by Jeremy Black
Oxford and New York: Casemate, 2021. Pp. xvi, 239.
Tables, notes, biblio., index. $65.00. ISBN: 1952715083
The British Army and the Dawn of Empire
The prolific Professor (emeritus) Jeremy Black, MBE, has authored or edited well over a hundred books, a feat reportedly accomplished without using conscripted graduate students or resentful researchers. Rather, it is said to reflect the author’s prodigious memory for source material and an ability to eschew sleep. In his latest book, he revisits a subject previously treated in his Britain’s Seaborne Empire (2004) and Britain as Military Power (1999), among others. This time, his focus is on the evolution, setbacks and ultimate success of the British Army during the long eighteenth century -- including the Second Hundred Years’ War -- that spanned the period between the respective falls of James II in 1688 and Napoleon in 1815. Between those years, the British Army, which had lost an empire in North America, gained another globally; if politically divided and institutionally underdeveloped at the start. The army ended up the victor at Waterloo as well as, the author points out, on many other less well-known fields on just about every continent that may not have gained the same historical attention but made Britain’s formidable if inevitably transient role as a global power a reality.
The author has a lot to cover in some 200 pages of text, with only two organizational diagrams and absolutely zero maps, graphics, appendices or tables to help him explain things. This is not in-depth history. Campaigns or generals that are treated in monographs or biographies elsewhere are lucky to get a paragraph or even a single adjective here. Much of the nuance and shading– especially from works published in recent years – simply does not fit into the space available. Even with the author evidently drawing more on recent histories rather than the classic works of the previous century, his approach requires an ability to be highly selective. To his credit, the author makes this a strength rather than a limitation. His writing often hits nails on the head. Even when he misses out on issues, repeats himself or makes factual mistakes (a few of these appear where his prodigious memory missed the mark), it does not undercut his overall narrative.
The author draws on an extensive range of published and archival sources and points out (p. 208) that a full bibliography would have filled all available space and more. The endnotes and the selected further reading (two and a half pages) are certainly not comprehensive and can only identify some of the “greatest hits” of the past few decades. If the author was unable provide maps, he might have highlighted where they might be found. I was fortunate in having to hand Fortescue’s Atlas of the History of the British Army, recently compiled by the Naval and Military Press, and can recommend it as a companion to this book.
How the Army Made Britain a Global Power does not present a single over-arching thesis to answer the question posed by the title but rather traces multiple trajectories of change: primarily but not exclusively military, none direct and many pear-shaped. A global empire was won through an organic and uneven process that often failed, and more often succeeded because it could adapt through possessing a range of behaviors and capabilities that made the army more resilient than its competitors, rather than through applying cohesive strategic thought or being a first-adaptor of revolutionary and technological paradigm-shifting.
All the big names are covered. Even though this period began with the emergence of the Duke of Marlborough and closed with the preeminence of the Duke of Wellington, Britain’s two most successful soldiers - the latter being the only general ever to become prime minister - it is not great-man history. The author rates national and institutional resilience more than individual brilliance in contributing to the ultimate result. The author rather considers some less celebrated figures, such as the Duke of Cumberland – “The Butcher” – and his nephew the Duke of York, a painfully inept field commander but, as an administrator, instrumental in the 20 years of reform that turned the army around after he had personally demonstrated its limitations in the 1790s. His statue remains today, towering over St. James’ Park in the West End of London, on a tall column that is said to have been required to keep him out of the hands of his creditors.
This is a military – not national or strategic – history that touches, even if not fully integrates – strategic, political, cultural and economic considerations. While generally organized chronologically, rather than by subject matter, the focus is on the institution and the changing contexts it had to deal with (otherwise the lack of maps would be an even greater drawback). The author consciously aims to avoid Anglocentric and Eurocentric worldviews in providing the all-important context of how the British Army found itself inserted into the middle of other peoples’ military history, especially in the subcontinent (where it succeeded it setting the stage for a century of imperial rule) as well as in the 13 North American colonies (where despite previous battlefield successes it was unable to cope with terminal socio-political and military challenges).
The political dimension of the army is threaded together here in the story of the emergence of “a global army that made a world empire”. (p. 205) Britain, which has a Royal Navy under a First Sea Lord, has neither a Royal Army nor a First Land Lord. Distrusted as a French-funded force suspected of support for James II’s autocracy and Catholicism, the majority of the pre-1688 army joined what came to be termed the Glorious Revolution. Memories of the army turning against the crown, as well as the legacies of Cromwell and his major generals, meant that the army post-1688 was never to be royal as was the navy. Indeed, the number of serving and former officers in Parliament throughout the period (one of the many subjects where tabular numerical data would have been appreciated) showed army linkages were stronger there than with the palace, especially after George II became the last king to exercise the long-standing royal prerogative for battlefield command of the army (but not the navy).
This is a brief but insightful survey of the broad historical processes that, by transforming the British Army into a versatile instrument of global reach and global power, allowed it to shape the world. The writing is clear and jargon-free by academic standards, with a judicious use of eyewitness accounts. It may not constitute the comprehensive or in-depth answer to the question posed by the title, but How the Army Made Britain a Global Power is, on the whole, a coherent and persuasive work.
Our Reviewer: David Isby’s writings on current and historical airpower include The Decisive Duel: Spitfire vs. 109 (London: Little Brown, 2012) and Fighter Combat in the Jet Age (London: Harper Collins, 1997) and articles for Air International, Air Forces Monthly and other magazines. A veteran historian, defense analyst, and war game designer, Isby has quit e a number of other books, articles, and games to his credit covering the Second World War, the military institutions of the Soviet Union, and military aviation in general. During the Soviet-Afghan War he observed the fighting on the front lines, and he is the author of Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires: A New History of the Borderland (New York: Pegasus, 2011). His previous reviews include A Military History of Afghanistan, The Elite: The A–Z of Modern Special Operations Forces, Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean, Airpower in the War against ISIS, and Korean Air War: Sabres, MiGs and Meteors, 1950–53.
Note: How the Army Made Britain a Global Power is also available in several e-editions.
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