You don’t have a military background, but you’ve always been a military historian. How did you get into it?
I did in fact mull over joining the Army when I was about 18, but what I really wanted to do from very early on was write military history. I’d been a keen reader of military history from the age of about 10 onwards, both fiction and non-fiction, and a lot of the conversation around the dinner-table when I was a child would be about military history.
I was fascinated by all aspects of war, by the difficult and extreme choices humans face in war, and the way in which it brings out the full range of human behaviour.
From the late teens on, I wanted to write. Now, in the early 90s, there were very few full-time professional writers of military history, so choosing it as a career path was perhaps quite naïve. I began as a journalist, and started serious research towards my first book [Churchill’s Sacrifice of the Highland Division] when I was about 25.
I later took a doctorate, mainly because I felt the formal academic qualification would lend weight to what I wanted to write about. This has led to an academic post [Professor of War Studies at the University of Buckingham], but my job involves running the MA course and teaching part-time, so I still think of myself as basically a writer rather than an academic.
When I started, I was very aware of the work of Lyn Macdonald and Martin Middlebrook on the First World War, a successful mix of history and first-hand accounts. But at that point, there hadn’t been much of an attempt to replicate the approach. I was quite taken with it, and especially the idea of applying it to earlier periods.
Let’s pick up on that point. In your work, you’ve decided to focus mainly on the British Army in the 18th and 19th centuries. Why? What is the special appeal of this period?
Well, there was a practical issue. With modest language skills and not being able to afford research assistants, the only sensible thing to do was to work on sources in my own language and available in accessible archives at home. So the British Army was cost-effective for a military historian starting out!
I have since worked in archives in both South Africa and India, and I could perhaps now branch out and send research assistants off elsewhere, but I’ve established an expertise in the British Army.
The 19th century was the main focus for a long while, but I’ve now gone back to the 18th century. That’s because it’s become clear to me that the British military tradition was forged in the 18th century. In fact, the British Army afterwards suffered from the problem of success. It rested on its laurels in the 19th century, and wasn’t really tested in a major European war between 1815 and 1914. The Crimean War was the only partial exception, but it was a tiny theatre, though the Boer War did have a big impact.
Armies get neglected in peacetime. Politicians want to cut defence spending when they can, and you need war to test methods and relearn skills. For virtually the whole of the 19th century, the British Army only fought colonial wars, so it wasn’t being fully tested.
But in the 18th century, the British soldier really was the best in the world, and the Army became a superb instrument of war and empire-building. There is a lot of focus on the role of the Navy in creating the British Empire. But the Army was as important as the more famous ‘wooden walls’, and that was the story I wanted to tell.
All the King’s Men is an attempt to get to grips with what made the British Army so effective between 1660 and 1815. What were the key factors?
I think the British Army had two big advantages over its opponents. First, we were blessed with a succession of very talented commanders. Not just Marlborough and Wellington– probably the two finest commanders in the whole of British military history – but also Wolfe and Moore.
You need great commanders partly because, when battles happen, you need to win them. But it’s also because all great commanders have as much influence off the battlefield as on it. They are always innovators and improvers. Wellington, for example, has a reputation as an arch conservative, which he certainly was after 1815 when things had settled down and he was opposed to political change at home, but during the long struggle with France, he made the military changes necessary to win.
The second factor is to do with weapons and tactics never used before, and the way in which the British applied the new technology to maximum effect. The key things were the flintlock musket and the socket bayonet, both developed at the end of the 17th century. It doesn’t sound like much, but it changed the face of battle, making infantry dominant. The flintlock gave you more reliable and rapid fire than the matchlock, and the socket bayonet turned every infantryman into a pikeman.
This technology fitted the British character. Armed with a flintlock and a socket bayonet, the British soldier, with his solid yeomen qualities, became pretty well unbeatable, as effective in attack as in defence.
Warfare in the 18th century was close-quarters, and the British perfected close-range volley fire – synchronised, rolling down the line, parts of the line always loaded and ready to fire – a way of fighting that required incredible nerve, discipline, and training. The necessary battlefield tactics were complex and high-risk, but when they worked, the effects were shattering.
The discipline was savage. Punishment became more brutal in the course of the 18th century – it was at its worst in Wellington’s Army. Was it necessary? Was it, given the social level from which soldiers were recruited, the only way to keep potentially unruly elements in order? There are debates about it. What is certainly true is that the soldiers fought as well when the discipline was at its most brutal as they had earlier.
One further point is worth making about British success in the 18th century compared with the situation in the 19th. Tactics didn’t change very much because the technology remained essentially the same. The smoothbore musket was little different at the end of the century. Wolfe was the first one to put emphasis on the bayonet, and to use it in a very aggressive way. But this was merely refinement of a tactical system that was to reach its peak during the Napoleonic Wars. One major reason the 19th century was different was the way new technology changed warfare – with the development of rifles and breech-loading, for example.
In All the King’s Men, I’ve looked back to the forging of the tradition in the 18th century. What I’d like to do now is look forwards to how the British soldier adapted to a new way of fighting in the First World War.
I’ve always wanted to write about this period, but I used to feel there was already rather a lot published. In the 20 year period since I started writing, however, there’s been a huge amount of revisionist history about the First World War. Academic historians have exploded a lot of the myths about lions led by donkeys, every battle being a futile slaughter, and so on.
But not much of this has reached a general audience. I think there’s a strong case for a big popular book on the British soldier in the First World War that deals with the subject in the light of the new academic analysis. And of course, we have the big First World War anniversary coming up, so this is a good time to tackle it.
Saul David’s All the King’s Men: the British soldier from the Restoration to Waterloo is published by Viking, price £25. His earlier books include The Indian Mutiny, 1857, Zulu: the heroism and tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879, and Victoria’s Wars: the rise of empire.