Saturday, 30 September 2017

Decisive Battles of the English Civil War

One of the subtitles of this blog should, perhaps, be ‘I read the books so you don’t have to.’ I have, indeed, recently finished ‘Decisive Battles of the English Civil War’, by Malcolm Wanklyn (Pen & Sword, Barnsley: 2014), which is, apparently, a revised edition of a tome of 2004. It is a book that I really rather wanted to like and enjoy, but I am not wholly sure that I did.

The first issue is, perhaps, with the title. Now, often enough, titles are not the fault of the author, but, so far as I can see, Wanklyn equates ‘decisive’ with ‘significant’. The two battles of Newbury, which feature in the book, were, perhaps, significant, as victory in the first for the Royalists and in the second for Parliament, could well have decisively changed the course of the war. But significant is not the same as decisive, although I suppose a book entitled ‘Significant Battles of the ECW’ would probably be deemed to be boring.

By many measures, of course, Austin Woolrych’s assessment in ‘Battles of the English Civil War’ that the three decisive battles were Marston Moor, Naseby and Preston still stands. Marston Moor cost the Royalists the north, Naseby cost the King his throne and Preston cost him his life. Wanklyn observes that this can be nuanced, in that the Royalists still drew resources from the north after the middle of 1644, and that the King was still king after the middle of 1645 and was dealt with as such. However, that is the fate of most broad brush-strokes of history.

Wanklyn does agree with Woolrych, however, that the battles and their outcomes do need to be made more central to historiography. Historians have a terrible tendency to be interested in stuff like treaties and agreements. Woolrych noted that if one side or the other had not won the battle, there would have been no need for the treaty. In ignoring battles historians give a one sided view of the world. Battles, of course, have only been disregarded in historiography since, roughly, the end of the Second World War. This was coupled with the rise of Marxist interpretations of history where, for example, the ECW is the result of the rise of the gentry (or the fall of the gentry, or the rise of the merchant class, or whatever). The brush-strokes are drawn more broadly. The result of a war is inevitable because the economic factors make it so.

Thus, in seventeenth century Britain, Parliament was inevitable going to win the English Civil Wars. If the participants had known that, of course, they could all have stayed at home. Wanklyn disputes that this is the case. Wars, campaigns and battles are contingent and, therefore, the outcome can never be a result of simple economic balance. Yes, Parliament had the bult of the economic resource, and, in fact, the bulk of the population, to draw on. Possibly this had an effect, in that the troops of Parliament tended to be slightly better equipped, paid and, perhaps most decisively, present in higher number of infantry on the battlefield. Nevertheless, in battle numbers and equipment are not decisive.

Wanklyn sees the need for narratives of what happened on the battlefield to explain the outcomes of the battles. However, he also argues that most of the narratives that we have are, in part, made up. Some accounts simply assume that, say, the left wing of the cavalry were in a certain place because that is what military theory says should have happened. However, if this cannot be ascertained from historical sources, it should not be assumed. He wants, in a sense, to produce a minimal narrative, acknowledging the things that we cannot know because the sources do not tell us.

Battles are, of course, complex things. Participants, on the whole, cannot tell us very much, except that which they themselves experienced. Putting the fragments of battle narrative together is fraught with difficulty over geography and timing. Even more recent developments, such as re-enacting and battlefield archaeology can only tell us so much. Reenactors are not fighting battles, nor are they present in the numbers (particularly of cavalry) that the originals had. Archaeology can only tell us what evidence has survived. A concentration of musket balls may imply a fierce fire-fight, or it may be where an ammunition waggon turned over. Nothing can really be decisive in counting, at least as a single piece of evidence.

We might consider that Wanklyn is impossibly post-modern in his approach, but in fact he would have an ally in Whatley ('On the Possibility of Reconstructing Marathon and Other Ancient Battles', The Journal of Hellenic Studies 84 (1964), 119-139.). The point is that we cannot ‘reconstruct’ battles. We simply do not have the evidence.

So what, you might ask, is the problem with Wanklyn’s book? I think there are two. Firstly, there is the structure, which takes each battle in two chapters. The first is on the context, sources and landscape for the action, the second on a construction of what can be known. Fair enough, but I found it a bit tricky to keep the balance between what I read about the sources and what was accepted as evidence in the narrative. Perhaps intermeshing the two would have made the battle narrative a lot more broken up and difficult to follow, but at least it would have been obvious to the reader why a piece of established historiography was being rejected at a particular point. Maybe there is just no good way of doing this.

The second problem is with the maps. Now, I accept that there is a great deal of uncertainty about locations, geography, unit identity and so on, and that this has to be reflected in the maps. The problem I have is that often geographical features are mentioned in the text but are not on the map, leaving the reader confused as to what is going on. A few more maps, for example of the route of the flank march of Waller’s troops at Second Newbury, would have been helpful.

Overall this is an interesting but slightly frustrating book. It is causing me to ponder afresh ECW fighting. Wanklyn’s point is that ECW armies, when they functioned properly, we combined arms forces. Cavalry needed infantry to operate properly and vice versa. Similarly he argues that the forces were a lot more flexible in use that we might have been led to believe from our, somewhat flawed, historiography to date.


  1. It seems to me that it is also unfashionable to think that individuals matter, not even generals and the like yet it is not rare to find an individual so bumbling as to throw away a 'sure thing' or so above the average that they manage to turn the tables in battle and win despite the odds being heavily against them.

    But then, I suppose we can never really know that such a thing was not inevitable.

    I get very frustrated with military histories where there is a low correlation between the place names on the maps and the places being referenced in the narrative.

    1. I think that the 'marxist' analysis of the ECW, at least, is losing ground (if not 'has lost') but mostly the focus on the individual is on the King.

      In the battles it is rather hard to figure out which individual did what. Byron gets a lot of the blame for the right wing of the Royalists at Marston Moor, but Wanklyn notes that that comes from hostile sources, and a closer reading suggests that he was not at fault. But a lot of other historiography, if not sources, disagrees.

      In short, its complicated...

  2. Sounds a tall order to fit in any real critical analysis of the sources and provide a narrative for seven battles in 240 pages. Maybe the problem isn't so much the structure as the length. And the maps of course.

    Read books on single battles (Edgehill* and Marston Moor**) which attempted the same but same length as the Wanklyn book.

    * Scott, Turton and von Arni
    ** Newman and Roberts

    1. I think you are right, but Wanklyn does doe some critique of the one volume works - things move on, I guess, and both the works you mention are in there with at least some nuance required.

  3. Thank you for another thoughtful and informative review squire.