Although known for the Matthew Hervey series of novels, which follow the Napoleonic Wars, Allan Mallinson’s work spans the entire history of the British Army. As a former Army officer, his inspiration is clear, but here he explains why military history is such rich subject matter
War as fact and fiction
When considering my particular period of history, first we must be clear about what this particular period is: the 355-year continuous history of the British Army, from its institution at the restoration of King Charles II, to the present-day 'war on terror'.
Recently I wrote about the Army and the coming of the First World War (1914: Fight The Good Fight), and my current work-in-progress (Too Important for the Generals – for publication June 2016) takes on that story and examines why it was that the war went so badly for us for so long. It is, after all, the centenary of that singular and very complex war, and few former soldiers seem to want to write about it.
But of course I write fiction too – historical fiction, which must always be grounded in scrupulously accurate history. I chose to set my cavalry tales (the story of the progress of Matthew Hervey from cornet to… well, who knows? In the last book – Words of Command – he is rewarded with a colonel’s brevet) in the early 19th century.
The Napoleonic wars were a time of simple certainties and a huge canvas on which to paint. But I wanted to go beyond Waterloo, and Bonaparte's exile, into the period of supposed peace, but which was in fact a time of simmering conflict and little-known wars; and also a time of social, political and technological change.
For I've always believed that stories about soldiering should be as much about what happens between battles as during them. For that, after all, is where real soldiers spend most of their time.
Just a caveat, though. Of course historians have their periods of special interest, but without a broad understanding of the great sweep of history – of what comes before and after that special period – interpretation will be faulty. And no more so than in military history.
Perhaps I can best illustrate this by referring to 1914, when the German general staff under Count von Schlieffen based its plan for the invasion of France (through Belgium) on Hannibal Barca's plan for the battle of Cannae, in southern Italy in 216 BC.
When writing of the past, therefore, you ignore the further past at your peril.