Bullets, Boots and Bandages BBC 4

Bullets, Boots and Bandages BBC 4, produced and directed by Jeff Wilkinson, presented by historian Saul David.

This is drama in the detail. Why did British Forces beat the French army at Blenheim? Simple technology and attention to detail. A cart with springs could pull a heavier load quicker, because it had springs, didn’t churn up the roads, and allowed that password of modern armies: mobility. The Brits could travel 12 miles a day. The French a maximum of six. The French army undefeated in a generation met the British Army and its pre-German allies at Blenheim and although the French had a larger force the rest as they say is history.

Napoleon of course famously said something like ‘never interrupt your enemy when they are making a colossal error’. Juxtapose this with ‘a horse, a horse a kingdom for a horse,’ and how Napoleon became undone in his march into Russia is clear. He had 500 000 horses, and double the amount of men, was equipped for summer, but winter’s bite was hardier. The Russian forces razed Moscow and kept retreating. Horse’s winter shoes, however, needed a tooth like embellishment that gave them a grip in the snow and ice. Without it no wagon could be pulled up and down hill. Men and horses froze. Decimation means one in ten. Here it was double decimation. Only one in twenty men made it back to France. The number of horses that returned it not recorded.

Luddendorf in the Franco Prussian war made use of the iron horse. His men were massed on the French border within days and swept onto Paris and victory. Train spotting has never had a more profitable return.

Fast forward to the First World War and the mobilisation of industrial nations. What is somehow overlooked in all this carnage is the humble horse, the power unit of the army. Eight million horses and mules went to war. Few returned.

The Second World War was all blitzkrieg and petrol fumes, but in the beginning the French mobilised one million horses. Yes we are back in the familiar territory of ‘four feet good, two feet bad’. The snazzy Americans worked their way around this and brought in their own idea of a field unit that goes everywhere and does everything. Jeeps were mass produced in tens of thousands. They were transport, medical units, communication and assault troops.

The D-Day landing was doomed unless the ground forces could get onto the beach, but this was a short term goal. In the mid and longer term they had to be supplied. The ally solution when they’d captured the skies was to bring their own ‘jerry-built’ harbour and assembly the component parts when they got there. The rest, as they say, is history, which I also keep saying. Emm.