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

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