How bees shamed the British army
Tuesday 20 April 1999
Erik Durschmied, a veteran TV war reporter who (according to Le Monde) "has survived more battles than any living general", needs sometimes to step outside his experience in this colourful study of turning-points in famous battles. The air of absorbed saturation in details is so strong that Durschmied brings no other slant to the narration, no "philosophy of history". It seems that this reporter is so inured to the agony of slaughter that, as a storyteller, he revels in gore. Butchery, he implies, is his raw material, as kisses and flirtation are for a romantic novelist.
I read the book with mixed reactions. In readable, graphic detail, it recounts 17 episodes in the history of war, from the Siege of Troy to the Gulf war of 1991, that highlight the role of accident, error and the capricious twist of fate - the "hinge factor". Some of this is well- trodden ground: Agincourt, Waterloo - where the French cavalry forgot to spike captured British guns, which were then retaken - the sinking of the Bismarck. Some is genuinely fresh: Antietam, in the American Civil War, where Union troops in no man's land stumbled upon the Confederate battle plan wrapped around three cigars; Tanga, in East Africa, where in 1914 advancing British forces were routed by the sudden attack of a swarm of bees. And it's a connoisseur's delight to find out how a misplaced full stop in a brief order sent by Lord Raglan to Lord Lucan created that supreme misunderstanding, the Charge of the Light Brigade.
The interplay of factors in the history of conflict often surprises. Hitler, attacking France in 1940, was a strategic conservative - unlike his thrusting tank supremo, Guderian. He responded to a rare successful British riposte with tanks at Arras by ordering his panzers to pause and taking up Goering's offer to finish off the British with the Luftwaffe; hence the miracle of Dunkirk. With passages from soldiers' letters and diaries unearthed for the first time, Durschmied brings an eye for the telling detail.
But you may need to bypass the stomach-churning side. He is especially keen on the analogy of beetles to portray men struggling for life as forced immobility seals off their escape from bayonets or swords. The impact of death multiplied on death could make you wary of handing this book to a 14-year-old with a yen for true-life drama and a zeal for history.
Not that the author is callous. Rather, it's as if he is so familiar with fighting (he has covered Vietnam, Beirut, Belfast, Iraq and Afghanistan) that he tells war stories like a horror-comic addict. He fails to see that sating your readers with blood and carnage breaks up genuinely captivating snapshots of high drama. If he is laying on the gore to convey the tragedy of war, "man's favourite occupation", then he could have made his intentions clearer.
His tales of mayhem and confusion can be gripping, informative and genuinely idea-provoking. He reveals, again and again, the casual impact of happenstance - including weather shifts, officers who disobey orders and the sort of thousand-to-one chance that sank the Bismarck - without tracing patterns. His data suggest that victory often does not go to the big battalions or to those, like Eisenhower, who plan on formidably scientific lines: a useful reminder for Nato strategists now.
But any characterisation of "chance" should go further. Theorists of history have been debating these issues for a century. A traditional school espoused the role of individuals as shapers of events. RG Collingwood saw the challenge of writing about the past as a reconstruction of personal psychology, citing the battle plans of generals as his model. Against them are the believers in the "Great Impersonal Forces" satirised by TS Eliot, such as Marx and Tolstoy.
Between are those who are struck by the play of chance and contingency. One spoof version makes fun of the "Cleopatra's nose" school. What would have become of the Roman Empire if Cleopatra's nose had been shorter and if she had not been to the liking of Mark Antony? As Ben Franklin's ditty put it in 1758: "For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, the horse was lost; for want of a horse, the message was lost." This insight terrifies all crisis planners.
If Durschmied had added some sophistication to his action-packed reporter's approach, sidestepped the dead-end issue of nuclear Armageddon and lined up his insights next to a compelling debate on the role of chance in history, his book would cut more ice. The history of war needs to appeal beyond armchair strategists, military buffs and adventure-yarn devotees. We badly need more sceptical lay comment, informed with a deeper perspective, on the war we now watch on our screens.
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