The golden stirrup

A HISTORY OF THE BRITISH CAVALRY VOL. 5 The Marquess of Anglesey Leo Cooper £40 Hong Kong gunners, English yeomen, and Poona Horse: Jan Morris on a colourful history of the British cavalry
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The Independent Culture
On the top of a pillar in the Welsh island of Anglesey, Ynys Mn, there stands in effigy "One Leg", First Marquess of Anglesey, commander of the Allied cavalry at the Battle of Waterloo. At the bottom of the pillar, across the road in the family home, for nearly a quarter of a century his great-great-grandson the Seventh Marquess has been writing the definitive history of the British mounted arm. Talk about "scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr Gibbon?". Lord Anglesey has now given us five volumes, with an average of some 450 pages each. There are two more to come, and the work has unmistakably entered the classic repertoire of British military history.

Academically, it is limited by its chosen parameters, which preclude any strategic or geographical conclusions - sometimes Anglesey has to break off in the middle of a campaign, because the cavalry is not involved. Its compensatory strengths are the omniscient sweep of it, its meticulous attention to detail, its sense of pace and irony and, above all, its compassionate concern for the poor bloody troopers and their horses: this volume is dedicated to the "valiant soldiers of the Turkish Army" - the enemy, in fact.

I imagine it has been the happiest volume to write, because it concerns a truly smashing British victory in which the cavalry played the leading part. The Palestine offensives of 1917 and 1918, which swept the Turks and their German allies out of the Levant, and put paid to the Turkish Empire, are almost like copy-book campaigns. After the usual muddled start, once under the command of Sir Edmund Allenby they became irresistible demonstrations of mobile warfare, recognizable predecessors of Blitzkrieg. Like many 20th-century British victories, it seems to me, they depended upon five factors: a charismatic commander arriving at a fortuitous moment; clever intelligence; efficient supply arrangements; numerical superiority, and the availability of warlike allied or colonial troops.

Allenby's armies were spectacularly varied. There were British yeomen, gunners from Hong Kong and Singapore, French spahis (Algerian natives), two Jewish regiments of fusiliers, Lawrence and his Arabs on the flank, Hyderabad lancers and the Poona Horse. Above all there were the Anzacs, two divisions of mounted infantry, and it was their wild colonial spirit which seems to have set the tone of things, inspiring their more conventional comrades to emulation, and helping to found their own national myths - only now extinct at last, after so many years of changing values and immigration (the Anzacs themselves were of 97 per cent pure British stock).

One gets the feeling that the New Zealanders were perhaps the better soldiers, but it is the irrepressible Australians who are the most fun to read about. What a crew they were! Led by officers as cocky as themselves - "Damn-all'' Cox, "Galloping Jack", "Porky" Lawson - they were the best- paid private soldiers in the world, and probably the most self-confident. Unshaven, lounging about in sleeveless vests and shorts, born to the saddle, classless, they must have seemed paragons of liberty and assurance to the shilling-a-day British soldiery, and under their paradoxically shy commander, Henry Chauvel, they acted as a yeast for the whole army.

With the help of excellent maps and pictures Lord Anglesey vividly conveys, battle by battle (sometimes, perhaps, skirmish by rather too many skirmish) the mustering of Allenby's unprecedented force - truly a host of the biblical kind, summoned to master the plains of Sharon and Philistia, to enter the gates of Jerusalem and lay Damascus low. It included probably the greatest cavalry force ever assembled. Thousands upon thousands of horses were on the move during the months of the campaign, not to mention camels and 12,000 donkeys, and for much of the time everything depended on getting enough water for them. Lord Anglesey conscientiously records the logistical slog, but he adds every kind of detail to keep the narrative at the canter, often in fizzy footnote - one footnote even has a footnote of its own.

We read of aircraft signalling to ground troops through Klaxon horns, of doped cigarettes distributed among the Turks, of a South African brigadier demanding a surrender in the Zulu tongue, of camels dying of heat apoplexy, of horses ridden for 84 hours without watering, of a 70-year-old Sikh officer in the thick of the action, of Anzac cavalry- men smoking as they rode into battle, of an incapacitated general leading his troops into action in a mobile bed, of Australian clergymen serving as troopers in the ranks, of 15,000 dummy horses planted in the Jordan Valley, of a Worcestershire Yeomanry corporal making the very first sword-thrust in battle in all the 125 years of his regiment's history.

Rushing up through Syria the marvellous army went, eventually driving before it an enemy so demoralized that sometimes entire units surrendered to a single British soldier. It was magnificent, but alas it was also war. Anglesey does not hide the squalors and the miseries - not least the ravages of malaria - and the exuberance of his narrative, the air of triumph which inevitably hangs over this tale of almost unexampled British victory, does not mask the cruel sadness of it all. His is a gently compassionate kind of military history, and the very last page of this book characteristically concerns itself with the Brooke Hospital for Horses in Cairo - still to this day administering, so Lord Anglesey tells us, to the descendants of those war-horses of long ago.