Magazine article The Spectator

The Peloponnesian War: Athens, Sparta and the Struggle for Greece

Magazine article The Spectator

The Peloponnesian War: Athens, Sparta and the Struggle for Greece

Article excerpt

THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR: ATHENS, SPARTA AND THE STRUGGLE FOR GREECE by Nigel Bagnall Random House, £12.99, pp. 318, ISBN 0712698817 * £11.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

A soldier's angle of observation

There was a chilling moment on television a few years ago when Ian St John, the former Liverpool and Scotland striker, turned on Jim Rosenthal, the ITV presenter who'd never played football at top level. 'Do ye know football?' he said mockingly.

Well, the late Field Marshal Sir Nigel Bagnall, who joined the Army in 1945 and retired as Chief of the General Staff in 1988, certainly knew war. Having seen action in Palestine and Cyprus, and having won an MC and Bar in the Malayan Emergency, hurling grenades into jungle huts and gunning down communist terrorists, he knew hand-to-hand combat as well as he did the deskbound tactics of General HQ.

Ginge Bagnall - as he was known for his peppery nature as well as his red hair - is the man to ginger up the story of the Peloponnesian war. Yes, the story's been told a thousand times, but usually by dons whose greatest exposure to combat hasn't got any further than a quiet word with the Chichele Professor of Mediaeval History for hogging the college port.

Sir Nigel trips through the events of the fifth-century BC battles between Athens and Sparta briskly and efficiently. As befits a man who took against the flummery of military life and referred to his breastful of medals and the thickly wadded embroidery on his shoulders as his 'fucking jewellery', he is not given to romanticising the grandeur or the tragedy of war. This is the same approach he took in his book The Punic Wars (1990), which Enoch Powell criticised for showing the 'aloofness of a Staff College lecturer addressing a class of Camberley students'.

Well, at least Sir Nigel does you the favour of assuming that you're as well-informed about military matters as Camberley students. At one stage he talks about an ancient Greek night manoeuvre and assumes that we, like him, might well have taken part in such a manoeuvre and know how tricky it is.

And it is this scent of the briefing room that makes the book so readable, albeit only for those interested in classical history - this is not a book for dippers who want their history sexed up. …

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