by Allan Mallinson
New York: Pegasus Books, 2022. Pp. viii, 400.
Maps, notes, index. $29.95. ISBN: 1639361936
Warfare in Six Campaigns across a Thousand Years
In The Shape of Battle, Allan Mallinson examines six particular battles which hold a personal connection to him: Hastings, Towton, Waterloo, Sword Beach, Imjin River, and Operation Panther’s Claw in Afghanistan. The format is consistent throughout each chapter, background, a detailed description of the battle, followed by aftermath. While the book is more idiosyncratic than systematic, it is fascinating for the author’s insights into the tactics that determined the outcome.
After a very brief introduction discussing the relationship between strategy, operations and tactics, the author begins with one of the most famous military events in British and European history, namely, the Battle of Hastings (1066). Unfortunately, the Bayeux Tapestry serves as the most reliable historical source for whether the Anglo-Saxon army was defeated either through Norman archers or subterfuge, a question which seems particularly relevant. In fact, it’s unclear which side had the numerical advantage due to conflicting sources. Regardless, King Harold fell and William went on to conquer England, not without some resistance. Mallinson offers some insightful commentary on the Saxon infantry and the English system of mobilization, the fyrd, which has echoes in the British Army’s modern tactics. Intriguingly, he asks whether the outcome would have been different had King Harold decided not to head north but meet the Normans as they landed.
Mallinson selected the Battle of Towton (1461) for his second chapter because it was the first battle he studied in school. And it shows. While always in the shadow of Bosworth, Towton was the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil and a turning point in the War of the Roses. Mallinson ably demonstrates how the battle turned on key tactical decisions by Edward IV and Lord Fauconberg. Mallinson describes the crossbow “as a medieval machine gun” and not without reason. The Lancastrians literally never saw what hit them and suffered overwhelming casualties as a result.
As for Waterloo, Mallinson deserves credit for even attempting to summarize the battle given the amount of ink already spilled on it. While he does a nice job of describing the historical background in Spain and the lead up to the battle, he gives more credit to Wellington’s tactics than the man deserves. Logistics and the support of the Prussians won the day though the Duke no doubt inspired his men with his own selfless courage.
It is in the author’s discussion of the British 3rd Division’s performance on Sword Beach on D-Day where the book comes alive. Mallinson does an excellent job of connecting the dots from Churchill’s policy to the landing at Normandy in 1944 with Lt. Gen. Frederick Morgan the unsung hero of the operation. The Battle of Imjin River explores how much impact one commander can make, positively or negatively, while providing context for the British Army’s last and largest defensive battle in the Korean War.
The final chapter on the British-led Operation Panther’s Claw in Afghanistan' Helman province is also the most exhausting and depressing in the book. While the operation itself was a success, the chapter highlights the grim realities that would plagued the entire war. (The Taliban’s taunt “You have the watches, we have the time” could serve as a fitting epitaph.) Mallinson captures the tension between Parliament and the battleground beautifully.
All of which raises the question of who is the intended audience. The Shape of Battle is too narrow and anecdotal for a military historian looking for a systematic overview of each of the battles. (The title naturally recalls John Keegan’s landmark The Face of Battle.) Likewise, it frequently assumes a working knowledge which leaves the novice searching other sources for background and context. In fairness to Mallinson, he states up front his book isn’t intended as an analytical study but rather a description of the events as they occurred, similar to Thucydides’ treatment of the Peloponnesian War.
While Mallinson relies heavily upon quotes from Shakespeare and Kipling to Wellington and Eisenhower, it’s Montgomery’s quote cited in the Introduction which serves as the constant theme throughout the book. “Only one thing is certain in battle, and that is everything will be uncertain.” If nothing else, The Shape of Battle serves as strong evidence that this observation is as true as ever.
Note: The Shape of Battle is also available in e-editions.
StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium