Lion Rampant – Book Review
What is war like? Numerous authors have attempted to answer that most difficult question. Soldiers who have “seen the elephant” often lack the words to describe it. Too many would-be soldiers, writing from the comfort of their keyboards, are deficient in the necessary personal experience. In 1955, British soldier and author Robert Woollcombe published his own account of war, titled Lion Rampant: The Memoirs of an Infantry Officer from D-Day to the Rhineland, a new edition of which was recently released to coincide with the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Lion Rampant answers, honestly and brutally, that question.
Woollcombe is that most rare combination of battle-hardened soldier, astute observer and poetic writer. His highly detailed descriptions of his fellow King’s Own Scottish Borderers are so true to life the reader will feel he intimately knows the men and their unit. Combat veterans, in particular, will immediately recognize those regular characters found in any infantry formation. Woollcombe devotes several short chapters to telling the individual story of each man. Unfortunately, the soft-cover version contains no photographs, leaving the reader to create mental images. Perhaps that was Woollcombe’s intended purpose. His writing style is a conversational tone, as if sharing his story over a well-earned pint in the village pub. And Woollcombe is a masterful storyteller whose knows how to pace his writing to the subject at hand. The stories of happier times in training or in the officers’ mess are revealed in long, slow sentences. By contrast, Woollcombe’s descriptions of combat come in rapid-fire sentences. Present always is the author’s keen eye for detail, adding much color and depth to an already engaging book.
While it contains a certain amount of general World War II history, at its heart Lion Rampant is about men in war. There is no grand retelling of the strategic maneuvers or the thoughts of the senior generals. Beginning with his enlistment in 1941, Woollcombe experienced, and wrote of, battle in the mud and cold and rain at the platoon level. This is a book of sergeants and privates fighting, living, suffering, laughing and dying at the tip of the Allied spear. The book’s language is from another era and perhaps more conservative than that found today, but the battlefield is no less remote or vivid. If nothing else, Lion Rampant is a welcome break from the hollow sarcasm and foul language permeating similar books on Afghanistan or Iraq.
And there is real value to Lion Rampant. Apart from examining World War II through a British viewpoint, Woollcombe provides numerous lessons learned for small unit leaders based upon his own personal experiences. He writes on the value of training and rehearsals, and of how men react in combat. Together with the equally enjoyable Quartered Safe Out Here by George MacDonald Fraser, Lion Rampant should be required reading for professional soldiers. “Big picture” history books that explain how and why war is waged by faceless unit icons on maps; Lion Rampant describes the nature of battle itself.
Lieutenant Colonel Christopher J. Heatherly enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1994 and earned his commission via Officer Candidate School in 1997. He has held a variety of assignments in special operations, Special Forces, armored, and cavalry units. His operational experience includes deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea, Kuwait, Mali, and Nigeria. He holds master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma and the School of Advanced Military Studies.
The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army.