After reading volume one of The Liberation Trilogy, titled An Army at Dawn, I sent the author a note via his website. It was not short on praise and he was good enough to respond. Since then, I have read everything he has published as someone who drinks in military history and admires narrative historians who get it right (Beevor, Ryan, Hastings along with Canadians Granatstein, Cook, Zuehlke). For the most part, I stick to the 20th Century but had to give The British are Coming a try.
I was not disappointed. I used up a highlighter as there is good stuff on almost every page. Atkinson, as always, brings historic figures to life and makes them relevant to today. His prose is excellent, you only have to read the description of Washington to be convinced. As are his rousing depictions of the 3,059-day war's 1,300 (mostly small) military clashes. He adeptly mixes statistic with colourful description tying the quantifiable and qualifiable in a powerful knot...
- “Roughly five thousand African Americans would eventually serve in the Continental Army, a more integrated national force than would exist for nearly two centuries.”
- “Of all the king’s officers who would die in battle during the long war against the Americans, more than one out of every eight had perished in four hours on a June afternoon above Charlestown.”
- he describes how only the fortunate wounded got “their ears stuffed with lamb’s wool to mask the sound of the sawing.” and goes on to describe how amputations above the knee took 30 seconds with only half surviving the ordeal or subsequent infections
One thing Atkinson does not diminish is the moving of men and materiel. Still a massive task today despite modern conveyances, it was a herculean one centuries ago. Food spoiled while horses and men died on the ships from Britain (in one case out 950 horses shipped, 400 perished at sea). The Americans made huge mistakes while attacking into Quebec due to poor planning and weaker logistics. The fact that an army marches on its stomach is a truism constantly re-learned. He also types out fantastic bon mots including the contention that Benedict Arnold was the finest commander on both sides of the war.
I was surprised by how advanced much of the warring was for the time. Yes, it remains true that rows of red coats would face blue coats on open battlefields in a weird game of attrition, yet other tactics seem more suited to wars of this century. Special forces, ambushes, espionage...even landing craft were in evidence. So was bravery, fear, ineptitude and cowardice, all in generous amounts.
Atkinson claims in the beginning to have balanced the American and British perspectives. If I have one tiny complaint it is that this did not come across. The lens is still tilted towards those fighting for independence despite the author's attempt to give more credit and color to King George, his commanders, military, and loyal subjects.
I cannot wait for the second instalment in this trilogy. Thanks Rick!