Historian Saul David tells us about All the King's Men, his new book about the history of the British soldier from the Restoration to Waterloo
All the King's Men tells the extraordinary 150 year story of the British soldier from the start of the modern professional army at the Restoration in 1660 to his finest hour at Waterloo in 1815. It charts the history of Britain’s rise to greatness through the prism of battle, the lives of generals from Marlborough to Marlborough, but never neglecting the key role played by the ordinary soldier in winning no fewer than three great conflicts against Britain’s perennial enemy France: the War of the Spanish Succession, the Seven Years’ War and the Napoleonic Wars.
There were three great battlefield victories of this period – Marlborough at Blenheim, Wolfe at Quebec and Wellington at Waterloo – but the story is told as much through the eyes of ordinary soldiers as it is through the experience of the generals who won those battles. I deliberately set out to find diarists and letter writers who were not officers so that I could tell the story from the bottom up as well as top down.
Private soldiers were mostly illiterate during this period, but some remarkable first-hand accounts were written and survive: notably one by John Deane of the 1st Foot Guards, which is the only known record of Marlborough’s wars by a British private; another by Private Richard Humphrys of the 28th Foot who fought at Quebec and went on to become an officer; and also that of Private Smithies who charged with the Royals at Waterloo.
Soldiers came from the very poorest classes, enlisted out of economic necessity, were poorly paid and harshly disciplined. And yet they became, from Marlborough’s time on, the finest soldiers in Europe – solid in defence and remorseless in attack. The book is as much a social history of these soldiers as it is a chronicle of their great deeds (and occasional mishaps) in battle. It explains who they were and how they lived in peacetime and at war. It also tells the story of the soldiers’ families – women and children – many of whom followed their menfolk to war, were on the army strength (and therefore drew rations), and shared their hardships and danger; quite literally in the sense that they were eyewitnesses to many battles, looted the dead and, occasionally, became casualties themselves.
The British Army owed much of its battlefield success during this period to a roll call of brilliant commanders, some of the greatest in its history, including Marlborough, Wolfe, Moore, Wellington, and even that great reformer the Duke of York. But they were only as good as the material they had to work with and it was fortunate for them that the ordinary British soldier was so formidable: disciplined and unflinching with the perfect tactic of ‘fire and steel’ – a close-range volley followed by a bayonet charge – that would sweep all (or almost all) before it.
All the King's Men is out on 2 February, published by Viking.