Military History: is there anything new to learn?

Last weekend I spent a very interesting couple of days working at our D-Day 70 Community Conference. As well as a visit to Southwick House which served as Eisenhower, Montgomery and Ramsay’s headquarters in the days prior to D-Day (I’d never been before), we also had talks from a range of different speakers. And hearing Dr Simon Trew from the War Studies Department at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst talking about whether there is anything new to learn about D-Day really got me thinking.

My first love in military history was – and still is – Arnhem. For family reasons the airborne battle in Holland in September 1944 has always been very close to me, and I’ve spent years poring over every book I can possibly find on the subject. Even when I have been working on radically different topics, Arnhem has always been there in the background. It’s always been an ambition of mine to write a book about Arnhem, but at the same time I’ve always been hesitant. It’s been written about so extensively that there are literally hundreds of books on Arnhem and Operation Market Garden. There are a wide plethora of specialist books on particular units or individuals, but my biggest bug bear has always been the sheer number of general books on the battle. There are so many, to the extent that with many of them, you could swap the authors names around, and the texts appear to be almost identical in content. Very few of them offer any kind of new research or new insight. Why would I want to wade into that historiography, just to cash in? No, I like to feel that if I am going to spend 2+ years of my life working on a book, that it will contribute something new to people’s understanding.

Hence I’ve left Arnhem well alone. But hearing Simon’s talk about the state of ‘1944’ historiography really got my thinking. And I have to agree, that despite the apparent extensive coverage of the subject, if you look beyond the surface, there is still plenty of work to be done. Very little of the Arnhem historiography is ground-breaking. Surely there must be some documents out there, at the National Archives perhaps, that have not been looked at? Or, are there assumptions in the historiography that need re-visiting? For example, has it occured to anyone that there is no credible evidence that General Browning’s of-quoted ‘Bridge too far’ was ever said? Can more work be done on the large number of oral histories and personal testimonies of other ranks involved in the battle?

One immediate area that occurs to me is the time period between 6 June and 17 September 1944. The British airborne landings in Normandy were an almost complete success, in particular the Pegasus Bridge and Merville Battery operations. How, just over three months later, did the same planning staffs manage to oversee a debacle like Arnhem? Many of you may know the well-known line in ‘A Bridge too Far’ when General Browning refers to fifteen airborne operations being cancelled since D-Day. How much do we know about these plans? Very little, it seems – some of them do not even seem to have received a code name. But they must have generated planning documents, and references in unit war diaries. Do these planned operations explain how Operation Market Garden transpired?

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