Fifteen Years On…

Monday marks the fifteenth anniversary of a minor action in a very little war which took the life of a Territorial Army soldier in my Company.  As I sit in my comfortable study in Aldershot surrounded by my beloved Jack Russell’s, listening to Albinoni’s Adagio, I muse on the last fifteen years, and wonder if he’d recognise the fat, old man sitting here tapping away at a laptop?  Those of you who read my Blog will know that I commemorate the event every year, both for Beestie and me, and this year will be no exception.  Each year, I find something different to help remember him, the events of his death, and bring solace to this old wreck.  This year I discovered Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War which, together with my regular visits to the battlefields of the Somme, has brought me a great deal of peace in 2018.  In 1973, a year before he died Blunden remarked, ‘My experiences of the First World War have haunted me all my life, and for many days I have, it seemed, lived in that world rather than this’, I fear this will be the fate of too many of my comrades too.  Once again,  I am going to copy something I wrote in 2004 by way of therapy, which found its way into the Borderer’s Chronicle, the Regimental Magazine of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, the finest Regiment with whom I have served. I have redacted all names except two, mine and a man who cannot give his permission. This Blog is in memory of a big Glaswegian Territorial, Fusilier Russell Beeston, who will forever be 26 but would have been 41 this year:

‘In every life there are moments of definition, points in time when one’s life seems to have a purpose and meaning. A moment of clarity, of sharpness. In most cases it is the birth of a child, a wedding or even a funeral, for me though it came at 2140 hrs at a small Iraqi town called Ali Ash Sharqi about 60 kms north of Al Amarah in Southern Iraq.
“Go, Go now, Go”, the OC shouted into his PRR. The small convoy lurched into action and headed up the raised road which led from the centre of Ali Ash Sharqi to Route 6,the main artery of Southern Iraq. 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, then 70 kph, crashing through the gears, the warm night air rushing through the side window of my Land Rover Wolf. A strange red glow like an errant firework flew, arcing over my vehicle; only when it exploded did I realise it was an RPG. Just in time, I hit the brakes as a second dissected the space between us and the lead Land Rover. Suddenly, the night was alive with the staccato rattle of machine-gun fire and the whizzing of bullets like angry hornets zipping past, my head was down over the steering wheel, my foot now flat to the floor, and my heart in my mouth as we dashed for the sanctuary of the Six. The OC opened his side window and engaged an enemy machine-gun with his rifle, brass bouncing off the windscreen and rattling around the cab.

“Stop, Stop, Stop”, came the OC’s order and we screeched to a halt. I stopped and turned off the engine somewhat surreally ensuring the vehicle was left in gear with the keys in the ignition. I placed my hands on my rifle and was alone. The time between halting and debussing was seemingly endless… I dismounted into the sultry night, alive with deadly fireflies and sought cover on the right hand embankment, suddenly we were illuminated by a Schermuly Paraflare and an enemy machine-gun opened up with rounds scything past our bodies. Two yards away Fusilier Russell Beeston appeared to be dead, a round having hit him in the chest, having first shattered his arm on its deadly journey. I ran for my life, instinct expecting another round to take my head off, I tasted blood, it was an expectation rather than fact. I found cover behind my Land Rover, a Private came running past screaming “I’ve been shot, I’ve been shot”; his voice full of disbelief. I grabbed him and dragged him to the ground, helping to administer First Aid; we managed to staunch the flow of blood and laid him in cover, behind the Land Rover.
The confusion cleared a little and I gathered a small band around me, the adrenaline hammering through my veins, as I directed a Private’s Minimi machine gun fire with my tracer rounds onto an enemy position, shortly thereafter it was neutralised. Suddenly, the air was alive with someone shouting, “Beestie’s dead, Beestie’s dead” and I though this is real, this is not Salisbury Plain. A Corporal shouted for a stretcher…no one moved…everyone was paralysed by fear, again he shouted and I headed off into the 30 metre gap in clear view of the enemy to the vehicle with the stretcher in it. Every pace was alive with steel, I could feel it breathing on my face, the return journey was worse, the knowledge of what was to come. I brought a cot bed to where Beestie lay on the road, a Lance Corporal kneeling astride his body, pounding his chest, screaming at him to come back, covered in blood, working in vain to save a life already gone. I returned to my firing position and told the Minimi gunner to move to the defensive position which had been established on the left-hand embankment, the road was now clear except for vehicles, the small team working on Beestie and me. I stood on that vigil, and except for the barking of dogs, there was silence.

Death had come, visited in an instant and moved on. I fully expected to die that night as eight others had done in the 1KOSB AOR in the previous two months, and yet I live, the randomness of it defeats me. It was an experience I wished in vain never to repeat, although I’m privileged to say I was there. If there are such things as heroes in battle, the only one I saw that night was Beestie, who died quickly and quietly, with dignity in the service of his friends.’

This blog would not be complete without a word from Edmund Blunden and so I offer the third verse of his The Ancre at Hamel: Afterwards as an epitaph to those who cannot say goodbye:

The struggling Ancre had no part

In these new hours of mine,

And yet its stream ran through my heart:

I heard it grieve and pine,

As if its rainy tortured blood

Had swirled into my own,

When by its battered bank I stood

And shared its wounded moan,

Nisi Dominus Frustra

War Talks – Third Season – 2018

Almost a month ago, I published a provisional list of War Talks for our third season.  The original list comprised five Talks between September and Christmas 2018, this has been expanded and one date clarified.  I have attached the latest list of Talks, and the poster for the first Talk in the Series, but thought I’d take this opportunity to give some detail on the recent editions and give a full list of Talks for the rest of the year.

The first addition, and the first in the Season’s talks, will be given by Professor Charles Esdaile of the University of Liverpool, and formerly the President of the British Commission for Military History (BCMH).  Professor Esdaile will speak on the subject of ‘Waterloo: The Unknown Battle‘ on Thursday 13th September 2018.  The Talk will take place on Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, and will be limited to around 35 places.  Those fortunate enough to attend will not only have an opportunity to listen to perhaps Britain’s foremost historian of the Napoleonic era and enjoy a guided tour of the historic warship afterwards, but will be able to do so free of charge, although a donation to HMS Victory’s nominated charity is gratefully received.

Our second additional Talk will be delivered by bestselling historian of the First World War and former Army officer Brig (Ret’d) Allan Mallinson.  Allan will speak on the subject of ‘1914-18: Cavalry, what was it for?‘ on Tuesday 27th November 2018.  The Talk will take place at the Aldershot Military Museum in Aldershot.  Whereas the talk on HMS Victory commences from 1800 hrs, the Talks at the Museum in Aldershot start at 1900 hrs in order to allow attendees to look around the Museum.  The Museum is a must for history buffs, telling the story of the Home of the British Army and the wider area but including a large collection of military vehicles including a First World War GS Wagon and perhaps more impressively the jeep driven by Lt Gen Sir Brian Horrocks throughout the campaign in North West Europe 1944-45.

My final amendment is to the second of our ‘On the Road’ initiatives:  In July, I stated that Maj Gen Mungo Melvin‘s talk in cooperation with the Tonbridge FWW Talks initiative at Tonbridge School was to be held on 19th November 2018, in fact it will be held on Monday 7th November 2018 at the School. So the full list of Talks up until Christmas 2018 is as advertised below:


I hope you can make one, or all of the Talks, they are all free and exceptional pieces of professional military education for serving personnel as well as entertainment for history lovers.

All the best,


Amiens 100 – International Student Tour – Part Two.

I concluded Part One of this Blog at the Australian Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.  Over the preceding day and a half, our multinational group had visited sites associated with the Battle of the Somme 1916, the Michael Offensive of the Spring 1918, the Battle of Amiens 1918, and the subsequent 100 Days’ Offensive.  In doing so, we had dispelled many myths about the Western Front: discussed the adaptive nature of tactics on both sides, the effects of innovative technology, and the nature of command on a modern battlefield.  Throughout the Tour, remembrance and memorialisation had never been far away, whether at Lutyens’ gargantuan masterpieces at Thiepval and Villers-Bretonneux, or in the more intimate cemeteries and memorials in Beaumont Hamel and Moreuil Wood, we now headed off to pay our respects at the British Government’s Amiens 100 commemoration.

The centenary commemoration was held in the magnificent Cathedral in the mediaeval heart of Amiens.  Our children, whether in their cadet uniforms or the distinctive red tour tee-shirts, were a credit to their schools, cadet organisations, and countries.  The inside of the eleventh century cathedral was thankfully cool with much to see as we awaited the arrival of VVIP guests, some of whom we had been lucky enough to meet at the Reception on the previous evening.  Other than HRH the Duke of Cambridge’s mispronunciation of ‘Foch’, the ceremony was a flawless act of remembrance as well as a re-statement of the sentiments of the Entente Cordiale.  After the VVIP guests had departed, I took a wander around the thirteenth century Cathedral described by Richard Hannay, the fictional hero of John Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps, as ‘the noblest church that the hand of man ever built only for God’. I saw some curious sights as I strolled around but I’m unsure whether I was more astounded by the reliquary purported to hold the skull of John the Baptist, or the sight of American soldiers having their photographs taken whilst seated in the seat recently vacated by the Royal Duke.


The evening was spent in the convivial company of the other Battlefield Guide, Mr Allan Wood, and Sir Hew Strachan.  To say that I was fascinated by Sir Hew’s pearls of wisdom would be an understatement, I happily sat at the feet of the master and went to bed with my head swimming with First World War history and rather too much Biere de Picardie! The next morning, after Sir Hew had regaled us with his incisive analysis of the Armistice and Treaty of Versailles, we drove south to Compiegne and the Glade of the Armistice where the eponymous ceasefire was signed on 11th November 1918.  It was a curious experience visiting the place where the War ended, it was easy to empathise with both Foch and the Allies who wanted to ensure the War could not restart, and the Germans for whom so much in blood and treasure had been lost for what was an ignominious surrender.  It was interesting to consider the Germans’ feelings in June 1940 when they were able to overturn the Armistice and, on the orders of Hitler, leave the statue of Foch to look down on the devastated Glade.  In a final act of remembrance, a representative from each country laid a wreath at the ‘Ring of Peace’, a large steel ring engraved with the word ‘Peace’ in multiple languages sitting upright on the edge of the Glade.


The party broke up at Compiegne and headed back to homes as widely dispersed as California and Tasmania.  On the Ferry on the way back I was privileged to do a podcast with Sir Hew Strachan on the Battle of Le Hamel, I hope to hear it published shortly.  There has been much debate on both social and mainstream media as to the efficacy of the last four years’ centenary commemorations.  In my case, I am immeasurably better informed about the Great War than I was on that August evening four years ago when I placed a burning candle in my window at RAF Brize Norton Sergeants’ Mess.  I’d like to think that the thousands of students and teachers who have visited the battlefields with Simon Bendry’s programme have also moved substantially away from the mud, blood, and endless poetry.  I accept that there has been a plethora of ahistorical rubbish created to commemorate the centenary, but even this has increased interest in the War; I must say that, on balance, I believe the nation is better informed today than it was in 2014.  We have moved away from Blackadder Goes Forth, often with thanks to Blackadder Goes Forth.  It is the destination which matters rather than the routes taken to get there.

Have a lovely week,



Amiens 2018 – International Student Tour – Part One.

A few months ago, the Programme Director of the First World War Battlefield Tours Programme, Mr Simon Bendry, approached me to ask if I’d be willing to act as a Battlefield Guide for an international battlefield tour of the Somme area, coinciding with the centenary commemoration of the Battle of Amiens.  As many of you know, I have been involved with Simon’s programme, the British government’s initiative to provide spaces for two children from each English state-financed secondary school on an educational trip to the battlefields of the Western Front, for almost four years; I took up Simon’s offer without hesitation.  The Tour’s participants came from the UK, Australia, Canada, France, and the United States; it was an administrative tour de force for Simon and his assistants Anna Warburton and David Rich, their organisation was a triumph of co-ordination to match that of the Haig’s Battle of Amiens itself.

The Tour took place in August 2018, with the students arriving from all over the World into the town of Albert in Picardy on Monday, 6 August 2018.  Our first day of touring, covering the Somme battlefield of 1916, concentrated on the preserved trenches at Newfoundland Park, the Sunken Lane and Hawthorn Crater, the German cemetery at Fricourt, the Commonwealth cemetery at Caterpillar Valley near Longueval, and the Thiepval Memorial.  The objective of this first day was to explain the trench warfare of the period from Autumn 1914 to the Spring of 1918, concentrating on the Battle of the Somme in 1916.  Each day began with a strategic overview of the subject by our eminent tour historian, Sir Hew Strachan, his talk on this first day situated the battle of the Somme in both time and place.  The tour was conducted in temperatures of almost 39 degrees Celsius, challenging conditions for tired and jet-lagged children, but to their credit they maintained their interest as we discussed the horrors of 1st July 1916 and the next 140 days, examined adaptations in warfare by both sides, and considered whether the battle was ultimately a success or a failure.  After supper in Albert, we travelled to the Chateau of Flixecourt, near Amiens, for a VIP reception launching an exhibition created by our children to mark the centenary of the Battle of Amiens.  Guests included the Secretary of State for Digital, Media, Culture, and Sport, the Australian and Canadian Ministers for Veteran’s Affairs, several General Officers from Australia and Canada, historians such as Gary Sheffield, authors including Sebastian Faulks, and the ‘great and the good’ including Lord Ashcroft and Dr Andrew Murrison MP.  It was a spectacular start which made an enormously positive impression on all who attended, not least on the Australian Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, The Hon. Darren Chester, who I am proud to say I beat to the free bar, thereby preserving the honour of the British Army! The exhibition is now in the Sir John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux and will be available for viewing until September 2018.

Our second day began with Sir Hew giving an overview of the strategic situation in August 1918, discussing the German Spring Offensives and the Hundred Days’ Campaign which ended the War.  We then set out across the Amiens battlefield, passing through the British, Canadian, and Australian sectors, to visit the memorial to the French 31st Army Corps at Moreuil Wood, where we discussed both the halting of the German offensive by Canadian cavalry in April 1918 and the launching of the Amiens battle by the French First Army on 8th August 1918.  We then headed to Le Hamel, the site of the famous battle in which Australian and American infantry and artillery, supported by British armour, aviation, and logistics used innovative methods to comprehensively defeat a sizeable German force on 4th July 1918 to explain how combined arms tactics returned manoeuvre to the Western Front in 1918.  It was also explained, however, that the combined arms perfection of 4th July and 8th August was rarely repeated in the following Hundred Days.  Our final stand was at Villers-Bretonneux where we discussed the international nature of the Allied armies by looking at the origin of those soldiers whose final resting place lies in front of the Australian Memorial and the Sir John Monash Centre, named after the famous Australian commander of Prussian-Jewish lineage who commanded the Australian Corps in 1918.

In the second and final part of this Blog, I’ll talk about the Centenary Commemoration in Amiens Cathedral on Wednesday 8th August and our final stand at Compiegne on Thursday 9th August 2018.  To conclude here I’d like to make three observations: First, the children appeared to be far more open to the First World War as an international conflict than the representatives of the nations from whence they came.  Secondly, it is a shame that the British Cadet Forces could not find money to allow British cadets to experience the battlefields alongside cadets from Australia and Canada, and finally, that this tour and indeed the wider programme should continue after the end of the centenary.  The First World War’s Western Front has much to teach us all, the programme has already had an effect on over a million children in England alone at the cost of only five million pounds for the four years of the centenary, imagine what can be achieved in another four or five years!




War Talks 2018-2019

I must start with an apology.   I had hoped to be able to produce a full programme of ‘War Talks’ from September 2018 to March 2019 by the end of July, but unfortunately a combination of a complicated conclusion to my assignment at the First Battalion, Scots Guards, research and preparation for a guiding opportunity at Amiens100, and my work on the Adaptability JCN for DCDC have somewhat delayed the arrangements and hence the programme.  Instead, I thought I’d outline the few Talks I have been able to formalise, and then talk about the speakers who have been kind enough to agree to speak but with whom I have yet to formalise firm dates.

Our first firm speaker will be Professor Jim Storr, a former infantry officer, independent defence analyst, and Professor of Defence Studies at the Norwegian Military Academy.  Jim will speak on Tuesday, 25th September 2018 on the subject of his new book, ‘The Hall of Mirrors’, a study of warfare in the twentieth century.  Our next speaker will be Emily Knowles, the Director of the Remote Warfare Programme of the Oxford Research Group, who will speak on the subject of ‘Remote Warfare: Lessons Learned from Contemporary Conflict’ on Monday, 8th October 2018.  On Monday, 19th November 2018, ‘War Talks’ goes ‘on the Road’ in conjunction with the Tonbridge First World War Talks initiative.  Our speaker, Maj Gen (Ret’d) Mungo Melvin CB OBE, a former President of the British Commission for Military History and Associate Senior Fellow at RUSI, will speak on the subject of his current book, ‘Sevastopol’s Wars: Crimea from Potemkin to Putin‘.  Our next confirmed speaker, Dr William Sheehan, is one of Ireland’s foremost military historians and will speak on the subject of ‘The Evolution of British Tactics during the Irish War of Independence 1919-21’ on Tuesday, 4th December 2018.  Our final confirmed speaker, on Thursday 7th February 2019, will be Dr Mike Martin, an Army Reservist and author, who will speak on the subject of his book, ‘Why We Fight’.  With the exception of Gen Melvin’s talk, all the Talks in 2018 will take place at the Aldershot Military Museum, it has yet to be decided where the Talks will be held in 2019.

I am currently discussing dates with several other speakers which will considerably fill-out the programme, in addition if readers have any other speakers they would like to hear, please let me know.  In no particular order, I am hoping that Maj Gen (Ret’d) Craig Lawrence CBE, the Director of the Royal College of Defence Studies, will be able to speak to us on Strategy, perhaps aboard HMS Victory in mid-September 2018.  Dr Richard Duckett, will speak on the subject of ‘The Special Operations Executive in Burma’ during the Autumn Half-Term.  Dr Stuart Griffin, a Reader in Strategic Studies at King’s College London, will speak on the subject of his latest research into innovation and operational art; I am hoping he will be available to speak in late November 2018.  I am also looking forward to hearing Brig (Ret’d) Allan Mallinson speak on a subject of his choosing either in early November 2018 or late January 2019.  Finally, I am extremely pleased that Dr Vanda Wilcox, Adjunct Assistant Professor of History at the John Cabot University in Rome, has kindly agreed to speak to us on the subject of her book, ‘Morale and the Italian Army during the First World War’.

This programme of Talks, taking us through to our second anniversary, should mean that we will have delivered almost forty talks in two years.  This year’s topics are deliberately diverse and aim at giving servicemen informal professional military education opportunities delivered by academic experts and practitioners.  In this next season, we will discuss innovation, future war, historical war, morale and leadership, all of which are central to the current development of Defence.  Currently, we only plan two ‘On the Road’ Talks, one at Portsmouth and a second at Tonbridge, however, it is very likely that some of the other Talks may be delivered away from our home in Aldershot, I look forward to hearing your opinions.

Many thanks,


Goodbye to All That.

Today is my last day as the Regimental Administrative Warrant Officer of the First Battalion, Scots Guards.  I arrived at the Unit in Catterick Garrison in June 2015, and I leave the Battalion, a little over three years later, in Aldershot.  This job will, in all probability, be the pinnacle of my career as a Military Administrator, so I’d like to take this opportunity to offer a little advice to those who follow me, and indeed to the twenty soldiers of my Detachment whose careers have substantially more life left in them than my old thing.  I am the oldest soldier in the Battalion, and have almost twenty-four years experience in both the Territorial and Regular Armies, with twelve years service in the Sergeants’ Mess.

My first piece of advice is to Empower your junior soldiers.  Be satisfied where possible with setting intent and allowing your Sergeants and Corporals to achieve the desired objective; sitting on your hands will be uncomfortable, but it will allow your subordinates to grow.  Don’t insist on uniformity, allow and encourage creativity and accept that what matters is the result, not the process of achieving it.  Protect your subordinates; this is what is meant by ‘looking after your troops’, not merely a parochial paternalism, but a protective hand encouraging professional development and initiative.  In doing so, we create the conditions where our JNCOs can thrive and, moreover, where we have time and space to deliver greater effect as leaders and managers.

Train for the Known, Educate for the Unknown.  Much like learning to drive, the course at the beginning is only the start of the story, it takes years to build up both the technical competence required to be a good driver, and the instinctive knowledge to master your art.  Encourage your soldiers to exploit training opportunities, but also ensure they have the basic skills in numeracy, literacy, and information technology  to carry out their duties: this is not the level currently required for promotion, it is much higher.  Similarly, encourage your soldiers to develop critical-thinking skills and gain further and higher education qualifications, this will allow them to operate in the white space where the training doesn’t cover the lived experience.  Provide your troops with professional military education, CLM is not the be all and end all, it is the beginning.  Allow day release, encourage learning; it will hurt, but you will see rapid results.

Your troops may be Combat Service Support or even Command Support specialists, but Experience both at trade and as a fighting soldier is critical.  We must strive to deploy our soldiers on exercise and operations as often as possible, and to allow them to operate both within their experience level and well outside their comfort zone.  All personnel need to have the wherewithal to operate at least two ranks up.  When I deployed to Iraq in 2003 I did so as a substantive LCpl, acting Cpl, and local Sgt, it was the most valuable experience of my military career and allowed me to be comfortable in organising and deploying to exercise and operations for years to come.  Some people will resent being deployed, after all not everyone joined the Army to go to war, unfortunately this is not, and cannot be allowed to be, a choice.  A soldier without operational or exercise experience is as much use as a one-legged man in an arse-kicking competition.

Experiment often using the training, education, and experience gained as a handrail.  Today’s solution will not survive contact in the modern Army’s current culture of continuous adaptation.  In my current Unit, we have experimented with centralised administration, a centralised iHub, and latterly an enhanced iHub concept; each adaptation has been a success but has pointed the way to greater improvement.  Don’t forget, we are improving to give our commanders and soldiers an edge, greater readiness, something which will have an effect on their preparedness for the battlefield.  Having experimented, it is vital that we Engage.  By engagement, I do not just mean internally, although this is vital, we must engage with those in similar positions outside the Unit struggling with the same problems; tell your story externally and be prepared to share, we are one Army not a personal fiefdom, knowledge must be spread, embedded and exploited to be of any use.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must act to Endorse our actions.  What do I mean by this? Quite simply we must protect those we have empowered, providing top cover for mistakes while giving credit for success, we must ensure that we reap the benefits of education, experience and experimentation and absorb the lessons within Unit SOPs and wider doctrine, and perhaps most important we must encourage innovation and adaptation.  The end result of this? Trusted, adaptable, and curious soldiers, able to think for themselves and deliver on their own terms, creating competitive advantage by out-thinking the enemy.  I leave to fight a desk in Whitehall from September, cementing my career as a Chairborne Warrior.

Many thanks, have a good weekend,


Wear Ear Plugs in the Echo Chamber!

The growth of social media is, for most of us, probably the defining cultural experience of the last decade; that we prefer our social media to be an ‘echo chamber’ of our own world view should be no surprise, after all we have chosen our newspapers according to political inclination for years.  Unsurprisingly to many of you, I read the Daily Telegraph, Spectator, and Economist; I am therefore a Conservative, a Brexiteer, and an Old Curmudgeon.  I am aware, however, that life in an echo chamber, while self-affirmatory, can lead us down rabbit holes in our souls, to more radical warrens and chambers than would be the case if we were more objective and diverse in our choices.  I don’t suppose I’m entirely alone in this, and far be it for me to be sanctimonious about diversity of opinion, but I have friends and family from across the opinion spectrum; I follow, and am followed by, Remainers, Communists, Zionists, Unionists, and even the odd Scottish Nationalist.  That diversity of opinion helps create a perspective where Trump is not always wrong, May is not always right, and Nicola Sturgeon is little Jimmy Krankie.  In short, collecting the thoughts of the many, gives balance and informed opinion.

This week, I was fortunate to attend the RAF’s Air Power Conference 2018, ostensibly to collect the Salmond Prize from the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier.  The Conference was a wonderful event, in a prestigious venue, organised with complete precision by the RAF and followed by a wonderful champagne reception sponsored by various defence contractors.  I met several very senior Air Officers, many middle-ranking Officers, a handful of Airmen, and a smattering of engaging civilians particularly a Twitter friend, Mr Alan Jackson, with whom I spent a good deal of time chatting, and sharing thoughts and ideas.  As the only serving soldier at the Conference on the first day, CDS popped-in on day two, I was made to feel thoroughly welcome but I was appalled to discover that, had I wished to enjoy the two-day Conference at cost, even as a serviceman, I would have had to pay almost £700 for the privilege! This is by no means unusual, top tickets to the two-day RUSI Land Warfare Conference were £900, and the RUSI First Sea Lord’s one-day Sea Power Conference came in at £850.  Whilst I accept that each conference had subsidised ticketing for serving personnel, that the target audience is diverse, including representatives of the cash-rich international defence industry, and that swanky comes at a price, I must say the costs are so high as to exclude many with much to add.  The price tag thus creates an echo chamber where the same people engage year on year, feeding-in ideas formulated against a background of the same biases, creating policies which may or may not be relevant, while the starving masses of Other Ranks, academics, and laymen look on, holding out their bowl like Oliver asking for more!

Swanky costs. I understand that, I’m sitting in my lounge this morning whilst a dizzying array of military and commercial aircraft burn thousands of pounds in aviation fuel whilst practicing for the Farnborough Air Show.  However, the role of a defence conference should not be to crown a king or to admire the Emperor’s new clothes, rather it should  bring together expertise and diverse views, create debate, and ultimately lead to a more relevant and capable joint force.  I fear that as currently constituted, the three Service conferences are almost propaganda; perhaps there should be a single Joint Service Conference where the problems affecting Defence can be discussed in the round, to create more rounded and effective solutions. If we live in a parochial echo chamber where Jean Claude Juncker is always drunk, Boris is always eyeing up the Prime Minister’s chair, and Theresa May is well, just Theresa May, we end up with Nicola Sturgeon; no one deserves that, not even Donald Trump.

Many thanks and have a lovely weekend.



Beware Exceptionalism!!

In my last Blog, I mentioned that I was very much looking forward to guiding a mixed party of students from the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, the United States, France, and Germany around the First World War battlefields of the Somme valley.  The trip, organised by Mr Simon Bendry, the Programme Director of the British Government’s First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme, will coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Amiens next month; in addition, I will be joined by two fabulous guides, and personal friends, Mr Glenn Hearndon and Mr Allan Wood.  I have worked with the Programme in various roles over the last four years, and feel privileged to have been in a position to tell children, and teachers, about the real experience of soldiers on the Western Front, rather than the mythology of mud, blood, and endless poetry.

Until 2014, I had never visited the Somme.  I had read about it years before in School, both in English Literature and History, heard stories from my late grandmother of her father’s experiences in the infantry in the latter stages of the Battle, and been an avid fan of ‘Blackadder’.  In the main, I found that my experience largely mirrored that of the teachers, albeit the older teachers, but that the students were to an even greater degree innocent of the experiences of veterans.  The experience of my first trip encouraged me to learn more and I found myself increasingly turning towards the First World War in my Master’s and genealogical studies.  Since then I have read avidly the work of writers like Jonathan Boff, Aimee Fox, Nick Lloyd, Gary Sheffield and Dan Todman and uncovered over a dozen forgotten relatives who fought in the First World War, many of whom fought on the Somme, and six who joined the almost one million Glorious Dead.

My greatest, if not the only, frustration throughout the four years of the centenary has been the way the First World War has been used by governments to further nationalistic mythology, encourage birth of a nation bullshit, and twist history to support current government policy.  The truth of the matter is that the French bore the overwhelming majority of the Allied burden on the Western Front, the Royal Navy starved the German nation into submission over four years, the majority of casualties in Newfoundland Park on the 1st July 1916 were British, Canada had nothing to do with Newfoundland until 1949, the Australians at Gallipoli were in large part first generation British immigrants (including my relative Pte James Carr of 2nd Bn AIF killed at the Battle of Lone Pine in August 1915) and were heavily outnumbered as contributors by both the British and French contingents, at Le Hamel on 4th July 1918, the Australian infantry were heavily supported by French artillery, British aviation, armour, and planning, and American attachments.  Monash was a great general but his miraculous 93 minutes was not his personal victory, or indeed the victory of Australia.  Most battles on the Western Front were a coalition effort, no one had a monopoly on stupidity or genius, and every nation contributed to the operational success which would lead to the victories of the Hundred Days.

So far I’ve vented my spleen about the way in which governments have sought to create a mythology about the past in order to further a false mythology.  The British are not immune from this sort of thing: in the Spring of 2016, David Cameron and President Hollande used the backdrop of the CWGC cemetery at Pozieres to convince the British people of the folly of Brexit and 2015’s Remembrance theme was set as the contribution of the Indian Army.  The Indian Army contributed 1.7 million men to the British Indian Army in the First World War out of an available population of around 255 million ( 0.6% of the population) and suffered around 74,000 dead in all theatres.  In comparison, my county regiment, the Durham Light Infantry, suffered over 12,000 dead throughout the War.  My point in highlighting the ways in which governments have used the War to further current policies, is not to denigrate the contribution of any nation, but rather to highlight how important it is that we remember the War as an international and joint effort, without the nationalism.

When I take my groups around the Somme in August, and indeed thereafter, I will tell them of the heroism of their nation’s soldiers but I will remind them that what they think of as their nation is a complicated thing, that its efforts were as part of a coalition, that thoughts of exceptionalism are misplaced, and that they should beware the policies of their governments whose ‘remembrance’ is often little more than an excuse for social engineering… your mind is your own, use it!!

I apologise for the rant, and hope you have a lovely week wherever you are!

Best wishes,






A Game of Two Halves…

Many apologies for anyone stumbling on this Blog in the hope that I had anything profound to say about England’s stellar progress in the FIFA World Cup.  It is, in fact, one of two blogs I intend to publish this week, the first will look back at the first half of 2018 and look forward to achievements yet to come, the second will take a controversial look at the use of historical sites to mythologise and socially engineer.  For those unimpressed by either football shenanigans or an account of this pilgrim’s progress, I must disappoint you, the controversy will have to wait until the weekend.  Regular readers will recall that in January 2018 I set myself some fairly ambitious targets for the year, what follows is my progress to date.

My objective in 2018 was to encourage and advocate soldier education as a key component of an adaptable Army.  The main vehicle for this has been the ‘War Talks‘ series, since January we have delivered ten talks at Prince Consort’s Library, Aldershot on such diverse topics as encountering children in war zones, organisational learning in the First World War, and the leadership of Montgomery of Alamein between the Wars.  We continue to draw a small but dedicated audience, but I have recognised that we must adapt and so it is my intention to record and perhaps video future talks for a wider web-based audience.  This decision coincides with the temporary closure of the Prince Consort’s Library for vital renovation work, I have been fortunate to find a new home for the Talks at the Aldershot Military Museum which provides a central location, good parking, and a historical backdrop to the events.  The next Talk, our nineteenth in the series, will take place on Tuesday, 17th July 2018, when Professor Theo Farrell will speak about his #BAMBY18 shortlisted book, ‘Unwinnable: The British in Afghanistan 2001-2014‘.  In addition to our talks at Aldershot, I am organising a series of ‘War Talks on the Road‘ in conjunction with other organisations at historic locations such as Tonbridge School in Kent and HMS Victory in Portsmouth.

A spin-off of the ‘War Talks’ series has been the privilege of running the British Army Military Book of the Year Competition 2018 #BAMBY18.  Of the six shortlisted books announced in the Spring, four authors have spoken on the subject of their books in the last year.  The judges, Reservists and Regulars, will provide their judgements in September 2018, with the winner announced shortly thereafter.  It is likely that the prize-giving will take place in January 2019, at which point I will return the running of the Prize to the Army Library Information Service.  Whilst these two initiatives have taken up much of my time, I also organised and ran the HQ Regional Command Op REFLECT Study Day in March 2018, and provided academic support to the AGC Educational and Training Services (South) battlefield study, Ex CROMWELL SCHOLAR, as well as command team support to four of the Department of Education’s School Children’s Battlefield Tours.  Going forward, I am privileged to be guiding a flagship multinational tour to coincide with the centenary of the Battle of Amiens, conducting groups of school children from the UK, Australia, Canada, the United States, France, and Germany around the Somme battlefields of 1916-18.  Finally, as far as these trips are concerned I will be guiding a number of Army Cadet Force groups around the Western Front in October 2018.

In preparation for my Fellowship at RUSI commencing in September 2018, I have also begun to speak to units and formations on the subject of Adaptability.  In June 2018, I spoke to 104 Logistic Brigade at South Cerney and tomorrow evening I will deliver a talk to 3 Regt RLC at Abingdon.  Perhaps the most fortunate thing that has happened to me this year is being given the opportunity to write a Joint Concept Note on Adaptability for the Developments Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) at Shrivenham.  The project is due to come to fruition in November 2018.  So what are my priorities for the rest of the year?  Well more of the same, an article or two, some high quality research at RUSI, concentration on my academic career, and perhaps an application for a Commission (dependent on a return to full fitness).  I should perhaps add that next week I will be awarded the RAF’s Salmond Prize 2018 from the Chief of the Air Staff, this is an incredible honour which was both a surprise and humbling.

I promise a much more interesting Blog this weekend, I will warn you that it may not compete with either the World Cup Quarter Final or Love Island, whichever is your poison.

Best wishes,


War Talks (at the Museum).

Just over a year ago I founded the Defence Studies Talk Series.  A few weeks later, that mouthful became the War Talks at the PCL Talk Series, a year later and I’m changing the title to War Talks.  This change of nomenclature is not merely a result of the renowned short attention span of its owner, rather it is driven by some fundamental changes to the Series.  When I started the Talk Series in April 2017 I had two objectives: First, to provide an opportunity for informal professional military education to all ranks of the armed forces and civil service and secondly, to promote the historic Prince Consort’s Library.  Since July 2017, the Talk Series has delivered nearly twenty talks on a wide range of topics to an audience of several hundred.  In addition, we have run the HQ Regional Command Op REFLECT Study day 2018 and the British Army Military Book of the Year 2018 (#BAMBY18).

Following our last Talk given by Dr Nick Lloyd earlier this month, Prince Consort’s Library closed for essential renovation work, it will remain closed until January 2019.  This left the Talk Series homeless, and led to a flurry of e-mails from supporters offering guidance on the way forward; overwhelmingly it was felt that the Talks should remain in Aldershot but with suggestions that the talks should also go ‘On the Road’ and /or be recorded.  In terms of a new Aldershot home, I was offered the church halls of the three Army Churches, the lecture theatre of a new Army Reserve centre, and several facilities ‘behind the wire’.  In the end I am pleased to announce that following a wide-ranging conversation with Kirsty Hoyle, the new Community Manager of the Aldershot Military Museum, I have decided to make it my home.  The Museum has excellent parking, a historic conference facility, and is in the heart of the Aldershot community; a little gem, I hope the Series can help to support the work of Kirsty and her volunteer staff.

The War Talks Series will begin with a flourish on Tuesday, 17th July 2018 when Professor Theo Farrell will deliver a Talk on his BAMBY18 shortlisted book, ‘Unwinnable: Britain’s War in Afghanistan 2001-2014.’  The Museum will be open before the Talk and I would encourage audience members to view the fascinating collections for which Kirsty is responsible.  The Talk will commence at 1900 hrs, refreshments will be available at reasonable cost, and there will be plenty of time for questions and debate afterwards.  I am hoping to arrange for the recording of the Talk and will be ably assisted by Kirsty in terms of marketing.  In many ways, the Aldershot Military Museum is the perfect partner to the War Talks and we have a number of exciting ideas for future collaboration.  I will give you all more information as the plans firm up towards the end of 2018.

Another suggestion made was to take the Series ‘on the Road’.  I have taken up this challenge and have arranged a talk in conjunction with the Tonbridge FWW Talks initiative at Tonbridge School on Wednesday, 7th November 2018.  Our speaker, Maj General (Ret’d) Mungo Melvin CB OBE will speak on the subject of his latest book, ‘Sevastopol’s Wars: Crimea from Potemkin to Putin’.  Clearly, there is a wide gap between Prof Farrell’s talk in July and Maj Gen Melvin’s talk in November, I am working hard to fill the gap with out usual high quality talks and can announce a fabulous ‘on the Road’ venue for which I hope to find a speaker on naval warfare.  With the assistance of Commander Kay Hallsworth, the War Talks Series will deliver a Talk aboard the Navy’s flagship, HMS Victory, in the historic dockyard in Portsmouth in the Autumn.  If any readers have subjects they wish to see discussed please let me know, the only guideline  is that the subjects requested are in the areas of strategy and war studies.

I’m guiding an Army Staff Ride by the AGC(ETS) (South) in Hampshire next week, I’ll be sure to give you the inside track when I get back, the weather is going to be beautiful, a change is as good as a rest as they say!!

All the best,