying from an outstanding military intellect. Napoleonic warfare rolled across Europe with unprecedented scale and rapidity. Napoleon's ability to maneuver hinged on his development of "corps d'armee", all-arms formations which marched on separate routes, making best use of roads and locally obtained provisions, but which fought united. Napoleon sought to fight decisive battles and to win them by offensive action. At his best he moved fast so as to surprise, confuse and unbalance before striking. At his worse he relied on the power of his artillery and the morale of his soldiers to break an enemy by brute force. Napoleon recognized that much of war depended on the imponderables of the human spirit and he took infinite pains, from an imperial word of approval here to an award of the Legion d'honneur there, to foster morale. Yet he had a hard edge of cynicism which saww men as a resource like any other. "You cannot stop me," he warned the Austrian statesman Metternich, "I can spend 30,000 men a month".
Battles were linear. Formations of close-paced infantry engaged one another with the flintlock musket, whose slow rate of fire (about 3 rounds per minute), close range (an enemy line would receive little damage at 200 yards) and inherent unreliability (one shot in five normally misfired, and in rainy conditions it was hard to fire at all) reduced the soldier to a tiny cog in a ponderous machine.
For years writers contrasted French preference for the column with British predilection for the line. The truth is more mundane. Columns were useful for road or cross-country movement and essential for keeping men together in an assault... if fire was required, then deployment in line enabled the maximum number of muskets to bear. During the Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal, the Duke of Wellington made skilful use of the ground so that startled French columns, configured for movement, often collided with the British, deployed to fire.
[#7 Mons & Le Cateau
The Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870 is the military watershed between 1815 and 1914. It was the first war in which the infantry on both sides carried breech-loading rifles, their deadliness awesomely demonstrated when the Prussian Guard lost over 8000 men while attacking St-Privat on 18 August 1870. Gunners still used direct fire, but shells had replaced roundshot. The French even had a machine-gun, the Mitrailleuse, but this had been kept a secret from friends as well as enemies and was largely ineffective. Cavalry had a dangerous and disappointing time. Some of the most important developments were less spectacular. The telegraph enabled Helmuth von Moltke, the German commander-in-chief, to maintain contact with his armies as they sprawled across France.
The war laid the foundations of future conflict. For France, the loss of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine was a profound national humiliation, while Germany found in victory and the proclamation of William I of Prussia as German emperor the impulsion towards militarism. For the next 40 years European diplomacy was played out with an arms race as its backcloth. The great powers fine-tuned arrangements for mobilization, bought modern arms and equipment and encouraged young men to anticipate a struggle of national survival from which only the worthless would hang back.
The British had fought in khaki since the 1880s, and the South African War had reminded them of the importance of fieldcraft and marksmanship. The .303 Lee-Enfield rifle carried by infantry and cavalry alike was sighted up to 2000 yards and men shot regularly at targets 600 yads away. They were expected to put 15 shots a minute into the 2-foot circle of a target 300 yards away, and many could do better.
At the back of Kluck's mind was the principle which had stood the Germans in good stead in 1870-1. Attacking infantry did well if they pinned the enemy to his position and prevented him from maneuvering. While they fixed, others could strike, seeking flanks and rear so that the defender's success in holding ground, and thus making it easier for his attacker to get in behind him, only made his eventual destruction more certain.
Le Cateau is a tiny battlefield, and Wellington would have understood so much about it. Lines of infantry, kept steady by discipline, the bonds of mateship, a touch of sheer nastiness, brave leaders and the remembrance of things past. Gunners who would neither abandon the pieces they served nor the infantry they supported. Le Cateau was the last battle of the old war.
Sir John French caught the new tone of the war very quickly, telling the king: "I think the battle of the Aisne is very typical of what battles in the future are most likely to resemble. Siege operations will enter largely into the tactical problems, the spade will be as great a necessity as the rifle, and the heaviest calibres of artillery will be brought up in support on either side".
It is as well that soldiers cannot see too far into the future. On their retreat some British soldiers crossed a little river at Voyennes, which Henry V's men had passed on their way to Agincourt. It was, of course, the Somme.
[#8 The Somme 1916]
At 730am on 1 July 1916, 60000 British soldiers scrambled out of their trenches on the uplands north of the Somme to begin the "Big Push". By noon almost 100,000 had been committed to battle, and by nightfall 57470 were dead, wounded or missing. The British army lost more soldiers than it had fielded at Waterloo, Mons or Le Cateau, and probably more than fought on either side at Agincourt. It was the first day of a battle that ground on until November, and by its close there were 418,000 British casualties. These were the best of the nation's volunteer manhood, and the merest glance at its casualty roll shows what the Somme did to the old world of brass bands and cricket fields, pit-head cottages and broad acres. It levelled the exalted. The prime minister's son, Lt. Herbert Asquith and Lt. the Hon. Edward Tennant were part of that fusion of Leicestershire hunting world and London society known as the Souls: they lie in the same cemetery at Guillemont.
There was no particular merit to attacking on the Somme: it was simply where the Allied armies met. The Roman road from Albert to Bapaume slashes the battlefield.
The Somme turned a largely inexperienced mass army into a largely experienced one. But the men who were to attack on 1 July had not come to the Somme to learn: they had come to win the war... the first day of the Somme was the 132nd day of Verdun, and the French had been learning. The British too, were to learn fast, although we must doubt whether 57,470 men were a fair price for the teaching. The Germans, for their part, lost 2200 prisoners, and casualties for the bombardment and the first day of the battle may have totalled 8000... the battle struck its dying fall with the capture of Beaumont-Hamel (a 1 July objective) on 13 November.
One of the sad truths of the first day is that the proportion of killed to wounded (21000 to 36000) was unusually high because many who could have recovered with prompt attention perished as they lay in no man's land. Initially the Germans took few chances, and men who moved between the lines were sniped or machine-gunned. Later, especially in areas where the attack had palpably failed, they sometimes allowed the wounded to be recovered. Often men took huge risks to drag in survivors or search for friends.
Even now we cannot be certain how many men died or were wounded on the Somme. Allied casualties totalled about 600000, two thirds of them British. It is safer to suggest that the Germans lost 600000 men, many in counter-attacks and more to artillery. One German survivor wrote: "The Somme was the muddy grave of the German field army". That the Somme had worn down the German army and contributed to the tactical skill of the British cannot be denied. But much else had been worn down, and the New Armies had lost their innocence.
[#9 Arras 1940]
In May 1940 the Germans rolled across the battlefields of 1914-18 with a speed which amazed them. "It was hardly conceivable," wrote Major-General Erwin Rommel. "22 years before we had stood for four-and-a-half years before this same enemy and had won victory after victory and finally lost the war."
The word blitzkrieg, meaning "lightning war", summed it up perfectly... surprise, speed and concentration were its essence. Their new air force, the Luftwaffe, not only prevented enemy aircraft from interfering in the ground battle but became "flying artillery" for the panzer divisions. These were not simply tank formations, but included mechanized infantry (called rifle regiments in 1940); reconaissance; field, anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery; and engineers. Of all their weapons, the radio was the most potent. Communications had been the single greatest constraint on First World War tactics: how different the first day on the Somme might have been in 1916 had the attackers been able to identify and reinforce their success faster than the defender could rectify his failure.
In raw numbers the two sides were evenly matched with 136 divisions for the campaign, although the Allies, with 96 French, 10 British, 22 Belgian and 10 Dutch divisions were anything but a homogenous force. They had just over 3000 armoured vehicles, slightly more than the Germans. Most German tanks were the lightly armed Panzers Mk I and II, stiffened by 349 Mk IIIs, with a 37mm gun and only 279 Mk IVs with a low-velocity 75mm gun. The French had 311 of the heavy BI tank, and 260 of the Somua S65 — woth its 47mm high velocity gun arguably the best tank in the campaign — together with some 1800 lighter vehicles. The British fielded 100 infantry tanks, designed for infantry cooperation and sufficiently armoured to defeat most anti-tank weapons. The Mk 1 mounted a machine-gun, while the 24 very heavily armoured Mk II Matildas carried a 2-pdr gun. The Germans enjoyed no great material advantage... the real German edge lay in training and organization. Most of the Allied tanks were scattered amongst cavalry and light mechanized divisions or allocated to infantry support. Panzer divisions, in contrast, were flexible all-arms formations whose commanders had the experience of Poland behind them.
[#10 Dunkirk 1940]
The Commander-in-Chief did not mince his words. "I must not conceal from you," he warned the Secretary of State for War, "that a great part of the BEF and its equipment will inevitably be lost even in the best circumstances." Viscount Gort gave this chilly prognosis on 26 May 1940, as his British Expeditionary Force fell back across Belgium and northern France. Gort had earlier suggested that the BEF was making "the retreat with which all British campaigns start". As the campaign reached its climax he must have feared that the retreat would end in disaster. Yet only 10 days later most of the BEF was safe. A total of 338,000 men — 120,000 of them French — had been evacuated from Dunkirk and its open beaches to its east.
The 1914-18 war itself did extraordinary damage to the old Britain. It was not simply that its human cost was horrifying: Britain lost 700,000 men killed, and tens of thousands of others were physically crippled or mentally scarred. The whole country ws impoverished by the war, and industrial stagnation and mass unemployment cast a shadow over the inter-war period. Yet the picture was not universally bleak. The working class, though blighted by the Depression, maintained its own cohesive character, and growing middle class filed out into the orderly suburbs. Public entertainment, in music hall and cinema, on football field and cricket pitch, not only furnished "opium for the people" but also helped give a sense of common values. The monarchy remained a powerful symbol of national unity.
The Versailles settlement was a compromise. It was deeply humiliating to Germany which was stripped of territory and allowed an army of only 100,000 men. Yet the Europe it created was inherently unstable: states like Poland and Czechoslovakia could not realistically defend themselves against major aggressors. The League of Nations initially seemed to offer the hope of creating collective security, but the United States declined to join and the League's voice soon counted for little.
There had been over 3.5 million troops in the British establishment in 1918 but only 370,000 in 1920.... Hitler's repudiation of Versailles brought only a gradual response. As late as December 1937 the dispatch of an expeditionary force to support a European ally was accorded the lowest priority, well below the defence of the United Kingdom against air attack, the reinforcement of imperial garrisons and the sending of a force to an unspecified eastern theatre.
The German invasion force would contain 7 panzer divisions which would hit the Allied front between Sedan and Dinant on the River Meuse, the hinge between the static armies in the Maginot Line and the mobile force clattering forward into Belgium. It was high risk. The attackers would be vulnerable to air attack as they would through the Ardennes, and there was no guarantee that they would succeed in crossing the Meuse. But the potential pay-off was high. If the Germans broke through it would be hard for the Allies to regain the initiative.
Churchill warned Parliament: "We must very very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations." Yet even he called it a "miracle of deliverance", and somehow miracle seemed the right word.
[#11 The Blitz 1940]
"Had Britain not been an island, she would have been overrun as surely as were Poland and France."
- Ronald Wheatley
The difficulties confrontiong Sealion have persuaded some historians that Hitler never took it seriously, and privately hoped that his preparations and the air offensive which accompanied them, would persuade the British to sue for peace, this making invasion unnecessary. We simply cannot be sure. Two things are, however, certain. The first is that the Germans strenuously attempted, in the Battle of Britain to gain the air superiority which was a prerequisite for Sealion. The second is that they then, from August 1940 to mid-May 1941, turned their attentiont to cities in an attack known as the Blitz.
It is no mere cliche to say that the Battle of Britain was fought by the few, the pilots of the RAF's Fighter Command. The Blitz was the business of the many: not only of the firemen, rescue workers, wardens, ambulance crews, policemen and anti-aircraft gunners, and the others, volunteer or professional, who played an active role; but also of the tens of thousands of civilians who had to tolerate blacked-out streets, air-raid warnings, the nightly terror of bombing raids and the bewilderment of seeing a familiar townscape changed for ever.
Because most of the fighting took place over southern England or the Channel, RAF aircrew who baled out and landed safely were soon back at their bases. Some even found themselves back in action the same day. Baled-out German aircrew, in contrast, were captured. This meant that attrition of pilots was always higher for Germans, no small matter at a time when it took far longer to train a pilot than to produce an aircraft.
If they chose to do so the Germans could outnumber British fighters by about 2 to 1, and much of Fighter Command's tactical advantage sprang from its system of early warning and control, which in turn hinged on the vulnerable radar stations.
While visiting his aircrew Goering asked them just what they needed to beat the RAF. Major Adolf Galland, a fighter group commander who was to achieve 103 victories in combat, replied that re-equpping his squadrons with Spitfires would help. He was not being entirely facetious, for if the Me. 109 had the edge in the "free-hunting" fighter sweeps at which Galland excelled, the slower and more manoeuvrable Spitfire might have been better for escort duties.
The Blitz ended in mid-May, and Britain licked her wounds. Materially these were serious. More than 43000 civilians had been killed, 139 000 injured and tens of thousands made homeless. Great tracts of Britain's ancient cities and thriving industrial centres had been devastated. Port facilities and factories had been destroyed, transport severely interrupted and public utilities badly mauled. Resources of manpower and equipment, many of which could have been used elsewhere, had been diverted to military and civil defence. All this had been achieved for a cost of about 600 German bombers. Yet the Blitz had not broken British will to resist... however the Government's own Mass Observation reports revealed that sometimes even the Londoners lost their cheerfulness, and in smaller cities, where the concentration of bombing was far greater, public morale became a matter of concern.
Britain was fortunate that the Luftwaffe was not better equipped for strategic bombing, and that its commanders applied the power they had in a less than focused way.
Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris of Bomber Command was not slow to learn the lessons of the Blitz... one night (probably 29 December 1940) he stood on the Air Ministry roof with Sir Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff, and "watched the old city in flames... with St Paul's standing out in the midst of an ocean of fire". As they turned to go, Harris said: "Well, they are sowing the wind."
[#12 Operation Goodwood
"The battle of Normandy," maintained Stephen Badsey, "was the last great set-piece battle of the Western World". An historian should never say never, but we may hope that three months of fighting amongst seaside villas, half-timbered manoirs and apple orchards mark the end of a barbarous dynasty of battles which had ruled Europe for centuries before Agincourt was fought. Without the great sea-borne landing of D-Day, 6 June 1944, here would have been no Allied invasion of occupied Europe: but winning a beachhead was only the campaign's first act. Surging out of it to make Normandy a stepping stone to Hitler's defeat was always the Allied aim, and for many combatants it was not the break-in but the break-out which curdles memories of this land of cream and Calvados.
Operation Goodwood was the British Army's major contribution to the break-out. Historians remain divided as to whether it was meant to achieve a break-out itself, or to attract German armour from the American sector. Alexander McKee called it "the death ride of the armoured divisions" with good reason. It was one of the largest ever British mechanized battles, and over 400 tanks were lost, more than the army's tank strength at the time of writing.
The Eastern Front was Germany's overriding priority, and it burnt up troops like kindling. Most divisions in France were not fit for service in the east, many filled with unfit or over-age soldiers who could carry out only static duties. The German army had become a two-tier structure, its infantry divisions relying on horse-drawn transport. There was a conflict of opinion as to how invasion should be met. Conventional wisdom, to which most senior officers subsribed, favoured identifying the real Allied thrust and sending massed armour against it. Rommel, who knew what Allied air-power could do, believed that the invasion had to be stopped on the beaches. Its first day would be the longest, for Allies and Germans alike.
Noise wore men down. The German "Moaning Minnie" multi-barrelled rocket launcher was especially frightening. There was the buzz-saw sound of the German MG 42 machine gun and the slower rattle of the British Bren; the "feathery shuffle" audible in the split second before a mortar bomb burst with its "flat, grating, guttural crash"; the railway-train rumble of 25-pdr shells going one way and the sharper whiz-bang of high velocity shell coming the other. A barrage could be almost soporific. There was no disregarding the SLAM-CRASH of an 88mm, the sound of the shell's impact and the weapon's firing arriving almost together. Perhaps the most telling accompanies to tank battle was the smack of armour-piercing shot on armour plate, like the clang of bodkin point on breastplate, obscenely amplified. There were yells of agony and tortured desperation.
Nor is comparison with Agincourt unreasonable. British tank crews resemblmed French men-at-arms: unquestionably brave; well (but not well enough) armoured; out-ranged by their most deadly opponents; and peering into periscopes as knights squinted through their visors.
The long connection between England and Normandy is summed up on the Memorial to the Missing, which stands on the Boulevard Fabian Ware, named after the founder of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, on the western edge of Bayeux. "We, once conquered by William," reads the Latin inscription on its colonnaded front, "have now set free the Conqueror's native land".
"Just as a portrait
suggests the sitter's destiny, so the map of France tells our fortune.
The main body of our country has at its centre a citadel, a rugged mass
of ancient mountains... but in the north-east there is a terrible breach
that links German territory to the crucial basins of the Seine and Loire.
The Rhine was given by nature to the Gauls for boundary and protection,
but scarecly has it touched France than it swings away, leaving her exposed.
This breach in its ramparts is France's age-old weakness. Through it Roman Gaul saw the barbarians rush in on its riches. It was there that the monarchy struggled with difficulty against the power of the Holy Roman Empire. There Louis XIV defended his power against the European coalition. The Revolution almost perished there. Napoleon succumbed there. In 1870 disaster and disgrace took no other road. In this fatal avenue we have just buried one third of our youth."
- Charles de Gaulle, "Vers l'armee de metier", 1934.
Charles de Gaulle called
it a 'fatal avenue'. And well he might, for his own military career was
rooted in that bloody slab of territory lying north and east of Paris.
He was born in the fortress city of Lille and educated at St-Cyr before
going off as a subaltern to Colonel Petain's 33rd of the Line at St-Omer.
Wounded and captured as a captain at Verdun in 1916, he next saw action
as a colonel commanding the part formed 4th Armoured Division near Laon
in the desperate days of May 1940. He landed in Normandy in July 1944,
and made his triumphant entry into Paris in August the same year.
Those events took place in the area bounded to the west by the Channel coast and the east by the valley of the Moselle. To north and east lies the classic routes used by invaders across the centuries, and the names of the battlefields upon them read like a dictionary of military history: Agincourt and Arras, Bethume and Bapaume, Calais and Crecy...
The archers of Crecy and Agincourt have left their mark upon us in the strangest ways. The less than polite gesture of extending two figures in a derisive version of the Churchillian V sign dates back to the Hundred Years War. Captured archers sometimes had two cut fingers from their right hands to prevent them drawing a bow again - cruel, perhaps, but less cruel than execution and cheaper than perpetual imprisonment. An archer, temporarily at a disadvantage and scuttling for cover, might disdainfully flaunt the appropriate digits as he reached refuge to show that he was still intact, and would be back - with a bow in his hand and arrows in his belt.
The contest between Britain and France, which was to last until 1814, was in essence that between an elephant and a whale: Britain alone could not inflict a decisive defeat on France by land, but her naval mastery prevented French military power from striking at Britain herself.
We must not let the order that military history strives to impose upon events that participants see as chaos persuade us that the French were uniformly incompetent while the Germans were universally capable. The quintessential difference between the two armies lay in command. The German armies were animated by the directing will of Moltke, transmitted through his general staff: the French, under the nominal command of a sick man with no general staff worthy of the name, were afflicted by a progressive sclerosis whose consequences were ultimately fatal. (on the Franco-Prussian War)
The generals of 1914-18 may have had few claims to military genius, but we must recognise that they were grappling with difficulties of genuinely staggering proportions.
Bayeux is a delightful little town, dominated by its Norman Gothic cathedral. The Bayeux tapestry is sensitively displayed in its own museum: it is propaganda as well as history and much is made of Harold's 1064 oath to William. The Bayeux Cemetery is the largest British Second World War cemetery in France, containing 4648 graves. Across the road from the cemetery is the Bayeux memorial to the Missing, which bears the names of 1537 British, 270 Canadians and one South African who fell in Normandy but have no known graves. A Latin inscription artop its colonnaded front remembers Britain's ambivalent relationship with Normandy. 'We, once conquered by William,' it proclaims, 'have now set free the Conqueror's native land'.
There are no certainties in human affairs, but we will probably see no more British soldiers slogging their way up to Arras with rifle and pack, or calling for a vin blanc and an omelette as a welcome antidote to the monotony of bully beef or Maconochie's tinned stew. And the world is none the worse for that.
Battlefields is the big brother of War Walks. In this series of 50-minute installments, Professor Holmes follows the struggle of Britain's "citizen army of brickies and barristers, teachers and taxi drivers" to turn back the tide of disaster through four campaigns on the road to victory. It begins in the deserts of North Africa, where the Eighth Army came of age to win a famous triumph.
[#1 Alamein 1942]
"Egypt, July 1942. They called it Ash Wednesday. Throughout Egypt, British officials began to destroy sensitive documents as their enemies advanced. In Cairo, the Egyptian capital, the British feared the worst. The Germans seemed likely to take the city, just as they'd already conquered most of Europe. In the Pacific, the Japanese had gravely weakened British and American power, and taken Hong Kong and Singapore. In the Atlantic, German submarines threatened to starve Britain into submission. It was the darkest moment in the Second World War." (Opening Narration)
[#2 Cassino 1944]
[#3 Bomber 1944]
[#4 Arnhem 1944]
"This is the Reichstag in Berlin. In 1945 it was captured by the Russians. The victory helped confirm the division of Germany and later the whole of Europe, into East and West. But this is the story of a battle which might have changed all that, a battle for the bridges over the Rhine, which might just have put the Union Jack over the Reichstag instead of the Red flag. It's the story of Operation Market Garden." (Opening Narration)
"There was a problem — the web of rivers and canals separating Germany from France and the Low Countries... Getting across these was, in its way, as hard for the Allies as it was for Hannibal to get his elephants over the Alps... Solve the problem and the war might indeed be over before Christmas."
"The plan called for British tanks to punch their way over the waterways through Einhhoven and Nijmegan to the Rhine at Arnhem. Once across the Rhine the British would be able to threaten the Ruhr or perhaps even push forward to Berlin. There were eight major waterways and eight bridges between Germany and the Allied front line. Each one of them would have to be taken intact, and held, if Market Garden was to succeed. So the Allies decided on a daring and original idea. They would mount the biggest airborne operation in history. Thirty thousand men of the 1st Allied Airborne Army would land behind the Germany lines and capture those eight vital bridges which the tanks would have to cross."
"The Market Garden plan had called for Arnhem bridge to be held by a whole brigade, nearly 3000 men, for two days. In the event, 740 men held it for three and a half days. It was a heroic defence, and it's been justly celebrated."
Series Companion Book
The Second World War was, in the starkest terms, the greatest event of world history, whose burden of human casualties and physical destruction dwarfed even the carnage and damage inflicted by the First.
"In their zeal to relieve
their offspring of the painful parts of life, the grunts' parents created
a generation shielded from much of what has steeled every previous generation:
the realization that a certain amount of adversity not necessarily deserved
will be encountered in the course of one's life."
- Charles Anderson, "The Grunts"
Those of us born in that great celebration of life and renewed hope inadequately described as the baby boom were indeed cosseted by our parents, but they also left us in no doubt that the world in which we grew up was delivered by the caesarean section of war.
It is hard to pick and choose among the horrors explicit in the term 'total war', and it is for those who wish to single out aerial bombardment for special condemnation to show how it is worse than the 'economic sanctions' they often prefer, which most affect the elderly and children. The Great War blockade of the Central Powers killed far more people through starvation and by weakening resistance to disease, and Franco-British war planning in 1939 envisaged doing the same again. And even if the highest estimate is correct and half a million civilians were killed by bombing, this still compares favourably with more than a million killed as Allied armies fought their way into Germany.
"I stared at the sky
in front of us. Among the groping searchlight beams, the white and yellow
flak bursts formed a sparkling wall. It was hard to believe that we could
pass through that unceasing barrage."
- Jack Currie, RAF, recalling a bombing raid over Germany
An attacker is required to exercise discrimination where this does not increase the risk to his own personnel, but the ultimate responsibility for the fate of civilians in a siege lies with the defender, who may at any time put an end to their suffering by surrender, and whose counter-measures may reduce the possibility of discrimination, for example by obliging the attacker to bomb from a greater altitude or by night.
Every time I see the Western Front I am amazed afresh at what our grandfathers and great-grandfathers were asked to do: and how well they did it.
Europe slid almost effortlessly into war in 1914. Although historians argue over whether the First World War was inevitable, a combination of factors - economic and colonial rivalry, lingering French resentment at the loss of her eastern provinces to Germany following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and a dangerously unstable system of alliances - certainly created a volatile mix, all too easily ignited.
The importance of railway timetables injected a note of desperate urgency into the events of July and August 1914. When, on August 1, the Kaiser summoned General von Moltke, Chief of the German Staff, and told him that the political situation demanded war only with Russia and not with France, Moltke replied that the plan to send the bulk of the army westwards by train was simply too complex to be altered. 'I answered His Majesty,' wrote Moltke, 'that this was impossible.' An appalled Kaiser, comparing Moltke with his uncle, architect of the German victories in 1866 and 1870, snapped back: 'Your uncle would have given me a different answer.' And so he might, but in 1914 general staffs were rarely able to rise above the remorseless logic of the timetable.
Between the outbreak of war in August 1914 and the end of the First Battle of Ypres the following November, the Western Front was created. Its ingredients were twofold: physical and psychological. The physical components of the front can be traced to the French and Industrial Revolutions. The former had inspired the great levée en masse of the 1790s, which produced armies that were not merely huge but also politically inspired, with "citizen-soldiers" and "intelligent bayonets," imbued with patriotic fervor, surging out against the stately, pipe-clayed armies of monarchical Europe. The latter not merely enabled these huge armies to be armed and equipped, but made possible the mass production of weapons of ever-increasing lethality.
The results of railway mobilization, universal conscription and the revolution in military technology was a weapon density unparalleled in the history of warfare: the material origins of the Western Front. Yet its psychological origins are no less important: all the weapons in the world would not produce stalemate unless the soldiers using them proved resolute. And European armies and the societies they served had spent much time and trouble ensuring that the young men who rattled off to war in August 1914 would indeed be resolute.
The 'shrapnel' air-burst shell had been invented by a British officer, Henry Shrapnel, during the Napoleonic Wars. By 1914 it had come of age.
For the only time in her history, Britain took the field in a major war against a first rate adversary and confronted that enemy's main strength in the war's principal theatre. She not only bore the enormous strain of the war, but played a leading part in winning it. Well might Foch say of the closing Hundred Days: 'Never in any time in history has the British army achieved greater results in attack than in this unbroken offensive.'
>> Read the text of the chapter "Making The Front" at TV Books.
REBELS AND REDCOATS (BBC2 July'03)
Irritated as only a
historian can be by Mel Gibson's "The Patriot", a movie both dewy-eyed
and psychotically violent, Holmes has set out to dispel America's cherished
myths... Holmes brings to the independence war the unsentimental eyes of
a military historian who cares nothing.
- Ian Bell, reviewing "Rebels and Redcoats", "The Glasgow Herald"
"The American Revolution was in fact a bloody civil war. It promised liberty — but only for some. It was fought in the name of unity, but in reality it divided families and set brother against brother."
"These are battles between peoples who could so easily have been friends — and often were."
"Who actually fired
this 'shot heard around the world'? It's impossible to say."
- on the first battle between British and American forces at Lexington Green
"There are times when
there's nothing so stupid as a gallant officer."
- on British General John Burgoyne's wilderness defeat of 1777
"The British actually won most of the war's battles... but somehow there was no killer punch."
From the BBC
page for the series:
The War of Independence plays such an important part in American popular ideology that references to it are especially prone to exaggeration and oversimplification. And two uncomfortable truths about it — the fact that it was a civil war (perhaps 100,000 loyalists fled abroad at its end), and that it was also a world war (the Americans could scarcely have won without French help) — are often forgotten.
The descent into armed conflict between patriot (anti-British) and loyalist (pro-British) sympathisers was gradual. Events like the Boston ‘Massacre’ of 1770, when British troops fired on a mob that had attacked a British sentry outside Boston’s State House, and the Boston ‘tea-party’ of 1773, when British-taxed tea was thrown into the harbour, marked the downward steps. Less obvious was the take-over of the colonial militias — which had initially been formed to provide local defence against the French and the Native Americans — by officers in sympathy the the American patriots/rebels, rather than by those in sympathy with pro-British loyalists/Tories.
WELLINGTON: THE IRON DUKE
"The Duke of Wellington
is a man whose life is best remembered by the actions of one day, and one
battle. That battle was Waterloo, and the man who led the Allied armies
to victory against Napoleon has been immortalised as the Iron Duke, the
saviour of Europe. But the genius he showed that day was the result of
many hard-learned lessons, both on and off the battlefield, as the boy
who became a Duke struggled to make his mark. Two places and two cultures
really formed him — the first was Ireland, the country of his birth; the
second India, the country of his first victories and one of his few defeats.
It was there that he set out on the path to becoming Duke of Wellington,
one of Britain's greatest men."
- Opening Narration
"I learnt what not
to do, and that is always useful."
- The Duke of Wellington recalls a disastrous campaign in Flanders as a junior officer
"By God, that will
- The Duke of Wellington, spotting an opportunity to attack the French at Salamanca
"It is for you to save
the world again."
- The Tsar of Russia to the Duke, after Napoleon's escape from Elba
"Damn the fellow! He
is a mere pounder after all... We shall see who pounds the hardest."
- Wellington, unimpressed with Napoleon's tactics at Waterloo
"All the business of
war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what
you do not know by what you do know — that is what I call 'guessing what
is on the other side of the hill'."
- The Duke of Wellington
MISC TV SERIES
(In The Footsteps of
Churchill: BBC2 Sept'05)
"Winston's most irritating qualities became vital to the survival of the nation. His obstinacy became tenacity, his jingoism — patriotism, and his impatience — decisiveness."
- commenting on Churchill's premiership during 1940
(Britain's Finest Castles:
C5 & History Channel)
"For me, castles sum up the whole of British history, with all its highs and lows. They provide a remarkable reminder of our nation's heritage in war and peace."
- presenting "Britain's Finest Castles"
#10 Conwy Castle, Wales.
#9 Caernarfon Castle, Wales. #8 Alnwick Castle, England.
#7 Windsor Castle, England. #6 Eilean Donan, Scotland. #5 Tower of London, England.
#4 Bodian Castle, England. #3 Tintagel, Cornwall. #2 Edinburgh Castle, Scotland.
#1 Warwick Castle, England.
- final results from "Britain's Finest Castles"
I was absolutely delighted
to become President of the Battlefields Trust. Having been a military historian
for most of my working life, I believe that battle – terrifying and squalid
thought it generally is – lies at the very heart of war. Much as
I appreciate the work of those who come to the study of conflict from a
variety of other disciplines, it does seem to me that for the historian,
at least, examining the clash of forces on land, sea and in the air retains
a fundamental importance. And battlefields, taking the term in its broadest
context, are where these clashes occurred. The longer I ply my trade
the more convinced I am of the danger of writing or speaking about a battle
without having seen its field. The ‘ridges’ of Passchendaele
(important in the 1917 3rd battle of Ypres) and Ruweisat (significant at
Alamein in 1942) would scarcely rank as ridges elsewhere in the world:
their value, on these flat landscapes, was relative, not absolute.
The Boer War battlefield of Spion Kop (1900) is not, as some would have
us believe, dominated by surrounding high ground. However, troops entrenched
on its flat top cannot look down onto the hill’s slopes to see an attacker
climbing up. Yet if they stand to get a better view, they are ‘skylined’
to observers from miles around.
Small details of a landscape can have a profound military effect. The Duke of Marlborough was able to use a little gully at Ramillies (1706) to shift troops between his right and his centre. Whatever our views on the strategic wisdom of the Somme (1916), the attack on the village of Serre on 1 July by those fine North Country battalions of 31st Division was likely to fail, given the open ground on the attackers’ left from which the Germans could fire into the flank of the assaulting units. Cromwell’s defeat of the Scots at Dunbar (1650) makes sense only when one sees that, having got onto the lower slopes of Doon Hill on the Scottish right, the Parliamentarian cavalry could then attack westwards, along the hill, not up it.
Some battlefields still present us with unanswerable questions. Despite the work of several enterprising historians, we cannot be absolutely sure of the site of Bosworth (1485) or even of Cheriton (1644), though with the latter the margin of error is happily quite narrow.
- Richard Holmes, message on becoming President of Britain's Battlefields Trust
You can read a biography of Professor Holmes at Steve Goodey's BBC Documentary Site.
Professor Holmes has also appeared on BBC as the champion of Oliver Cromwell in the "Great Britons" series. In 1985 he co-wrote the companion book to the BBC series "Soldiers: A History of Men in Battle" along with John Keegan.
"David Starkey is himself
a piece of living history: possibly the only presenter on television who
still wears a double-breasted suit. You can’t imagine him waddling towards
the camera in a suit of armour, like Richard Holmes, or dressing
up as a Roman centurion, like Adam Hart-Davies."
- Roland White, "The Times" TV Review (Sept'05)
>> Quotes from Redcoat by Richard Holmes
>> Return to Quotes index, or Site homepage