On His Majesty’s Service, by Allan Mallinson

Review published on July 30, 2012.Reviewed by John Redfearn

Armies are remarkably expensive things to keep around. Troops have to be recruited, clothed, housed, trained and fed. They have to be equipped and kept supplied. Since their job description includes a requirement, on demand, to die or be injured for their country, their country has to provide short and long-term medical and social care for them and their dependents.

Armies are remarkably expensive and dangerous things to keep around. When you have an army you have to use it, because idle armies have the potential to make a lot of mischief. If they’ve too little to do they’ll argue for pre-emptive strikes, pacification of dangerous foes or peacekeeping missions. Governments, too, have to be certain their army will do what its told, when its told, and won’t turn and take control for itself. If you have a big army your neighbours might get worried and build big armies for themselves, creating exactly the situation the army was supposed to prevent.

Therefore, unless you have a military regime, if there’s no imminent war expected all sane governments will cut the size of their armies down at every and the earliest opportunity. And hence cut taxes, cut the risk of starting a war, cut the risk of allies getting you involved in their wars, cut the risk of being turned on. Better to cut now and rebuild later than maintain too big a standing army.

That’s all a bit of a blow if you’re a career army officer like Lieutenant-Colonel Matthew Hervey and about to be given your long-coveted command of the 6th Light Dragoons when that regiment is about to be shrunk to a single squadron and kept in barracks in Hounslow. There are hard decisions to be made.

Hervey has time to think as he’s sent as an observer to the Russian forces invading the Ottoman empire in the Balkans. He sees at first hand the way the Russians manage their strategy and the tactics of fighting against the Ottoman forces. He sees from the commander’s perspective how difficult it is to bring enemy forces to battle in the right place and at the right time to maximize your own force’s effectiveness. How leaders have to make critical decisions without the necessary information, how they extrapolate and how they decide when and what to risk, when to bluff and when to retire. He sees why the Russians are invading and why Britain and the other great European powers are interested. He also, somewhat beyond his remit, involves himself in the battles, taking command of Russian troops at critical moments and getting right into the middle of the fighting.

Another excellent volume in the Hervey series bringing together elements of the military and geopolitical history of the somewhat neglected period between the Napoleonic and Crimean wars. And skillfully backlighting some of the hard decisions having to be made by cash-strapped governments today.



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