'The Making of the British Army' by Allan Mallinson (2009)

The Making Of The British Army - Allan Mallinson

Allan Mallinson, The Making of the British Army: From the English Civil War to the War on Terror (London: Bantam Books, 2011), updated edition, 736pp

 

In The Making of the British Army, Allan Mallinson has provided a comprehensive and readable narrative that charts the army's development from the New Model Army of Oliver Cromwell's time to the Strategic Defence and Security Review released by David Cameron's coalition government in 2010. Mallinson's view of the army's development is one of restless evolution throughout the centuries - "An army long in the making, which yet remains very much a work in progress." (pg. 626), at times seeming even like "a work in regress" (pg. 633).

Mallinson's main aim appears to be to extol the virtues of the regimental system in this evolution, creating a resilience and a regenerative quality that marks the British army out as one somewhat unique. He identifies the common British ritual of waging war, wherein the hardiness and heroism of the troops and the "self-healing regimental system [avert] total catastrophe before a capable pair of hands got a grip, took the fight back to the enemy and beat him." (pg. 354). One can see this pattern in just about every war Britain has fought, from the English Civil War through the Napoleonic Wars to the Boer War and the two World Wars, and Mallinson runs with it in his narrative. Whilst this view is not new - and Mallinson is certainly a conservative historian - it has never been so ably charted and articulated as it is here.

He argues persuasively that when good generalship (and good soldiering) "is a tradition, it becomes sustaining" (pg. 14). He suggests that the British military man's awareness of his "operational heritage" (pg. 617), his history, convinces him that he is "a part of something special... [making him] fight just a little harder because he knows that others wearing the same badge have managed to fight hard in the past." (pg. 189). This isn't misty-eyed romanticism; Mallinson provides numerous examples of soldiers who testify that their fighting spirit was bolstered by the collective memory of Arnhem, say, or Waterloo, or Rorke's Drift. These soldiers, with the weight of history behind them, know that they cannot, for example, "quit a position in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds when Chard and Bromhead [the two lieutenants in charge at Rorke's Drift] had not done so - not, at least, without inviting critical comparison." (pp308-9). This theme running throughout the book makes it a very stirring read for the British patriot, yet it never threatens to lurch into jingoism - it maintains a balance by providing a hard-nosed audit of the army's numerous historical failings.

All in all, The Making of the British Army is an extremely enjoyable military history, finding that often-elusive page-turning blend between a wider narrative and a slew of refreshing historical anecdotes. I didn't learn much new in the way of factual information, beyond the origins of certain regiment names such as the Coldstream Guards, Black Watch and the Green Howards, but it didn't matter. The story has rarely been told so well. In historical appraisals, the British Army as an entity is often overlooked in favour of the glamour and importance of naval (and, more recently, air) power. Indeed, as Mallinson's analogy puts it, "as a national insurance policy the army has always been more 'third party' than 'fully comprehensive'." (pg. 618). But as he argues here, it deserves a lion's share of the glory.