Sunday, March 3, 2013

All the Countries We've Ever Invaded

Britannia Ruled the Waves
Stuart Laycock's All the Countries We've Ever Invaded and the Few we Never got Round to (The History Press, 2012, is a clever little tour de force.  Last summer the world "invaded" London to celebrate the Olympics, but Britain has invaded and intervened in countries around the globe for a very long time.  In his opening paragraph Laycock informs us that 'we' (meaning Britain) have "invaded, had some control or fought conflicts in the territory of something like 171 out of 193 UN member states in the world today."  The island nation of Britain has, therefore, invaded nearly 90% of all the countries in the world.

Nelson Monument, St. Paul's, London
This may not be too surprising given the fact that the British Empire once occupied about one quarter of the world's surface and included about one quarter of the global population.  For many years, and particularly after Nelson's triumph at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the Royal Navy had unquestioned supremacy on the high seas.  Britain ruled the waves and British warships often shelled enemy ports.  When gunboat diplomacy failed, the Royal Marines could always be counted on to make a landing on a hostile shore.

Commander K. at Nelson's tomb, St. Paul's, London
Photo courtesy: Vincent Driano
Laycock has a fairly balanced view of British Imperialism.  He writes, "It seems to me that some of the things we have done around the world are self-evidently wrong (like our deep involvement in the slave trade, which our later campaign against slavery in the nineteenth century only makes up for to a small extent), some are self-evidently right and there is a wide range in between.  In some ways its a bit like your own life: there are some things you've done that you're ashamed of; there are things you've done that you're proud of; and there are things you've done that seemed like a good idea at the time, but don't now; and there are things you've done that seemed like a good idea at the time and still seem like a good idea.  Whether wrong or right, all are interesting because they are our history, the history of a nation that dragged itself out of a small, cold wet island somewhere off the mainland of Europe to make a mark, for better or worse, on every corner of the globe."

Richard I, Houses of Parliament, London
Invaded Cyprus, Israel, Syria, etc.
In this slim volume Laycock focuses his attention on less well-known aspects of British history.  It is well know that Cyprus was a British colonial outpost for many years (independent in 1960); it is less well know that Richard I ("the Lionhearted") led the first British invasion of Cyprus while on the Crusades in 1191.

Duke of Wellington Exhibit, Tower of London
Wellington led British forces in India, Portugal, Spain, France and Belgium
Laycock's book is divided into an alphabetical listing of contemporary countries and proceeds from Afghanistan (always messy) to Zimbabwe.  The longest entry is appropriately France.  Julius Caesar, perhaps in search of oysters and pearls, invaded Britain from Gaul in 55 and 54 BC (see earlier post, Oysters and Civilization, 2/4/13).  William the Conqueror invaded England successfully from Normandy in 1066.  The Duke of Wellington invaded France twice, in 1813 from Spain and in 1815 from Belgium after the battle of Waterloo.  British troops were evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940 and landed in the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

Field Marshal Montgomery 1887 - 1976
Defended Egypt and led British invasions of Libya, Tunisia, Italy, France, Belgium,
The Netherlands, Germany and Denmark
St. Paul's, London
In his discussion of Britain's conflicts with the United States, Laycock includes one of my personal favorite wars -- the 'Pig war of 1859'.  He writes, "Due to ambiguities in a treaty, the San Juan Islands lying between Vancouver Island and the North American mainland were disputed territory between Britain and the United States.  In 1859, an American farmer on the island shot a pig he found in his garden.  It turned out the pig belonged to a an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company and he wasn't happy (that is, the employee wasn't happy, though under the circumstances, I think we can conclude that the pig was none too happy about it all either).  The conflict escalated, with US troops landing on the island, British warships arriving soon after, and a tense stand-off developing.  Eventually, US and UK governments managed to calm things down, the matter went to arbitration and the islands were awarded to the US.  In 1872, the Royal Marines stationed on the island finally departed."  If only all wartime casualties were porcine!

My fellow Northwesterners can find traces of English influence all around them; Mount Rainier in Washington state was named after Rear Admiral Peter Rainier and the Puget Sound was named after lieutenant Peter Puget -- both names were chosen by Royal navy Captain George Vancouver.

I was fascinated to learn that Britain even intervened in Vietnam in the closing days of the Second World War.  After the Japanese surrender, the local British Commander, Major General Gracey, even recruited Japanese units to help restore French control and suppress the Viet Minh.  British involvement  in Vietnam was mercifully short, ending in the summer of 1946.

Laycock neglects to mention Captain Cook's 'invasion' and death on the 'Sandwich Island' now know as the Big Island of Hawaii.

Commander Kelly says, "If you like quirky history told in a breezy unpretentious style, you will enjoy Layton's All the Countries We've Ever Invaded."

Special thanks to my brother-in-law Vincent Driano for giving me a copy of this book.

For another take on this book see...

Order your copy of Stu Laycock and Christopher Kelly's book, America Invades, here...

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Commander Kelly said...

Here are the countries NOT invaded according to Laycock....

Central African Republic
Congo (Republic of)
Ivory Coast
Marshall Islands
Sao Tome and Principe
Vatican City

Unknown said...

Invaded or had influence over: the Portuguese were close, albeit subordinate, allies of the Brits beginning with the Methuen Treaty of 1703. Hence the significance of Port wine in British culture.... subordinate, yes, but still reciprocal. The Royal Navy escorted the entire court of Portugal from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro in 1808 to escape the insidious encroachment of Napoleon and the French... for that, and other reasons, Brazil is not on the list.

Andrew Roberts said...


Humiliating so many (not invaded)!

Stuart Laycock said...

Very glad you enjoyed the book and thanks for taking the trouble to tell me so. It's always nice to hear!

Thanks too for the reference to Captain Cook. As you know from the book, it's sometime a bit hard to define an 'invasion' but maybe I should mention it in the next revised version. I've already had to update the book with a reference to UK suppport for the current French intervention in Mali.

Stuart Laycock said...

Sorry, forgot to say, thank you for reviewing the book on your blog as well.

Also, noting that you're American, I'd love to see somebody do an American version of this book, because I know that there are some places American forces have been where a lot of people wouldn't expect and some great stories! Not sure if I'm ther person to write such a book or not, but it does need to be written!