Category Archives: historiography

What is Military History Now?

I’ve been watching some of the debates centred on military history with great interest. The Centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres (or is it Paschendaele?!) and the release of the film Dunkirk have inspired much navel-gazing and hand-wringing from military historians.

I think it’s fair to say that my thoughts on military history have evolved somewhat over the years. My interest was piqued at a very young age by my family history. Of course I went through the watching-war-films phase, and the button-counting and badge-checking and predictable-self-righteous-indignation-when-something-was-wrong phase.

But over time I think – and hope – that my motivation for ‘doing’ history has grown up somewhat. Accuracy is great, but what does it achieve? Yes, it is misleading if things are wrong, but is it possible to worry far too much about things that are details, and completely forget about the bigger picture? That is, what people are thinking and feeling, and what the bigger lessons of conflict are?

I guess I am quite lucky in that I have been ‘doing’ my history in quite a public way, and I get to interact with a lot of ‘normal’ people (even if that has involved writing books that are longer than a PhD thesis but most ‘proper’ historians would not lower themselves to cite as a source…)  But it has reallt reinforced my belief that preaching to the converted on the minutiae is one thing, but making a real difference to people who are not enthusiasts is the real coal face of history.

The more I have worked in public history, the more I have become more and more convinced over time that echo chamber history is virtually pointless – what purpose does it really serve? Recent events – Brexit, for one – suggests to me that history, and especially military history – has failed in terms of its broader role in society. Or, at the very least, history has not exactly covered itself in glory.

If the most important thing about a war film, for you, is that one of the cap badges is wrong or the repro battledress is the wrong shade of khaki, personally I think that you’re kind of missing the point. Anal retentiveness really will have overtaken the bigger issues. It reminds me of an account I read of the BEF in 1939-40. Apparently Lord Gort issued numerous orders regarding uniforms and standards of dress, perhaps unsurprisingly for a Guardsman. Yet sartorial elegance did not stop the debacle that led to Dunkirk.

I think the crux of all history is that what you do is affected very much by why you do it. If your primary interest is checking cap badges and counting buttons and then getting smugly outraged when not everything is completely right, chances are you’re probably less worried about what effect your work is going to have on people. Which does lead me to wonder if some historians really aren’t all that fussed about what effect their work has. After all, there are plenty of supposedly influential academic tomes that retail at £80 and have probably sold four or five copies, and can only be found in impenetrable libraries somewhere. What effect is that kind of history really having on anyone? Yet I have also seen plenty of sneering posts on twitter bemoaning arts projects, interpretive dance, and well, anything that isn’t either a book or a lecture. Aside from showing a complete lack of understanding of the modern world and the potential to reach new audiences, it seems possible to me that many enthusiasts would not be unhappy if militaty history stays in a position where they could bemoan the lack of interest of the general population, but they can also also smother the field so that said population are less likely to become interested in it. Schrodingers geek, you might describe it as.

To put it quite bluntly, I started out on the path of military history because of my family history. That family history tells me quite unequivocally that war is pretty awful, and really, isn’t that the whole point of military history, letting people know that war is a god-awful business? To be quite blunt, aside from making sure that something does not look completely ridiculous, I’m really not all that fussed about counting badges. However, if something I write or a display that I put together makes people go away and think something or feel something, that’s an outcome I can feel proud about.

The centenary of the Great War does feel like a missed opportunity in some respects. Not, I hasten to add, to just re-energise interest, but for military history as a concept to take a deeper look in the mirror. Maybe the nature of military history in 2017 is the problem. Caught between the ivory towers of academic military history on the one hand and the geekier end of the spectrum, there is more than ever a need for a middle way that takes into account the nature of the world we live in today, and the needs of the people who live in it.

For that to happen all parts of the field would need to take a hard look at themselves. It would require less factionalism between sectors, and academics, museum professionals, enthusiasts, tour guides and broadcasters. Getting away from secret societies and closed shop conferences and journals that won’t acknowledge your existence if you are not a PhD. Ironically, I think these kind of factors that have been in evidence during recent debates, are also part of the problem. And, even more ironically, military historians are showing signs of fighting todays problems with yesterdays tactics.

But most of all, thinking long and hard about why we do military history, and what it is all for.

 

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Filed under historiography, Uncategorized, writing

The (inceasingly tedious) historiography of Arnhem

I know its something I have written about before, but it never ceases to amaze me how historians and publishers will attempt to flog dead horses. Well, maybe thats not a great analogy, but some battles have been written about so much, without anything substantially ‘new’ being offered.

Coming from a background of academic history, my philosophy is that you only undertake to write something if you have a new vein of original material that has never been worked on before, or you can offer a dramatically new appraisal of something that has already been done. What you don’t do is just re-hash what somebody else has already done. It gets very tiring when you see yet another book about an epic battle, that promises much but delivers little.

Therefore I am astounded by just how many books get written about Arnhem and Market Garden. Most of them are very general books, telling any reader who has more than a little knowledge what they already know and offering nothing new in return. In Waterstones yesterday I picked up a copy of a new Arnhem book by a well-known military history duo, whose books I have previously enjoyed, but whose new effort on Arnhem appears to be re-inventing the wheel. It does seem to be publisher-motivated, as any military history publisher knows, books on Arnhem sell.

Out of the virtually hundreds of books written about Arnhem, only a handful of them are really indispensible, in my experience. Arnhem by Martin Middlebrook is the best overall, general introduction about the Battle. A Bridge too Far by Cornelius Ryan is, for obvious reasons, another good introduction, which reads almost like a novel, and takes a wider perspective. It never snows in September by Robert Kershaw is invaluable, as it is the only book that really tells the German side of the battle – and a history of a battle that only focuses on one side is like watching a football match but only being able to see half of the pitch. Arnhem 1944 by William Buckingham was, in my opinion, the first book to look at Arnhem through a more challenging, modern historiographical perspective. Even if you don’t agree with his conclusions, putting the cat amongs the pigeons leads for a more rigorous history in my opinion. And obviously ‘original’ texts like those by Roy Urquhart, John Frost etc are invaluable, as primary sources.

It’s so disappointing, to see big name authors with big publishing deals re-hashing what is already out there, when there are legions of historians out there who are working hard on original material, yet never get the credit that they deserve. As much as I want to sell books and pay the bills, I also want to contribute to history, and you do that by offering something new or different. I guess in that respect military history does lag behind some other disciplines, in that sometimes it is nowhere near challenging enough, and of course as a popular subject for publishing it is open to market forces more than say the history of ferret stuffing in deepest Somerset.

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Filed under Arnhem, debate, historiography, Uncategorized, World War Two

Hitler Triumphant: Alternate Histories of World War II edited by Peter G. Tsouras

I’ve always been a bit dubious about alternate histories. I’ve always thought of them as ‘what might of happened, but didn’t happen’. Therefore if it didn’t happen, why are we worrying about it? But then again, I guess thats like saying that just because something is in the past then it’s irrelevant, as its behind us. Just as understanding the past gives us a handle on the future, understanding how past events turned out how they did probably gives us a firmer grip on that handle. Confused? me too! Now that we’ve established that alternate histories and conspiracy theories are not the same thing, lets take a look at this thought provoking book.

One thing you can say about Hitler, is that perhaps no-one in history has shown such inconsistency when it comes to decision making – at times he had an impeccable intuition, and at other times managed to cock things up when it was far easier to get it right. It is, surely, a matter of conjecture to imagine a scenario in which Hitler might have won the war – the strength of the US and Soviet Union made it pretty unlikely in my mind. But, certainly, some aspects of the war might have turned out very differently.

Let’s consider some of the chapters. In ‘May Day’ by Nigel Jones, Lord Halifax becomes Premier instead of Churchill, who is made Minister for War. Churchill is killed flying over France in 1940, the Panzers do not pause before Dunkirk, the BEF is overwhelmed and Hallifax sues for peace. This set of circumstances were by no means impossible. Hallifax seemed to be everyones preferred candidate to succeed Chaimberlain. Churchill was lucky to escape harm during the war. And, above all, Hallifax did not have the gumption to keep up the fight when things got tough.

Operation Felix sees the Spanish colluding in the Axis, and supporting the capture of Gibraltar. Of course without such a strategic port the Mediterranean would have been closed to British shipping, Malta overwhelmed, North Africa seriously weakened and Italy strengthened. Again, if Spain had joined in the war on the Axis side, it is hard to see how Gibraltar could have outalsted a prolonged onslaught, although one suspects its defenders might have put up a serious fight. A couple of chapters consider how the war might have turned out if Mussolini and the Italians had performed better than they did, and although this is mere conjecture, a stronger Italy would have presented less of a millstone to the Third Reich.

One very interesting scenario is the co-opting of Nazi and Islamic interests in the conquest of the Middle East. It is well known that Hitler courted the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, an extremist islamic figure. An uprising in Palestine and Iraq would have seriously undermined British control of vital oil reserves, and the route to India. A further chapter sees the Caucasus – on the flank of the Middle East and an oil field itself – captured by Kurt Student‘s paratroopers, following on from Crete. As for the Eastern Front overall, successive chapters see Moscow captured by the Wehrmacht, and the beleagured Sixth Army at Stalingrad breaks out and joins up with the rest of the German Army, avoiding a serious strategic defeat that in the event turned the tide on the Eastern Front.

Going back to the Mediterranean, Malta was lost under prolonged bombardment, after supply convoys failed to get through. The loss of Malta would have removed a thorn in the side of the Axis supply routes to North Africa, removed a key staging post from the Royal Navy, and gave the Italiand and Germans a platform to control the Med. The loss of Malta was something that was a very real risk, I feel.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, the last chapter considers what might have happened had the US Generals prevailed and an early invasion been launched in the Cotentin peninsula before 1944. In this scenario, a smaller, poorly trained and unprepared allied army is eventually thrown back into the sea, after landing in too small an beachead. Hitler is then free to concentrate on the Eastern Front, while US and British relations are irreparably damaged. Oddly, this scenario sees Patton and Monty becoming firm friends, reminding us that it is, after all, an alternative history!

I found this a very thought provoking read. Some of the scenarios were more likely in my opinion than others, but considering how various decisions were made and events transpired between 1939 and 1945, the war could have taken a lot longer and cost many more lives, had the allies made more errors and Hitler made less. It would have taken a coincidental set of events, but did not such a course of events derail Operation Market Garden?

Hitler Triumphant is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Book of the Week, historiography, World War Two

‘Don’t judge me!’ – judging, the past and the present

Ever heard someone shreek ‘don’t judge me!’, or ‘don’t judge someone unless you haven’t met them’? It does seem to be a bit of a cliche nowadays, or should I say, an excuse to be an ass and then deflect any criticism?

If we are not supposed to judge anyone we have never met, does that preclude all us historians from researching people who died before we were born? Of course not. History would be in trouble if we didn’t research people who came before us. And of course, we don’t know them.

And I have to say, and this comes as someone who spent 18 months researching somebody who died in 1847, that you CAN come to some kind of conclusion about what kind of person someone was, as long as you start off with a clean slate and see everything in the context of the time. Judging the past by the standards of today is problematic to say the least.

I guess the same stands for the 2,549 WW2 servicemen I have spent two years researching, or the 5,000 WW1 servicemen I am currently looking at. Just because I can never meet them, does that mean they should be abandoned to anonymity forever? Of course not.

If we don’t research people then we don’t have social history, and a society without history is like a ship without an anchor. And by the same token, our deeds and our actions precede us in the present day too. Life is full of judgement, its impossible to get away from it. Job interviews, dates, they are all about judgement – if someone has the skills you are looking for, or if they take care over their appearance.

So, go ahead – judge away!

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Somme 1914-1918: Lessons in War by Martin Marix Evans

I’ve often thought that the history of the Western Front has been written-up like the history of a 5 match test series. The same sides, but each test they move to another venue to battle it out. How else do you explain 1st, 2nd and 3rd Ypres, the Somme, Arras, Mons, Le Cateau et al? Reading through accounts of the Great War, we could be forgiven for thinking that fighting only took place in one place at one particular time.

But of course, just because a ‘big push’ was being made in one place, it did not mean that everyone went to sleep elsewhere. Maybe thats the down-side of focussing on one particular battle at a time and ignoring what was happening on the rest of the front. That pitfall is obviously what Martin Marix Evans is trying to rectify here, but looking at the Somme during the whole period of the First World War.

In an ironic kind of way, the same pitfalls are in evidence here. Even when you focus on an oft-ignored subject, to what extent do you refer back to the more well-known? Where exactly is the balance between context and irrelevance? Although Evans writes much about the Somme before and after July 1917, but also combines this with a potted history of the war elsewhere on the western front. This could be received either of two ways, depending on your viewpoint – tedious if you know all about the Great War already, useful if you are a newcomer to the subject. One other problem is the lack of referencing – despite an exhaustive bibliography, it would be nice to know where certain arguments come from.

I admire the intention of taking the Somme – and the first day in particular – and trying to place it into a wider context. Its a brave effort. For too long the grievous losses of that July day in 1916 have overshadowed much else that took place there – in particular some valuable lessons learnt in 1916, and some bitter fighting during the Kaiser Offensive in the Spring of 1918. And although he is trying to emphasise the other fighting, Evans gives us a very clear decscription of the fighting that began on 1 July 1916.

Were the massive losses of the First day of the Somme part of the process of learning to fight a new kind of war, or were they just another symptom of the ‘Donkeys’ school of thought? Evans argues that the First World War was a succession of ‘lessons expensively bought in blood and suffering’. Personally I’m not too sure the argument of ‘lessons learnt’ is backed up by developments, as the British Army fought almost exactly the same way at Passchendale in 1917 as it had on the Somme in 1916. But that is for the reader to decide.

Somme 1914-1918 Lessons in War is published by The History Press

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, historiography, World War One

Historian admits to negative Amazon reviews

I’ve just read a quite remarkable article on the BBC website, describing how a leading Historian has admitted to writing negative Amazon reviews on his rivals work. Professor Orlando Figes, of London’s Birbeck College, has finally owned up to writing a string of damming comments on his rivals books on Amazon. The admission comes after weeks of intrigue. Figes – who is currently on sick leave – has issued a statement of apology.

The row began after Rachel Polonsky, a Russian expert, discovered a less than complimentary review on Amazon of her recently published book. The comment said that her book was ‘hard to follow’, while another book by Robert Service was apparently ‘awful’. Yet the same username described a book by Figes as ‘fascinating’. Polonsky discovered that the username, ‘orlando-birbeck’ (not exactly imaginative) had the same home address as Figes. When confronted with the allegations Figes initially threatened legal action. Then he claimed that his wife had written the comments.

“It was stupid – some of the reviews I now see were small-minded and ungenerous but they were not intended to harm… This crisis has exposed some health problems, though I offer that more as explanation than excuse… I need some time now to reflect on what I have done and the consequences of my actions with medical help.”

Service, a leading authority on Russian History and one of the authors targeted by Figes, stated in the Guardian that the “secretive rubbishing of my work… [was] disgraceful.”

It really is a unique story, and not the kind of thing that you would expect from Historians. I would be very surprised if it does not go on more than we think, but for someone so prominent to not only do it but get caught out, is quite unheard of. It does sound as if Figes has some mental health issues that need addressing. But even then, it is hard to see him being able to come back from this. How can he go back to being a Professor of History, teaching History students? If I knew that one of my tutors had been exposed for trying to smear their peers, I wouldn’t be able to take them seriously.

Historians are meant to let their books do the talking – ugly spats and hostile reviewing should be left to the TV pundits. Objectivity is crucial, and if a historian stoops to trying to smear his rivals, how can we take his work seriously? One big lie casts doubt on all of his work – if someone can lie like that, what does that say about their integrity? Like David Irving after Richard Evans demolished his arguments, his credibility is shot to pieces.

Its a warning to us all, thats for sure. It shows how tempting it is to lower ones self to petty squabbles, rather than channeling our energies into our work. And even the great and the good are open to the temptation of dirty tricks. And finally, it shows how the internet has affected the history profession, in that wider bookselling has upped the intensity of publishing, and also made it possible for such smearing to take place. How many historians will be casting a suspicious eye on their reviews now?

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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?

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