Saul David seems to have undergone an alarming make-over since the earlier days of his writing career. Initially known for two studies of the 51st Highland Division in World War Two – one on its virtual abandonment at St Valery in 1940, the second on the mutinies subsequent to the Salerno landings, David has gone on to write about the military history of the later Victorian period, and to front a BBC 4 series on military logistics.
Being related to the writer of the first (and arguably best) history of the 51st Highland Division’s World War Two experience, and having worked with and enjoyed the company of the grand-niece of the person tasked with prosecuting the Salerno mutineers, this reviewer was interested to discover what he had to say about the British army and its soldiers between 1660 and 1815.
The answer turned out to be disappointingly little. Despite, presumably, as much access to the relevant records as other historians, David appears to have gone for a straightforward narrative that does not seem to differ one iota from what is already on offer from far abler historians.
His attitudes appeared to mirror his resolutely Whig approach, referring throughout to the rest of Europe as ‘the Continent’, a phrase which one hoped had died out with a previous generation of Labour politicians.
David argues Britain’s strategy was both ‘Colonial’ and ‘Continental’, unlike the Johnny Foreigners such as the VIC (aka the Dutch East India Company), who according to David’s interpretation were more interested in their overseas possessions and partners than with what might be happening in their own back yards.
At the point one thought things could not possibly get worse, they did; (readers will have to forgive the donning of an anorak at this point, if they have not already done so). We were presented with a slide purporting to be of a soldier of the 15th East Riding Regiment in eighteenth century dress. The regiment was not formed until 1881, out of two regiments that did exist in the eighteenth century, only one of which saw service in the War of the Spanish Succession (the topic of the moment) and certainly not in the costume portrayed.
From then on, the solecisms flew thick and fast, perhaps culminating in a reference to William III (William of Orange) as ‘King of England’, which drew an unsurprising sharp intake of breath from at least some members of the audience.
While much of what David had to say might go unremarked by an audience of Retired Rotarians in somewhere like Westcliffe-on Sea, one might have hoped his game might have been upped for that of an Edinburgh International Book Festival.
That said, the sprinkling of wrinkly armchair generals attending this event put forward one or two thoughtful, if nostalgic questions, at least one indicating greater familiarity with the subject than David had managed to demonstrate in an entire hour.
Saul David: All The King's Men - the British Soldier from the Restoration to Waterloo (Penguin Viking £25