BOOK REVIEW / Old horrors in Oliver's new army: Going to the wars: The Experience of the British Civil Wars, 1638-1651 by Charles Carlton, Routledge pounds 25

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THE civil wars of the 17th century were for a long time treated as the central event in the history of the British Isles. The realm of England in particular had supposedly been moving for some centuries towards that crisis, and the modern democratic structure was discerned as steadily developing from the victory of Parliament.

Lately, however, that scenario has ceased to carry conviction: a variety of reinterpretations have left little of the old picture standing. Were the wars the product of revolution or mere rebellion? Did they differ so totally from the internal warfare endemic in medieval England, not to mention the absence of real peace from both Scotland and Ireland? Was the cause of discontent political (the struggle of liberty against despotism), religious (the sectarian revolt against an episcopal Church), or social (the bourgeois rebellion against an agrarian feudalism)?

None of these generalisations (whig, puritan or marxist) really survives the latest reviews of the scene. Above all, it has become strangely plain how little Britain was changed by those 18 years of upheavals. We know far more than we used to about the political thought of the age, about the role of religion, about the politics of the participants, about the leading personalities, and especially about the character of Oliver Cromwell. Is it not time historians left the topic alone? Indeed, we might easily think that we know enough about the civil wars to rest contented, especially after the excellent recent study of the New Model Army by Ian Gentles. Yet it now appears that we really knew nothing, or at least far too little, about the heart of the matter: what did it mean to live through those wars, as combatants or civilians, as men and women?

This vital gap has now been filled by Charles Carlton in a rather astonishing book, which enters upon the field with an exhilarating mixture of assurance and diffidence. In 14 tightly packed chapters he takes us systematically and excitingly through the life and labours of the men who joined the war, some as volunteers, more under pressure, officers and troopers and dragoons. We learn about their equipment, their weapons, their training and general tactics, before we join them in a great variety of actions - battles, sieges, skirmishes and accidental encounters. We follow them out of action; we see them injured, taken prisoner, killed.

Carlton ranges over all three kingdoms and establishes that the wars were most devastating and murderous in Ireland and Scotland, where endemic enmities drove all sides into atrocities. The chapter on plundering is especially revealing. Far more happened than those familiar set-pieces culminating at Naseby in the first civil war and at Preston in the second. The generals appear, of course, but they do not this time monopolise the interest which embraces hundreds of names that become people. The role played by women with the armies and away from them is carefully set out.

In sum it is a horrible story, as horrible as a civil war was really bound to be. Though now and again old friendships put their heads above the parapets, as time went on fear and fury destroyed civilised feelings. The evidence laid before us is enormous: letters, poems, songs, newspaper reports are all drawn on, as is earlier work in obscure local history journals and unpublished dissertations. No doubt of it: Carlton's prodigious labours have given us a three-dimensional picture, reality rather than learned abstraction.

He is careful to warn us against thinking his figures absolutely accurate. The total of dead (including civilians) amounted to something like 870,000, or 11.6 per cent of the pre-war population (not too shocking for a people accustomed to the effects of the bubonic plague), but the figure hides the destruction of over 40 per cent of the population of Ireland. The tally of burned and battered towns, villages and mansions may not quite match European experience in the Thirty Years War, but it is stupefying nonetheless.

As Carlton says, the relatively primitive economy of the day - predominantly agrarian - recovered with surprising speed, which no doubt helps to explain the strange return of pre-war England after 1660. A king had been tried and executed, but his son, Charles II, proved without real difficulty that monarchy remained in charge; a Parliament had briefly controlled affairs, but the Restoration returned Lords and Commons to their earlier role in politics under the management of the Crown. Of course, there were some changes, but on the whole the interlude proved to be just that. The outstanding after-effect was to be a persistent hatred of standing armies which further delayed the modernisation of Britain as a military power. And, oddly enough, even Carlton cannot identify any real grounds on which the parties of the civil war had formed. Some people, especially in the upper ranks of society, chose deliberately which side they fought on, but even through many families and localities there ran divisions which defy definition. And the number of soldiers who when defeated joined the victors does rather astonish.

The evidence on which this reconstruction relies has its problems, but Carlton would seem to have asssessed it correctly; he is not taken in by propaganda and false rumours. Time and again, he brings his own memories of serving in an army to bear on the scene, endowing it with an exceptional and highly personal clarity. Being a good historian he is indeed concerned with the past, but as an imaginative thinker he infuses life into that past from within his own experiences. Fortunately, the love-affair with psychoanalysis which marked some of his earlier work is kept well in check: reality rules all. And it is quite touching to find a graduate of University College Cardiff and ex-officer of the Welsh Regiment going out of his way to praise the behaviour and performance of the men from Wales.