Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Book Review: Generals by Mark Urban

Generals: Ten British Commanders Who Shaped the World

Continuing yesterday's military theme, I have really enjoyed reading Mark Urban's fascinating biographical sketches of Generals: Ten British Commanders Who Shaped the World.

For military buffs this book is a must, giving vital information on changes in military tactics and technology, and charting the development of the British Army from its earliest days as a professional standing army.

But even if you're not the type to dress up in helmets, Generals illuminates the thinking and circumstances behind some world-shaking moments, such as the battles of Blenheim and Waterloo. And it's not all roaring successes, we also get an understanding into some of the British Empire's worst moments - losing America to the Americans, losing Sudan to Muslim extremists, and losing one of their greatest tank thinkers to the fascists.

Urban expertly navigates us through opposing points of view towards something like the truth about these men - for the legendary heroes, their shortcomings (for instance, the Duke of Wellington was an aristocratic snob who called his men 'scum'); for the heroic failures, their good points (British commander-in-chief in the American revolutionary war William Howe was tactically sound but strategically waaay off).

In his introduction, Urban explains what links all of these generals - they all commanded armies, yet had to answer to political masters. While the British army is technically apolitical, the true situation is never clear-cut. Some of the best generals not only accepted this truth, they made the most of it.

Urban shows his versatility in Generals, on one page describing political intrigues, on the next painting cinematic action scenes of some of the British Empire's most famous battles.

From a leadership point of view, Generals is like a buffet. The people are presented warts and all, and if you see a quality you'd like to emulate, dig in. What unites the really good ones - and mars the bad ones - is strategic thinking, not just on the battlefield but in the overall picture. It takes big thinking to be a general, and that thinking can help you turn setbacks into comebacks.

A Not-So-Famous General
Have you ever heard of Frederick, Duke of York? Second son of King George III, he had learned the theory of war from his youth, but proved average on the battlefield. Instead of pining for service for which he was unsuited, he used his strengths and administrated the army expertly. He saw the need for massive changes in the structure of the army, but made those changes incrementally, so the changes would last the distance.

The book features other not-so-publicised generals: George Monck, (royalist-turned-roundhead-turned-royalist again), William Howe (aforementioned C-in-C, British Army in the American revolutionary war) and John Fuller (a great thinker on mechanised warfare).

There are also some old favourites: John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough; Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington; General Gordon of Khartoum; General Kitchener of your country needs you fame; General Allenby of World War I, and "Monty", Bernard Law Montgomery.

Read this book, even if you're not a war buff. It's a chance to see what kind of decisions can make or break an entire nation's place in world affairs.


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