This book chronicles "the British redcoat in the era of sword and musket" from the first standing army of Charles II in 1661 to the battle of Waterloo in 1815. It starts with a brilliant prologue describing the (closer than normally accepted) battle of Sedgemoor of 1685 when the irregular rebels of the Duke of Monmouth were defeated by a small royal army that contained the future Duke of Marlborough. It then proceeds through the Glorious Revolution, the anti-Jacobite wars of William of Orange and the War of Spanish Succession culminating in Marlborough's successes at Blenheim etc; the Seven Years War with the Canadian success of James Wolfe; the failures in the American War of Independence; and the triumphs of the Duke of Wellington both in India, the Peninsula, and at Waterloo.
This is an unashamedly 'great man' version of history although there are many moments when the ordinary private is squeezed into the story of the great generals. There are times when David seems uncritical: some of the old stories about Waterloo, for example, are repeated without comment: did Wellington really call Waterloo a 'close-run thing'? But by and large these tactics keep the narrative rattling along; it could easily have been very boring.
I am not really a fan of military histories. I find it incredibly difficult to picture a battlefield and the long descriptions of columns advancing and flanks and wheeling squares leave me hopelessly confused. The maps in this book help little. Some maps of inadequately labelled: I did not realise the idfference between cavalry and infantry on one map until I encountered a better-labelled map later in the book. And I found the campaign maps frustrating: some were on too small a scale so that places mentioned in the text were off the map and others were on too large a scale: one map, for example, showed the entirety of Wellington's Peninsular campaign even though he advanced and retreated over several years.
I always like to pick up trivia. It fascinates me that famous people are often woven in and out of narrative threads that are far apart. Thus the doomed Duke of Monmouth had earlier been exiled for his part in the Rye House plot which had been against his own father. James Wolfe drilled his men in using their bayonets held at the hip rather than the shoulder many years before his martyr's death. William Cobbett 'accidentally' enlisted as a soldier and had to flee England after bringing allegations of corruption against some of his senior officers. The grand old Duke of York who was not much cop as a field commander was a fantastic administrator of the army. And the Duke of Wellington allegedly came up with the name Thomas Atkins (a soldier who had died at Breda against the French in 1794) to go on the specimen page of the Army paybook, thus creating the immortal Tommy.
An enjoyable book with a careful mixture of great men and little. March 2013; 500 pages