Tag Archives: max hastings

The Long Long LONG Trail: First World War on the TV (part 1)

With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War looming, we have already seen a steady increase in the amount of programs related to the First World War on television. Here’s my assessment of what we have seen so far.

Jeremy Paxman’s ‘Britain’s Great War’ was a welcome surprise. I must admit, I find Paxman rather unlikeable on Newsnight, which, as it turns out, does him a great dis-service as a presenter. I really enjoyed ‘Britain’s Great War’, and I felt that it covered many aspects of the First World War that have been previously ignored. We all know about the Somme and Gallipoli, for example, yet how many people knew that Britain was bombed during the First World War? Or about conscription, or rationing?

Max Hastings’ ‘The Necessary War‘ was a disappointment. Aside from the fact that I find Hastings style incredibly grating, I felt that ‘the Necessary War’ was essentially produced for a ‘Daily Mail’ market, as per much of Hastings work, and was full of great power, imperialist nostalgia of a significantly conservative bent. It is certainly useful to question previously held assumptions – of which the ‘futile war’ argument has become something of an orthodoxy. Presenting the First World War as unavoidable is slightly ridiculous – is any war ever completely unavoidable? If not then we might as well all just kill each other now and get it over and done with!

I have long been a big fan of Niall Ferguson’s book ‘The Pity of War‘, but the TV adaptation was rather disappointing. I enjoyed the open format, and it was very refreshing to watch a topical issue being debated in the studio by the audience and academic alike. However I felt that Ferguson’s segments did not really reflect the content of the book on which the program was based, and some of the elements were completely off on a tangent. I felt that it slightly missed the point overall, but the intention was noble and the format more interesting.

So far ‘37 Days‘ has, in my book, been by far the most impressive. A three part docu-drama following the events of July and August 1914 as the unfold, in Sarajevo, Vienna, Berlin and London. As a series it fills a gap in popular understanding. It is not enough to cite’ the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’ as the cause of the First World War – so much happened in between that and the first shots being fired, as this program shows. And I had not realised just how dramatic events were, how interlinked events were, and the complex personalities involved. I am not normally a fan of the ‘great man’ school of history, but this was illuminating, insightful and entertaining in its own right.

We can expect a significant amount of First World War-centric television over the next few months. As much as I welcome the interest, I do hope that we won’t experience overkill by the time 4 August arrives – in the rush to produce topical and relevant documentaries, we can only hope that there is a marked improvement in the scope and quality!

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Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories from the Falklands Campaign by Christopher Hilton

With the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands War coming up in a matter of weeks, we will probably see a considerable amount of new books being dedicated to the war. This book by Christopher Hilton is the first ‘Falklands 30′ book that I have received.

I find it quite an interesting concept that  Hilton – in stark contrast to, say, the Falklands book by Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins – chose to write about only men who were on the very lowest ladder of the military hierarchy – privates, sailors and marines. The idea was, as he explains, that they were the men who were most at mercy of events – they could not give orders to anyone, only follow. Included are naval ratings, a man who was on the Atlantic Conveyor, marines, paras and a sapper. As you might expect, I wholeheartedly approve of such a ‘grass roots’ level of history.

The are some fascinating anecdotes here, the kind that you only get from an oral history based, down to earth approach such as this. There’s the chinese laundryman who hid from air raids in one of the ships tumbloe dryers, and was awarded the British Empire Medal. One rating had to send a brief telegram home from HMS Sheffield when she was sent south, telling his fiance to cancel their impending wedding. One man who lost an eye in the war found that he was not allowed to become a postman or a traffic warden, but could become a taxi driver!

What I find interesting, is that in place some of the recollections of these blokes are at odds with the history books. To take one example, one of the men featured refers to one of the Marine Commando’s going to the Falklands onboard HMS Ark Royal or HMS Bulwark. In fact, the Ark had been scrapped and Bulwark was rusting in Portsmouth Dockyard. He must have meant their close sibling HMS Hermes. But what this story does portray, is that the men on the ground were not necessarily completely in the loop all of the time about major events – they seem to have been overwhelmingly concerned with what was happening in front of them, and their mates next to them.

For me, the clincher which makes this book so important is the prominent space given to coverage of the hidden wounds of war – namely, the high number of Falklands veterans who have suffered with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the years since the war. In fact, it is an oft-quoted belief that more Falklands survivors have committed suicide in the ensuing years, than the number of men who died there in 1982. Whilst the Americans had learnt about PTSD in Vietnam, it was still a relative unknown to the British military. Each of the interviews talked remarkably candidly about their experiences post-war – in some cases alcohol, crime and even prison sentences feature. They talk about the strain on relationships, especially with their families. They also talk about their returns to the battlefields, and how this affected them. Intriguingly, several of them note with approval that men fighting in Afghanistan now receive very good after-care for mental trauma issues.

I was transfixed by this book. I hardly put it down from cover to cover.

Ordinary Heroes is published by The History Press

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A research-based dilemma…

I’m currently in the phase of doing some more primary research for my book on Portsmouth’s Second World War dead. I’ve been looking at doing some research in the Archives of a small, independent military Museum (line infantry Regiment, shall we say). I enquired by email about visiting the Museum to do some research…. no problem. The cost though? £25… AN HOUR! So for a days research, which is the minimum I would need, I would be looking at something in the region of £150! That would be a sizeable percentage of the total money I would make out of selling the maximum print run of my book!

I just think its wrong. All I want to do is write about some brave men who didn’t make it home, but I’ll now have to do it without the help of their Regimental Museum. I know its expensive to run Museums – hell, I know that more than anyone, I pay the bills and process the income for six – but why charge such a prohibitively high cost? If you need to make money, think outside the box and get your income generation hat on rather than hitting people who are trying to do good work. It obviously doesn’t cost £25 an hour to have somebody visit to do research, so why penalise? It’s not as if researchers ever make money out of what they do… only the big-shot historians like Max Hastings or Anthony Beevor really make any money. At best I’m looking at covering my costs. At best.

I always thought the idea of the Regimental Museum was to preserve the memory of those who have died serving with it? Or am I missing a trick – is it that some Museum’s just don’t want any tom, dick or harry turning up poking their noses in, so they set the costs prohibitively high? I’m just at a loss to understand why there is such a barrier to access, study and commemoration. And especially with budget cuts, institutions will be unable to carry out research and projects that they might like to, making it all the more important to encourage and enable individuals to do so instead.

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The Battle of Hastings and Beevor

Two British military history heavyweights are to go head-to-head with epic new publications on the Second World War, reports The Times.

Anthony Beevor and Max Hastings have both been contracted by their publishers to publish 800+ page books in 2012. Beevor’s advance from his publishers is believed to be in the region of £1m. “Max and I are both great friends and great rivals,” said Beevor, whose book will be published in Britain by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. “It’s the whole war and yes, it’s a terrifying prospect.”

Hastings is amazed that narrative military history can command such figures: “I would never have guessed when I started writing about this period more than 30 years ago that this market would still be there,” said Hastings, whose book will be published by HarperCollins.

Colin Smith, an author on Vichy France, thinks that military history has followed phases: “After the war itself, we had the heroic books, usually written by those actually in the war such as Churchill and Monty. Then we had a revisionist period, then a lack of interest with some boring military tactician books, and now a revived interest because of good writing and human stories.”

It is very encouraging to see that military history is becoming so popular once again, both to publishers and readers alike. It is very nice to see, especially as we are so far away from the war now that it is in the living memory of fewer and fewer people. And as we are living in a post-military society, where few people have served in uniform, clearly people with no experience of military service are becoming interested in what happened to their forefathers.

I must profess to being no great fan of Beevor or Hastings. Beevor’s books have sold by the truckload. I have read his books on Stalingrad, Berlin and D-Day. Whilst I enjoy his writing style, I cannot help but feel that the lack of substantial new material or hystoriography does not warrant the hype. They are clearly aimed at a general readership. Hastings’s usually offers more research-based writing, but his pugnacious style – as we might expect from a journalist – can be off-putting.

Writing a complete history of the Second World War is a tall order. These are obviously publisher-led books, as no military historian would conceive of covering 6 years worth of battles, on 3 continents and many oceans, and killed millions of people in 800 pages. Modern military historiography as gone beyond the ‘complete history of’ approach. It is far better, surely, to not even attempt it, because the result will almost always be a disappointment. But these names, after all, are names that sell books.

However Beevor’s and Hastings’s books turn out, they will have to go a very long way to eclipse luminaries such as Basil Liddell Hart, John Terraine, Martin Middlebrook, John Keegan or Michael Howard. Or my wildcard entries, Robin Neillands and William Buckingham. I look forward to reading them, but I plan on reading beyond the hype and the name on the spine.

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