Monday, May 6, 2013

What Was Britain's Greatest Battle? The Answer Will Surprise You

US journalist Tom Ricks put me on to this piece in last week's The Telegraph on a question asked by Britain's National Army Museum. One hundred paid guests heard five historians make their case for Britain's Greatest Battle. Over half of the attendees then voted in favour of the argument made by Dr Robert Lyman, an author and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, that Britain's greatest battle was actually two, the twin fights of Imphal and Kohima, fought in Burma in 1944.

Lyman had this reaction: "I had thought that one of the bigger names like D-Day or Waterloo would win so I am delighted that Imphal-Kohima has won. You have got to judge the greatness of a battle by its politcal, cultural and social impact, as much as its military impact. Imphal and Kohima were really significant for a number of reasons, not least that they showed that the Japanese were not invincible and that that they could be beaten, and beaten well. The victories demonstrate this more than the US in the Pacific, where they were taking them on garrison by garrison.”

I freely admit that I know next to nothing about these battles, and only a little bit about General Slim and the campaign in Burma. I need to fix that gap in my military knowledge this summer. Hammock reading suggestions, anyone? Any good paper wargames of these fights or of this campaign?

25 comments:

  1. I was also surprised by this news and have been doing a little gap filling on the campaign in general

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    1. I have replied to your google message, even with my Viking blood I cant read the runes you asked me to open comms on :)

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  2. Mike

    This is a surprising result. I would have thought the Battle of the Atlantic if I was to pick from WW2.

    PD

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    1. Me too, Peter. That thought occured to me last Sunday, which was Battle of the Atlantic Sunday. If there was a battle the allies couldn't afford to lose in 39-45, that was it.

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  3. I know very little of the campaign, but I can whole heartedly recommend "Quartered Safe Out Here" by George MacDonald Fraser.

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    1. Thanks for the recommendation, CK. I don't know this particular work, so I shall hunt for it. Did GMF serve in Burma? I think I remember reading he was a Western Desert man.

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  4. MMP (multiman publishing - of ASL fame) published a game in their OCS (operational Combat series) line of games, called Burma. It's still I print:
    http://www.multimanpublishing.com/tabid/58/CategoryID/7/ProductID/4/Default.aspx

    http://www.gamersarchive.net/thegamers/archive/burma.htm

    It was originally published by The Gamers. Their name is still on the boxes. OCS is a very complicated series. 40 pages of series rules plus 20 pages of specific rules. I've not played this. I've been told it's a good introduction to the system.

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    1. Thanks for these recommendations, mate. I'll have to look at them at home, my army firewall doesn't like URLs with the word "games" in them.
      I am not familiar with the OCS system, but I am excited about it, because operational scale boardgames are my sweet spot.

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  5. Your not the only one who hasn't heard much about these battles, but naming this the greatest, what a load of old ball!

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    1. Say what you mean, Ray. Don't hold back. :)

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  6. More more info on the game:
    http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/1585/burma

    And the games that turned up when I searched "Burma"
    http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeksearch.php?action=search&objecttype=boardgame&q=Burma+&B1=Go

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  7. I know a little of both battles mainly through the history channel but I wouldn't have picked either of these!

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  8. Last one, I promise: Kev aka Hipshot has a nice collection of blogposts and videos he posted of his play through:

    http://meshtime.com/?s=Burma&submit=Search

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  9. Interesting. My old unit had the battle honour Meitkila for involvement in that campaign

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  10. Interesting- I'm familiar with the battle- it was incredibly bitterly fought...

    However the cynic in me just wonder if he (Dr Robert Lyman) just put on the best presentation on the day..?

    Cheers,

    Pete.

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    1. Good point Pete. From the way that day seems to have been organized, it sounds like the winner was however gave the best presentation, but still, I bet Dr. Lyman's lectures are pretty amazing.

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  11. I'm very surprised at the result. Those battles were won by greatly superior numbers and equipment, against a foe pretty much abandoned to its fate: starved of supplies of all kinds. The political, cultural and social impacts were great, but it seems to me the defeats of 1941 and 1942 were far more profound and lasting in their effects. Britain found that its return as a colonizing power was very conditional indeed.

    The really big ones are the obvious ones: Hastings, Yorktown and Waterloo. I'd be tempted to include WW1 (1914) and/or the Battle of the Atlantic, both of which could well have had deep and lasting impacts, but in the end I don't think it really changed very much for the long term. I know; this may provoke a huge argument in which much will be said that I agree with. My attitude tends to go: would the world be much different now had those battles gone the other way? The potential for vast differences to my mind were there but never realized as much as they might have been.

    But the three battles I chose I think did 'change history' so to speak. I believe the Anglo-Saxon-Norman England that evolved after Hastings was a whole different beasty from what might have come into being had Harold won. Yorktown meant a parting of ways for the 13 Colonies and the 'Mother Country' with the effect you see today (for good or ill). And Waterloo (3rd out of 3) put a term to some great changes happening as Europe was entering the Industrial age.

    But that's just my view. A case could be made of Bosworth, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Naseby, Blenheim, Trafalgar, or El Alamein.
    Cheers,
    Ion

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    1. Hello Ion! Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments. Much of what I said to Lentulus below could apply to your reply - it's an interesting historical debate as to whether we make too much of great battles as hinge moments. The three that you nominate can be seen as pivotal, but one could also argue, from a process view of history, even if Britain had won at Yorktown, could they have managed to hang on to their disaffected colonies for another decade or two?

      As for Burma, I take your point. Despite difficulties of terrain and logistics, the Allies had so much many more beans and bullets than the starving Japanese that an Allied victory in theatre was almost pre-ordained. Nevertheless, as you say, the damage to Britain's eastern empire was irrevocable by then. The loss of Singapore probably did more to lose India to Britain than a British defeat at Imphal would have done.

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  12. Interesting to see the forgotten war get some attention. However, IMNSHO in recent times the greatest battles have to be the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Atlantic, as not winning either of these would have ended our involvement in the war.

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    1. "IMNSHO" = :)
      Thanks Ashley. Both of those fights were existential in nature, and are therefore top candidates, as is the Armada as Piccolo mentioned above.

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  13. A really tough, soldier's battle. My wife's grandfather fought there and he had some horror stories of the fighting by all accounts. Making that the choice for Britain's Greatest Battle is a fine, if unconventional, choice. A good choice, though, all being told.

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    1. Thanks Sidney. A "soldier's battle" is a good way to describe it, especially considering that the soldiers involved never got the fame and thanks that their colleagues in W. Europe did. The Kohima Epitaph always makes me shiver when it is read (sadly not always) on Remembrance Day. One couldn't imagine a better tribute to men like your wife's grandfather.

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  14. While these "greatest" debates are fun and get people thinking, they generally demonstrate which candidate greatest event or person drew the most advocate more than they prove anything about the "greatest" under discussion.

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    1. Very true. As you and Pete note, these questions are somewhat of a rhetorical exercise and may reflect more on the presenter's skill than on anything else. I am not sure that the question "what is the greatest battle of X or Y country" would even pass muster in contemporary historiography, which has progressed somewhat since J.F.C. Fuller wrote his "Great Battles of Western History" books. I suppose there are rare occasions where history hinges on the outcome of a certain fight, but if one thinks of history as evolution, as a series of slow processes (eg, as Braudel did in his books on the Mediterranean or Fukuyama in his Origins of Political Order), then battles are less interesting.

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  15. "Britain's Greatest Battle" as a concept has value only as a starting point for debate and education. That being said, Kohima deserves its place in there as an important battle to drive the Japanese out of Burma; but the same could be said for, for example, the turning of the 'ne plus ultra' line by Marlborough, or O' Connor's defeat of the Italians in Libya .. or ... or ... on it goes. Sadly, the 'War of Jenkins' Ear' fails to get a mention yet again :O)

    Kind regards, Chris.

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