A Compendium to Military History


Military history continues to fascinate.

Indeed, at a time when, certainly in the West, fewer and fewer people have actually served in the armed forces, the subject seems to have actually grown in popularity. As Dr Johnson pointed out, ‘No man’and increasingly it would now appear, some women – ‘but thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier’

However, that alone doesn’t account for our fascination with war. The real truth may lie much deeper, in our uncomfortable realisation that war and conflict are really an in-built part of our make-up. Fighting and war has always been humanity’s darkest group activity.

This forthcoming book doesn’t seek to glorify war. On the contrary, it records many of the horrors of war. But over thirty years of soldiering – plus over 150 battlefield tours – have taught me that war and soldiering are not all bad. Soldiering can be rich in the finer things of life too; comradeship; comedy; heroes and idiots; eccentrics; self sacrifice and endurance; good and bad luck; sometimes even a sense of being a better person, or serving a greater cause. But, above all, humour: my old sergeant major used to say that if he didn’t get three good laughs a day out of the army, he’d quit. He soldiered on and got his pension.

This may partly explain the interest in a subject devoted to what is otherwise really just a long and dismal record of breaking things and hurting people. Because that’s what war is.

So this little compendium of facts and stories seeks to entertain as much as educate, while guiding the reader down the long path of things martial from the dawn of time. It’s part of what we do as a species, whether we like to admit that truth or not.

I have arranged it as a series of crisp little ‘factoids’, little stories that I hope will interest and entertain. It tries to follow a chronological trail, covering the whole sweep of military history. That’s an impossible task; but at least our selection is not all about the West. For example, the Chinese invented – and used – gunpowder long before Roger Bacon and his fellow monks wrote about it. And the Koreans had a fighting ironclad in the water long before the Europeans “invented” one. That means that the scope is global, which makes the subject a huge field. So, although I have tried to highlight the little known and the unusual as much as possible, the range of possible entries is so great that sometimes it’s been hard to pick out the best stories.

The result is that some of the entries are serious; some are grim; and some are just plain daft, because I have to confess to occasionally being drawn to the eccentric and odd. Maybe that’s a reflection of the fact that wars are fought by real people, and real people sometimes behave very oddly indeed. Who, for example, could believe that one successful general, not so long ago, was given to walking around stark naked with an alarm clock tied round his neck while munching a raw onion? But he did.

As far as possible I have tried to stick to facts from solid sources. However, I haven’t the slightest doubt that some of the entries will be argued over. That’s inevitable; but then, after all, history is ‘the never ending argument’.

One final point: I wish that I had had a book like this when I first started leading battlefield tours. It would have made my life so much easier.