The seven ages of the British army

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So much is Gen. Fraser concerned with the diagnosis of problems rather than with the glorification of success that he does not treat the invasion of Normandy, and thus the army's climactic campaigns of the war, until the last 80 pages of his long book. He finds the failure of the early years more instructive than the final successes.

He begins his examination of the failures by contrasting the victorious British army of with the weak and inept British army of only 21 years later. He rightly judges the British army as qualitatively the best army among the Allies fighting against the Germans.

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He begins with this army because he is among those British military heretics who believe, contrary totraditional British dogma, that Britain best fulfilled its military responsibilities and best served its own interests as a world power when it recognized that naval strength and landing forces were not enough. Britain was too closely bound to the affairs of the European continent for that; it needed an army of continental dimensions in wartime and preparation for building such an army in peacetime.

In , it possessed the continental army it needed. By , it possessed scarcely the shadow of such a force.

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The army alone by no means bore responsibility for the decline. British policy between the world wars generally disavowed a military return to the continent. That policy also pushed the army strongly toward the divergent responsibilities of protecting the global empire. This was especially true because incipient nationalist rebellion in much of the empire created growing demands on the army as an imperial constabulary between the wars. But the nub of Gen.

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Fraser's complaint is that the army, with its battalions disproportionately scattered through India and Africa, did not even make a decision that either its potential European role or its imperial responsibilities must take priority and that it must structure itself and plan accordingly. If it had made a choice, the army would have been animated by a sense of purpose. Instead, it made no decision about purpose whatever. It simply retreated into its cozy regimental families and existed fairly comfortably but mindlessly.

Seven Ages of Britain

Europe and involvement in the third world, adjusting themselves appropriately to the priorities? Or have they followed the British example of merely drifting?

By drifting, the British army ended up ill-prepared for any responsibilities in , but especially for those of a return to European war. Fraser offers battle narratives similar to Lord Carver's. But Gen. Fraser is much more critical. His accounts of the North African campaigns in particular are models of succinct, but analytical, combat history. Those campaigns have been described so often that much of Gen. Fraser's criticism is necessarily not new - his dissection of British weakness versus German strength in coordinating combined arms, for example. But he argues that it was British military amateurism, in contrast to German professionalism, that was the source of a multitude of failures, and with the skill of an eminently professional solider he delineates the symptoms and consequences of amateurism.

The army of amateurs who found becoming professional so difficult a task, one reflects, was the army of the parochial regimental families. With its emphasis on those families, Lord Carver's history, even if not as critical as we might like it, is a revealing guide to the inner nature of the British army. Both Lord Carver and General Fraser give us an admirable combination of the soldier's and the historian's insights and skills.

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Russel F. Weigley, author of ''Eisenhower's Lieutenants,'' teaches military history at Temple University.

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The Seven Ages of the British Army by Michael Carver

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