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From Hastings to Helmand
by Allan Mallinson

Allan Mallinson, a former brigadier, is one of the best historians on the British Army today. He may not enjoy the wider readership of some contemporary military historians but he does not share their conceit; and nor does he engage in their tiresome habit of taking a swipe at the British Army given any chance. Mallinson has studied the profession of arms with great care, and his latest book, The Shape of Battle, received with great acclaim, is no less important and educative.

Readers who are familiar with Mallinson’s historical novels, ‘The Matthew Hervey’ series, will know that he is a wonderful storyteller. He brings the same verve and narrative skill to this book. He is a master of place and atmosphere where you almost feel your own pulse racing as he recounts the final stages of a battle.

The author has chosen to look at six battles: Hastings in 1066; Towton (Wars of the Roses) in 1461; Waterloo in 1815; Sword Beach on D-Day in 1944; Imjin River (Korean War) in 1951; and lastly, Operation Panther’s Claw in Helmand Province in 2009. He says he didn’t ‘choose the battles to make a particular point’. I could not help but feel, however, that, subconsciously, Mallinson did want to make a point which is reflected in his conclusion, ‘Man will undoubtedly remain the first weapon of war, and the prime shaper of battle.’

You do not need to read this book sequentially. I was first drawn to Waterloo, ‘The Battle for Europe’ which, for so many people, retains an enduring fascination.  One can never get enough of the key actions at Hougoumont Farm, and La Haye Sainte, brilliantly described by Mallinson, on which the battle’s outcome so nearly turned.

Mallinson sets the scene for Waterloo and our understanding of the great duke’s mastery of the tactical battle through the context of the Peninsula War. It was necessary, he said, ‘that a general be able to trace a biscuit from Lisbon all the way to the army in the field.’ It was this remarkable attention to the logistics of war that gave Wellington’s men such confidence in his overall leadership rather than just his tactical genius. It also inspired the men under his command, witness the action of Corporal Joseph Brewer of the wagon train who, when powder was running low for the defenders at Hougoumont Farm, galloped his ammunition cart under fierce fire to the cheers and relief of its defenders.

Mallinson describes Waterloo in five phases, a common enough narrative of the battle, but one which allows the author to build up the tension in the reader’s mind and understand a battle which was a byword for the ‘fog of war’ and the ebb and flow of fortune.

‘Quelle affaire!’ as Blücher remarked to Wellington later. It certainly was. And one vividly narrated by a master storyteller.

Mallinson states that the battle of Hastings was unique. It certainly changed the course of English history. We all know the date, but few can remember the complex strategic ‘game of thrones’ background. Once again, and much to the reader’s advantage, the author begins his chapter explaining the context of the battle.

William the Conqueror and the Normans were warlike and aggressive with three separate arms at his disposal; cavalry (knights on horseback); around 800 archers; and his infantry. This illustrates one of Mallinson’s central points in the book taken from that great military historian, Professor Sir Michael Howard, the former Coldstream officer who won the MC in Italy, ‘That only by studying cultures could one come to understand what it was they fought about and why they fought in the way they did.’ A point worth applying to Putin’s Russia and expansionist China today?

Like Waterloo, the battle could have gone either way. The English, under King Harold, had the upper hand in choice of ground and the steadfastness of their infantry but became worn down by volleys of Norman arrows. Exactly what happened next remains open to conjecture. The Bayeux Tapestry suggests that William the Conqueror’s arrows won the day. Mallinson suggests otherwise and that Harold’s men fell for the ruse of giving chase to an enemy in retreat, only to be cut down by William’s Knights and sheer numbers. Ironically, William the Conqueror remade the Saxon army by strengthening his weakest arm, his infantry. ‘Poor bloody infantry’, the backbone of the English and, in time, the British Army ever since.

Towton, in 1461, was the biggest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. It was the key battle in the Wars of the Roses and one which the white rose of York, through strategy and campaigning art, began the Yorkist ascendancy until the more famous ‘ A kingdom for my horse’ Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

Towton was a battle against the odds and was ‘shaped’ by the boldness of the Yorkist commander, Edward the Fourth and the tactical astuteness of Lord Fauconberg. By then the longbow, as proven in Agincourt, and with a range of 350 yards was as decisive in ‘shaping’ the battle as the machine gun on the Western Front. The Lancastrians, such was the positioning of Fauconberg’s archers, did not see the first devastating flight of 120,000 arrows in the first minute. With the arrival of the Duke of Norfolk’s Division taking the Lancastrians in their flank, the red rose was put to flight. Nobody was spared.
I flicked forward to Sword Beach on D-Day as my next chapter.  An original choice by the author though Mallinson’s former Regiment, the 13th/18th Hussars were in the thick of the assault on Sword Beach.

Again, Mallinson shows his strength as a military historian by examining not so much the assault but the real challenge which lay at the heart of D-Day’s success or failure. And that was planning. As Stalin said, “The history of war knows no other similar undertaking as regards breadth of design, vastness of scale and high skill of execution.” Planning shaped the assault and subsequent breakout into Normandy. The D-Day landings were the most complex technical challenge the British Army had ever faced.

D-Day achieved its strategic objective - to gain a solid footing from which further offensive operations could be mounted. Without that bridgehead, nothing was certain save uncertainty. It’s a complex chapter brought to life by an author who writes with such good sense.

I left Helmand - Operation Panther’s Claw chapter to the last and tackled Imjin River, the British Army’s last large-scale defensive action in the Korean War. As Mallinson writes, ‘Old sins cast long shadows in Korea’. The author explains the complex strategic background to the Korean War.

After the Korean War, the army’s reputation, particularly with the US, had never stood higher. Curiously, our experience in the Second World War had shaped our fighting spirit and morale much better than it had the US Army who were a mess in Korea until General Matthew Ridgway, who had won his spurs during Operation MARKET GARDEN, took command. Mallinson points to Montgomery who had ingrained in the British Army those ‘shapers’ of high morale, the importance of good clothing, hot food, a reliable postal service, and sound administration.

But at the heart of the British Army’s success were men of the ‘Glorious Glosters’ led by officers of great courage, James Carne VC, Anthony Farrar-Hockley DSO & Bar, MC, and Lieutenant Philip Curtis VC. They ‘shaped’ the outcome of the battle against the swarms of Chinese. Though the Glosters were overwhelmed, it was merely a tactical victory for the Chinese. The Glosters’ stand allowed for a higher-level victory, the defeat of the Chinese spring campaign. It’s a story well told, and its retelling long overdue.

It’s an eye-catching title and alliteration, ‘Hastings to Helmand’. The book had its final proof reading before the debacle of August 2021 when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in double quick time. I doubt it would have altered the author’s view as to the misread lessons of history and what ‘shaped’ the depressing final outcome.

Mallinson looks at Helmand through the prism of Operation Panther’s Claw in the summer of 2009. It was the bloodiest year for the British Army with 109 killed in action. What shaped the battle? One can do no better than reflect on Professor Sir Michael Howard’s words, ‘Western societies have learned to kill on an enormous scale, but they may still be at a disadvantage against agrarian age armies who have not forgotten how to die and know well enough how to kill.’

Political naivety, the psychological effect of IEDs, the geography of Helmand and its merciless heat, the breakdown in civilian - military trust through Gordon Brown’s unwillingness to provide the right resources for combat and care for the wounded, all of these ‘shaped’ Helmand’s outcome for the worse. And as Sun Tzu said, ‘Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory; tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.’

Mallinson has given us a wonderful book, both educative and readable. A perfect combination.

Paul de Zulueta

Bantam Press
The Shape of Battle: The Art of War from the Battle of Hastings to D-Day, by Allan Mallinson, will be published on 2nd August 2022

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