The Chop

John Bayley

  • A History of Warfare by John Keegan
    Hutchinson, 432 pp, £20.00, September 1993, ISBN 0 09 174527 6
  • How Great Generals Win by Bevin Alexander
    Norton, 320 pp, £22.00, November 1993, ISBN 0 393 03531 X
  • The Backbone: Diaries of a Military Family in the Napoleonic Wars edited by Alethea Hayter
    Pentland, 343 pp, £18.50, September 1993, ISBN 1 85821 069 0

Neither Genghiz Khan nor Stalin was physically brave. Both led from the rear, keeping well out of the way of any rough stuff that might be going on. The habit of directing matters through a staff (the Russian stavka) was probably an important ingredient in the military success of both; though Stalin, at least, had very little tactical sense, and was apt to interfere with the efforts of good generals who possessed it, often with disastrous results.

Neither, however, enjoyed fighting for its own sake, as Caesar did, or Napoleon, or Alexander, or Stonewall Jackson, by far the most talented commander of the American Civil War. To them it was – or became – like a drug, an addiction that could not be given up. Had he lived, Alexander might have invaded Italy through the Balkans, or attacked Carthage and Spain along the African coast, anticipating the Arab invasions of eight hundred years later. Fed up with Rome, Caesar was looking forward to leading his stylish veterans to Parthia (all my best troops are dandies, he once observed) when his murderers’ daggers struck him down in the Senate. In his last battle in the civil war at Munda, he had nearly got the chop at a crucial moment, demanding if his legionaries intended to let these rebel ‘boys’, like the young Cato, overthrow him. Hitler’s record in the First World War was that of a junior NCO who really enjoyed it; and even in the Second he loved discussing with young officers such things as the best way to site an 88mm antitank gun.

But although these are the instincts which the lords of warfare hope will animate the rank and file, they themselves do not necessarily share them. As John Keegan pungently demonstrates, warfare since tribal times has always been divided more or less unevenly between those who direct it, those who enjoy it (in different contexts and for different reasons) and those who suffer it. This last class would include, apart from civilians, the citizen or conscript armies of recent times (though the ancient Egyptians had something not so dissimilar), a startling number of whom have found it in themselves to think afterwards that they had a whale of a time in the trenches. As Dr Johnson said of foxhunting, it is a very strange and very melancholy thought that the paucity of human pleasures is such as to make us feel that warfare is one of them.

The fact cannot be gainsaid, none the less. Johnson also observed that anyone who has not been a soldier cannot help envying the man who has been one. Except in T’ang China, that sensible civilisation, the profession of arms has always been held in honour. Despite evidence to the contrary, the soldier is still regarded as one of nature’s gentlemen. War is one of the few bonds that can cement class solidarity. The pacific hero of one of L.P. Hartley’s novels is astounded to be told by his gardener, a man for whom he has the deepest respect, that the happiest time of his life was at the sharp end in Flanders between 1914 and 1918, ‘when all of us mucked in together’. Conversely, soldiers can still take pride, as Hector and Achilles did, in the feats of arms of friends and relations. Very engagingly, Keegan dedicates his book to an ancestor, a Lieutenant Bridgman in the Régiment de Clare, one of the Wild Geese mercenaries of the French Army, who was killed at the battle of Lauffeld in 1747. Housman admired the mercenary unstintingly.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
  They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
Whom God abandoned, these defended,
  And saved the sum of things for pay.

Significant that Keegan spends a lot of time with the Mongols, possibly the first conquerors totally to deformalise the concept of war. Social aggression always has rules, conventions or rituals of some sort, proceeding from superstition, religion or tribal usage; but the Mongols had none whatsoever. They fought to win, and to obliterate by winning. And as so often happens in these matters, their methods were catching. One of Keegan’s many original perceptions is that the Mongols bequeathed their concept of total war to the Ming (who finally ejected them from China), and to the crusader conquistadors who threw the Arabs out of Spain and went on to exterminate the highly formalised Aztec and Inca armies.

Until they finally drifted into Islam, via their Turkish auxiliaries, the Mongols had no religion. But they believed in being top dogs, and top dogs they were until the battle of Ain Jalut (the Spring of Goliath) a few miles north of Jerusalem, in 1260. Keegan gives a lot of attention to this battle, which not many people have heard of, not even Sir John Creasy, author of Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World. Hulagu, grandson of Genghiz, who ruled the southern half of a gigantic empire stretching from Budapest to the China sea, had departed for a family conference at Karakorum in eastern Siberia, leaving his trusty general Kedbuka (so called by Runciman, but Keegan prefers the probably more authentic Kitbuga) to complete the conquest of the Middle East.

So far so good; and fifty years earlier this would have been child’s play for a Mongol army, preceded as it was by a paralysing legend of invincibility. If successful here they might have finished off the Caliphs for good and all, and made of Islam a historical curiosity. Unfortunately, Hulagu had seen fit to take with him a good half of his best troops, and the Mamelukes of Egypt, under an Arab sultan and his formidable Turkish subordinate Baybars, had learnt from and copied the most effective Mongol practices, such as feigned retreat and harrying rather than head-on tactics. Religion also came into it, as it so often does into war-making. Kitbuga, a Naiman from Central Asia, was also a Nestorian Christian, as was Hulagu’s mother. (Mongol mothers were famous for strong-mindedness: his own was the one person Genghiz had feared and respected.) Kitbuga may have been inspired to try playing David at Goliath’s Spring: at any rate he attacked the Sultan (who inspired his own soldiers with the cry of ‘O Islam’) without the usual Mongol craft and precaution, and lost his army and his life. Had Hulagu been able to return he would certainly have taken a terrible revenge for the defeat of his faithful general, but troubles detained him elsewhere; and so the myth of Mongol supremacy vanished from a newly confident Arab world. It must have been a bit like the first time an English team was beaten at football by some Continental upstart.

The antagonists at Ain Jalut were both ‘horse people’ as Keegan calls them, and employed much the same tactics that had been used by the Huns against the Romans. The strength of the small Mongol armies lay in organisation, not in weaponry. That was conservative and conventional, based on the composite bow, a superb artistic device perfected over a long period like the violin of two thousand years later, whose method of manufacture was rather similar. It was very short and looked like Cupid’s bow, but its laminated construction of wood, horn and sinew gave the skilled horseman a missile with range and immense power. It was not decisive in battle, any more than the longbow or the machine-gun were to be. All depended on being offered what military men call ‘a target of opportunity’: that is to say an enemy who behaved in such a way as to maximise the weapon’s lethal potential, as the French were to do at Crécy, or the British on the Somme. The composite bow had its moments, though. It was the Persian bowmen of Xerxes who finally eliminated the Spartans in their epic stand at Thermopylae; and the Parthians half a century or so later who destroyed at Carrhae the Roman legions of Crassus. To do so they managed on that occasion to overcome the besetting fault of all quick-firing weaponry; running out of ammo at the critical moment. Stacks of extra arrows on baggage camels accompanied the mounted archers.

As the Mongols demonstrated on their incursion into Europe, and as Saladin’s Turks did against the Crusaders, the Asian horseman was more than a match for the feudal knight on his warhorse, just as their expert professional armies, in regular divisions and well familiarised in action with each other, could annihilate any peasant levy officered by aristocratic amateurs. But the armies of the ‘horse people’ had their weakness, destined in time to make them fade away before the organisation of more static cultures. They needed an immense amount of grazing. This may have forced Kitbuga to fight at a disadvantage against the Egyptians; and caused Attila, ‘the scourge of God’, to destroy his own army by excessive use. Pope Leo I claims the credit for persuading Attila to withdraw from the sack of Rome and Italy which he seemed poised for – a moment captured in a splendid poem of Auden’s – but it is more likely that he had simply run out of horses and grass. Every Hun or Mongol cavalryman needed a string of at least ten spare ponies, which he led with him on the march. What prevented Napoleon’s cavalry from exploiting his further European victories after his retreat from Moscow was the enormous number of horses he had lost in that debacle; not any shortage of men, who were much more easily replaced. The British, as Keegan points out, lost as many as eight-tenths of their horses in the Boer War, although they had sea-lines of communication, an equable climate, and plenty of grazing.

And as with horses, so with tanks. The Panzer blitzkrieg which had roared across the fields of northern France in May 1940 ground to a halt in Russia the next year, because the distances and choking dust, and the mud and snow which followed, were too much for complex mechanisms. The Russian T 34, of much simpler and cruder construction, was built to stand the climate. But it was the ‘friction factor’ which wore down the German armies in their first year on the Eastern Front, rather than the resistance of the Red Army, dogged and determined as that was.

Before the horse people took over, chariots had been the thing; and chariot manufacture must have been as exquisitely skilled a business as the manufacture of the composite bow. A war chariot was mobile in more ways than one: it was so light – only a hundred pounds – that a single man could carry one, as depicted on an Egyptian bas-relief. It was also highly exportable, enriching the economy of its manufacturers; so that, as Keegan points out, there would have been in Assyria and the Middle East ‘a chariot industry and chariot market – akin to the high-technology arms industry and market that has equipped new Third World states with “state of the art” arms in our own time’.

But if no weapon as such, before the atom bomb, was decisive on the field of war, the prestige of individual weapons, of paramount value and workmanship, was of high importance in ritualised warfare. The armour of Achilles was something special; and a really good sword rare in the days when forging high quality steel in a smithy was something of a hit-or-miss process. A mystique of language and religion came into it: an expert Japanese swordsmith was like a priest; and his product, indestructible and unrusting, could be handed down from father to son and from one generation to another. So might a family in the West hand down a captured sword, which might also be carved with mystic runes, inlaid or damascened with gold by the craftsmen of Toledo or Damascus, and given a name, like Roland’s Durindal, or the more homely Scandinavian ‘biter’. Arthur’s Excalibur seems to be macaronic in etymology, in the same way that weaponry itself was a cosmopolitan and international business. Soldiers have always christened the tools of war, as if to humanise them: even the first two atom bombs had names. The 68 lb carronade on the Victory’s fo’c’sle was known as Betty Bouncer. According to Keegan, today’s British soldiers still refer to their high-velocity automatic rifles as ‘bundooks’, the word of Turkic and Urdu origin once given by the regiments of the Empire to their early Enfields, Sniders and Martini-Henrys.

Notwithstanding the Mongols and others, the concept of ritualised warfare has lingered in unexpected times and places. In spite of the appalling casualties caused by comparatively modern weaponry (the invention of the Minié ball by a French officer in the 1840s had made even the muzzle-loaded rifle a reliable long-range weapon) the American Civil War was fought on old-fashioned lines and in a surprisingly gentlemanly way. But the best generals of course are not gentlemen; nor were they in that context. Lee and Maclellan, the Southern and Union commanders, were too nice to win a war: and indeed would have preferred to end it by treaty and a gentleman’s agreement. Sherman from the North and Jackson of the South were the ruthless ones; and Sherman finally tore the heart out of the Confederacy by wanton and deliberate economic destruction: a policy equivalent to the area bombing employed first by the Germans and then the British in World War Two – except that it worked. Jackson tried to persuade the Confederate leaders to adopt a similar policy at the beginning, when he might have led a massive and successful raid round Washington to destroy Baltimore and Philadelphia, and intimidate Northern voters into recognising the Southern secession. But Lee and Jefferson Davis felt that war should not be conducted in that style.

The only drawback to Keegan’s forceful and far-ranging book is that it gives him no time to discuss any one war or campaign in detail. His specification is on the grand scale, and it fills its purpose admirably Though Bevin Alexander writes less effectively than Keegan and is no master of words (‘horrendous’, alas, is a favourite), he has a splendid detailed grasp of his chosen battlefields: he is particularly good on Jackson’s Wilderness campaign, and on Rommel’s audaciously Hannibalian attempt, so close at one moment to success, to impose his will on stronger British forces in the Desert War. That too was a gentlemanly war, at least as regards the detail of its arrangements, though if Rommel had soldiered on the Russian Front he would probably have been compelled to behave as badly there as other Germans did.

‘All warfare is based on deception,’ wrote the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu; and Jackson, whose motto was ‘mystify, mislead and surprise’ was frequently hampered by his secretiveness to his own staff. ‘If I can deceive them I can deceive the enemy,’ he is reported to have said; and this may have brought about the accident of his death after the successful battle of Chancellorsville, when he was fired on by his own pickets as he returned from one of his private reconnaissances, with intelligence that might have led to a complete rout of the Northern Army. With him went the Confederates’ last hope, though they fought on for nearly three years. The revered Robert E. Lee himself was no good except on the defensive, where he could do wonders.

Neither Keegan nor Alexander has much time for Clausewitz, whose theories of total war as substitute for diplomacy were important in their time and place, but have little significance either in the Atomic Age or in terms of an individual campaign under today’s conditions. Clausewitz should probably be seen as a localised Germanic phenomenon, revered by Hitler, together with Frederick the Great, as prophet of the National Will in action. Significantly, Keegan is much more interested in an older and wiser view of warfare as a self-limiting process, copying the birds and the beasts in its comparatively painless strategies of confrontation and disengagement. Carthage personified this older view of things in its struggle with Rome, for even Hannibal had not the will or intention to destroy Rome but to force it to accept the status quo ante bellum and the traditional patterns of the Mediterranean power structure; although at the same time it must be said that the Barcine faction in Carthage were beginning to copy Rome’s ethos, as later Europeans may have copied that of the Mongols. Modern warmakers never know what the next war will be like, and it always lasts longer than they thought possible. Modern war, in fact, tends to make everyone and everything worse. Omar Khayyam might have said the same in a pithy rubai or two, had he lived to see the civilised Khwarazmian empire in which he worked as scholar and astronomer obliterated by Mongol invasion.

Writing or reading about war is bound to be a mode of enjoying it; and it is a relief to turn from the guilty pleasure of campaigning with Keegan and Alexander to Alethea Hayter’s more subtly engaging and absorbing presentation of her military families’ diaries. Soldiering for them was a purely domestic affair; and following the drum was like going to the office. Jane Austen would have thrown herself into their world at once, and would have taken pleasure in every member of the much travelled Slessor family; from John Slessor, who after a career in the Portuguese Army ended up as Governor of Oporto, to pretty and engaging Sophia, who had her baby on board ship for Portsmouth after the French had invaded the country. The diaries are themselves of high quality; and the whole story – domestic and historical – beautifully interwoven by the editor’s explanations and commentary.