I'm happy to welcome historian Sharon Bennett Connolly to my blog today with a fantastic post on the daughters of William Marshal as part of her Ladies of Magna Carta blog tour!
Michael Fox is a retired metallurgist who spent a quarter century working for the British Standards Institution. While most retirees enjoy their golden years by taking up gardening or spending time with their grandchildren, Fox has dedicated his to a much more ambitious goal: writing a multivolume history charting the development of the British fighter force from the beginning of flight through the Second World War. This book represents the first – and to date, the only – volume to appear, providing its readers with a useful account of the British military’s prewar interest in adapting the new technology of heavier-than-air flight to their wartime needs.
Fox begins by summarizing the British military’s earliest exploration of the possibilities of flight. In the century before the Wright brothers’ flyer first took to the skies, this meant balloons, which the British Army experimented with over the course of the 19th century. Though balloons were employed in various imperial wars during the later Victorian era, Fox covers these only in passing, focusing instead on the efforts to find offensive applications for a technology that was most usefully employed in observational roles. These unsuccessful efforts were eclipsed after 1903 by the increasing success of heavier-than-air flight, which soon came to dominate British military thinking.
The British military’s investigation of the potential applications of airplanes to their needs forms the heart of his book. In this respect Fox delivers more than the book’s subtitle suggests, as he covers how the army (initially through the Royal Engineers, then with the establishment of the Royal Flying Corps) and the Royal Navy developed their air arms generally during the prewar era. While air-to-air combat remained unknown in the wars prior to 1914, here Fox’s focus helps highlight the amount of thinking and experimentation went into aerial warfare. Impractical as it was with the lightly-powered early airplanes, the British nevertheless experimented with arming aircraft and followed closely similar investigations abroad. Thus, while the aerial duels over the Western Front were still a thing of the future, by the time Britain went to war in 1914 the military had already conceptualized many of the elements that would characterize aerial warfare for the next three decades and was working out the consequences of what might follow from it.
Generously illustrated and drawing upon a wealth of primary sources, Fox’s book is an excellent overview of the British armed forces’ experimentations with aerial warfare in the years leading up to the First World War. As beneficial as this is as a “pre-history” of air-to-air combat, though, his approach to the subject sometimes glosses over the other roles for aircraft explored by the British army, most importantly its employment in scouting. With air combat a means to enable scouting rather than an end in and of itself – as even the early advocates of aerial combat acknowledged – It deserved greater attention than Fox gives it in his book. Hopefully he will address this in his next volume, which promises a through consideration of the air war on the Western Front. If Fox can combine this analysis with the sort of technical and organizational detail he demonstrates in this book, it will be a considerable contribution to the study of the First World War in the air.
When I was growing up one of the board games I enjoyed playing most was Risk. Part of the game involved a deck of “territory cards” on which, in addition to the color-coded territories depicted on the map, there were silhouettes of Napoleonic-era soldiers and weapons depicting infantry, artillery, and cavalry. While the infantry and artillery were and still are relatable arms to people today, the cavalry seemed much more representative of the forces of a bygone era, with their role both esoteric and archaic.
Yet the cavalry remains a subject of great fascination for many. Among their number was Henry Paget, the seventh Marquess of Anglesey. The descendant of a cavalry commander who served during the Napoleonic wars, Anglesey spent over three decades writing a multi-volume history of the British cavalry from their heyday in the aftermath of the battle of Waterloo to their obsolescence a century later. It is a monumental work in the truest sense of the term, one that details an arm and the men who served in it.
The first volume of Anglesey’s work, which covers the three and a half decades following the Napoleonic wars, is a book of three parts. The first part is an extended prologue that traces the history of the British cavalry from its origins as an elite force of armored knights on horseback to their more specialized employment for reconnaissance and as a strike force in the early modern era. What emerges from these pages is the sense of constant evolution facing the cavalry, as they adjusted to the ever-shifting conditions of war in ways that maintained their usefulness in battle, albeit sometimes in very different roles.
After a chapter summarizing the post-Napoleonic reductions in the cavalry and their employment in domestic police work (a role which became increasingly obsolete with the development of a dedicated police force), Anglesey moves on to the second part of his book, which details the social history of the cavalry. Here he explains in more detail the different types of cavalry, their assigned functions, and the lives of the officers and men who served in their regiments. The life he describes was a hard one, made even more difficult by the penny-pinching of successive peacetime governments. Here he covers as well the composition of the Indian cavalry employed by the British, showing the increasingly imperial composition of the British forces during the era.
Having described the lives of the men who served in the cavalry, Anglesey then shifts his focus to describing the wars of the era in which they served. This forms the final part of his book, and offers a cavalry-centric account of over a half-dozen campaigns waged on the Indian subcontinent. Anglesey’s coverage here is very traditional, often adopting the perspective and tone of the accounts from the era. As with his earlier chapters he describes a service that remained wedded to Napoleonic tactics and methods of training, which while increasingly obsolescent still were adequate for the wars in which the cavalry were employed. As Anglesey concludes, it was only with the challenges that the cavalry would face in the 1850s, that the need for change became obvious.
By the end of the book Anglesey succeeds in demythologizing a force which is too often stereotyped by its caricatures. While somewhat limited in terms of its research and dated in its interpretations, it nonetheless stands as the indispensable starting point for anyone interested in learning about the British cavalry or the post-Napoleonic British army more generally. In terms of the depth of the author’s understanding and his passion for the topic, though, it is unlikely every to be surpassed.
One week into my summer reading, and I've already made a dent in my TBR stack by reading three of the novels from it. I decided to take a break by starting on Marquess of Anglesey's eight-volume history of the British cavalry after the Napoleonic wars, which was one of my splurges last summer and which I've wanted to read if only to be able to post the reviews of the later volumes in a book review group I'm in.