Tag Archives: military history

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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Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes awarded 4.5/5 ‘mines’!

My book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ has received a brilliant review from the Mine Clearance Diving Officers Association website, being awarded 4 and a half mines out of a possible 5! This is of course very poignant, given the inclusion of a mine warfare CPO, Reg Ellingworth GC.

I hope the MCDOA do not mind me quoting some of the ‘best bits’ here:

James Daly is a Portsmouth historian who runs the extremely informative and thought-provoking Daly History Blog which contains well-researched articles and analysis of military history and contemporary news events.

Full of fascinating detail, this book is engaging from cover to cover.  The way in which the author manages to bring alive such a wide variety of characters and their deeds makes it eminently readable and a valuable acquisition for anyone with a general interest in naval & military history and with Portsmouth in particular.  I learned about some rarely described aspects of the war and thoroughly recommend it.




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A Message from your AWARD WINNING blogger!

I’m rather overwhelmed to announce that I found out this evening that I have been given an award for my blog!

The team at the Veterans Benefits GI Bill website have decided that Daly History is one of the top 50 military history blogs on the whole of the internet, and hence you can see a nice shiny award picture just to the right ——>>>>

Have a look at the award announcement here, to see the team’s very flattering words, and also to see a list of other winners. Other names you might recognise are Ross Mahoney’s Thoughts on Military History, Birmingham War Studies, Airminded and the Australian War Memorial. It’s quite a suprise to be counted amongst such leading lights!


Filed under site news

Great War Lives: A Guide for Family Historians by Paul Reed

There’s been a notable growth of interest in First World War Genealogy in recent years. I think there are probably two reasons for this – programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are, and the prominence that they give to military history; and also the recent passing of the last veterans of the Western Front. Therefore this book by Paul Reed is most timely.

Many military genealogy books seem to follow a structured but disjointed route – this is how you do this, this is where you go to do this, etc etc. and by the way, you can find this out from here because etc etc. But here Paul Reed has followed a different model, by purely writing about 12 individuals, and THEN explaining HOW he found out about them. I think this approach works, as the reader can become fully immersed in the story without being interrupted with details of musems, archives and suchlike. I think its a much easier approach for the layman in particular.

Reed has chosen a broad but well-balanced range of individuals to write about. We find out about a Field Artillery subaltern who was killed in action but whose body was brought home to England; the village of Wadhurst (a timely counter to the perception that all Pals units came from ‘oop north’); The Royal Naval Division at Gallipoli; A Greek man on the Western Front; A Tunneller VC winner; A man who died in a base hospital; A Vicar’s son who fought in three theatres; A Royal Marine at Passchendaele; A ‘Great War Guinea Pig‘; An Officer who was dismssed from the Army for striking a French woman, but then re-enlisted as a Private; A Black Flying Corps Pilot and a little-known War Poet.

Plenty to get stuck into, and plenty to inspire too. I’ve found it useful and inspiring for my own Portsmouth WW1 Dead research.

Great War Lives is published by Pen and Sword


Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Family History, Navy, Royal Marines, Uncategorized, victoria cross, western front, World War One

Education and Military History

I’ve always been mystified about the near total exclusion of military history from history teaching in schools. I’ve never managed to work out exactly where it comes from, but my guess is that somewhere along the lines a liberal assumption took hold that teaching young people about wars and fighting would encourage them to fight each other. Bizarre, in the least. But so it remained for some time. And especially while I was at school – we only learnt about wars though abstract means – in medicine through time, for example, we learnt how wars speed-up medical advances. Even then, the emphasis was on ‘progress’.

But I have noticed something of a shift in recent years. Perhaps it is the passing of the last WW1 veterans, and the ever-decreasing number of WW2 veterans, that has brought home to society that when participants pass on, memory becomes history. I also suspect that the high profile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have changed how people think about the armed forces and war.

There have been great changes in Education too. Its no longer enough to simply visit a museum and herd kids round. Many museums offer more focused workshop sessions. HMS Belfast even lets school groups sleep onboard overnight for the ‘at sea’ experience. Its important to constantly look for new and interesting ways of engaging young people. I spent some time working with groups of young people in an informal setting, and I really think that approach works for military history. No ‘this is what you will learn, blah blah…’ – it has to be enjoyable and interesting, and relevant to the people you are trying to teach. If you enjoy yourself, you are more receptive, whereas if you feel you are being lectured against your will, you subconsciously put up barriers. I’ve always thought that history should be taught out and about, and using objects, clothes, and other ‘hooks’.

One of the best education projects I have come across is the Discovering D-Day Project. OK, I might be a bit biased, as I work for the Service that runs the D-Day Museum. But I have been so impressed with some of the work that the project has brought out. The project involves tailored study days at the D-Day Museum for schools and youth groups, an opportunity to meet WW2 veterans, handling WW2 related objects, and using mobile phone technology to take photographs. The sessions can be based on History, Maths or English, for example. All of the evidence suggests that it has been a major success. It’s helped the Museum attract a completely new age range – in particular teenagers.

Take a look at some of these quotes:

‘I enjoyed today because it was fun and enjoyable to see these things instead of having to read from the books that are provided in schools. You get to see from the veterans’ side what it was like. Amazing trip!’ – Year 10 pupil

‘[The students]… enjoyed talking to the veterans so much they chose to talk to them through lunch!’ – Key Stage 4 Teacher

‘Pupils who have participated in the project have articulated its success with insight, commenting on how they had been inspired to work harder, to reach targets and to see themselves as independent learners preparing for a world beyond school.’ – Claire Austin-Macrae Regional Adviser (Functional Skills)

I cannot help but be impressed by the group of young people who wanted to skip lunch so they could keep talking to the veterans. And not only do the sessions seem to have been fun, but there have been some major improvements in grades, in particular with young people who were previously underachieving. I can remember watching a veteran give a reading of a Poem written by a School pupil, from the perspective of a soldier landing on D-Day. Very moving, and exactly the kind of thing education and military should be about.

And its not just school groups either – some of the youth groups who have taken part have produced some artwork that I would be perfectly happy to use as publicity images or book covers.

Just one example of how to ‘do’ military history with young people.


Filed under education, Museums, World War Two

Happy 1st Birthday to me!!!

Its a year ago today that I made my first post here on Daly History. I started out simply as a way of airing my thoughts, I never imagined that it would take off like it has. Apart from a few snobby comments in some quarters – which you are always going to get! – it seems that there is a demand for relating the past to the present, and the future.

I would like to thank everyone who has visited, whether its just to have a quick browse or to get involved. In particular I would like to thank my friends and family for their support, and some of the friends I have made through my blog – Mike Burleson at New Wars for kindly promoting my work, Pen and Sword, The History Press, Ospey and Little, Brown for allowing me to review their books, the guys at WW2talk for their input and interest, savetheroyalnavy, thinkdefence, and basically anyone and everyone who has helped kick this project along!

553 posts… 624 comments… 34,464 hits from 139 Countries!

The most popular posts have been:

652 The Sinking of the Laconia
534 Falklands Then and Now: Aircraft Carriers
474 Trawlers, Drifters and Tugs: The Small ships of WW2
451 Type 45 Destroyers face further worries
438 Refighting the Falklands War?

The highest rated posts have been:

Treblinka Survivor by Mark S. Smith (6 *****)
The Sinking of the Laconia to hit our screens soon (5 *****)
Escape from Arnhem by Godfrey Freeman (5 *****)

I’ve really enjoyed writing the ‘Refighting the Falklands War’, Arnhem 65 years on, Victoria Cross Heroes, Portsmouth Heroes and 70 years on from 1940 series. Writing about the Shoreham airshow, touring HMS Daring, the Solent Overlord Show at Horndean and about my talks has been great fun too.

There should be plenty more to write about over the next 12 months too, with a Strategic Defence Review due to be completed soon, and events such as Navy Days coming soon. On a personal level, I’ve got plenty of talks booked, and a number of exciting projects on the drawing board.

As ever, if anyone has any comments, suggestions or feedback I would be more than glad to hear from you -after all, a blog is nothing without the people who visit it!

Thanks again for all your support,



Filed under site news, Uncategorized

Churchill’s Desert Rats in North West Europe by Patrick Delaforce

Thankfully military history has moved on in the past few years. While not so long ago military history consisted primarily of battles, generals, tanks, ships, planes, dates and the ‘great man’ school of history. Although of its time, looking back this approach does seem rather stale. The practice of writing THE history of a particular unit - usually in narrative form - is very much a traditional approach, and Patrick Delaforce has written a number of histories of some of the Divisions that fought in North West Europe with the British Army in 1944 and 1945.

Anyone with an interest in the Second World War will probably be aware that one of the most prominent issues surrouding the British Army was the performance of several of its veteran Division in Normandy in 1944. When he took over command of 21st Army Group Montgomery requested three veterans Divisions from the Eight Army: the 50th (Northumbrian), the 51st (Highland), and the famous 7th Armoured Divisions – the Desert Rats.

I’ve often thought that its pretty misleading to label any military unit as ‘elite’. No unit ever starts off as elite – everyone has to start somewhere, as they say – and units that once had a sharp edge can easily lose it. From my own research, I have found that while the 1st Airborne Division has often been regarded as an elite unit, in many ways it was green and had lost its keen edge. And most historians agree that far from giving the D-Day forces a stiffening of experience, the three Divisions brought over from Italy struggled once ashore. This issue has been looked at in more details by historians such as David French and David Fraser.

Why was this? While historians have debated and researched this for years, sadly Patrick Delaforce glosses over the Division’s performance, seeming to regard it as something that isn’t all that important. Which is a great pity, as discussing it help us get insde the psyche of the fighting soldier, as he goes from one battle to another. I’ve always been pretty interested in the psychology of battle, and I cannot help but feel that the experience of the 7th Armoured Division after D-Day would give a lot of food for thought. Historians have suggested arrogance, battle-weariness, and the difference between the Desert and the Bocage as reasons for the Divisions performance. It is hard to escape the conclusion that a Division that saw two Commanding Generals sacked within 6 months had problems.

After landing shortly after D-Day, Montgomery sent the Desert Rats to capture Villers Bocage, in an attempt to outflank Caen. After they failed it became clear that perhaps the policy of using veteran units wasn’t working quite as it was hoped. After the Desert Rats failed to distinguish themselves in Operation Goodwood shortly after it became clear that the Division would need rebuilding. In subsequent battles other Armoured Divisions were employed - the capture of Antwerp by the 11th Armoured Division, and Operation Market Garden by the Guards Armoured.

There are some bright spots about this book – Delaforce makes use of a number of veterans accounts, which shed light on life for the British Soldier between D-Day and VE Day. Subjects such as food, looting, brothels, medical care, officer-men relations and attitudes towards the enemy are all looked at. But I am sure there are a lot more accounts out there from Desert Rats veterans. And Delaforce seems not to have looked at the wide range of official sources out there, such as war diaries. Which is a real shame. Perhaps as a wartime Royal Horse Artillery officer Delaforce does not wish to be too critical or to delve too deep into the controversial areas.

This book, although interesting, does feel very much like an ‘old military history’. Worth a read, and twenty or thirty years ago it would have been great. But it could do with being updated with a fresher and more objective outlook.

Churchill’s Desert Rats in North West Europe is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, d-day, Uncategorized, World War Two

Bloodline: The origins and development of the regular formations of the British Army by Iain Gordon

Trying to trace the lineage of British Army Regiments is like trying to untangle a particularly knotted plate of spaghetti. But equally, the most unique aspect of the British Army is the tribal aspect of its Regiments. At times, the Army has resembled a loose collection of Regiments. And also, for the researcher attempting to work on their family history, for instance, the frequent name changes can be horribly confusing. Thereore this book comes as a godsend.

Broadly speaking, the modern British Army can trace much of its lineage back to the late 17th Century. Most Regiment’s were formed by a patron, and hence were known as ‘Joe Bloggs Regiment of Foot’. By the 1750′s Infantry Regiments were numbered, but still retained a strong local identity. This situation remained until the far-reaching Cardwell reforms of 1881, when Infantry Regiments were grouped together in what were largely County units. This bred a strong tribal spirit, with recruiting areas and Regimental Depots. After 1945, however, when the Army needed to contract, there were more individual Regiments than the Army could sustain. Gradually over the course of 60 years Country Regiments were replaced by larger Regional Regiments.

For example, my local infantry Regiment, the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, can trace its origins back to 1702, with the formation of Meredith’s Regiment of Foot in 1702. In 1751 this became the 37th Regiment of Foot, and then in 1782 the 37th (North Hampshire) Regiment of Foot. In Army-wide reforms in 1881 it merged with the 67th (South Hampshire) Regiment of Foot to form the Hampshire Regiment (37th and 67th Foot). In 1946 this became the Royal Hampshire Regiment. And finally, in 1992, the Hampshires merged with the Queens Regiment to form the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (Queens and Royal Hampshires). This large Regiment was formed out of units tha coud trace their history back to the 2nd, 3rd, 31st, 35th, 37th, 50th, 57th, 67th, 70th, 77th, 97th and 107th Regiments of Foot. And this is just one modern Regiment -multiply this for every current Regiment in the Army, then we have a very complicated picture.

Not only does this book chart the linear development of Regiments. Iain Gordon has included information about Regimental Museums, Regimenta Headquarters, Regimental Marches, Alliances with other military units, and the Colonel-in-Chief. Information such as this gives us an idea of the unique tribal colour of a regiment. Another very useful inclusion is a comprehensive list of every Regiment’s battle honours. And not only does this book cover the infantry – Guards, line infantry, Paras, Rifles and Gurkhas – but also the Royal Armoured Corps, Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers and the range of other Corps in the British Army.

I know of no other resource that contains such a wealth of information about the History of the Regiments of the British Army. This will be a very useful addition to my shelf of military reference books.

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Uncategorized

local military history events this summer

Its looking like a bumper summer for all things military history in the Portsmouth area. If I’ve missed any out, feel free to comment!

Overlord Vehicle Show – 28 to 31 May 2010

This event takes place every year at the Horndean showground near Portsmouth, and is organised by the Solent Overlord Executive Military Vehicle Club. For 4 days from 9am until 5.30pm you can take a good look at a whole host of military vehicles, re-enactors, arena events and stalls. This year the shows designated charity is the Gurkha Welfare Trust. For more information click here, and to look at some pictures from last years event, click here.

South Coast Proms – 25 and 26 June 2010

This is a brand new event, featuring the massed bands of the Royal Marines – only the best military band in the world! Its taking place on Whale Island, a naval base normally closed to the public. Pre-show entertainment starts at 6.30pm each night, and the evening will end on a high with the traditional Naval Ceremonial Sunset and a fireworks finale. For more information click here.

Para Spectacular and Veterans Day – 3 and 4 July 2010

This event began life as the Pompey Paras spectacular over twenty years ago. This year, for the second year running, its a two-day event and incorporates the Armed Forces and Veterans Day. It takes place on Southsea Common, and features a range of dislays, arena events, and parachute displays. According to the local media an Apache might even make an appearance! The day ends with a marchpast of veterans and a performance from the Parachute Regiment band. As the Grandson of a Para I always try and make an appearance if I can. For more information click here, and to see pictures of last years event click here.

Navy Days – 30 July to 01 August 2010

This biennial event takes place at Portsmouth Dockyard. Aimed at showcasing the Royal Navy past, present and future, we can expect a wide array of ships, displays, arena events, aerial and water displays, and a whole host of entertainment. Already confirmed to appear are HMS Daring and Dauntless, the two new Type 45 Destroyers; RFA Argus, an aviation training and casualty receiving ship; two Type 23 Frigates; HMS Cattistock, a mine-countermeasures vessel; HMS Tyne, a fishery patrol vessel; and HMS Gleaner, an inshore survey launch. Nearer the event we can also expect some foreign warships to be announced. As well as the modern ships visitors will be able to see all the usual attractions of the historic dockyard. The Royal Marines band will be performing, along with the Royal Signals white helmets motorcycle display team, and the Brickwoods Field Gun competition. In the air, the Royal Navy Black Cats helicopter display team will appear, along with the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Air Ambulance, and the Royal Artillery Black Knights Parachute Display team. Looks like a great day out. For more infomation click here.

Shoreham Airshow – 21 to 22 August 2010

The last event of the year is the annual Battle of Britain airshow at Shoreham airport. Headlining the show this year are contributions from the RAF, in the shape of a Harrier GR9, Hawk T1, Tucano T1, King Air, Grob Tutor, the Lancaster, Spitifire and Hurricane of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, and the Falcons parachute display team (saturday only). On Sunday the Red Devils Parachute Display team will be performing. A wide array of civilian displays are expected – Hawker Hunter, Folland Gnats, BAC Strikemaster, De Havilland Vampire, Catalina Flying Boat, a large number of Spitfires and Hurricanes, B-17 Flying Fortress, and a number of aerobatic displays. As well as the aerial displays there are always a wide range of static displays, including from the armed forces, and re-enactors. I’ve been the past two years and always had a great time. For more information click here.


Filed under airshow, Army, d-day, Dockyard, event, maritime history, Music, Navy, out and about, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, Uncategorized

The Face of Battle by John Keegan

I must confess to being quite tired of narrative military history. As much as ‘the history of…’ accounts are important, in that they are the building blocks of history, they can be rather dry and predictable. I much prefer to read books that either take a long view and look at trends, changes and continuities, or attempt to drill down and investigate mysteries, explode myths or answer questions.

Therefore I was pleasantly surprised to pick up this book by John Keegan for the princely sum of £2.99. John Keegan is one of the main figures in late twentieth century school of military historiography, alongside other figures such as Basil Liddell Hart, John Terraine and Michael Howard. Among Keegan’s books that I have read and enjoyed are Churchill’s Generals – a study of senior British Army officers in the Second World War – and Six Armies in Normandy – A look at the national contingents that fought in the Battle of Normandy.

I often feel that military histories that look at just one battle, at one particular point in time, are like listening to one particular second in a much longer symphony. What becomes before and after makes all the difference, by isolating it we remove it from its natural habitat. Therefore I much admire this work, which sees Keegan looking at the human experience of war over hundreds of years. To do this in detail is a tall order, so three case studies are used – Agincourt, Waterloo and The Somme. Each provides an extremely useful yardstick for comparison to what came before and what came after – what changed, and why? What stayed the same?

Keegan does very well to make some very complex events more understandable – such is the essence of well-written history, after all. An approach that I particularly like is breaking each battle down into the different kinds of combat that were experiences – ie at Agincourt various combinations of Archer, footsoldier and knight; at Waterloo infantry, cavalry and artillery; and at the Somme infantry, artilley and to a lesser extent machine gunners. What is noticeable is how the change in combat was motivated by technology – from Agincourt to Waterloo the development of gunpowder, and from Waterloo to the Somme by rifling, more efficient high explosives and machine guns.

Against this framework looks at more human factors – how the social composition of the armies in question evolved, and how the development of weapons changed the type of wounds that a soldier might expect to suffer. Keegan even considers such interesting points as historical trends in looting. A salient point, however, is one that seems obvious to us only after we read it – that over the time in question battles involve more and more people, over a bigger and bigger space, and lasted for longer and longer. Such was the evolution towards total war.

Critics of Keegan might point out that he gives little consideration to political factors, but personally I find his refreshing. Im not sure if any Tommy Atkins was particulary worried about politics when lying wounded in the Mud at Agincourt, Waterloo or the Somme. As important as Clausewitz’s maxim is about war being the pursuit of politics through other means, does politics really have to overshadow every facet of military history? If we are studying strategy, yes. But when it come to the face of battle, no.

My only criticism is that the Somme was coming up for 100 years ago, and thus Keegan’s arguments are somewhat adrift, bearing in mind we are now in the nuclear age. Perhaps a new edition including an example from the Second World War might be pertinent, and put the Somme in greater context than leaving it as a bookend?


Filed under Book of the Week, historiography, Medieval history, Napoleonic War, World War One

Learning lessons in counter-insurgency

Browsing on the RUSI’s website I found this very ineresting article by Huw Bennett, entitled ‘The reluctant pupil? Britain’s army and learning in counter-insurgency. It is extremely relevant to the current conflict in Afghanistan, and I think it is worth summarising here with my own thoughts.

Often the failures of armed forces, especially in counter-insurgecy campaigns, are blamed on the inability of the miltary to learn and absorb the lessons from past conflicts. Looking at the example of past wars should demonstrate that our forces and commanders need to develop an ability to react flexibly to the unique nature of each campaign. Learning is crucial in military command and leadership. Particularly when we are all too aware that the cost of lessons not learnt is counted in lives lost. This is one sphere where military history can have a real impact on doctrine.

Post 1945 the British Army found itself involved in one counter-insurgency campaign after another, notably in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, and most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of these examples are hallmarked by initial failings, before classic doctrine comes into play and varying degrees of success were achieved. Isnt it ironic that the British Army’s experience in the second half of the Twentieth Century was spent overwhelmingly in counter-insurgency, yet looking back we get the feeling that operations such as Northern Ireland were an unpleasant necessary, while the Army would rather have been fighting a real war?

History suggests that rather than being a new conflict out on its own, the current war in Afghanistan is in strong continuity with other counter-insurgency campaigns, albeit with its own unique local nature. It has been lumped under the banner of the war on terror, but that is down to US-political factors. The UK as fighting terror long before 9/11. There are strong lessons that shine through all campaigns. Hearts and minds matter, and civil-military co-operation is important. If you are going to ‘do’ nation breaking, then you have to do nation building. There will be no victory parade like in ‘real’ wars. Excessive use of force causes more problems than it solves. The objective is to make the enemy’s objective impossible, and to remove the factors that allow then to exist and operate.

But why is it that military culture struggles to learn these lessons? Does change – in particuar with looming cuts and restructuring – need to embraced rather than shyed away from? Certainly, deeply held beliefs and cultures, such as those found in an organisation like the Army, shape military beaviour and stifle abstract thinking and innovation. All too often a convenient orthodoxy reigns, and all thinking outside of it is frowned upon. Although there is also a strong culture of pragmatism and ‘muddling through’, is it the case that if we were pay more attention to history, then we might not have to? After all, how come the US military got their approach to Iraq so badly wrong, when there were ample case studies from their time in Iraq and the British experience in Northern Ireland?

Bennett’s conclusion is most interesting:

Historical campaigns should be studied as an exercise in analytical thinking for commanders, rather than being expected to serve up easily transferable generic lessons. Failure at a counter-insurgency campaign’s start is structurally inevitable, and is thus no cause for demoralisation. The trick is to recover, and learn about a new situation, fast.

Recovering and then learning quickly is likely to become a common theme in a time of cuts and overstretch. It will be impossible for the armed forces to be all things to all people all of the time, expecting the unexpected is likely to become the norm in an uncertain world. In the twenty-first century, has the unconventional become the new conventional?

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Filed under Afghanistan, Army, debate, historiography, Iraq

Revisionism and Military History

Regular readers will not be surprised that I’m of the opinion that military history lags a long way behind other historical disciplines. Whilst other themes and eras in history see heated but formative debate, military history is perhaps subject to more assumptions, more orthodoxies, and more restrictive influences than any other area of study. The study of subjects such as class, economics, politics, crime, race and empire are at the cutting edge of the historical profession. They attract the most active minds, and the most scrutiny. Arguments are hotly debated in books, journal articles and at conferences. Various schools of thought spring up.

Revisionism is term used to describe any efforts to challenge an assumption. And as Military History is full of assumptions, it is pretty much ripe for being ‘revised’. Assumptions are most dangerous things in history – nothing should be assumed, everything should be researched, challenged and debated. Challenge is healthy, and results in strong arguments gaining credence, and weak ones fading away. An unchallenged argument is like an impressive looking Regiment that hasn’t seen action. Revisionism is not denialism, but it is certainly about busting myths.

Yet military history is still, by and large, the preserve of the military itself. There is a kind of subliminal, unwritten rule that only former officers can really ‘do’ military history. Civvie Historians are shrugged off, no matter their qualities. But it is a very dangerous world when we ignore somebody’s views just because they aren’t in our club or of our class. This is also a convenient way to protect heritage, regimental history and the reputations of former officers. History should be about causes, factors, themes, patterns, sources – not regimental ties.

Military History all too often tends to be overwhelmingly narrative, a stale story of events rather than a critical look at a subject or an event. Military campaigns are far more dynamic than a simple a-z history of a battle – they deserve far better debate and analysis. Too often military history books are poorly researched, poorly laid out, and poorly referenced. No wonder people get bored with it. Maybe the lack of debate is down to the military principle of not questioning orders, and always obeying your superiors – do these caveats permeate into military history? I think so.

I can think of perhaps two prominent examples of Revisionism in Military History. The popular belief is that Tommy marched off to France singing Tiperrary, sat for four years in a muddy hole in France eating bully beef, was led by buffons and either died going over the top or went home horribly scarred. Gordon Corrigan has done much to challenge this view in Mud, Blood and Poppycock. In terms of the oft-quoted but rarely debated ‘lions led by donkeys’ cliche, John Terraine, Richard Holmes and Gary Sheffield have done much writing on this subject. And whilst no one argues that Haig, French et al were masters of the battlefield, perhaps there were good reasons why they struggled, and maybe they did better than we seem to think? My mind is still undecided, but at least the debate is there.

Another big myth is that of the Blitz. According to popular legend everyone had a good old east end style knees up, singing roll about the barrel while the Luftwaffe tried to break our spirits. Everyone was remarkably well behaved and we won in the end. Of course, this takes no account of the widespread looting, the fragile morale or the fears of panic and civil unrest. Angus Calder has done much to challenge these assumptions, as well as one of my old tutors, Brad Beaven.

Another military historian who did much to challenge assumptions was Robin Neillands. In a series of books on the war in North West Europe Neillands challenged the perceived view that Monty wasn’t really that good a general, and shows us that, perhaps, he was much better than the assumed orthodoxy allows us to think. Not only that, but Neillands does much to dismantle and expose the smearing of Montgomery by historians.

Another military historian who might be labelled a revisionist is William Buckingham. Writing on the battle of Arnhem, he exposes the traditional views of the battle as folly. The men of Arnhem were fine men indeed, but they were not quite the elite force we are led to believe. And it is hard to not find Boy Browning at fault for much of what went wrong at Arnhem, although his reputation has been fiercely protected by his family, friends and former regiment in the years afterwards. It might be uncomfortable, but there are little things called objectivity and the truth.

War is perhaps one of the most shocking yet pivotal experiences that humankind undergoes. The study of it should be fresh, and challenging, and should closely inform the present and the future. In no other profession can the repetition of past mistakes be so costly. War affects everyone, especially the ordinary men and women who are caught up in its whirlwind. The history of warfare is far too important to be left to the military alone. Military History should not be owned just by a small part of society: we are all trustees of our military heritage, through our ancestors experiences, and the consequences of warfare that we all live with to this day.

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Filed under debate, historiography, social history, World War One, World War Two

Thoughts on Leadership

Wellington - the Iron Duke

Wellington - the Iron Duke

My recent post on Leadership and Command in the Falklands War got me thinking about leadership in a broader sense.

I’m sure we’ve all worked with enough managers in our time that simply make us think ‘how in the name of hell did someone think they would make a good manager?’. Tescos in particular seem to be fine proponents of this art – promoting any old person who’s hung around long enough without any thought as to if they actually have the people skills or the brain cells for the job. Some of the biggest mistakes I have seen are the ‘I now have a fancy job title, im going to shout at you all until you do what I want’ style of management, closely followed by the ‘I’m going to make you look small, so I feel big’ style of bullying.

You can take a lot from military history that informs good leadership. Perhaps because command during war is the sharpest test of leadership anyone could face, and in that white hot crucible the factors that make a good leader tend to shine out. There are some shining examples of both good and bad leadership throughout the ages. Why shouldn’t we draw lessons from Montgomery’s plan for Alamein, and apply them to that new corporate strategy? Why can’t we look at the Duke of Wellington’s strategy at Waterloo, and use the same kind of defensive approach when we’re under fire at work?

Writers such as Sun Tzu and Carl Von Clausewitz give us some rather deep but useful theories for leadership. And then there are some fantastic examples through the ages of how and how not to do it. Oliver Cromwell, the Duke of Marlborough, Horatio Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill, Brian Horrocks, John Frost, Montgomery, Eisenhower, Bill Slim and more recently Sandy Woodward, Julian Thompson and Mike Jackson all offer useful examples of leadership in difficult situations. And whats more interesting, is that they all have slightly different styles and approaches, and some are good in different situations. Churchill was a great orator and inspirer, but in terms of real decisions and policies, maybe he wasnt so great. Wellington was a resolute commander and his men trusted him, but he was rather cold and aloof. Monty was a great thinker and cared about his men, but his prickly manner alienated his colleagues and superiors. By reading about them all, you can imagine different scenarios.

So for me, what qualities shine out that make a good leader? Firstly, you should never expect your staff to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself. Of course this helps if you have actually been there and done it yourself, or if you still do regularly. Having a fancy job title doesnt mean you cant roll your sleeves up every now and then. Secondly, rather than just shouting at people all the time, why not think ‘how can I get more out of these people?’ – some people respond to a firm hand, some people need a quiet chat. People have different strengths and weaknesses – use them. Thats cos all people are different. Morale IS vital too – if you treat people like dirt, you can’t expect them to go above and beyond for you. People do appreciate a genuine thank you, or a tin of biscuits every now and then. And don’t treat people like idiots – explain things to them so they know what’s going on. Don’t take all the credit for other people’s work – without them you’re nothing. And don’t feel threatened by people under you – its the mark of a good leader if they inspire and develop their staff. You won’t get it right all the time, we’re all human. But think about it, don’t just bumble along day to day, stand back and think ‘am I doing this right? what could we try different?’

I do wonder what exactly they teach on some of these corporate management training courses…


Filed under Army, debate, Falklands War, Napoleonic War, Navy, social history, World War Two

Marlborough: Britain’s Greatest General by Richard Holmes

Britain’s Greatest General? A brave statement indeed! But then again, if anyone can make such a statement, Richard Holmes can.

Richard Holmes is probably best known for his series of ‘war walks’ programmes some years ago. In recent years he has turned his attention more towards writing, with an acclaimed biography of the Duke of Wellington, and some interesting studies of British soldiers through the ages. Neither is Holmes a mere TV Historian (yes, you, Dan Snow!) – he is Professor of Military Studies at Cranfield University. Not only that, he is a former senior TA Officer too. Clearly, this guy knows his military history.

John Churchill (yes, an ancestor of THE Churchill) was born during the reign of Charles II. Rising to prominent military rank during the reign of James II, Churchill was caught up in the dilemma of James’s overt Roman Catholicism. Originally on the side of the monarch, his switching of sides before the battle of Sedgemoor tipped the balance and helped lead to William of Orange acceding to the throne, jointly with his wife Mary. Churchill fell out of favour somewhat during the reign of William and Mary, such was the turbulent nature of late Stuart high society.

What really seems to have advanced Churchill’s career was his wife’s friendship with the next monarch, Queen Anne. Although Churchill was a gifted soldier, as always in military history some social connections go a long way in aiding a rise to the top. Churchill was eventually ennobled as the Earl and then Duke of Marlborough, after decisive victories at Blenheim, Ramillies and Oudenarde during the war of the Spanish Succession.

So what makes Marlborough Britain’s Greatest General? Well, he was probably Britain’s first true professional commander. Prior to Marlborough, Royals tended to take command. Cromwell might have been a commoner, but his career was driven by politics. Marlborough heralded a new age of military competence and professionalism. Military command was no longer something that the great and the good turned to when they had to. And with the existence of a standing army for the first time in British history, there was now the potential for men such as Marlborough to hone their skills. Marlborough also made a first class Allied commander – Eisenhower would have done well to read up on his Marlburian history.

But what makes Marlborough really iconic is his grasp on the simple matters of command. In particular, logistics. He lacks maybe the drive of a Napoleon, but he was always totally in command of his supply lines. Only by organising his army so well could he march so deep into Europe as he did in the Blenheim campaign. And, as Holmes states, he had a rapport with his soldiers – Wellington’s redcoats, by contrast, would never have called him ‘Corporal John’, as they did Marlborough. But all the same, we can see the start of a clear progression, from Marlborough, to Wellington, to Montgomery.

Holmes makes the point very well. At times it feels that the story is too enmeshed with Stuart society, but that is difficult to avoid – it explains much of Marlboroughs career and his significance. This is an eminently readable book with a refreshing down to earth style.


Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Early Modern History

British Generalship

I’ve almost finished reading The Making of the British Army, by Allan Mallinson. I will be writing a review in full course, but I’m more than happy to give away a few glimpses now.

Think of great British Generals. Cromwell. Marlborough. Wellington. You can probably add Wolfe, and maybe Kitchener, to that list. But in the twentieth century, nothing. If anything, we tend to think of amateurish fumblings in the Crimea, Haig’s indifferent and incompetend leadership on the Western Front, and evacuation at Dunkirk and surrender in Singapore.

Why is it that we generally can’t offer up a great British General since Waterloo? Especially as in that time we have fought a multitude of colonial wars, won two world wars, and then a plethora of difficult conflict around the world? Certainly, it would take a very brave person to argue that any great leaders came out of the Crimea or the First World War.

Or is it that British Generals have suffered from History? The longer ago a commander died, the more that their faults and vices tend to pale into insignificance. It is often said that the best career move anyone can make is to die – if we look at a comparable military figure, such as Nelson, all becomes clear. To die in battle absolves you of pretty much any drawbacks, even infidelity and vanity.

Nelson brings us on to another theme. Britain, as a country, has always admired sailors. There is something noble about going to the sea, even as a Jack Tar. Yet soldiers have long been thought of as ‘the scum of the earth’. The Royal Navy is the senior service, yet the Army – note the absence of a royal prefix – itself is only a loose collection of tribes. The Royal Navy has a pantheon of greats, from Howe, Anson, St Vincent, Nelson, Collingwood, Fisher, Jellicoe, Beatty, Cunningham, and … and I would also argue Henry Leach… plenty more besides.

I have always thought that in Montgomery Britian did in fact have a 20th Century General who may rank just below Marlborough and Wellington. He probably doesnt deserve to rank alongside them, the debacle of Arnhem put paid to that, as well as his prickly character which won him few friends. But his military record speaks for itself. He saw active service in the first world war and was severely wounded. Then in the Second World War he managed to extricate his Division from Dunkirk, and gained a strong reputation as a trainer of men. When he was finally called to command the Eighth Army in North Africa, he put together a sound plan that turned the course of the Desert War. And only Montgomery could have overseen D-Day so succesfully.

For almost half a century it has been fashionable to knock Montgomery. Perhaps this stems from his abrasive attitude. But on the other hand, Wellington was a notoriously cold character too. Or it may stem from the fact that historical views of Wellington tend to polarise on US-British lines. This arose from the deep dislike that American generals had for Montgomery. But were they right to be so bitter? Montgomery had seen more action than all of them put together. At the start of the war, Eisenhower was a Colonel. Patton was good at driving forward in a straight line very fast, but came unstuck when he faced strong opposition. And to my knowledge, Montgomery cared too much for his men to slap any of them. If he had, he would have been sacked and retired from the Army. And for all his faults, Montgomery always followed orders. Perhaps his greatest fault was that he was right, and was not afraid of saying so.

American Historians – and not a few British ones too – have dominated the military historiography of the second world war. It has almost become an orthodoxy that Montgomery was over-rated. Saving Private Ryan said as much. In America, every general seems to be respected as a matter of course. Whilst I would not go this far, it is frustrating that in Britain we do not stand up for our military figures as much as we should. We love to knock our heroes, and especially our Generals. The late Robin Neillands wrote some very positive books about Montgomery, so hopefully in time historians will come to realise that his perceived faults have been exaggerated, and by comparison his strengths have been overlooked.

It seems that it is not so much what happened during the war that matters, but how it has been written about. It might be quite possible that had American Historians had found reason to denigrate Wellington, he would not be regarded as being as important as he is now. And that would completely change our view of leadership in the British Army. Are we missing out by not holding up Montgomery as a more important figure?


Filed under Army, debate, Navy, Uncategorized, World War One, World War Two