The (inceasingly tedious) historiography of Arnhem

I know its something I have written about before, but it never ceases to amaze me how historians and publishers will attempt to flog dead horses. Well, maybe thats not a great analogy, but some battles have been written about so much, without anything substantially ‘new’ being offered.

Coming from a background of academic history, my philosophy is that you only undertake to write something if you have a new vein of original material that has never been worked on before, or you can offer a dramatically new appraisal of something that has already been done. What you don’t do is just re-hash what somebody else has already done. It gets very tiring when you see yet another book about an epic battle, that promises much but delivers little.

Therefore I am astounded by just how many books get written about Arnhem and Market Garden. Most of them are very general books, telling any reader who has more than a little knowledge what they already know and offering nothing new in return. In Waterstones yesterday I picked up a copy of a new Arnhem book by a well-known military history duo, whose books I have previously enjoyed, but whose new effort on Arnhem appears to be re-inventing the wheel. It does seem to be publisher-motivated, as any military history publisher knows, books on Arnhem sell.

Out of the virtually hundreds of books written about Arnhem, only a handful of them are really indispensible, in my experience. Arnhem by Martin Middlebrook is the best overall, general introduction about the Battle. A Bridge too Far by Cornelius Ryan is, for obvious reasons, another good introduction, which reads almost like a novel, and takes a wider perspective. It never snows in September by Robert Kershaw is invaluable, as it is the only book that really tells the German side of the battle – and a history of a battle that only focuses on one side is like watching a football match but only being able to see half of the pitch. Arnhem 1944 by William Buckingham was, in my opinion, the first book to look at Arnhem through a more challenging, modern historiographical perspective. Even if you don’t agree with his conclusions, putting the cat amongs the pigeons leads for a more rigorous history in my opinion. And obviously ‘original’ texts like those by Roy Urquhart, John Frost etc are invaluable, as primary sources.

It’s so disappointing, to see big name authors with big publishing deals re-hashing what is already out there, when there are legions of historians out there who are working hard on original material, yet never get the credit that they deserve. As much as I want to sell books and pay the bills, I also want to contribute to history, and you do that by offering something new or different. I guess in that respect military history does lag behind some other disciplines, in that sometimes it is nowhere near challenging enough, and of course as a popular subject for publishing it is open to market forces more than say the history of ferret stuffing in deepest Somerset.

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19 Comments

Filed under Arnhem, debate, historiography, Uncategorized, World War Two

19 responses to “The (inceasingly tedious) historiography of Arnhem

  1. John Erickson

    I could see the release of such a book if we were approaching a “magic number” anniversary – 65th or 70th or whatever. Otherwise, as you said, what’s the point of rehashing the obvious? (Other than squeezing a few more quid out of the topic.)
    Are you aware of any decent books by Arnhem inhabitants? THOSE would be interesting to read!

    • James Daly

      There is one book by Kate Ter Horst, whose house was used as a field hospital during the latter battle of Oosterbeek. Apart from that recollections of some Arnhem residents feature in other books.

  2. x

    I see there is sales potential for for a radical feminist revisionist history of Operation Market Garden. Radio 4 would snap it up for Book of the Week. :)

    I only have one Op MG book,

    I.

    • James Daly

      That’s one book I haven’t actually read on Arnhem, but Frank Steer’s other stuff is pretty good.

      • x

        I wasn’t interested in Op MG it was the logistics I was interested in. You can’t fit much in a ‘plane……………..

        Off on a tangent currently I am watching an interesting series on Discovery called Ice Pilots whose subject is an airline in Canada’s NW Territories whose fleet is made up of 40s and 50s era piston engined aircraft.

        Perhaps I need a book on the Berlin Airlift?

        • James Daly

          The logistical side of MG is pretty interesting. As you mention, there’s not much you can fit in a Dakotasa, a Horsa or even a Hamilcar for that matter. And then there is the issue of re-supply, and rhe RASC on the ground with 1 AB Div.

  3. Anonymous

    you make the mistake of not thinking from the perspective of someone new to researching Arnhem. You and Arnhem fans know all the older books. A newcomer has likely never seen older versions of the battle in print, and they look for fresh new books on the topic.

    • James Daly

      I think the problem is that to a newcomer to any subject, if you pick up a book in Waterstones that tells you that its ‘new’, you have no reason to doubt it. But when you have read it, and looked back at the whole historiography, you suddenly feel a bit cheated if its basically a rehash.

      When I was first getting into military history my family would often buy me the newest books on Arnhem every christmas, as I would devour anything and everything that came along. But looking back, I can’t believe how much of it was essentially the same.

      To use the food analogy, sometimes I don’t think ‘new’ books are in fact very ‘fresh’, more ‘frozen’. The jacket image may be new and the publishing date may say 2011, but the research isn’t always new. I guess what I was getting at with this article was to try and alert the newcomer to military history that just because a book is published in 2011, it is not necessarily 40 years more advanced than a book published in 1961.

      • John Erickson

        Ahem. Being a gentleman, I will refrain from pointing out that the difference between 1961 and 2011 is FIFTY years, not forty. ;) :D

      • x

        I have an awful lot of books on the Falklands War. And is scary how much of value, the little nuggets of real history, can be missed because the brain scans over familiar territory.

        Would love the official two volume history but I just can’t afford that sort of money these days.

        • Anonymous

          Here’s another tip;
          I’m also a Waterloo buff…. I don’t buy new Waterloo books much anymore- unless they are accounts including fresh material from the 60% of non-British forces in Wellington’s Waterloo army…..
          - My advice to you, is that instead of buying a new book that claims to have new material, read reviews of the book first; sort of like the review you gave.
          You can find many reviews of a book by serious collectors typically at Amazon.

      • Anonymous

        Hello- this is the very same anonymous again ;)
        I guess I see what you mean on that point of old text in a new cover.
        I find that a nice break from the ‘history analysis’ books, are the veterans accounts in book form.
        Yes- we old school military history buffs devoured a lot in our time…. I think we should accept the fact that are only way to get further intrigued in historical events we are very familiar with, is getting previously unheard of veterans accounts and oddities we find online;
        I recently saw a very unique photo of a German POW taken prisoner in the first attack into Arnhem at twilight of the 18th…. now I read that one of the skirmishes involved a clash with a detachment of a German signals unit and one the dead in the uneven match was a German woman.
        So seeing a photo of a German POW signals woman staffer [ taken prisoner near Wolfheze] next to a Paratrooper GPR sergeant was very unique; And here it is for you and others who have never heard of this interesting Arnhem battle saga. I hope you like it.
        http://home.kpn.nl/witie/Female POW.htm

        • Anonymous

          Here’s another tip;
          I’m also a Waterloo buff…. I don’t buy new Waterloo books much anymore- unless they are accounts including fresh material from the 60% of non-British forces in Wellington’s Waterloo army…..
          - My advice to you, is that instead of buying a new book that claims to have new material, read reviews of the book first; sort of like the review you gave.
          You can find many reviews of a book by serious collectors typically at Amazon.

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