84 Great battles that changed history
AN INTERVIEW WITH SIR TONY ROBINSON
Tony Robinson spoke to Tom Garner
The prolific luminary of Blackadder and Time Team discusses warfare, military history documentaries and the remembrance of WWI
Tony Robinson is an award-winning writer, presenter and actor who is the UK’S foremost face of popular history. His highly varied career and long-standing interest in history has helped to popularise the subject for decades. He has now written the foreword to DK’S new book, Battles That Changed History: An Illustrated Guide To The World’s Most Famous Battles From Antiquity To The Cold War And Beyond. To coincide with the publication, he discussed with us the importance of military history, how it is commonly presented on television and in media, and the centenary of the end of World War I.
The impact of warfare on The world TO WHAT EXTENT DO BATTLES CHANGE HISTORY?
It’s always a moot point about how things are changed in history. We always have this notion of ‘causation’: that one event occurs and then everything else must happen. For example, if Franz Ferdinand had worn a bulletproof jacket then World War I wouldn’t have happened.
Nevertheless, the reality is that an awful lot of nations are made out of wars in general and battles in particular. It is clearly true that battles shaped empires, and it’s also true that the enmities created by them last for centuries. Clearly there are lots of battles that do change everything.
The Battle of Tenochtitlan meant that virtually the whole of Central and South America was soon speaking Spanish. The explosion of Spanish occupation came from that one battle. The American War of Independence and their civil war also clearly changed history. What would have happened if the sweep of the Mongols didn’t end or if the Moors hadn’t been stopped by Charles Martel in France? We don’t know, but what there is no point in arguing is that battles ‘don’t’ change history.
Battles take place in a very short timeframe so they give a real snapshot of what is happening in terms of culture, local relations, weaponry, uniforms and politics of course.
You can also get a sense of what is happening economically, which is evident in spades during World War II.
It is also fascinating how engineering and mechanics improve because of war, and the speed with which manufacturers tend to accelerate because of conflict. I don’t think that’s an argument for having a war, but I do think it’s a very interesting by-product.
WHAT CAN READERS EXPECT FROM ‘BATTLES THAT CHANGED HISTORY’?
It does a really good job of highlighting all those battles that we probably know by name and maybe know one thing about. However, we might not know where, who, why and what they were about or what the strategy was.
For somebody like me who is an interested amateur, it is certainly very useful to be able to access that information so quickly and coherently. For me, context is all, so I get very irritated when it is missing. You can’t see or understand anything unless you realise the environment of the political machinations and the passions that were around that led to a particular war or battle.
The other thing is that the artwork and layout is really superior. From trawling through the various drawings, paintings, photographs and objects of the time, I think you really capture a sense of what was going on during the times of those battles.
OF ALL THE BATTLES FEATURED IN THE BOOK, WHICH ONES STAND OUT FOR YOU?
Oddly, the ones that I was most intrigued by were the ones that I knew the least about or there were things about them that I didn’t know before. For example, I never realised that the last time two British kings fought in battle was at the Battle of the Boyne, with William III and James II. I think that’s a great piece of pub talk!
Also, battles like Blenheim were hugely important. There would also be no Winston Churchill if John Churchill hadn’t become duke of Marlborough. It puzzles me that there are wars like the War of the Spanish Succession, which were so fundamental at the time and changed an awful lot, but that were forgotten so quickly.
IS THERE ANY BATTLE OR PERIOD OF MILITARY HISTORY THAT YOU FEEL HAS BEEN GENERALLY NEGLECTED OR THAT PEOPLE SHOULD KNOW MORE ABOUT?
It’s extraordinary that even now we know so little about the Korean War, which was so fundamental to what’s happening now in Asia. This was a war where I could have had an older brother that fought in it and yet it’s lost to the memory. I bet you that most of the people who have been laughing at Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have no idea what a brief time ago it was that we were fighting there.
As a television-maker it frustrates me that I have to make programme after programme about the Viking invasions, the Battle of Hastings, World War I and World War II. It’s as though that is all there was in British history and indeed in British military sacrifice. However, there are things like the Peninsular War and the Battle of New Orleans and no one knows what you’re talking about, including myself. I wouldn’t know about them unless I’m encouraged to look.
TO WHAT EXTENT HAS MILITARY HISTORY COINCIDED WITH YOUR GENERAL INTEREST IN HISTORY?
I think that it’s only been in my latter years that I’ve begun to look at war more closely. I think I’m very much a product of my time and generation. The only wars that I really knew about were the British imperial wars of the 19th century, the two world wars and the Cold War. As far as I was concerned, there were ‘futile’ wars, wars that were a ‘bitter necessity’, and then wars that must never be allowed to happen.
I don’t really think I scrutinised warfare in anything other than a childlike way, and I’m not sure why but maybe it’s a product of age. However, I have become more interested in the causes of war, war itself and the aftermath. It’s that overarching narrative that I find constantly fascinating.
“NOBODY UNDER THE AGE OF 40-ISH REALLY UNDERSTANDS THAT EUROPE UNITED AFTER THE WAR IN ORDER TO PREVENT WARFARE TAKING PLACE WITHIN EUROPE”
HOW VALUABLE IS WARFARE AS A WARNING FROM HISTORY, AND WHAT LESSONS SHOULD WE LEARN FROM IT?
We do miss out on an awful lot of our history by failing to address the wars that took place. It’s so sanitary, and I particularly feel that now. My parents’ generation experienced war and it was a change-making experience in their young lives, so they understood its threat. They understood why treaties and politics were so important in order to head off war, and the reality is that there hasn’t been a major war fought within our borders, or indeed close by, since 1945. I think there is a danger that we forget how close it could be to home.
One of the things that really irritates me is that, regardless of what side you join on the Brexit debate, nobody under the age of 40-ish really understands that Europe united after the war in order to prevent warfare taking place within Europe. By and large that has been successful, but then you look at Trump. He clearly has no time for NATO and Vladimir Putin is really keen on expansion, which might even include the Baltic states. These could be very
Knighted in 2013 for public and political service, Sir Tony Robinson is a long-standing advocate of history and is the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees The Battle of Tenochtitlan and the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire decisively changed the course of world history in 1521
RIGHT: Despite its significance, the Korean War has been sorely neglected in the popular memory, particularly in the light of today’s geopolitical crises