Encouragement for the ‘non-establishment’ historian

One of the first military history books I read, as a young lad, was Arnhem by Martin Middlebrook. For no other reason than that it was the biggest book about Arnhem in the library, and it simply screamed ‘Arnhem’ from ten paces away. If only one day I could write a book like that. Years later, it is still a staple on my bookshelf, and I’ve reccomended it to most of my family (my late grandfather being an Arnhem veteran).

Years later, I’ve got a book of my own on the shelf at the same library, not very far from where Middlebrook’s Arnhem sat (and still does). Now that I’m researching the First World War I’ve gone to Middlebrook’s first book – the First Day on the Somme. For those of you who aren’t aware, Martin Middlebrook was an established poultry farmer when he went to the Somme battlefields in the late 1960′s. Motivated by what he saw, he resolved to write a book about 1 July 1916, the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. Remember, he was a poultry farmer with no literary background.

After writing ten chapters, he sent it to his prospective publisher. The publisher in turn sent it to an un-named military historian for feedback. They received back 13 pages of critique, some of which I quote below:

‘mugged-up knowledge by an outsider’

‘familiar and elementary stuff’

‘all the old bromides’

‘his account of the army’s organisation and the trench system… rather like a child’s guide’

‘flat and wooden in the narrative’

Over 40 years later, Martin Middlebrook has written almost twenty books on military history, many of them bestsellers, about Arnhem, the RAF in the Second World War, and the Falklands. Isn’t is a good job that he and his publisher didn’t listen to the advice of a so-called military history expert?

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Encouragement for the ‘non-establishment’ historian

  1. x

    I think a couple of times we have said here that there is academic historian and populist historian. And I think I have said that the former spends too much time on spurious analysis of the arcane and esoteric to prove some political view more than to distil an aspect of the truth. The former hate the latter because the latter make money; the majority are interested in the narrative, the story, which even if it is a catalogue of dates and events has some clarity, some purity, that allows it to be grasped by the majority.

  2. It’s a pity there is such a divide as X mentions, because both groups of historians could learn from each other, and in turn help garner more interest in history. I know some gearheads (petrolheads, for y’all) who would love to learn about the history of engines in tanks, for example, but don’t have the historical knowledge to put the technology into context. I would personally LOVE to see a rather thick (necessarily) book covering propeller-powered aircraft engines with a solid background of military history (why Germans used 87-octane fuel, why the Japanese were so rabidly pro-radial, etc.). I’ve learned a fair amount of that context, but only from a spread of books and internet sources. Yes, we need general-interest books to pull people in. Yes, we need hyper-intensive “tech books” for the loons like me. But I think there’s a great crossover area that would make history less boring for a lot of folk.
    Now excuse me, I gotta get back to “Fuel Injector Pressure Mappings on a Daimler-Benz DB605A”. You know, light after-dinner reading. ;) :D

  3. x

    Academic historians for the most part look down on technical history. In their mind humans not technology drive events. Probably for history before the early modern era that would be true. But the historians of the late 21st and early 22nd won’t be able to discuss events now with out mentioning technology and in great detail.

  4. If they understand it, that is…

    • x

      One of things those outside the history “world” don’t realise is that to get anywhere you need another language. If you are writing a history of say a WW2 European battle a good working knowledge of German is important. If you study the “Medievals” Latin and French are real boon. Future historians are going to need a grasp of TCP/IP, OOP, HTML5, and graphic design…….. :)

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