84 Great bat­tles that changed his­tory

AN IN­TER­VIEW WITH SIR TONY ROBIN­SON

History of War - - CONTENTS - WORDS TOM GARNER

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

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