Prior to last weekend I had thought the funniest writer on military matters was Spike Milligan. Here is the first paragraph of Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall, the first volume of his World War II memoirs:
September 3rd, 1939. The last minutes of peace ticking away. Father and I were watching Mother digging our air-raid shelter. “She’s a great little woman,” said Father. “And getting smaller all the time,” I added. Two minutes later, a man called Chamberlain who did Prime Minister impressions spoke on the wireless; he said, “As from eleven o’clock we are at war with Germany.” (I loved the WE.) “War?” said Mother. “It must have been something we said,” said Father. The people next door panicked, burnt their post-office books and took in the washing.
And it’s FOUR VOLUMES!!!
So you can understand why I thought nothing would surpass this. But last Saturday I happened to buy a used copy of Maj. Gen. J.F.C. Fuller’s Decisive Battles: Their Influence on History and Civilisation. Those of you who, unlike me, have not wasted their time reading military history have probably never heard of Fuller. He is constantly being quoted by other military historians and has been credited (blamed?) for being an early theorist about armored warfare.
Being an old-fashioned kind of guy I started reading from the beginning. The first decisive battle according to Fuller was Alexander the Great vs. The Persians at Guagamela in 331 BC.* And so the hilarity began. First there is a description of Alexander: “Alexander’s aim was to substitute peace for war, and reconcile the enmities of mankind by bringing them all — all, that is, whom his arm could read, the peoples of his empire — to be of one mind together: as men were one in blood, so should they become one in heart and spirit.”
It’s a bit clunky as set ups go, but the punchline justifies it: “Then, by destroying Thebes, [Alexander] established so great a fear of his rule that he could turn to his military object, the invasion of Persia.” Hard to have any enmities when you’re dead.
Later Fuller says that Darius, the Persian king, had an army with more than 1,000,000 people in it. Fuller presents this as fact even though that number would have been several times larger than the largest cities of the time and that the only other documented fielding of an army that size didn’t take place for another 3000 years.
Fuller remains just as funny the more I read. Sadly he doesn’t get any more succinct. For that we must return to Mr. Cuppy. From The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody:
He is known as Alexander the Great because he killed more people of more different kinds than any other man of his time.
Turns out brevity is the soul of wit, after all.
*This immediately put me off the general. I prefer the Hittites vs. The Egyptian at Kadesh in 1300 BC. I don’t know why. I just like those Hittites.