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The rise and rise of military history

A fine new landmark in the welcome renaissance of a timeless genre

Artillery Row Books

Military history is popular as never before. Covid-era online podcasts, commercial battlefield tours and pilgrimages, veteran interviews, ease of foreign travel, an upsurge of interest in ancestry, accessibility to national archives, TV history channels, scale model-making, wargaming, museum exhibitions, and movies such as Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, Dunkirk and Oppenheimer (the latter having taken nearly $1bn at the box office), each contribute to this. As I write, Microsoft wants to buy the online Call of Duty gaming company for $69bn (£59bn). Even knock-off Lego tanks have got in on the act.

Numerous degree courses help, especially part-time ones, progressing from the era when no UK university taught an undergraduate programme in any kind of war studies. Conflict archaeology at Waterloo and on the Western Front is used as a therapy for forces personnel suffering from PTSD. Battle commemoration is big business (D-Day’s 70th anniversary in Normandy became a G7 summit meeting). The 1914–18 warriors are long gone, and those of 1939–45 are fast departing. With them go their (understandable) prejudices and reluctance to discuss bombings, battle and death.

At the forefront, as always, are the books. Traditional publishers, specialist magazines and the ability to self-publish have revolutionised what used to be a specific discipline. UK national newspapers cover military aspects of history on an almost daily basis. Bookstores these days have a military history section — I can remember when anything war-related was apologetically inserted into “Transport” or hidden in “General History”. It is no accident that this flood of new literary arrivals occurred after the end of the Cold War in 1989–90, a tsunami that only increased with the phenomenon of the internet. We have all benefited from the online exchange of ideas and increased accessibility to the lives and archives of others.

Conquer We Must: A Military History of Britain, 1914–1945, Robin Prior (Yale University Press, £30)

This renaissance began with Richard Holmes’ several books accompanying his successful War Walks and Western Front TV series, and with Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad (1998), which gained many literary prizes. The previous landmark was Thames Television’s outstanding TV series, World at War of 1973–74 — now an incredible 50 years old, but still holding up well. The resurgence also reflects the fact that in recent decades, the West has found itself again at war and taking casualties. Online and TV viewing has acclimatised us to blood and gore. To make sense of the present, and anticipate what’s around the corner in the future, we reach back to the past. History is our only starting point. It is a clock we use to remind us of our political and societal time of day. We use it as a compass to locate our whereabouts in the confusing terrain of human geography. It can tell us where we are and, morally, where we ought to be.

Inspired by TV series Band of Brothers-type accounts (a model successfully transferred to a British tank unit by James Holland in Brothers in Arms), movies and documentaries have all evolved as ways of exploring tales of derring-do by specific units, air squadrons or ships. Turgid campaign histories, written only for the participants, are out. They have been replaced by micro histories of people, places and things. Domestic war memoirs intrigue us, as a generation never subject to rationing, “Careless Talk Costs Lives” restraints or a make-do-and-mend mentality. The wartime house in London’s Imperial War Museum, a spin-off from a TV programme, was their most popular exhibit for years. Home front phraseology such as “Keep Calm and Carry On” has somehow been translated to every aspect of modern life. Newly-researched biographies — of air aces, war leaders, secret agents, war criminals, flashy warriors, Victoria Cross heroes, Colditz castle, Bletchley Park, Monte Cassino, the struggle for Leningrad, elite regiments or war-winning aircraft — have all sold well to a new generation (not brought up on grimy paperbacks penned in the 1950s that rapidly became movies exuding British pluck).

I am pleased that macro histories are also back in fashion, having long subscribed to the belief that there are bigger wheels always at play, stretching decades beyond short-span world and regional wars. For those wishing a Germanic flavour to their macro reading, the last couple of years alone has seen Peter H. Wilson’s Iron and Blood, a Military History of the German Speaking Peoples since 1500; Barney White-Spunner’s Berlin: The Story of a City; and Katja Hoyer’s Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871–1918. Robin Prior’s new Conquer We Must: A Military History of Britain 1914–1945 also fits snugly into this “big history” category.

Prior, based at the University of Adelaide, is best known as author of books on the First World War, usually penned with his academic colleague Trevor Wilson. Since the latter is no longer with us, Prior moved on to the Second World War in 2015, publishing When Britain Saved The West: The Story of 1940. Building on this, he has produced an incisive analysis of Britain’s war-making in both world conflicts, at the strategic-military-political level.

Prior’s military reassessment of both wars is an ambitious exercise

Yes, Conquer We Must is unbalanced, offering only 11 chapters and 250 pages on the first war, a too-brief interwar survey, and over 400 pages and 16 chapters devoted to the second, but this can be excused by the longer duration and wider global reach of 1939–45. True, it is European-centric, with the outliers of Gallipoli and Mesopotamia, Singapore and Burma afforded only a chapter each. Certainly, more maps with greater detail than the 13 offered would have helped, though I know from experience this is a publisher-author tussle the latter never wins. Undoubtedly, his extensive notes and outstanding bibliography will help any reader or scholar wanting to delve further. Prior’s military reassessment of Britain’s performance in both wars is an ambitious exercise, but does he succeed in this long (800-page) volume? The answer is a resounding yes.

Conquer We Must highlights the obvious parallel that in both global conflagrations, Britain’s military leadership was initially found wanting. It took sackings and removals before the right figures in Haig, Allenby, Montgomery and Slim were found. Likewise, political direction was inadequate, resulting in changes of Prime Minister from Asquith and Chamberlain to the appropriately aggressive Lloyd George and Churchill. Prior’s thesis is that both wars were won by the imposition of political control over the military, who rarely demonstrated the strategic nous required to win.

In 1917, Prior argues, Lloyd George interfered too little and let the Passchendaele campaign run its disastrous course, though the Welshman deviously transferred the blame to Haig in his own misleading War Memoirs. With the Supreme War Council, and especially after 26 March 1918 when Foch became the Allied Generalissimo, political control returned. By contrast, in 1940–45, Churchill interfered far too much, perhaps in subconscious compensation. The papers of his CIGS Brooke (expertly edited by Danchev and Todman in 2002), reveal just how much he held his prime minister in check during those vital years.

With talks to his men, his quirks of dress and press conferences, Montgomery also compensated for the perceived remoteness of his predecessor, Haig. Monty was an effusive communicator, if sometimes spectacularly inept; Haig was unhelpfully taciturn. Prior rightly emphasises Churchill’s diminishing influence, as that of America increased, which was reflected in the strategic choices the Western allies made from 1942. British obsessions with Balkan adventures and unease over landings in Normandy and Southern France were more confidently rebutted by Roosevelt, Marshall and Eisenhower the stronger US forces became.

In 1914–18, more aircrew died from accidents than combat

Part of the story of Allied war-making in 1941–45 has been covered by Andrew Roberts in his outstanding Masters and Commanders (2009), but Prior looks as well at military doctrine in the principal learning theatres of war (the Western Front and the Western Desert). This had to evolve via painful casualty rates before the correct formula was found and employed. In both cases on land, this was the abandonment of infantry advances without supporting fires, and the technical application of artillery in industrial quantities. Former cavalrymen had to learn, or relearn, the correct use of armour. With the arrival of airpower in 1914–18, when more aircrew died from accidents than combat, reliable engines were the most important component. In 1939–45, it was the ability to produce long-range fighters and bombers, the latter able to carry large loads and bomb accurately, that counted. At sea in both eras, the capacity to build ships and protect them would dominate. Grand fleet encounters, a la Trafalgar, never quite materialised.

Throughout, the author offers a fresh analysis of the various land, sea and air campaigns, based on his close reading of archival sources and recent historiography, which underline his considerable strengths as a professional historian. He is exceptionally good at explaining the evolving technologies available to the Admiralty, to Haig and Montgomery, and the RFC and RAF, as well as assessing the shortcomings of its users. I found his four chapters on the 1940–43 Western Desert campaigns and one on the strategic bombing of Germany particularly refreshing summaries. Academic professor he might be, but Prior wears his scholarship lightly, drawing us into his narrative with superb prose. This thoughtful history also integrates what was happening on various battlefields with the political machinations of London and Washington, D.C.

Prior reminds us that though the common currency is human lives and war graves, every war has its own unique rhythm. It incorporates setback and failure, with the end-state always different to that anticipated at the start. As I write, it is a point the many armchair strategists bemoaning Ukraine’s progress against Russia would do well to remember. In the end, Britain’s survival during 1939–45 was precisely because the nation, and its leaders, had undergone a dress rehearsal in 1914–18. Conscription, rationing, convoys, air raids, mass production, womens’ uniformed services, coalitions and war cabinets — it had all happened before. Those at the top understood the art of the possible. This is why Prior’s timespan is so relevant.

This outstanding volume is not only a social and political history of Britain’s experiences of total war, but well written military analysis. I am a fan of his chatty prose, with its rhetorical questions, which places the work midway between populism and academia. His chapters, to be nibbled and savoured rather than rushed through, draw one in, rather like an after-dinner conversation. There are plenty of light-bulb moments, even to me, an old military history hand. To its enormous credit, Conquer We Must should appeal to both the scholar and the general reader. More, please, Professor Prior.

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