Friday, 14 December 2012

Book Review: All the King's Men by Saul David

I picked up the attractive-looking hardback 'All the King's Men: The British Soldier from the Restoration to Waterloo' earlier in the year when it was on offer in  my friendly giant high street book chain. Purporting to be a 'compelling and vivid portrait of the British Soldier from Blenheim to Waterloo', I was expecting a slightly different perspective from the usual military history fare.

Unfortunately, It didn't really succeed at separating itself from its rivals. While it is well written and perfectly readable, I didn't find it added much of a different perspective at all. In fact, it seems to present something of an idealised view of something very different to the British Soldier: their finest generals: Marlborough, Wolfe and Wellington.

It details their brilliance, campaigns and occasional errors in some detail. But it is also frustratingly inconsistent. Some campaigns and battles are heavily detailed, some are barely referred to. There are precious few maps, many more would be welcome though those that are present are clear and appear well-drawn to my inexpert eye. It also takes huge tangents to offer context. It details Wellington's early life and Political career, which aren't hugely relevant to the prowess of the lowly infantryman under him. It also details the biography of military rivals, perhaps as a counterpoint: particularly Washington and Napoleon. Napoleon's rise and the French Revolution take up a substantial segment, despite being very heavily covered elsewhere. These don't really offer anything more than context to the thrust of the book. I think it gives undue weigh and words to the life and career of Napoleon, given the subject of the book is the British solider, not French!

There was no analysis of made British infantryman different, or better than his French, Prussian or American equivalent. It claims the British were the finest, despite their tendency to loot and pillage, but offers no real evidence to back up that assertion. It notes they lost the American War of Independence but 'learned to adapt (and) hadn't lost their ability to fight', one of many general and sweeping judgements. It barely touches on the life of an infantryman, their training or experiences and how these changed. While there are some first-hand accounts, chiefly from the memoirs of infantrymen, they seem to be those quoted in other modern histories, rather than anything unique.

Covered, but I'd prefer more about the British, thanks!

It is a very readable primer, but not something for those well-read In military history. I found the earlier sections illuminating, but more as I'm less well read on the War of the Spanish Succession and American Revolution. Given all three are well covered by military history books in English, I think you would get more depth from a specific book on each subject. Perhaps I'm being unfair and expected something that this book isn't really meant to be. As I note, it is well written and and an enjoyable as a light introduction/overview. But 'All the King's Men'? More like 'Three of the King's Men'.


  1. i listened to the audio book version and, like you, found it a little disappointing for all the reasons you've stated. on top of this was the annoying delivery by the actor who read it, who seemed to be trying to channel Richard Burton!


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