THIS summer I spent several weeks getting to grips with a question that was begging to be answered: Why do the Brits win every war?
I’ll admit straight away the question has its flaws. But when my alter ego the Pub Landlord asks a question, I feel honour-bound to find the answer. He pays my mortgage, after all.
By posing the question, the Guv’nor helped me unearth some fascinating facts about our skirmishes over the centuries.
First things first, we were pretty elastic with the question. Some of the time we weren’t really talking about the “British” at all.
No one called themselves that in the time of the Romans or the Vikings. Or the Wars of Scottish Independence.
And you could describe the American War of Independence as British people fighting British people. It’s win-win if you do that. Or lose-lose. Take your pick.
The Napoleonic Wars. That is definitely a win, though that was the age of coalition warfare, so we can’t really be said to have done it by ourselves.
And World War Two . . . there’s a can of worms. We did at least win that one. And of course, when I say “we” in all of this, I don’t mean you and me . . .
IN my search to find an answer to this flexible question, I enlisted the help of famous faces to represent these bygone belligerents. Fred Sirieix stood in for Napoleon.
TV’s most charming Gallic maître d’ and I found out the French Navy’s crews were really badly fed compared to the Jack Tars of the Royal Navy, whose rations contained thousands more calories than the enemy’s.
The man at the centre of it all, Napoleon, was renowned for being a short bloke: He was 5ft 4in, which was an average height for the time. I’m 6ft 3in. He sounds titchy to me.
To get his soldiers ready for battle they were drilled rigorously with dance moves, pirouetting on the parade ground. Not that it did them any good at the Battle of Waterloo.
Napoleon may have been a military genius, but if you lose your last battle, surely the guy who beat you is better? Though the Duke of Wellington — in true British style — was too modest to say so.
LOOKING at the Vikings, you are up against a couple of basic problems.
First of all, there were no Vikings as such. “Viking” means raiding — you go viking, turn up in your long boat, smash the place up, nick what you want and bugger off.
By the time they’d settled into kingdoms and become Danes and Norwegians, they weren’t Vikings any more, having become Christians and gone legit, like mobsters going straight.
Because they did in the end settle, in the North, where so many place names reflect their Viking heritage, we had legendary son of the North and ex-Corrie star John Thomson to hold up the Viking end, so to speak.
The Vikings preferred trading to raiding and had a global network of commerce that connected them to places as far afield as Afghanistan, where they would get the really good iron ore for sword-making. (They weren’t so bothered about axes, despite what you see in some history books.) Vikings were into personal grooming, combed their beards and liked to clean out their ears.
Hipsters or barbarians? Or barbarian hipsters? They also liked to indulge in a spot of cross-dressing.
However, they didn’t wear horned helmets. That was the invention of German composer Richard Wagner’s costume designer, who was looking to spice up the Vikings for an opera in the late 1800s.
But the best thing I learned about the Vikings was the reason they were so hard to beat in battle: They’d bugger off rather than fight. Genius.
STRICTLY Come Dancing’s Bruno Tonioli joined me to talk about the Romans, and he really knows his stuff.
Whatever we talked about regarding the Roman conquests, he knew — like how Gladiators covered themselves in a layer of fat so they could be cut in combat without really being hurt.
And Julius Caesar lying about his first invasion, which was a cock-up as far as can be told from the records. Bruno knew that too.
Celtic Britons of the time wrote nothing down. So we only have Julius Caesar’s word for what happened in 55BC. Incidentally, that word was delivered in a high-pitched voice.
So the Britons are portrayed as mud-covered savages who ought to be grateful for the Romans turning up and making life better on our god-forsaken, rain-soaked island.
The Romans lived in villas better suited to Italian climes and shivered miserably in the winter, their only consolation the fact they had brought the toilet with them.
Britons lived in their biodegradable mud huts and crapped in the bushes. I know who won that one.
AMERICAN WAR OF INDEPENDENCE
COMEDIAN Reginald D Hunter joined me to talk about this fascinating conflict, which on the face of it is a heroic tale of rebels fighting their overbearing imperial overlords and triumphing.
And that is certainly how Americans look at it. The story is a bit more tangled than that, though.
Basically, the British Government wanted to tax the, er, British colonists they had been defending from the French in the Seven Years’ War.
The colonists took exception to that but if you are a black American, like Reg, it all looks somewhat different. George Washington — who’d fought for the British against the French in the Seven Years’ War — while being a sneaky military genius, was fighting for a Land Free of the British, rather than anyone else.
He had a huge chunk of help from the French . . . who he then mugged off in favour of trading with the British. And we won’t go into the War of 1812 here.
You’ll have to watch the show to find out who won that one. (Spoiler: It was us.)
WARS OF SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE
PERHAPS the trickiest to negotiate. Sanjeev Kohli helped me on this one: Who was Robert the Bruce and where is the battlefield at Bannockburn, exactly?
Well, for starters Robert was not even Scottish. His family came from France, so he was a Norman nobleman, really, possibly born in Essex. The battlefield is in a housing estate in Stirling.
Fought more than 700 years ago, this battle stirs people’s spirits even today — a tussle between ruling factions in which ordinary people got caught up, if they were unlucky, while the rest of life went on regardless.
English and Scottish soldiers wore essentially the same gear, so it was very easy to get confused in battle — and people kept changing sides, Game Of Thrones-style. The Scots loved a bit of fancy dress, too.
In 1313 they snuck up on Roxburgh Castle disguised as COWS. Sanjeev put this camouflage to the test . . . and it worked.
Sanjeev and I tried to get a taste of what it was like fighting at Bannockburn, wearing chainmail and armour, wading through stinking black mud up to our chests. We both got stuck.
It was, however, one of those occasions when no one noticed if you farted in the pool.
WORLD WAR TWO
FINALLY, with German comic Henning Wehn, we mentioned the War. World War Two is something I have long been interested in.
I have a podcast with historian James Holland called We Have Ways Of Making You Talk, in which we talk about all aspects of the conflict.
But Henning, basically, isn’t much interested. (And you can understand why.)
As we stood next to a Messerschmitt 109 — me thrilled at seeing the only flying plane of its type in the country — he said: “I guess it must be a German plane, judging by the German writing on it.”
So to have to talk about the war with fresh eyes and ditch a lot of what I took for granted was really interesting. Though for someone who doesn’t know his Tigers from his Panthers, he was very good at paintballing in tanks.
So why, if we DID win them, did the Brits win all of these wars?
The reason, unfortunately, is we have had an awful lot of practice.
And all of these opponents who had the honour to do battle with us gave the British at the time a solid run for their money.
Thank God we’re all pals again. For now . . .