How do you become a military historian? We talked to Patrick Mercer – former soldier, MP for Newark, and occasional MHM contributor – about his engagement with the subject.
I believe there is a strong military tradition in your family?
Yes, I’m the third generation to have served in the Sherwood Foresters (and the regiment, incidentally, has a close link with my parliamentary constituency).
My father was a wartime soldier. He ran away from theological college to enlist – still wearing his cassock – as a private in the Foresters. He was wounded several times in the Desert and in Italy, including at Alamein and Anzio. He left the Army a major, and was finally ordained in Newark in 1947.
He was in the 14th Battalion, by the way, which suffered 60% casualties in the fighting on the Gothic Line and had to be disbanded.
Going back further, my grandfather served as a subaltern at the start of the First World War, but later transferred to the Royal Flying Corps.
With that background, I always wanted to join the Army. I attended the King’s School in Chester, then Oxford, then Sandhurst.
What impact did Sandhurst have on you?
Now, I have to say, officer training in the early 1970s was hugely outdated. The staff there were trying to tell us about the realities of Northern Ireland, but everything progressed at the pace of the least combative catering-corps officer, and the advice about how to break up a hostile crowd was to unravel a notice and say ‘Disperse, disperse, or we fire!’ We knew it wasn’t going to be like that.
The thing is that only very small parts of an Army ever do any actual fighting – but everyone is supposed to get a leavening of basic military knowledge. And I must say that the platoon commander’s course afterwards was much better. Keith Simpson was there. The teaching on terrorism and counterinsurgency was good. And the context, of course, was Bloody Sunday, a very shocking event, when, as General Sir Robert Ford, the Sandhurst commandant put it, ‘British soldiers opened fire on British civilians in a British capital city.’
And what about your service experience? How did that inform your understanding of military affairs in general?
I did a series of tours with the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, ending up as commanding officer in Bosnia in 1996. I got a very clear understanding of how armies do their business – and of the frictions of getting men to do things that frighten them and that they don’t want to do.
Marching a column of men at night takes three times as long. Soldiers are frightfully organised, but war is still chaotic. Commanders often make apparently crazy decisions. Fear is the key to battle. Things have got to be rigidly organised to bring some order to the chaos. You learn all these things on active service.
It always surprises me how willing people are to talk about commanders independently of their men. You can have the finest commanders in the world, but unless your men will fight, it’s pointless. And of course, soldiers can win battles despite bad generals if they are willing to fight – Inkerman is a classic example – but commanders can never win battles on their own.
You clearly enjoyed your military service. Why did you decide to leave the Army when you did, in the late 1990s? You could have served for longer, presumably?
I was a regimental soldier. I didn’t want to become an office-boy. So I resigned after my term as commander of the Sherwood Foresters. I then worked for a while as the Defence Correspondent for the BBC Today Programme, covering Kosovo, Eritrea, and then the Balkans again. This gave me a real insight into the media – and also taught me how to be a civilian in a military context!
Then in June 2001 I was elected Conservative MP for Newark. This was an unexpected gain from Labour – one of only a handful that year – though I’ve now built that up to a healthy 16,000 majority, partly, I think, because there are many ex-servicemen in the local community.
Your particular interest as a military historian has been the Crimea. You have written two books about Inkerman, Give Them a Volley and Charge: the Battle of Inkerman, 1854 (1996), and Inkerman, 1854: the soldiers’ battle (1998). This is an unusual period specialism. Can you say something about that?
I’ve had lifelong interest in the war – the only war between Britain and a major power between 1815 and 1914, of course – but what really spurred it on was a chance to visit the battlefields on an expedition in 1993. I think I may have been the first British military historian ever to walk the ground. And you simply cannot understand military history without walking the ground.
This was a hazardous business, mind you. The area was intensively fought over during the Second World War, there was an active garrison at the local military base when I visited, and there I was wandering around with a set of Victorian military maps – so I ended up getting locked up for a while in a Ukrainian prison!
It was worth it. It meant I could write the two books about Inkerman – a fascinating battle. But I have other interests – the Indian Mutiny, the Afghan Wars, the Second World War, especially the Italian Campaign. I really see myself as a general-purpose military historian.
And also a writer of historical fiction?
Yes, I have a trilogy about a soldier called Anthony Morgan, who fights in three successive conflicts – the Crimean War [To Do or Die], the Indian Mutiny [Dust and Steel], and the Second Afghan War [Red Runs the Helmand].
I’ve also written the screenplay and am acting as historical advisor for an epic film about a young guards officer in the Crimea. The idea is to do for the mid-Victorian period what Zulu did for the Late Victorian period.
The same issues arise with writing fiction and making films. The problem with a lot of war is that it’s about boredom and tedium. You can’t replicate this dominant reality on the big screen. The audience would run away. The trick is to find ways to convey it while still informing, enthusing, and entertaining an audience.
The film company thinks the military epic has a future. But the days of badly researched military films are over. The thing now has to be as authentic as possible. The chances are good that the Crimea is about to go up several notches in the general public’s consciousness. Watch out for it in the cinemas!