"Generals," by Mark Urban.
At first glance, this line-up of great British generals contains a number of serious omissions. Henry V, Oliver Cromwell, Garnet Wolseley and Bill Slim are all overlooked. Surely they were better field commanders than, say, George Monck, William Howe, Charles Gordon and J F C Fuller - all of whom feature in this book? Doubtless Mark Urban would agree. But this is not a book about great battlefield commanders per se; rather, it concerns generals "whose deeds have resonance, and provide some definite legacy, even today". Measured by these criteria, his selections make perfect sense.
Monck, for example, is not remembered for his battlefield prowess, though his speedy reduction of
The Duke of Marlborough's fighting credentials are not in doubt. He won no fewer than four great victories during the War of Spanish Succession - including Blenheim in 1704 - and laid the foundations for "two centuries of British greatness". His life, says Urban, was the "ultimate male fantasy": victorious in battle; on intimate terms with half of
General Howe, commander of British troops at the outset of the American War of Independence, is the only one of Urban's choices who does not merit selection. He is included because he was a talented soldier who could, and probably should, have snuffed out the rebellion as early as 1777. His failure to do so, therefore, changed the course of history: not just in
The Duke of Wellington is
"Chinese" Gordon is important, says Urban, because the British government's decision to send him to
Few British generals were more overtly "political" than Herbert Kitchener, the avenger of Gordon who was appointed war secretary in 1914. Alone among his cabinet colleagues, he envisaged a long war and the need to create a vast citizen army if
The "most intellectually influential" general was J F C Fuller, the great military theorist who developed the doctrine of armoured warfare in 1917. The great irony of Fuller's career is that his ideas were adopted by just about every European army bar his own, with Hitler calling his panzer divisions "Fuller's children". But only Soviet Russia took Fuller's theory to its logical conclusion by creating a fully mechanised and armoured army, designed to destroy enemy concentrations rather than bypass them.
And so, finally, to Bernard Montgomery whose greatest achievement was not the turning of the tide in
In a fascinating final chapter, Urban outlines some of the threads that connect his 10 subjects. The most successful were typically outsiders with something to prove, thick-skinned and iconoclastic. They were also politically adept, capable of "dealing successfully with the civilian holders of power". Non-political generals have, in Urban's opinion, "always come second or been disasters".
Publishers tend to discourage books like this, with their gimmicky titles and self-contained chapters. Yet Generals succeeds because of the quirkiness of Urban's subjects, the quality of his writing and the originality of his conclusions. It is a book that relies not on exhaustive research (no archives were consulted) but on perspective and sound judgment. In scanning the first three centuries of the modern British Army through the eyes of significant generals, Urban has made his own valuable contribution to military literature.