2.11 Empire & Wars


Fighting in the trenches in the First World War and storming ashore on D-Day in the Second World War are island indices of courage and honour; Dr Johnson said that ‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a solder, or not having been at sea.’; Churchill said that a man of character in peacetime is a man of courage in war; Britain is history’s most warlike nation and she amassed the greatest-ever empire

'...we’ve invaded, had some control over or fought conflicts in the territory of something like 171 out of 193 UN member states in the world today... A lot of people are vaguely aware that a quarter of the globe was once coloured pink to represent British-held territories, but that’s not even half the story. Sometimes, because we are used to it, we forget quite how unique our story is. When you read how many times we’ve invaded, for instance, China or Egypt or Russia, ask yourself how many times Chinese or Egyptian or Russian forces have invaded Britain. We’re a stroppy, dynamic, irrepressible nation, and this is a story of how we have changed the world, even, often, when it didn’t ask to be changed. ...We are a nation with a long and spectacular history... under arms, we have roamed the world, reaching almost every country in it and in some way, small or big, changing the history of those places.' (Stuart Laycock, All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded: And the Few We Never Got Round To, 2012)

The countries never invaded by Britain are Andorra, Belarus, Bolivia, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, Guatemala, Ivory Coast, Kyrgyzstan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mali, Marshall Islands, Monaco, Mongolia, Paraguay, Sao Tome & Principe, Sweden, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Vatican City [Source: Laycock, as previously cited]; yet the last-mentioned sovereign state, Vatican City, was the subject of British military action in 390 BC [see Belinus & Brennus and More 20], so Britain’s record should be amended from 171 out of 193 countries, to 172, representing nearly 90% of the nations of the Earth; no other belligerent in history has ever achieved anything like this global military impact

‘British Empire’: the first to refer to it was Elizabeth I’s magus John Dee, who, along with Edmund Spenser, foresaw an imperium ruled by a great queen, a vision that came about four centuries later with Queen Victoria; five hundred years BC Brutus the Trojan dreamt of his tutelary goddess, Diana, who said

“Brutus, beneath the setting of the sun, beyond the land of Gaul, there lies an island in the sea in which giants once lived. It is empty now. Go there, for it is set aside for you and your descendants. And it will be for your children like a second Troy, and kings shall be born of your line unto whom the whole earth shall pay homage!” (Tysilio Chronicle)

Earlier empire: the Norman invasion of 1066

'...united England with a large part of what is modern France. The empire expanded and contracted for five hundred years until in 1558, the last remaining outpost, the port of Calais, surrendered to the French king. By then America had been discovered and men could look west for the first time.' (Roy Strong, The Story of Britain, 1996)

Empire: the British Empire of the modern era was the most extensive in history, the only truly global one and the most disproportionate, with the British Empire at its peak being some 130 times the area of the motherland; it was started in the late 1400s and lasted for 450 years, in a journey from piracy through trading to global power; the maritime endeavour that was the relatively liberal, modernising British Empire involved a quarter of Earth’s land surface and a quarter of its people – ‘The empire on which the sun never sets’ – and its informal reach was greater still (e.g. Egypt was run via ‘indirect rule’ from 1881 to 1922); the imposition of free trade caused global commerce to flourish; the British Empire morphed in the latter half of the 1900s into the Commonwealth of Nations, comprising 54 independent member states, its Head being Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, who has described it as "the original world wide web"; the Commonwealth is an intriguingly diagonal organisation, contrasting with vertical nation states and horizontal regional groupings (e.g. the EU) and horizontal international organisations such as the UN and NATO; the Commonwealth celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2009, with the ideals of freedom, electoral democracy and lack of corruption extolled

'To a far greater extent than realised, Britain retains the respect, often affection of many of her former colonies. The Commonwealth, a colourful and inoffensive association, is the living proof of this. Britain is still the "lucky country". As with parenthood, she will live forever in the memories of her progeny - Australia, Canada, New Zealand, even South Africa - and above all, the US.' [Source: Sykes]

The UK’s overseas territories in the 21st century are 14 in number and include islands, rocks and a strip of land in Antartica [see below, Empire assessed]

Britain’s imperium: the British Empire was history’s nearest attempt at world government, maintaining a global peace in the late 1800s unrivalled before or since, the Pax Britannica; Britain was the first imperial power to be governed by a representative political assembly and to be buttressed by industrial achievements at home; by the mid-1800s ‘the workshop of the world’ accounted for a fifth of global manufacturing

'Pax Americana has replaced Pax Britannica, in a seamless transfer of power: but it is the latter that history will judge to have had the greatest and most enduring impact on the world since Pax Romana.' [Source: Sykes]

Settlement for the West of many lands: these included North America, South Africa, Australia & New Zealand, plus other outposts such as ‘Welsh Patagonia’; Britain has been one of history’s great diaspora nations, with 20m emigrants between the 1600s and the 1950s; British accounted for one-third of all European emigration between 1832-1932; many were skilled workers seeking opportunities abroad; early, so influential migration, with Italians, Germans and Russians finding themselves in English-speaking countries whose institutions had been shaped by the British; it has been the most widespread dispersion of people from one small territory that the world has ever seen; it has contributed to Britons not seeing themselves as purely European but as a global phenomenon, for whom engagement with the world is a psychological necessity

Sierra Leone: pioneering African colony of freed British slaves; here, in 1790s, blacks voted for the first time in elections, which included women as voters, though not for the first time; Britain’s Molmutine Laws of around 420 BC had voting by both sexes

Singapore: founded in 1819 by Thomas Stamford Raffles; capitalist success story into the 21st century

Hong Kong: Britain’s occupation confirmed by Treaty of Nanking, 1842; capitalist success story into the 21st century






British India: more than two centuries of British impact up to Indian independence in 1947; India was the replacement jewel in the imperial crown after the loss of the American colonies; infrastructure, irrigation, industry; freed Hindu’s from centuries of Muslim overlordship; Indian Mutiny of 1857 was low point; about 1% of Indian net domestic product remitted to Britain each year, 1868-1930; incorruptible Indian Civil Service with its network of British District Officers had a maximum strength of 1000 and controlled hundreds of millions of people, as history’s most efficient bureaucracy (its counterpart in Africa spread over a dozen colonies likewise numbered just over 1200); British population in India below 0.05% of total, at 155,000 in 1901, half soldiers; Bombay, Madras and Calcutta (now renamed Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata), were founded and built by the British; the Indian National Congress political party was founded by an Englishman; Indian support of Britain in two world wars was fantastic; some view Raj positively: ‘No Indian with any education and some regard for historical truth, ever denied that, with all its shortcomings, British rule had, in the balance, promoted both the welfare and the happiness of the Indian people.’ (Nirad Chaudhuri, Indian writer, 1897-1999)

British imperial behaviour

Gunboat diplomacy
Stiff upper lip (a phrase invented by an American)
Fair play
Going out in the midday sun, with or without a pith helmet
English gentleman
Victorians striding the Earth as though it were their private preserve
Superhuman productivity and self-belief

Empire assessed: Britain’s empire, the largest in history and necessarily maritime in character, was not for most part about loot, but was more of a coercive business (aimed at producing sustainable revenue flows homewards) with paradoxical liberal leanings, making it self-liquidating over time and giving rise to autonomous free-market democracies; it was a mechanism for channeling enormous investment to the developing world, in a way unrivalled before or since; as a route to modernisation for colonies it was better than alternative, more oppressive, empires based on looting and oppression (e.g. Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Belgian, Japanese) or alternative economic models (e.g. Russian); liberal capitalism has been the empire’s greatest legacy, along with the English language [see English language, Typography]; in the 1800s Britain championed many small nations struggling to be united and free, including Greece, Belgium, Italy, Peru etc; far from being a throwback to an earlier imperial era, the British Empire was a conduit for new technology – for example, in the 20th century long-distance radio broadcasting, aviation and tropical medicine

Nostradamus: Britain is referred to cryptically as ‘Neptune’, apparently, with the empire foretold and the thwarting of three Antichrists, two of whom, we are given to understand, were Napoleon and Hitler

Six great wars won

1. Spanish Armada: 1588; this was the first of three seaborne invasion attempts by Philip II on the realm of Elizabeth I; his fleet comprised 130 invasion ships and 25,000 men; pitted against them were the swashbuckling Sir Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins, Sir Martin Frobisher and their fellow sailors - and foul weather; the Pope had been ready to reward the Spaniards in 1588, had they landed, with a million crowns

2. War of the Spanish Succession: 1701-14; against the France of Louis XIV, during the realm of Good Queen Anne; Britain was the nemesis of the Sun King, the Allies being led by the Duke of Marlborough; on France’s side was Spain; Marlborough achieved victories at Blenheim, 1704, Ramilles, 1706, Oudenarde, 1708, and Malplaquet, 1709; these four land battles turned Britain into a major power; Louis XIV, who sought to dominate Europe, had been opposed in the late 1600s by William III, of Orange, joint monarch with his wife Mary Stuart after the Glorious Revolution of 1688

3. Seven Years War: 1756-63; against France, with Austria, Russia, Sweden, Saxony & Spain; opposing them were Britain, with Prussia & Portugal; there were actions in Europe, North America, the Carribean, West Africa and India, among other places; hostilities were ignited by a young British officer in North America, George Washington, who attacked a French patrol; because the Seven Years War was fought all around the world, this was the true ‘First World War’, as Winston Churchill correctly pointed out; in 1759 Sir Edward Hawk destroyed a French fleet at Quiberon Bay, Brittany; the French ships had been full of soldiers ready to invade Britain; the battle broke French naval power, cutting off maritime supply of their armies; with victories on land and sea across the globe, 1759 has never been surpassed as the most successful year ever for British arms

4. Napoleonic War: 1803-15; Britain alone consistently opposed the France of Napoleon Bonaparte, having fought the French for many years before that too; Winston Churchill wrote that Britain stood against

'…the great Corsican conqueror and the dominion of the world'. (Winston Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, 1956)

At the naval Battle of Trafalgar, 1805, at which French ships were joined by those of Spain, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) led the Royal Navy to glorious victory; at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 Britain and her Dutch & Prussian allies ended the domination of France in Europe; the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), in command, called it a ‘near run thing’; wellington boots are named after the duke; unimpeded after Waterloo, Britain amassed 100,000 square miles of extra empire a year for the next half century, becoming the first truly global superpower

5. First World War: 1914-18; Kaiser Wilhelm II; the British Empire and the Allies, notably France, Russia and, later, America, against Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire; trench warfare and a sea blockade of Germany by the Royal Navy [see below, World War I, for additional information on this war]

6. Second World War: 1939-45; Hitler; Britain and the other members of her imperial family (e.g. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa etc) fought from first to last in this Allied victory over the Germans, Italians and Japanese, the Axis powers; the Allies included America, Russia and France; Britain’s wartime prime minister was Winston Churchill, who declared that “we shall never surrender”; he was famous for a big cigar and a two-fingered V for Victory sign which was a variant of a gesture that first appeared at an against-the-odds victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415; Churchill described Hitlerian Germany as “a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime”; had Britain sued for peace in 1940, Hitler would have defeated the Soviet Union and America would not have been roused in Europe; Britain and her Empire doomed the Nazis, saving the world from a new dark age; the contemplation of what the world would have been like had Hitler won is enough to induce mind-spinning vertigo [see below, World War II, for additional information on this war]

Rollcall of military epics from the earliest times

British Expeditionary Force: 900s BC

'And upon the death of Mempricius, Ebraucus his son became king, and he ruled the kingdom stoutly for thirty years. And since the days of Brutus, he was the first to take ship to Gaul, which he ravaged and burned, pillaging gold and silver and returning victorious, having put whole cities to the flame, along with fortresses and castles.' [Source: Tysilio Chronicle; see Ebraucus]

Sack of Rome: 390 BC; a coalition of Britons and Burgundians under the leadership of King of Britain Belinus and his younger brother Brennus captured Rome after sacking Gaul; the claimed sack of Rome in the Tysilio Chronicle is supported by the Roman historian Livy; in his Book 5 Livy names Brennus as chieftain [see Belinus & Brennus]; Rome was to be sacked again, though not by the British, in AD 410 and again in 1527

Britons versus Caesar: one of history’s most renowned generals and a man of astounding physical courage, Julius Caesar (100 BC-44 BC) invaded in 55 & 54 BC, with 12,000 & 30,000 men, respectively; in 55 BC the Romans got back into their ships and departed after less than a week’s hostilities; the Britons under Cassivelaunus celebrated victory; Caesar wrote of the enemies terrifying use of war-chariots; Caesar came back in 54 BC in greater strength and stayed for 6 months; this time he achieved enough military success to satisfy his honour, before sailing away once more, rather hurriedly; this was a subduing rather than a conquest, to stop the Britons helping Gaul (France) and to impress the people back home (i.e. Rome); mighty Caesar glossed these excursions as exploratory or punitive raids, but Roman poet Lucan wasn’t fooled, writing 'In haste he turned and showed his back/To the Britons he had attacked'; Julius Caesar pushed through calendar reform in Rome in 46 BC, expanding ten months to twelve; Caesar renamed Quintilis after himself, as July; although he had been given a harder than expected time by the islanders, the British honour Caesar to this day via the Roman calendar that they and the world still use [see Lud, Cassivelaunus & Nennius; Julius Caesar]

Britons versus Claudius: this Roman emperor invaded successfully in AD 43, with overwhelming force and behind-the-scenes politicking; in honour of his victory Claudius renamed his young son Britannicus; yet while Gaul (France) and Hispania (Spain) were full-on provinces, where Roman Latin even gave rise tellingly to new languages (French and Spanish), ‘Brittannia’ was a looser affair, with large areas outside Roman control and sometimes the whole land independent; local kingship continued and Romans only ever made up a tiny fraction of the population; Britain even provided emperors, e.g. Constantine the Great; English owes little to Roman Latin and according to lexical (vocabulary) research and other studies it pre-dates the period of Roman influence altogether and was not brought over to Britain as part of the later Anglo-Saxon influx [see English language]; Roman influence finally ceased in AD 410, with the destruction of the Western Roman Empire, otherwise known as the Fall of the Roman Empire [see Romans in Britain]

Boudicca: warrior Queen of Iceni who led revolt that nearly smashed Romans, from AD 60; she died trying to avenge the defilement of her daughters, despicable Roman ignobility triumphing; her war-cry was “Y gwir erbyn y Byd”, ‘The Truth against the World’, which was the motto of the Druids; a statue of her stands outside the Palace of Westminster in London, which she and her British troops sacked, the only people ever so to do [see Boudicca]

Marius: reigned AD 87-97; son of British King Arviragus; killed Soderic, King of the Picts in great a battle in Westmorland, which county in North West Britain, named after Marius, is now part of the the English county of Cumbria [see Marius]

Theodosius: AD 369; ejected invading tribes - the Picts and Attacotti coming from north, the Scotti coming from Ireland

Soissons: Arthun of Warwickshire was the warrior son of a Roman Emperor and a great-grandson of Constantine the Great; he was known as Andragathius to the Latins, Arthun to the Britons; as an army general not a king or emperor he won Battle of Soissons, AD 383, in France, afterwards killing the usurping Roman Emperor Gratian; he returned home to Britain after five years of campaigning; part of his warrior life became incorporated into the legend of  King Arthur [see Arthun & Arthur]

Baedon: the real King Arthur was king of Glamorgan and Gwent, sixth generation descendant of Arthun of Warwickshire; he beat back the Saxons and their confederates in twelve battles, culminating in the triumph of the Battle of Baeden, c. AD 550 [see Arthur]

Alfred the Great: the King of Wessex fought off the Danish Vikings for 20 years, to 896, capturing back the ancient capital, London, in 886 [see Alfred the Great]

Battle of Brunanburgh: 937; near Mersey Estuary Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan the Glorious, beat an invading coalition of Irish, Norse, Scots and others – killing five kings, one earl and the King of Scotland’s eldest son – fully establishing England, but at such a cost that it confirmed Scottish autonomy [see Athelstan the Glorious]

Battle of Hastings: 1066; William, Duke of Normandy defeated Harold I Godwinson, seizing the English crown; William was of Viking ancestry and his winning strategem on the battlefield went a long way back; writing of Alfred the Great’s time, Winston Churchill described how ‘…once again in the field the Vikings’ ruse of a feigned retreat was successful’ (A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, 1956)

Agincourt: won in 1415, against the odds; the battle was part of the Hundred Years War against France, 1337-1453; Henry V’s troops were heavily outnumbered; the French king threatened to cut off the fingers of the longbowmen, getting a two-fingered V sign in return [see Henry V; half a millenium later Churchill used an inspiring two-fingered V for Victory sign to rally Britain and the Allies in the Second World War, 1939-45; this was a knuckle-inwards variant of the knuckle-outwards V of Agincourt, though he sometimes seemed to get confused and use the older gesture [see Churchill]

St James’s Day: 1666; decisive naval victory over Dutch, who were blockading the Thames

Blenheim: 1704; won; this was a battle in the War of the Spanish Succession; the Allies were led by the Duke of Marlborough; Marlborough also won at Ramilles, 1706, Oudenarde, 1708, and Malplaquet, 1709; the Duke of Marlborough was John Churchill, Winston Churchill’s illustrious forebear; Marlborough’s Blenheim Palace, the masterpiece of architect John Vanbrugh, was the birthplace of Winston Churchill in 1874

Dettingen: Bavaria, 1743; won; in this battle in the War of the Austrian Succession, George II personally led his forces, the last time a British monarch was so to do; the victorious Allies were Britain, Hanover and Hesse, the vanquished enemy France

Quiberon Bay: Brittany, 1759; naval destruction of French invasion fleet in SevenYears War, yielding dominance in North America and India

Glorious First of June: 1794; naval victory over France

Camperdown: 1797; Dutch naval competition with Britain extinguished for good

Navarino: 1827; Admiral Codrington sank the fleet of the Ottoman Turks, with the Turks losing 81 ships of the line, the Allies none; this outcome ultimately secured Greek independence

Trafalgar: 1805; Napoleonic War; featured the talismanically named 100-gun HMS Victory; this was the first ship to engage the enemy fleet and the flagship of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, the nation’s greatest ever naval hero, who fell in his hour of victory; before the battle he signalled ‘England expects every man to do his duty’; the sailing warships of Nelson’s time were the most complicated machines ever, until the advent of the computer in the mid-1900s; Nelson, a fighting captain turned fighting admiral, was the greatest of the great; the Age of Horatio Nelson – the Napoleonic Wars – are Britain’s Trojan Wars, fictionalised by C S Forester (Hornblower) and Patrick O’Brian (Jack Aubrey); the Admiralty orders in wartime were ‘Take, sink, burn, or destroy’ [see Royal Navy]; Trafalgar Day is 21st October

Waterloo: 1815; won; Napoleonic War; leading the allies to victory, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, declared that it was ‘the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life’; prior to Waterloo, Wellington had beaten the notorious Tippoo Sahib in India and chased the French out of Spain, with Portuguese and Spanish allies; Wellington beat all of Napoleon’s generals, then Napoleon himself at Waterloo; British Foot Guards broke Napoleon’s hitherto-undefeated Imperial Guard with musket fire and bayonet; the Prussians had arrived decisively under the determined Blücher, ultimately allowing the French to be driven from the field

Crimean War: 1853-56; won; this conflict is considered to be the first modern war as it included the first tactical use of railways and the telegraph; it was also the first to be extensively documented in photographs and to be faithfully reported by journalists, such as the pioneering William Russell of The Times; the principal allies in this war against Russia were Britain and France, together with the Ottoman Turks, with the main theatre of conflict being the Crimean Peninsular in the Black Sea; the Crimean War started as a squabble over holy places in Jerusalem between France and Russia; at least 750,000 lives were lost in the fighting, two-thirds of them Russian; the war’s defining event was the year-long (successful) siege of the Russian fortress of Sebastopol; the besiegers fired up to 75,000 artillery rounds a day, a further indication of the shocking modernity of this war; the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Thin Red Line; there were new garments and words including cardigan and balaclava; facial fuzz became the norm for military types and later civilian men in emulation, as soldiers were excused from shaving during bitter winters outside Sebastopol; the fashion spread to America at the time there of the Civil War (1861-5), with almost all leading generals cultivating a full set of whiskers; Florence Nightingale famously pioneered modern nursing practices at this time; during the American Civil War Dorothea Dix modelled military hospitals in and around Washington DC on Florence Nightingale’s hospitals in the Crimea; the Crimean War embodied Britain’s steely resolve throughout the 1800s to limit Russian influence; Russia lost the naval use of the Black Sea; Britain was by far the greatest gainer from the war, adding to her empire in the decade’s ahead, such that it became of unprecedented extent

Famous Last Stand: Rorke’s Drift, Zulu Wars, 1879; glorious survival

Shortest war: Britain vs Zanzibar, 1896; duration, 38 minutes; won

Boer War: 1899-1902; won, against an enemy armed by Germany, in a foretaste of later global conflicts; this was Britain's greatest deployment, 400,000 troops, between the Napoleonic War and the First World War; the aftermath saw unification of disparate warring elements and the creation of the Union of South Africa; Jan Smuts, South African statesman, rated this an extraordinary example of far-sighted statesmanship

World War I: August 1914 - November 1918; otherwise known as the Great War or the First World War, this global conflict,whose prime instigator was the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm II, was decided by the incredibly shocking trench warfare of Western Europe – Ypres, the Somme’s ‘storm of steel’, Passchendaele’s muddy hell; Britain entered the war over German violation of the neutrality of Belgium, within which country in 1914 the German Army behaved with a barbarous brutality that was not only immoral but militarily pointless, as Belgium was merely a route to France; a beastly precedent had been a genocide in German colonial Africa; the dangerous and unstable Kaiser Wilhelm II and his murderous horde had to be stopped, Britain of the time concluded, a German victory over France and Russia and with it continental domination, being unthinkable; Britain was Head Boy and there was a bully in the playground to be dealt with; American economic and then military support (from 1917) of Britain and France was important and mightily appreciated yet not decisive; in fact prior to America’s declaration of war - prompted by US maritime losses to German torpedoes - its ships had been supporting Germany by breaking a Royal Naval blockade; the Dalai Lama prayed for allied success, as did most neutrals; the Blitz of the Second World War was prefigured in the First World War by terror air raids on civilian targets on the British homeland by Zeppelins and later 'Goth' bombers; when a massive German attack failed in 1918, the British Expeditionary Force finally showed that after four bloody years it had mastered co-ordination of infantry, artillery and air power, becoming the most effective force on the Western Front; this was a huge feat of military modernisation; the Germans had shown themselves to be more efficient at killing than the Allies, but specifically the British Army matched, then overmatched the enemy, taking more prisoners in 1918 than all the other allies put together; fearing a rout, the German High Command – not German politicians, as was later asserted by the German military and Hitler – sought an armistice (truce); the Treaty of Versailles crippled Germany and saw the British Empire gain 1.8m square miles and 13m people; the First World War cost 900,000 British Empire dead

Jutland, 1916: this First World War naval battle collapsed Germany’s ambition to operate an oceanic navy

World War II: 1939-45; otherwise known as the Second World War, this was a global conflict with even more lives lost than in the First World War; like World War I this war was caused by Germany, evilly embodied by its leader, Adolf Hitler; the Russian allied losses were particularly heartrending; the Germans murdered millions behind the lines (the Holocaust); American military involvement (from 1942) was of pivotal importance; almost half a century earlier, in 1892, Winston Churchill (1874-1965), then aged 17, had said

"I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world; great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine…The country will be subjected somehow to a tremendous invasion…but I tell you I shall be in command of the defences of London and I shall save London and the Empire from disaster."

He did too; events fondly remembered by the British include the miraculously successful evacuation from Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain aerial combat, the defiance of London during the bombing Blitz, the turning-point victory at El Alamein in the North African desert and the D-Day landings in Normandy that led to Victory in Europe

Dunkirk: 1940; Second World War, 1940; a third of a million allies, trapped on three sides by an advancing German army, were saved by an armada of 693 navy and civilian vessels – the latter the famous ‘little ships’, a quarter of which were sunk – under fire from the shore and from enemy aircraft; Corunna in the Peninsular War, 1809, was a precedent, being another evacuation under fire, in that case from the French; the other ‘Dunkirk’ was destruction there by gales of a French invasion fleet in 1744; the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation was a miraculous escape to fight another day; bad things cannot be avoided in this life, but, with luck, you can get away with it 

Battle of Britain: 1940; aerial victory and turning point of the Second World War; the only battle in history to be waged entirely in the air; the Battle of Britain was a 114-day conflict between the RAF and the Luftwaffe; Winston Churchill called it ‘Our Finest Hour’ saying ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’; this was the first time since the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931 that the Axis forces had been halted

March Atlantic convoy battles: 1943; forced withdrawal of Germany’s U-boats from the Battle of the Atlantic during the Second World War

D-Day: 1944; allied landing in France during the Second World War, the greatest invasion in history; this was the largest armada ever assembled up to that time; Britain’s reigning King George VI and her war leader Winston Churchill had to be dissuaded from landing with troops in Normandy; together with a massive Soviet advance in the east, D-Day led to Victory in Europe in 1945

Britain’s Vietnam War, 1945-6: won; after the Japanese surrendered in August 1945 at the close of the Second World War, they were disarmed in Vietnam by British troops; a communist take-over was attempted by Ho Chi Minh, leading the Viet Minh; this was thwarted and control handed back to the colonial French - who were eventually defeated by Ho Chi Minh’ s forces in 1954 and forced to leave the country; the successor force to the Viet Minh, the Viet Cong, went on to vanquish the US after a bitter struggle in 1975

'Our last big battle with the Viet Minh was at Bien Hoa on 3 January 1946 when British/Indian troops, without any loss to themselves, killed about 100 from an attacking force of roughly 900 Viet Minh, mainly through machine-gun crossfire. By the summer of 1946 all British troops were gone from Vietnam.' (Stuart Laycock, All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded: And the Few We Never Got Round To, 2012)

Britain later beat back another communist insurgency in South-east Asia, on the Malay peninsular [see next item]

Military engagements since the Second World War: Korea; Cyprus; Suez; Muscat and Oman; Borneo; Aden; Malay peninsular (a counter-insurgency success against communists, known as the Malayan Emergency, 1948-60); Dhofar; Northern Ireland; Falklands (1982) [see next item]; the Gulf; Balkans (1990s; a place ‘producing more history than it can consume’, according to Winston Churchill); Sierra Leone (2002; this British-only affair, to suppress a vicious civil war, rates as the most effective foreign humanitarian intervention of modern times; note that Sierra Leone was a pioneering African colony of freed British slaves where in the 1790s blacks, including women, voted for the first time in elections); Iraq (2003-9; in fact Iraq as a state was originally dreamt up by Britain, after the First World War); Afghanistan (2001-present)

Falklands Conflict: 1982; won; vs Argentina; history’s most logistically extended seaborne assault; Britain’s war leader was prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady; the conflict helped to bring democracy to Argentina

Longest war: Dutch vs Scilly Isles, 1651-1990s, as a result of piracy; no shots were fired and no casualties were sustained; this ‘conflict’ can be adjudged a draw

War record: between 1100 and 1900 England was at war 419 years (France 373); 1968 was the only year in the twentieth century in which there were no combat deaths among British service personnel; there was no year in the first decade of the 21st century in which British troops were not deployed on active service somewhere in the world

Of Cruel Rulers from Hell, none has been British: examples of these lamentable representatives of humanity would include Draco (whence ‘draconian’, meaning harsh), Herod, Caligula, Nero, Genghis Khan, Vlad Drakul the Impaler, Moulay Ismail the Bloodthirsty, Ivan the Terrible, Leopold II of Belguim & the Congo, the Great Dictators of the twentieth century (Hitler, Stalin, Mao), Pol Pot, Idi Amin etc; also there have been no British world-wrecking megalomaniac conquerors or would-be world conquerors on the lines of Napoleon and Hitler

England has been a key player militarily for most of Europe’s history: England, like Scotland, has been a unitary nation for more than 1000 years and on and off before that; France achieved unified nationhood much later, Spain later still and Germany, Italy etc even more recently, in historical terms

Lessons of European war relating to two ‘flank nations’: don’t march on Moscow and don’t fail to knock out Britain

Warfare state: Britain has historically led the world in mobilising money to get its wars fought (by themselves or others - mobilising allies can be as important as mobilising armies); in the 1700s there was already an efficient tax-gathering bureaucracy, a public debt market (i.e. the modern concept of a national debt), a central bank and rigorous parliamentary oversight of government expenditure; Britain pays its debts at home and abroad and thus has avoided the stigma of a sovereign-debt default; ‘A country with strong legal or regulatory institutions can certainly borrow more. Indeed, many scholars consider Britain’s development of superior institutions for making debt repayment credible a key to its military and development successes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries… one of the most important outcomes of England’s “glorious revolution” of the late 1600s was precisely a framework to promote the honoring of debt contracts, thereby conferring on England a distinct advantage over rival France… [which] was at the height of its serial default era during this period. The Crown’s ability to issue debt gave England the huge advantage of being able to marshal the resources needed to conduct warfare in an era in which combat was already becoming capital intensive… The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) led to an explosion of debts that especially crippled France… The [French] default in 1770 followed the Seven Years War (1756-1763), in which financially better-developed England simply escalated (requiring ever-greater government resources) beyond the capacity of the financially underdeveloped French government to keep up.’(Carmen Reinhart & Kenneth Rogoff, This Time is Different, 2009) [see Paying your debts]

Imperial War Museum: no other country in Western Europe has such an institution, intriguingly





British Army: in its modern form, it has given over three and half centuries of distinguished service; the Coldstream Guards is the oldest regiment in the regular army; there are many other fine regiments, having continuous histories of three centuries; Tommy Atkins; Special Air Service (SAS); Sandhurst is the world’s most celebrated military academy


Messines ridge: 1916; the successful detonations of British mines under German trench positions in the First World War amounts to history’s biggest man-made non-nuclear explosion; the vast rends in the earth, now water-filled, can be seen to this day

Victoria Cross: ‘For Valour’; the greatest medal anywhere; its forerunner was perhaps the world’s first medal for individual valour, the Boyne Medal of William III, of Orange, 1690

Iron Cross: the only British winner of Germany's highest military award was Eddie Chapman, a British double agent during the Second World War; Chapman operated for the Nazis as Agent Fritz and more faithfully for Britain's MI6 as Agent Zigzag; among his exploits, Chapman sent radio messages from London reporting false impact information, to steer the German V1 flying bombs away from the capital

Peace treaty: the longest unbroken peace between major nations is that between England and Portugal; this dates from the Treaty of Windsor of 9 May 1386, itself the most enduring treaty between nations; as a curiosity, Portugal is the only European nation to share the UK's time zone; the first formal and written down treaty in Britain was between England and France and was signed on 11 September 1217 [Source: Robertson/Shell]

Military personages

Marlborough: John Churchill (1650-1722), the first Duke of Marlborough, led the Allies to victory at Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde, Malplaquet, in the War of the Spanish Succession [see above, Six great wars won]; his descendant, Winston Churchill, led Britain during the Second World War [see below, Churchill]

Nelson: 1758-1805; history's greatest fighting mariner [see above, Trafalgar]

Wellington: 1769-1852; known as the Iron Duke; he beat all Napoleon’s generals then beat Napoleon himself, at Waterloo in 1815; the Duke of Wellington had a Parisian mistress in common with Napoleon – he won on that battlefield too, she said

Montgomery: Bernard Law Montgomery (1887-1976) was the architect of victory at El Alamein in North Africa, the turning-point for the Allies in the Second World [see above]

Bill Slim: 1891-1970; commander in Burma, contributing to Victory over Japan in the Second World War; largely unsung hero; according to Lord Louis Mountbatten, his Supreme Commander, South-east Asia, ‘Slim was the finest general the Second World War produced’

Churchill: Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was Britain’s greatest war leader; he was the nemesis of Adolf Hitler, the foremost threat ever to Western civilisation; Churchill was the supreme fighting orator for freedom; painter of pictures; recreational bricklayer, as a result of which he was invited to join a union – which invitation he accepted; he was chased around his school bathing pool by fellow pupils until he was out of breath, in a desperate attempt to stop him talking; a prolific writer on history, he wrote a four-volume biography of his ancestor John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough; for this he earned the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953; he was also a Fellow of the Royal Society

Great 'place-names'

Wolfe of Quebec: 1759; won the battle that led to the loss of the French colonies in North America; died in his moment of triumph

Clive of India: secured subcontinent for Britain, winning the battle of Plassey, 1757

Raffles of Singapore: Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) founded modern Singapore in 1819; in Britain he was key in the founding in 1826 of the Zoological Society of London, which organisation established London Zoo [see London Zoo]


James Brooke, White Rajah of Sarawak: 1803-68; Brooke founded (1841) and ruled the Kingdom of Sarawak on the island of Borneo; he was a colourful adventurer who suppressed pirates, headhunters and bandits, exercising a paternalistic rule over his people; he was succeeded by his son and grandson, the Brooke family ruling Sarawak for more than a century

Gordon of Khartoum: died in the capital of Sudan in 1885; by coincidence Khartoum’s centre is laid out like the Union Jack (also known as the Union Flag); before this, he was ‘Chinese Gordon’, making him a double ‘place-name’ individual, the only such known to The National CVpedia of Britain; ‘…a fanatical revolt against the Manchu dynasty, known as the Taiping rebellion, broke out in the south. Three years later, in 1853, the rebels captured Nanking and threatened Shanghai. The citizens hastened to raise a mixed force, largely of Europeans, for the defence of their city, and an American engineer called Frederick Ward took command. Ward, however, was killed in an engagement, and Charles George Gordon, who had been assisting Ward, was appointed Generalissimo of the now grandiloquently termed “Every-victorious Army”. The rebels were eventually broken and their leader, dubbed by his followers “The Heavenly King”, committed suicide in 1863, Nanking was retaken, and the Emperor gave Gordon the Yellow Jacket, the most coveted decoration in his gift. He offered also a large sum of money, but this Gordon refused… Gordon remained in the Sudan for six years…he accomplished the one thing most needed: he broke up the last of the slave rings, shot the leaders, and set more than 10,000 men and women free and allowed them to return to their homes.’ (Hendrik Willem van Loon, The Home of Mankind, 1933)

Lawrence of Arabia: First World War; prominent in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire of the Turks; T E Lawrence, 1888-1935, united the Arab world, on the basis of empathy and mutual respect; he was a key figure in the seizure of Aqaba from the Turks in 1917; he inspired the decisive mounted charge, after a period of sniping, but inadvertently shot his own camel, tumbling into unconsciousness until after the action was over; Lawrence’s campaign is now recognised as a classic special forces insurgency, where locals were induced to undermine a common enemy; indeed, it was the founding event in the history of special forces; into the present day, Britain’s Special Air Service, the SAS, operates on the principle that the right man can do anything; T E Lawrence’s life and writings, notably Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph, 1922, attracted renewed interest in the twenty-first century among American and British soldiers on active service in Iraq and Afghanistan; Lawrence was the greatest celebrity before Charlie Chaplin; he was a decent and honorable man, torn between serving the Arab and British causes; Lawrence’s legacy includes a substantial role in the creation of Palestine as a separate entity after the First World War, though that state was not to endure in that form, and partial responsibility for the formation of modern Iraq and Jordan

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