Sunday, 21 March 2010

INVALUABLE RESOURCE for Writers of Historical Fiction

A History of the Army Ordnance Services Volumes I, II & III by Major General A. Forbes, published by The Medici Society, London, 1929.
Volume I: Ancient History - (Medieval Age to Crimean War)
Volume II: Modern History - (Crimean War to the Great War)
Volume III: The Great War - (and including the War of Intervention, Russian & Siberian campaigns March 1918-October 1919).

These three volumes offer such a wealth of fascinating authoritative detail it really is very difficult to know how and where to begin an intelligent blog length summary.

I came across these volumes while staying with friends in Italy. I couldn't put them down. One of my friend's father was a general in the British Army and wrote a sort of sequel to these volumes - bringing the story of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps up to the Falklands War of 1982.

Any writer writing about any period in English history between the 12th century and WW1 will find something useful in these volumes.

These volumes together form a fascinating history of the English fighting man from the perspective of the efforts over centuries to clothe, equip and feed him.

With virtually every single page my preconceptions were challenged.

The author writes: “To make matters intelligible the reader should have some idea of what manner of man the soldier was, what sort of life he led, how he was treated by his country. In short we must try and breathe life into the lay figure, and convert it into a creature of flesh and blood.”

Drawing from sources such as the Commission of Array of 1132, through discussion of the Assize of Arms of 1181 to the Statute of Winchester of 1285 the author spells out in precise, arcane detail what each and every knight of the realm between the ages of 15 and 60 years old was obliged to own in terms of clothing and equipment. Fascinating stuff.

As the author painstakingly unravels the history of the various systems of English military supply, which finally coalesced around the notion of a national, tax supported procurement system, he reveals many, many interesting byways.
"The English cross was originally white." And we learn that in medieval times "Yellow was the distinguishing colour of the Jew".

We learn that in 1539, during the reign of Henry VIII, the London Trained Bands, then the nearest equivalent to a professional army, "... were dressed all in white, even their shoes, and the soldiers were often called 'White Coats'".

Along the way we learn that, contrary to the popular belief that the British Army adopted khaki service dress during the Boer War, soldiers fighting in Ireland during Elizabeth I's reign were kitted out with “convenient doublets and hose, and also a cassock of some motley or other sand green colour, or russet” … “... for the purpose of concealment.”

The red uniforms later adopted by the army, began as "... at first russet - dull, reddish brown, not scarlet." "... red was seldom worn at this time - a prohibitively expensive colour - and only after cochineal - an American product - came into general use in the mid-sixteenth century."

We also learn that "... the traditional British red coat made its last appearance in the Battle of Ginnis on December 30th, 1885."

As for the English Civil War the author says, "Despite the interest of the nation in this struggle for civil and religious liberty, it has been reckoned that the total under arms was never more than 2 and a half per cent of the population, whereas in the South African war the Boers had 25% in the field."

I've often stated that the real reason why the British government started building barracks across England in 1792 was not, as was taught to us in school, to defend the nation against invasion from France, but to placate the ruling class's fears of insurrection.

As it says here in Chapter VIII: "England was ceasing to be an agricultural country growing its own food, it was being industrialized. It was at this time that the modern trades union movement was born, in the form of secret societies. Riots were frequent all over the country, mills were broken up, ricks fired, and a standing army was wanted in England for police duty to maintain law and order; a civil police force not being created in London until 1829 (30 years later in the rest of the country). An Act of Parliament in 1792 created the Barracks Department to build barracks all over England. Fortescue, in his history of the British Army, describes them not as military barracks but police stations for the maintenance of law and order." Glad to have that question definitively answered.

"There were no barracks, however, in England, beyond a few small ones at permanent garrisons, till 1792", soldiers were "quartered in alehouses and taverns" or foisted onto, often unwilling, families.

And, what about the soldiers' families?
"Wives and their families had to be content with a curtained-off space in the barrack room, the number of women allowed by regulations being six per hundred men."

There's so much revealing stuff in here, especially relating to the American War of Independence, that I can only throw out a few hints.

In Chapter XVIII -- On the Origins and Uses of Uniform - the author goes into considerable painstaking detail about the changes of style and fashion in uniforms – discussing the design of buttons, the colours of lapels, epaulettes, headwear etc, even down to the type and patterns of lace used to adorn uniforms, and standard issue undergarments.

We learn the why and the how of how the modern form of army salute came into being in 1762. The author quotes from a letter issued to officers of the Regimental Order of Royal Scots: "As nothing disfigures the hats or dirties the lace more than the taking off the hats, the men for the future are only to raise the back of their hands to them with a brisk motion when they pass an officer."

Did you know that until 1806 the ordinary British soldier “was never taught practically how to aim and fire his weapons so as to hit a mark”? Neither did I until I read these volumes. That perhaps explains, in part, why the Brits lost the American Colonies. But read on, “All that was required was that he should be able to go through the motions smartly. In 1806 officers were ordered to see that the troops had practice with ball ammunition.” So, Britain had been fighting Napoleon's armies for 3 years before someone had the idea to organise target practice!

So, why? In a word – corruption. Regiments were then like businesses run for profit by the colonel. Infantrymen were issued with a basic amount of materiel (including flints, powder and shot). If the soldier used any amount of materiel beyond his allocation it would be charged against his wages. Trouble was by the time the colonel had taken his cut, and the quartermaster had taken his, the average infantryman would often have less than half of his initial allocation to begin with – though on paper he would have received it. We learn, for example, that the Duke of Marlborough, the hero of the Battle of Blenheim, amassed £63,000 (an incredible sum in the early 18th century) through bribes and kickbacks from suppliers and contractors.

But there again, the ordinary British soldier was lucky to have had a rifle – because of deeply entrenched opposition to gunpowder fuelled weaponry the Brits continued their fascination with the bow and arrow long after most European armies gave up theirs. “In 1776 a rifle with a spirally grooved barrel which loaded at the breech was actually invented in England – but the old school would have none of it. We clung to our smooth bores just as we had clung to the bow.”
Just imagine how useful that weapon would have been if deployed during the wearying skirmishes with Washington's rebels.

And then we learn that the last battle to involve companies of bowmen was the Battle of Leipzig in 1813.

There's so much revealing stuff in here, especially relating to the American War of Independence, that I can only throw out a few hints.

We learn how the need for gunpowder in the 18th century helped shape today's English landscape – with the planting of first willow, then alder groves, then, in 1845, walnut groves, to keep charcoal burners supplied.

There is some very interesting discussion on the impact of improved hygiene regimes during the Crimean War – leading to a documented 50% fall in the number of fatalities through wounds.

The final volume includes some very interesting fold-out maps of both operations on the Western Front, and, very much more interestingly, during the War of Intervention.

Did you know that shrapnel was so named after a major-general of the same name, who developed what is now known as the shrapnel shell in 1803? In fact shells had never before been fired from cannons until the Siege of Gibraltar in 1779. Until then shells were launched by mortars and howitzers.

Dragoons were first deployed at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547.
  • Need to know the rate of fire of a Baker rifle, and how it compared to a Brown Bess?
  • Need to know how the term dragoon originated and why?
  • Need to know exactly what a petronel was and how it was used?
  • Need to know what a focile was?
  • Need a quick history on the development of the bayonet?
In Volume II the author makes this observation: "It is a curious fact that so many inventions for destroying human life, including the machine-gun which proved the most deadly contrivance of all in the Great War, came about at this time from the United States, the country of all others which had least cause to fear invasion."

And I couldn't resist quoting this snippet from the author's preamble to a discussion of the function of uniforms:
" ... the fact that different races consider it indecent to expose different parts of the body; among Mahommedan [sic.] women the face; in China the feet, and the finger-tips in Central Asia, while in our own country at the present time (the 1920s) the ear is the extremity that ladies must take pains to conceal."

I cannot emphasis, or overstate enough, (without winging off into hyperbole) how, if placed in deft writerly hands, useful these volumes will prove to be.

These volumes contain a genuine wealth of first-class, reliable information, drawn from centuries' worth of ledgers, accounts and invoices etc. And the author quotes at length from letters written by Wellington discussing the costs and problems associated with supplying a standing army.

If I were an editor with, say, Osprey Books, or Pen & Sword, I'd be looking to acquire, re-wrap and re-issue this book. If I were on the executive committe of, say, the Historical Novel Society, I'd be looking to maybe partner a venture which would bring these volumes back into print and be made available to members at a discount.

No comments:

Post a Comment