This book, written by General Richard Dannatt the former CGS, is a history of the British Army from the end of the War in Europe to present day, covering the operational deployments, peace time taskings and political decisions which have shaped its course. Starting from Montgomery accepting the Nazi surrender on Luneburg Heath in 1945, and covering the high and low points of the Army’s post war experience through to the withdrawal from Afghanistan in chronological order, it’s a massive undertaking. It’s logically set out, and the selection of photo plates is good. There are no campaign maps or lists and tables, and it is an undemanding read.
- Richard Dannatt
I have to confess I heard the General speak on the topic covered by this book two years ago, and was impressed at his grasp of the subject matter, not to mention enthralled by his narration. So when this arrived in the post I was genuinely looking forward to reading it; sadly I ended up disappointed. This is a book which hasn’t quite decided what it wants to be, and as a result falls between two stools. Were it somewhat longer, wider ranging and more detailed, it could be a worthy Official History. If it was less embroiled in politics and more engaged in the experience of the soldiers it could have been an excellent social history document.
Unfortunately the Author has taken neither of these paths and has meandered through the last 70 years of the British Army with a patchy compromise of the two. He has spent a great deal of time sketching out a reliable and logical timeline of the events of interest, and is to be commended for his excellent simplification of complexities (particularly the Sandys review and its wide ranging effects), without losing the core of the events described. However there is very little in the way of an original point of view, or the voicing of an opinion which could cast an extra dimension onto the dry facts laid out. What I felt I was reading was a chronicle and explanation of events, without any interpretation, appraisal or judgement of them.
Whatever you may think of content of Max Hastings’ military histories, it’s difficult to deny that they are excellently written. When Hastings tackles a subject, he intersperses the wider strategic narrative with vignettes of personal histories, which create an interesting counterpoint to the drier, more academic passages, giving the reader an opportunity to engage with the subject matter on a different, more personal level. Dannatt does not do this well; his descriptions of the macro roll on steamroller-like whilst his diversions into the micro are skeletal in the extreme. For example, Johnson Beharry VC is mentioned in passing whilst Iraq is examined (actually recounted is probably more apposite than examined). And mentioned is right – Beharry’s story of courage, suffering and recovery is related in a couple of lines. What could have been an opportunity to regale the reader with a true story of untarnished courage and self-sacrifice is instead mentioned as if a line on a SITREP. This is the pattern of the book throughout – there is little in the way of personal engagement. Wherever a veteran’s story is told, it’s over and done with almost before it’s started, as if the author feels it’s distasteful to give too much time to such personal touches.
Another criticism I have on the content is the attention devoted to different subjects is distinctly patchy. For instance, Bosnia is dealt with over the length of a chapter, as is Kosovo, whilst Aden is covered in a relatively few pages. Malaya appears to have a great deal written about it, but the content is bland in the extreme. The Falklands (a seminal moment in the resurgence of Great Britain’s forces, with a large field of Army specific endeavour to examine) is covered with unseemly rapidity, whilst Ulster is painstakingly covered over several chapters. There is an uneven depth of examination applied throughout, with the author apparently selecting the areas which interest him most. This would not be too much of a problem if it were justified or even explained; instead the reader has to work this out for himself. At the end of some chapters, I felt almost cheated, as the description of an area of particular interest was covered in a line, or not at all. For instance, there was virtually no coverage of the British Special Forces efforts on Telic (with no mention of UK/US operations).
This leads on to a central failing of this book: it is a history of the British Army alone. Given the joint nature of virtually every post war campaign and certainly every defence policy review, this is an all but impossible task. There is regular unavoidable reference to the other Armed Services, but only as an aside, a poor choice when it is obvious that the fortunes of all three services are inextricably intertwined. This gives the book as a whole an incomplete feel, with a large part of the story missing.
Boots on the Ground is not a book for someone already familiar with the subject matter; it has more value as a primer for those with little to no knowledge of recent British military history. This is a great shame - General Dannatt could have produced a book of great value, and having heard him speak I am certain his insight could provide a fascinating lens through which to view the Army’s last seventy years. Sadly he hasn’t done that. For all its failings, this book does chronicle with depressing accuracy the reduction of the British Army from its high point of nearly three million men to its present nadir of Gendarmerie-level manning, and will be useful as a reference guide to the Army’s recent history. But it could have been so much more, if the author had given his own passions and opinions a freer rein.
I didn’t learn much from reading Boots on the Ground, nor did I find myself enjoying it. You can get away with not doing one of those things when writing a book, but not both.
2/5 Mr Mushroom Heads