- ARRSE Rating
- 5 Mushroom Heads
I have been aware of Sir Colin, most of my life but only really for one particular battle, The Thin Red Line, where the Sutherland Highlanders beat off a Russian Cavalry charge whilst in extended line rather than form square, with his quote “There is no retreat from here, men. You must die where you stand.“ To which their response was “Aye, Sir Colin. If needs be, we'll do that.“ He was obviously a general who inspired those around him so it was interesting to get the chance to learn more about his life, and this book tells it all.
The book follows the life of Sir Colin Campbell as he works his way up from Ensign to Field Marshall. He joined in May 1808, fighting in his first battle in August the same year when still fifteen years old in the Peninsular War under Wellington.
By 1813 he had fought in several battles, campaigned in Portugal, Holland and Spain, led a forlorn hope, been wounded 3 times and was a company commander. Not bad for a 21 year old. Whilst recovering from wounds he went to Nova Scotia, just too late for the War of 1812 and also missed Waterloo. Next on his list of things to do, was Barbados, where he helped in the putting down of a slaves revolt. He then cycles through a series of positions that would have been as familiar to a 1990's Officer as his, North of England, Ireland, Hong Kong before heading for his first stint in India.
His rise to glory then sky rocketed as he led the Highland Brigade in the Crimea, in such actions as the Battle of Alma and Balaclava with his “thin red line“ of Highlanders famously standing firm against a Russian cavalry charge. He left the Crimea to take charge in India during the Mutiny, successfully quashing that with a reputation for methodical careful husbandry of his men, with what in hindsight was a relative low loss of men, which had characterised his career. This was his last campaign, as he died shortly after.
As well as his life the author has neatly summarised each of the campaigns, than Sir Colin fought in, analysing both the politics and the military situation of each. As he fought in 3 continents over a military career spanning 55 years, there are a fair number to cover from the small Slave Revolt to the Crimea and Indian Mutiny, passing through riots in North England, First Opium War, Second Anglo-Sikh War, and the Peninsular War.
Whilst has gained the nickname “Sir Crawling Camel“, this book quite easily defends his style, which gained him the adoration of his men, especially those Highlanders who served under him both in Crimea and India. His own personal bravery was never doubted from his earlier escapades in the Peninsular to his later leading from the front during times when a more discrete General would have been slightly more to the rear! Whilst not afraid to deploy his infantry, by the time of Mutiny, when he acquired his nickname, he husbanded them carefully, allowing his artillery to destroy the fortified positions they were facing before sending in the foot soldiers to clear up. This slow approach did not always endear him to those who wanted quick results. He also favoured holding captured ground, whilst some Generals lead columns which whilst producing successes, merely moved onto the next town without securing the surrounding area, thus allowing the rebels to take control again. His slowness allowed for the rebuilding of the civil control structure leaving the British firmly in control.
Also debated in the book was Sir Colin's dislike of bravery awards, the VC had come into being, and it would appear Sir Colin had a dislike for it as he felt soldiers should be brave without needing such rewards and as a result his record of recommendations were low through his time as a Commander.
The various battles are well described, with complimentary maps, which though simple are very clear and easily readable. There are illustrations through as well as a good selection of coloured plates.
The author's writing style flows well, interspersing facts with anecdotes and quotes. There are footnotes explaining item in the text as well as good references for those who like to know where quotes come from and like to do a bit more reading.
Who would like this book? I feel it has a fairly broad appeal amongst those who like Military history as it covers such an important period in some depth. It will have specific appeal to those who like Scottish Military history or enjoy the 19th Century.
I'd give it 5 Mr Mushroomheads as I think it was one of the best military history books I've read for some time.