Sunday 15 April 2012

Enemy at the Gate

Who was Britain’s greatest enemy? The answer, according to a poll carried out by the National Army Museum in Chelsea, is George Washington, or at least he was according to a panel of seventy invited guests. All attended an event at the Museum on Saturday, in which a short list of five was considered, each case argued by a historian before a vote was taken.

The others on the list included Michael Collins, the Irish Republican leader, who came second, Napoleon Bonaparte, Erwin Rommel and Kemal Ataturk. In case you are wondering why no Hitler all had to have led armies against the British in the field, which excluded purely political enemies.

All great fun, I’m sure, and I’m rather sorry I was not there among the guests. The five commanders selected came from a broader list of twenty drawn up by the museum’s curators. To qualify for inclusion all had to come from the seventeenth century onwards. Michael Collins is a bit of an oddity, in that he was a guerrilla leader who never commanded an army in the field.

The event itself was preceded by an online poll on the Museum’s website, launched in February. Rather predictably, I suppose, Collins attracted a wave of support around St Patrick’s Day in March. Wider and wider went the net, with the Turkish media picking up on the inclusion of Ataturk, a great national hero. All at once the battle lines were drawn, with the Turk advancing fast on a wave of national pride. Fighting a new Gallipoli, he won comfortably, with 40% of the votes cast. Poor old George came forth, with less than two percent of the vote, alas another Battle of Long Island!

Ah, but the Museum’s strategists were alert to the danger of tactical voting along national lines, hence the final and secret poll. Before making up their minds, the select band focused on a specific set of criteria, not my hero is bigger than your hero, Turkish pride greater than Irish, but performance in battle.

Thinking of the five in question it seems to me to be a rather odd collection. In terms of battlefield performance I have no objection to Washington if the focus was specifically on great commanders, but he was hardly a great enemy in the way that Napoleon was a great enemy, and by that I mean a threat to our national existence.

I admire Washington, a political conservative as well as a skilled commander, as much as I despise the little Corsican upstart, who tore Europe apart in the pursuit of personal ambition. That he was trumped by Michael Collins, of all people, is a demonstration either of the skill of the historian who presented the case or the historical incomprehension of the audience.

The wider list, those who did not make it to the final poll, seems to me to be both eclectic and eccentric. There was Laksmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi, the token woman, who was prominent in her opposition to the British during the Indian Mutiny. She may be another symbol of national pride but she can hardly be described as a great enemy or a great commander. There was Ntshingwayo kaMahole, the Zulu leader who won the Battle of Isandlawana in 1879, in the long run of things no more than a little local difficulty.

But, my goodness, where was Michiel de Ruyter, the seventeenth century Dutch admiral who lead the Raid on the Medway, an event I’ve described as a kind of English Pearl Harbor. I would even put Bonnie Prince Charlie or, to be more exact, Lord George Murray, above Ntshingwayo kaMahole…or even Michael Collins! Still, I’m sure an entertaining day was had by all, even by those with a less than perfect grasp of history, which would seem to include the Museum’s landlubber curators.


  1. Replies
    1. Sorry, Anthony, they are well out of the time frame. :-)

    2. Incidentally, my own ancestry is Norman, so I have the best of both worlds!

  2. I agree with you about the monster Bonaparte.

    But what about Gandhi? His army may have been weaponless, but its impact on British interests no less destructive. Indeed, his campaigns poisoned the minds of millions.

    1. Indeed, Calvin, but he would fail to qualify for the same reason as Hitler. Mind you, he might fall into the same category as Michael Collins.

  3. Ana, I (as you can readily surmise by my Nick) have a considerable interest in this subject.

    We rebel colonists certainly take no small amount of (perverse) pleasure in the thought of seeing our most beloved leader (bar NONE!) being recognized as the powerful British Empire's most effective enemy of all time (losing the vast resources of the American colonies in the middle of your war with France must have been TERRIBLY inconvenient ).

    This being said, I would tend to disqualify Washington from this contest for the same reason Hitler was - that Washington's deleterious effect on the UK wasn't due to his military activities (GW really WAS a pretty mediocre battlefield commander), but was due to his personal and political presence.

    I instead would have you consider the German General Erich Ludendorff, who was the real brains behind the German war effort in WW1 (Hindenberg and the Kaiser were just publicity hounds). It's Ludendorff who created the Schleiffen Plan which allowed the Germans to penetrate so deeply into France (and which was reused (after a little modification) with even greater effect in WW2). He produced the strategy that knocked the Russians out of the war, freeing HUGE numbers of troops to fight on the Western Front. He is the one who came up with the concept of submarine commerce-raiding warfare that put Britain in such peril (again for both wars).

    So this one General came up w/the ideas that lead to the deaths of an entire generation of British men, and set the stage for a repeat ~20 years later.

    I have little doubt it was the expenditure of so much British blood and treasure during these two world wars (so close together in time and place) that cost you your world-encompassing empire.

    1. CB, for me Washington is a great soldier in the same way that Fabius Maximus was a great soldier. Little by little always does it. He also had the kind of political and strategic insight that even the greatest soldiers often lack.

      You know I thought about the First World War, particularly the struggle on the Western Front. You are absolutely right about Ludendorff, a far better choice than Ataturk. But he probably would not qualify by the curator’s lights, in that he never fought the British in the field.

  4. Britain's greatest enemy?

    It is a toss up between Edward Heath and The Labour Party.

  5. Just seen this Ana - It looks like Ed West agrees with me:

  6. Ana another great post. Now I thought Britain's greatest enemy was political correctness.

  7. Richard Godwin is close to it - it's Them, the oligarchs and globalists. Always was.

  8. Ah, the Rani of Jhansi, of whom Flashman said, " The carriage of her head, with its imperious dark eyes, told you as nothing else could that here was a woman who'd never asked permission in her George, I couldn't remember when I'd seen bouncers like those..." ---Flashman In The Great Game