.
B

ooks on famous battles typically fall into two categories: bargain basement finds or considered historical analysis. There seems to be a cottage industry of the former given just how many are found in my local bookshop’s discount section. Books like the “Top 100 Battles” or “History’s Most Important Battles” that recycle photos and maps, and likely serve as last minute gift ideas for one’s father or grandfather. They are nifty to look at, but do not offer much in the way of substance.

The Shape of Battle: The Art of War from the Battle of Hastings to D-Day and Beyond | Allan Mallinson | Pegasus

On the other end of the spectrum there are books like John Keegan’s “The Face of Battle.” Keegan’s analysis of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme still holds up as a masterpiece of historical writing even 40 years later. Its blend of studying generalship, the terrain, the tactics, and the view from the soldiers themselves offers a far more nuanced and richer picture of these pivotal battles. Keegan offers readers fact and context, and brings history to life far greater than rote recitation.

It is then ironic that Allan Mallinson, a former British Army brigadier, writes early on in his new book “The Shape of Battle” that he does not seek to mirror Keegan. Mallinson’s book, kindly provided by Pegasus for review, is very much in the vein of “The Face of Battle.” Mallinson explores six key battles in English and British history from Hastings to Afghanistan, detailing how battles turn on events and decisions, terrain and societies alike. “The Shape of Battle,” like Keegan’s works, does what some of the finest history books do: allow the events to speak for themselves.

“The Shape of Battle” is written with two complimentary styles. In the first, Mallinson writes with a very tight and focused approach—he details the context of the battles, the societies that yielded the men and arms on the field of battle, the terrain, and leadership of the combatants. He livens each section up with a nod to art or poetry—grounding the very human experience of the battles. Yet, there is a sharpness to his writing. There is little waste and he avoids unnecessary diatribes—military history in a distilled form. That could spell disaster, leading to dry recitations (art and poetry, aside) of people, places, and things.

Yet, this is where Mallinson’s other complimentary style appears. Mallinson, both a non-fiction and fiction writer, has an eye for bringing battles to life. This is not over-the-top clashing of swords style action writing, but a compelling distillation of how the battles played out, what the commanders saw (or thought they saw), how the soldiers moved and acted, and the consequences of collective actions and decisions. There is a fine tension in his writing—a focused exploration of a topic, enlivened by breezy writing.

He avoids lengthy polemics or comparisons. He neither draws out over-arching conclusions about the battles or their campaigns, nor does he attempt to divine lessons for the battles. To borrow a phrase from the British, Mallinson’s book does “what it says on the tin”—he lays out a plan and executes it supremely well. It recalls the time when the History Channel was actually about history rather than swamp people or duck hunters. At one point in the network’s history, viewers could watch detailed explanations of battles, buttressed by video footage and three-dimensional renderings of unit formations.

Mallinson surveys a wide range of battles from Hastings through D-Day and onto Afghanistan. In each, even in D-Day, he brings a refreshing look at these pivotal moments. In the case of D-Day, he focuses specifically on the planning of the invasion and the British Army’s performance on Sword Beach, offering a new look on what has been fairly well-trodden ground. History aficionados will find something of interest in the lesser well-known (at least to American audiences) events of Towton and Imjin—the latter a 1461 fight as part of the War of the Roses and the latter a 1951 battle in the Korean War. Mallinson’s methodical approach leaves the reader just as familiar with the terrain (physical and political) as the other battles—a testament to his approach and the successful blending of his competing literary styles.

One can trace the evolution of the British armed forces from the formation of the modern British state after Hastings through to the turmoil of the War of the Roses and onto the heroism of the Second World War and Korea. Korea was one of the last fights a British Army based on national service fought—by Helmand it was an all-volunteer force. Mallinson’s other book “The Making of the British Army: From the English Civil War to the War On Terror” charts this in far greater detail, but equally benefits from his wonderful literary style.

War is, at its heart, a wholly and distinctly human endeavor. Mallinson brings this reality vividly to life in each battle, yet in his conclusion he leaves readers with a powerful and poignant statement. Recalling parallels between Imjin and Helmand, Mallinson writes that the latter was part of “…a war fought by men apart from society, and whom society would rather forget, and sometimes has forgotten, unless to sentimentalize them.”

It’s a powerful quote. The professionalization of the armed forces and the all-volunteer force has led to a marked increase in the capability and skills of men and women in uniform, but it has also led to society’s increased disconnect from those very same people. Society does indeed “sentimentalize” those who serve, often using them as political props or for performative patriotism. Phil Klay’s “Uncertain Ground,” a collection of non-fiction writings, captures this masterfully, arguing that society would serve veterans and the military far better by engaging with the real issues, not merely saying “thank you for your service.”

The increasing disconnect between society and the armed forces, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, arguably, reached its apex (at least thus far) in the War on Terror. While “The Shape of Battle” was likely finished before America’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, one suspects that Mallinson’s assessment would remain unchanged. Focusing on Operation Panther Claw (2009) as a proxy for British involvement in Afghanistan, Mallinson finds much that is wanting. The political leadership’s unwillingness to support personnel on-the-ground or on their return home to the degree necessary, the complexities of the human and physical terrain, the civil-military disconnect and absence of necessary follow-on actions—all created an environment where tactical or operational victories were divorced from strategic outcomes.

Battles are the sum of innumerable small actions and decisions, many of which took place well before the men and women at arms take to the field. With war waging in Ukraine, Mallinson’s methodical exploration is thought-provoking. There may not yet be a Hastings or Sword Beach in the war in Ukraine (perhaps save for the Azovstal iron and steel works), but there continue to be battles and engagements, the consequences of which are equally the result of those innumerable small actions and decisions, taken amidst the friction of war.

Mallinson’s clear and focused approach, married with his literary flair creates not just another book on historical battles. He brings those battles to life while distilling them to their core. He allows history to stand on its own, which makes that which he writes about all the richer.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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The Clash of Arms and the Essence of Battle

Photo by Jemima Whyles via Unsplash.

July 30, 2022

In “The Shape of Battle,” Allan Mallinson explores six key battles in English and British history from Hastings to Afghanistan. In his review, Joshua Huminski highlights that it does what some of the finest history books do: allow the events to speak for themselves.

B

ooks on famous battles typically fall into two categories: bargain basement finds or considered historical analysis. There seems to be a cottage industry of the former given just how many are found in my local bookshop’s discount section. Books like the “Top 100 Battles” or “History’s Most Important Battles” that recycle photos and maps, and likely serve as last minute gift ideas for one’s father or grandfather. They are nifty to look at, but do not offer much in the way of substance.

The Shape of Battle: The Art of War from the Battle of Hastings to D-Day and Beyond | Allan Mallinson | Pegasus

On the other end of the spectrum there are books like John Keegan’s “The Face of Battle.” Keegan’s analysis of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme still holds up as a masterpiece of historical writing even 40 years later. Its blend of studying generalship, the terrain, the tactics, and the view from the soldiers themselves offers a far more nuanced and richer picture of these pivotal battles. Keegan offers readers fact and context, and brings history to life far greater than rote recitation.

It is then ironic that Allan Mallinson, a former British Army brigadier, writes early on in his new book “The Shape of Battle” that he does not seek to mirror Keegan. Mallinson’s book, kindly provided by Pegasus for review, is very much in the vein of “The Face of Battle.” Mallinson explores six key battles in English and British history from Hastings to Afghanistan, detailing how battles turn on events and decisions, terrain and societies alike. “The Shape of Battle,” like Keegan’s works, does what some of the finest history books do: allow the events to speak for themselves.

“The Shape of Battle” is written with two complimentary styles. In the first, Mallinson writes with a very tight and focused approach—he details the context of the battles, the societies that yielded the men and arms on the field of battle, the terrain, and leadership of the combatants. He livens each section up with a nod to art or poetry—grounding the very human experience of the battles. Yet, there is a sharpness to his writing. There is little waste and he avoids unnecessary diatribes—military history in a distilled form. That could spell disaster, leading to dry recitations (art and poetry, aside) of people, places, and things.

Yet, this is where Mallinson’s other complimentary style appears. Mallinson, both a non-fiction and fiction writer, has an eye for bringing battles to life. This is not over-the-top clashing of swords style action writing, but a compelling distillation of how the battles played out, what the commanders saw (or thought they saw), how the soldiers moved and acted, and the consequences of collective actions and decisions. There is a fine tension in his writing—a focused exploration of a topic, enlivened by breezy writing.

He avoids lengthy polemics or comparisons. He neither draws out over-arching conclusions about the battles or their campaigns, nor does he attempt to divine lessons for the battles. To borrow a phrase from the British, Mallinson’s book does “what it says on the tin”—he lays out a plan and executes it supremely well. It recalls the time when the History Channel was actually about history rather than swamp people or duck hunters. At one point in the network’s history, viewers could watch detailed explanations of battles, buttressed by video footage and three-dimensional renderings of unit formations.

Mallinson surveys a wide range of battles from Hastings through D-Day and onto Afghanistan. In each, even in D-Day, he brings a refreshing look at these pivotal moments. In the case of D-Day, he focuses specifically on the planning of the invasion and the British Army’s performance on Sword Beach, offering a new look on what has been fairly well-trodden ground. History aficionados will find something of interest in the lesser well-known (at least to American audiences) events of Towton and Imjin—the latter a 1461 fight as part of the War of the Roses and the latter a 1951 battle in the Korean War. Mallinson’s methodical approach leaves the reader just as familiar with the terrain (physical and political) as the other battles—a testament to his approach and the successful blending of his competing literary styles.

One can trace the evolution of the British armed forces from the formation of the modern British state after Hastings through to the turmoil of the War of the Roses and onto the heroism of the Second World War and Korea. Korea was one of the last fights a British Army based on national service fought—by Helmand it was an all-volunteer force. Mallinson’s other book “The Making of the British Army: From the English Civil War to the War On Terror” charts this in far greater detail, but equally benefits from his wonderful literary style.

War is, at its heart, a wholly and distinctly human endeavor. Mallinson brings this reality vividly to life in each battle, yet in his conclusion he leaves readers with a powerful and poignant statement. Recalling parallels between Imjin and Helmand, Mallinson writes that the latter was part of “…a war fought by men apart from society, and whom society would rather forget, and sometimes has forgotten, unless to sentimentalize them.”

It’s a powerful quote. The professionalization of the armed forces and the all-volunteer force has led to a marked increase in the capability and skills of men and women in uniform, but it has also led to society’s increased disconnect from those very same people. Society does indeed “sentimentalize” those who serve, often using them as political props or for performative patriotism. Phil Klay’s “Uncertain Ground,” a collection of non-fiction writings, captures this masterfully, arguing that society would serve veterans and the military far better by engaging with the real issues, not merely saying “thank you for your service.”

The increasing disconnect between society and the armed forces, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, arguably, reached its apex (at least thus far) in the War on Terror. While “The Shape of Battle” was likely finished before America’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, one suspects that Mallinson’s assessment would remain unchanged. Focusing on Operation Panther Claw (2009) as a proxy for British involvement in Afghanistan, Mallinson finds much that is wanting. The political leadership’s unwillingness to support personnel on-the-ground or on their return home to the degree necessary, the complexities of the human and physical terrain, the civil-military disconnect and absence of necessary follow-on actions—all created an environment where tactical or operational victories were divorced from strategic outcomes.

Battles are the sum of innumerable small actions and decisions, many of which took place well before the men and women at arms take to the field. With war waging in Ukraine, Mallinson’s methodical exploration is thought-provoking. There may not yet be a Hastings or Sword Beach in the war in Ukraine (perhaps save for the Azovstal iron and steel works), but there continue to be battles and engagements, the consequences of which are equally the result of those innumerable small actions and decisions, taken amidst the friction of war.

Mallinson’s clear and focused approach, married with his literary flair creates not just another book on historical battles. He brings those battles to life while distilling them to their core. He allows history to stand on its own, which makes that which he writes about all the richer.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.