A bloated commemoration of the Thin Red Line over centuries of valorous—and sometimes not-so-valorous—service to the Empire.
British history was made in battle, observes English historian James (The Golden Warrior, 1993, etc.), none too originally. Some of those battles (Bannockburn, Rorke’s Drift) are little remembered today except by specialists. Others (Hastings, Yorktown, Tobruk, Second Marne) are better known though subject to cultural amnesia. James revisits these fields of war as he traces the development of the modern, professional British army, which, he suggests, shares the pluck of its forebears and “a peculiar British capacity not to be deterred by overwhelming odds.” Some of James’s evidence runs counter to such claims, he admits; unimpressed Vikings and Normans considered their foes to be “country bumpkins and mercenaries,” and in days of old it was possible to buy one’s way into command, as did Lords Lucan and Cardigan of Charge of the Light Brigade infamy. James makes good use of primary sources, especially with respect to WWII; in one combat account a particularly plucky Tommy remarks, “Darting about among rocks dodging bullets was at the time quite good fun and quite unreal—like some Wild Western picture.” Similarly, the author has a practiced eye for the telling anecdote, whether writing of British officers who refused to surrender their dinner forks when a meal was interrupted by sniper fire or of ordinary soldiers in the trenches of WWI who considered themselves to be “lions led by donkeys.” Still, a little of this goes a long way, and James takes a long trudge indeed through mud and gore. Nor is the narrative improved by its vein of Tory bluster, as when the author trumpets, “the liberation of the Falklands was a sign that Britain was no longer a country to which things happened, but that could make them happen.”
Solid enough, but cursory, providing little that cannot be found in standard histories.