The Shape of Battle

What can six battles across a thousand years of history tell us about the nature of warfare? Probably not a lot, as Allan Mallinson himself admits. In his latest book, he is not so much out to make a point but to ‘let the events speak for themselves’. In other words, leave the reader to draw their own conclusions.

The Shape of Battle obviously went to press before Afghanistan fell to the Taliban this summer, because Mallinson does not mention that event in his chapters here on Operation Panther’s Claw. This was a British-led operation in July 2009 to secure a key area of the country’s Helmand province ahead of local elections. It was a success, but how grim it is to now read of the Taliban taunting the occupying troops. Everyone knew that the British would not be there forever.

‘You have the watches, we have the time,’ the Taliban warned, and it is this same ominous idea that underpins the Battle of the Imjin River during the Korean War. Another bloody but successful British-led operation, it seems like a small victory in an ultimately losing struggle, with the battle going one way and the wider conflict another.

In both Korea and Afghanistan, the British largely played second fiddle to a much larger contingent of American forces. This has been the case in almost every Anglo-American conflict since D-Day, which takes up the central portion of this book.

The landings of June 1944 were long in the planning and postponed repeatedly until the Allies knew they were as ready as they could be. Much of the fighting in the years before that, in Africa and Italy, what Churchill called the ‘soft-underbelly of the fascist crocodile’, doubled up as preparation for the opening of the Western Front, giving Allied troops a chance to taste battle for real.

Much the same was true during the Napoleonic Wars. In the years before Waterloo, the British army was considered a beleaguered laughingstock, especially after the humiliation at the hands of its (then) enemy, the Americans, at Yorktown in 1781. Instead, the country’s vast navy would see off the Bonapartist threat.

But with Napoleon resurgent, it was understood that he would ultimately have to be defeated in a land battle, and this required an army worthy of the name. Under Wellington’s command, the soldiers readied themselves by fighting in Spain, which could be considered the soft underbelly of Napoleonic Europe. Wellington would later boast that he could ‘do anything’ with his army because it was in such good condition.

This is perhaps an exaggeration. Waterloo only went the way it did because the British-Prussian coalition held together, demonstrating what Mallinson says about political coalitions being as important as military ones. This is also true of D-Day.

The Normandy landings are covered in much greater length than Hastings or Towton. Sometimes the aftermath of the events is skipped over, although there is plenty of context to make up for it. Chapters are also rich in extended quotations, and snippets from Shakespeare, Clausewitz, and even Kipling, whose words on Afghanistan could have been written from Helmand Province in 2009.

Some readers may be distracted by the book’s many extended footnotes. Others could probably think of half a dozen battles that should have been mentioned here but were not.

So what does it all amount to? If there is one recurring theme of each of the six battles, it is their sheer unpredictability. It was all going relatively well for Harold until his fateful downhill charge at Hastings, and Wellington famously said of Waterloo that it was ‘the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life’.

Unpredictable in their outcomes, it was also hard to foresee them occurring to begin with. As Mallinson says, NATO troops of the early 1950s had prepared to fight the Cold War against the Soviets in Western Europe, not against the Chinese on the Korean peninsula.

‘Shape’ is therefore a deceptive word, because during any conflict the shape of the fighting is violently in flux. If a military commander surveying these six battles can learn anything, it is that the most important kind of preparation they can do is to prepare for the unexpected.

Review by Calum Henderson.
The Shape of Battle, Allan Mallinson. Bantam Press, £25 (hbk), ISBN 978-1787632417.