27 October 2011, Review by Christopher Allmand
Heroes but also human beings
This Seat of Mars: war and the British Isles 1485-1746
Yale University Press, £25
Tablet bookshop price £22.50 Tel 01420 592974
E very age has written about war, and books about it abound today as never before. It is Charles Carlton’s aim to describe the development of the army in England between the battle of Bosworth (1485) and the mid eighteenth century, with much emphasis being placed on its contribution to the process of English nation-building. Part of this book consists of a chronologically based consideration of the role played by the army in France and Ireland under the Tudors; later, in the struggle for power waged between Charles I and Parliament; later still, through its growing contribution to the maintenance of internal security (“policing”) and external defence. By the eighteenth century the standing army, now under civilian control, was becoming increasingly disciplined and “professionalised”, earning greater respect for those who served in its ranks. Alongside the chapters given over to the work and achievements of armies (navies are not entirely forgotten), several chapters are also devoted to observing soldiers as they lived out their military experiences, whether in barracks, on campaign, during sieges or in battle. The soldier as an individual, rather than as a member of an army, is never forgotten.
Soldiers, the study by the late Richard Holmes, is the last book from the prolific pen of a notable and popular military historian. As its title suggests, it approaches the English army (in this case between 1660 and more or less the present day) mainly through a consideration of its personnel and the society from which it was drawn. The British soldier was a man of many and varied backgrounds. What encouraged him to respond to the blandishments of the recruiting officer and accept the king’s shilling for agreeing to enlist?
Some sought the respect, even honour, accorded to the soldier by society; to many, the soldier’s life brought adventure and, perhaps, glory; to others, it was a means of avoiding unemployment (and even the arm of the law); others still were drawn by the splendour of the “proud uniform” they might wear. Once enlisted, the soldier joined an organisation that was to play a role of ever- increasing importance in the social and political world of its day, not least through the influence it exerted upon the fiscal policies of government. “What was it like to be a soldier in …?” Both books are concerned with this question. Their answers make use of a wide range of anecdotal evidence to illustrate and draw conclusions regarding many aspects of military life. Fundamental to an army’s success was its cohesion, in which loyalty to the regiment, often raised in a particular locality, provided an awareness that the individual soldier belonged to a “society” with a proud and often glorious history behind it.
In their different ways, both authors deal with a variety of aspects of the military life: the problems of feeding large numbers of men in sometimes hostile territory; the conditions under which soldiers served, not least the training for battle which they received; the material rewards which could be won, and all too quickly lost; the systems of promotion awarded for loyal service, or bought for cash, which was a good investment for some; the life in camp and in the officers’ mess; the fears experienced by soldiers, as well as by their womenfolk, when armies went off to war; and, not least, the important role played by military chaplains, here properly recognised by both authors. I am sure that many will enjoy, as I did, a chapter in Richard Holmes’ book dealing with “military English” which produced many words and phrases that would one day become an acceptable part of the wider language.
Two general conclusions emerge from these books. One is the inescapable fact that the soldier must be trained to be ready, mentally and practically, to kill, “for it is killing – more than anything else – that makes wars decisive”. By contrast, another (underlined in both studies) is the slow, gradual emergence of the army as an increasingly humane organisation whose task has been to go beyond the killing and to contribute to the restoration of order in societies previously at war. It comes as no surprise that the role of the British soldier as peacemaker has developed markedly in recent times. The wise Roman who wrote long ago that those who seek peace must prepare themselves to fight for it was right. The army represents the state’s readiness to defend and protect its citizens; the fear of losing may deter an enemy who knows that he is likely to face defeat. It is recognition that training and constant preparation are a vital part of a soldier’s life which makes us respect him, and honour his dead companions. Yet, as these books show, the history of the army is more than the history of an institution. Important as that is, we should remember that it is also about men, heroes as well as cowards, their successes, sufferings and failures. On the evidence provided here, it is a very human story. Both books, written by men with practical experience of military life behind them, are worth reading. They complement each other well.
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