The Military Revolution by Geoffrey Parker

51-zkaaknkl-_sx346_bo1204203200_From what I understand (initially from Patrick Wyman) this is a seminal text.  Picking up on an idea of Michael Roberts, adjusting it and responding to later criticism from the likes of Jeremy Black.  The general premise is a simple one: armies fought in one way in the 14th and 15th century and another way in the 19th century – how did the change happen?  In timing, Roberts initially suggested a period of “military revolution” between 1560 and 1660, here Parker expands that to a full three centuries (1500-1800).  Some critiques discussed at the end of the book suggest two revolutions – one at the start and one towards the end of that period, leaving out the century in the middle.

Anyway … the idea.  Gunpowder came in, it was great at knocking down walls – so new styles of fortifications developed (bastions, ravelins, trace italienne).  These forts were hard to storm (and defend) with the old small elite military, they require many men and guns.  Wars became more focused on sieges, less on battles – although battles when they did occur could be decisive.  New developments in naval warfare occurred as the use of cannon on board ship changed technology and tactics.  All of this required money, men and supplies – feeding into the admin revolutions that occurred in Tudor England, 16th Century France and elsewhere.

Parker does go beyond Europe.  The Ottomans had the technology, but were unable or unwilling to bring in the tactical changes required.  Native Americans and Africans found the new fortifications impossible to deal with with their own ways of warfare (even when they did have access to guns).  India soon caught up and the Marathas gave the British a tough struggle.  China and Japan however had already or quickly adjusted to gunpowder and new fortifications, and were never really put to the test by europeans.

Much of the book is essentially a series of facts, stories and pieces of evidence supporting or related to this topic.  This being the popular end of Parker’s work, this doesn’t get too focused.  In fact, it’s a bit of a mish mash of stuff.  But for the non-specialist (like me!) there are interesting stuff.  If I had to pick one, the unarmed but diplomatically protected Red Seal Ships of Japan were fascinating.  The last chapter puts things together and discusses place and development of the idea within the field of history.

The Road Not Taken by Frank McLynn

How Britain Narrowly Missed A Revolution

In the introduction to this book, McLynn refers to two other contemporary books on the same topic:  David Horspool’s The English Rebel and Edward Vallance’s A Radical History of Britain.  In these, Vallance took an optimistic stance, tracking a chain of progressive ideas through history and sees the rebellions and protests of British history as part of that; Horspool sees the rebellions as failures and often rooted in tradition.  McLynn tries to walk somewhere between these – he stresses that he isn’t a Marxist, but does find himself rooting for the underdog.

The book focuses on a few big movements: the Peasants Revolt in 1381 (and to a lesser extent Jack Cade’s revolt), the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, the influence of the Levellers on Oliver Cromwell, the Jacobite rebellions (particularly 1745), the Chartists, and the General Strike of 1926.  The underlying question is why did these protests never turn into a true revolution?  The Glorious Revolutions is dismissed as a mere regime change, and Cormwell’s Protectorate as not radical enough.

One answer is the flexibility and, to be blunt, the dishonesty of the ruling class.  The Machiavellian talents of Henry VIII are shown off in the 1530’s, as he stalls and charms his way out a tricky military situation then stamps down on the rebels (McLynn portrays Henry as a brutal tyrant in the mould of the worst 20th century dictators – he’s not a fan).

The double dealing and outright lies of the General Strike are also covered in detail.  McLynn shows disdain for the gradualists of the Labour party like Ramsay McDonald and right wingers in the unions like J.H Thomas, who would let down and even work against the strikers.  The unreasonably hardline Conservative government of Baldwin, Churchill, F.E Smith and Joynson-Hicks also comes in for a bashing.  The characters are well drawn out.

Frank McLynn’s area of expertise (despite his long and varied list of biographies) is the Jacobites, and that part of the book probably feels the least obvious.  How revolutionary would Charles Stuart have been?  There were Jacobite followers of various kind and we are introduced to some (including some Tories) who sympathised with the working classes.

It could have been revolutionary in that sense, but it never really feels like a true overthrow of the system – this is true throughout the book.  What McLynn does or does not include lacks consistency, or (more generously) sometimes needs a little bit of imagination to see “what if?”.  In what he does cover, McLynn does trace a fascinating and personal history of near-revolutionary change in British history and attempts to explain what prevented it from sparking.  It’s more interesting than authoritative, but the portrayal of the personalities of the general strike alone make the book worth reading.