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A Close Run Thing

Allan Mallinson, Author Bantam Books $23.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-553-11114-9
Intrepid cavalry officer Cornet Matthew Hervey rises through the Duke of Wellington's forces, moves through British and Irish society and helps the U.K. win the Napoleonic Wars in this first of a projected series by a British writer. Hervey's story begins in 1814, with Napoleon's defeat. Hervey narrowly escapes a court martial for impetuous, albeit brave, action in the Peninsular Campaign against the French, and is invited to purchase his lieutenancy. He returns to Britain, rekindles his affections for his childhood sweetheart, and is posted to Ireland: there he explores the country's religious strife, rides horses and reads Pride and Prejudice. But when Bonaparte escapes from Elba and raises a new army for a rematch with Wellington, Hervey's dragoons must return to war. In the battle of Waterloo, Hervey so distinguishes himself that he is again promoted and ready to carry on his derring-do in the next volume. Hervey's exploits would make a good adventure story, but Mallinson hasn't quite written one. Instead, the novel enshrines his knowledge of the period: it's full of historical data that buffs will recognize, and consequently is rather slow-moving. Mallinson's acknowledged debt to Patrick O'Brian, and his decision to emulate Austen's prose style in describing her era, serve his story poorly. None of the characters converse; they make speeches. Except for Hervey, none develops beyond a name and, occasionally, a dialect. The brutality of combat remains offstage until the end; even there the Battle of Waterloo seems recounted more than shown. Mallinson (author of the nonfiction Light Dragoons, published in the U.K., and himself a real-life officer in the British cavalry) has loaded each chapter with details of politics, geography, economics, diet, firearms, uniforms, horsemanship, courtship, huntsmanship and even ceremonial headgear. These minutiae mix with period idioms, cultural references and scholarly glosses to make the book feel at times like a study guide for an exam. Even so, this first installment of Hervey's travels will entertain the well-educated, and delight amateur historians. Readers seeking action can look to the future: Mallinson reveals real promise whenever he stops trying to demonstrate the breadth of his research and simply tells Hervey's story. (June) FYI: Mallinson was recently appointed military attach for the British embassy in Rome.
Reviewed on: 05/31/1999
Release date: 06/01/1999
Paperback - 320 pages - 978-0-553-38043-9
Paperback - 380 pages - 978-0-553-50713-3
Open Ebook - 528 pages - 978-1-4070-5735-4

‘War is too important to be left to the generals’ snapped future French prime minister Georges Clemenceau on learning of yet another bloody and futile offensive on the Western Front.
One of the great questions in the ongoing discussions and debate about the First World War is why did winning take so long and exact so appalling a human cost? After all this was a fight that, we were told, would be over by Christmas.
Now, in his major new history, Allan Mallinson, former professional soldier and author of the acclaimed 1914: Fight the Good Fight, provides answers that are disturbing as well as controversial, and have a contemporary resonance. He disputes the growing consensus among historians that British generals were not to blame for the losses and setbacks in the ‘war to end all wars’ – that, given the magnitude of their task, they did as well anyone could have. He takes issue with the popular view that the ‘amateur’ opinions on strategy of politicians such as Lloyd George and, especially, Winston Churchill, prolonged the war and increased the death toll. On the contrary, he argues, even before the war began Churchill had a far more realistic, intelligent and humane grasp of strategy than any of the admirals or generals, while very few senior officers – including Sir Douglas Haig – were up to the intellectual challenge of waging war on this scale. And he repudiates the received notion that Churchill’s stature as a wartime prime minister after 1940 owes much to the lessons he learned from his First World War ‘mistakes’ – notably the Dardanelles campaign – maintaining that in fact Churchill’s achievement in the Second World War owes much to the thwarting of his better strategic judgement by the ‘professionals’ in the First – and his determination that this would not be repeated.

Mallinson argues that from day one of the war Britain was wrong-footed by absurdly faulty French military doctrine and paid, as a result, an unnecessarily high price in casualties. He shows that Lloyd George understood only too well the catastrophically dysfunctional condition of military policy-making and struggled against the weight of military opposition to fix it. And he asserts that both the British and the French failed to appreciate what the Americans’ contribution to victory could be – and, after the war, to acknowledge fully what it had actually been.