Warfare through the ages

I am in the middle of writing a new book that will be based much more on war and how medieval fighters lived, fought and died.

Obviously the start point has to be the history. I’ve been soaking up books on the period for the last few weeks, trying to get a good basic understanding about the period – but that is only a general, rough concept. Much, much more relevant are the books of modern warfare. Or more modern, I should say, because most books since Vietnam (perhaps Korea) have portrayed people differently.

It’s natural.

In the second half of the twentieth century, attitudes to war and military life changed, probably forever, especially in the UK. There were too many conspiracy theories (I’ve had a few myself), and far, far too much rationalizing. Academics saw the brutality of wars in Indochina and Arabia and decided that they were unjust. Wars to prevent Soviet world dominance were irrational, because they couldn’t achieve it anyway, and in any case, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was felt simply wrong to glorify war.

Here in Britain there was a sense of extreme revulsion at the idea of bombing with nukes. Even lesser weapons were judged unpleasant, so “Bomber” Harris, the leader of our aerial bombardment offensives in the Second World War went without recognition after the war. His men did not have a specific campaign medal like those in other arms of the services. It’s only now that a statue to him, remembering the hugely brave aircrews who died in their tens of thousands, experiencing perhaps some of the most terrifying battles, time after time, is to be erected.

In Britain, even guns themselves are now demonized. A ludicrous concept has emerged (deliberately sponsored by senior police) that assumes that all guns are dangerous, as though they are infected with the spirit of a Viking sword, such that all who touch them must go and kill someone. Even to touch a handgun in the UK carries an automatic five year sentence. Not firing, merely to hold one. Yet since our draconian gun laws were enhanced by Tony Blair in a stunt to win an election, the pistol offences have continued to increase.

It wasn’t always so. Kitchener’s army was full of brave young men who had gone to school and there learned how to shoot accurately. They went on to little rifle clubs up and down the country, and when the call came, those little clubs were almost wiped out in the first days of the Somme.

In the Second World War, people didn’t join up because they were morons persuaded by propaganda. They knew that the war was going to be unpleasant. The young men going to fight in Africa, Burma, Italy and France didn’t go off thinking they’d be home by Christmas. But they knew that there was a good reason to fight to protect their homes, their livings and their families.

And that is how English and British men have gone to war over the centuries. In Burma (read George MacDonald Fraser’s superb memoir of his war in “Quartered Safe Out Here”) the soldiers complained, rebelled against poor food, lousy conditions, grumbled about tent canvass that rotted in the humid jungles, and fought with courage alongside Baluchi tribesmen, Gurkhas, and East Africans.

They didn’t fight because they had an understanding of an overall plan. They fought because they were called to a specific place, and lined up. They fought as their fathers and grandfathers had, all the way through history to the dim and distant Saxon days, next to their friends, next to their mates, looking after each other.

So when I go to think about how the guys fought in the 1300s, I don’t read modern academic books written by researchers who have studied the dates and the locations so much as the books by historians around the 1940s. Because they had lived through similar wars, and like our ancestors, often didn’t know where they were, nor why.

Our modern soldiers are no less brave. In fact, with all the education about war and fighting, I think that they must have to be braver than those who went before. They can read or view on television so much about what it is like to be in battle, that to be mentally prepared must involve great courage.

So today I am thinking of the six young men who died yesterday in Afghanistan in another IED blast. RIP.

Here's hoping they all return safe to quarters tonight.

6 Responses to “Warfare through the ages”
  1. Buddy, if you haven’t, you might like to read The Sun Over Breda, by Perez Reverte. It’s one of the Alatriste series, but with the hero as a soldier, not a sword for hire on the streets of Madrid. You probably read them all years ago, knowing you, but if not, try that one.

    Also FWIW, take a look at this link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Andrews_Castle and go to the section ‘Reformation and siege’. It’s a couple of Cs later, but warfare didn’t change a lot in them centuries.


  2. Chris Prillwitz says:

    Michael, I recommend “Battle Cry” by Leon Uris about a group of young men from different backgrounds in the U.S. Marines during WWII as told from the point of view of their sergeant. Also in “Yondering Days” Louis L’Amour has a couple of good short stories about combat and fighting. The Corps series is another good series to read. For naval warfare, the Kydd series.


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