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Military history is the history of wars, and of armed forces in peace as well as in war. Its separation from history, more broadly defined, arises from its didactic purpose. Its origins therefore lie with the development of professional armies. The growth of history as a university subject from the late nineteenth century did mean that academics as well as soldiers studied the history of war, but its institutional foundations were shallow. Moreover, soldiers rather than academics wrote the official histories of World War I. The situation only changed with the adoption of broader definitions for the official histories of World War II. The world wars themselves showed the absurdity of approaching the study of modern history without taking military history into account. Since the 1960s academic military history has thrived.
- The Emergence of Military History as a Separate Subdiscipline
- The Influence of Professional Armies
- The Enlightenment
- Academic Neglect of Military History
- General Staffs and Official Histories
- The Didactic Tradition
- The ‘New’ Military History
- The Rediscovery of Clausewitz
- ‘Popular’ Military History
Military history is the history of wars, and of armed forces in peace as well as in war. Its separation from history, more broadly defined, arises from its didactic purpose. Its origins therefore lie with the development of professional armies. The growth of history as a university subject from the late nineteenth century did mean that academics as well as soldiers studied the history of war, but its institutional foundations were shallow. Moreover, soldiers rather than academics wrote the official histories of World War I. The situation only changed with the adoption of broader definitions for the official histories of World War II. The world wars themselves showed the absurdity of approaching the study of modern history without taking military history into account. Since the 1960s academic military history has thrived on the back of two influences. The first, ‘the new military history,’ is largely American in origin and stresses the subject as a component of ‘total history.’ The second, strategic studies, relates past to present.
The easy definition of military history is that it is the history of wars. And yet this definition is highly imprecise. Wars have social, economic, and political dimensions that have been analyzed more by the historians of those subdisciplines than by military historians. That is not to say that there are no important links to be made between military history and other historical subdisciplines, nor is it to deny that the good military historian endeavors to make those connections. But in terms of their subject matter military historians have been concerned primarily with the histories of armed forces, not only in war but also in peace. Military history has therefore been more comfortable with wars fought by armies and navies than with wars fought between warrior societies, or before soldiering became a distinct profession.
The Emergence of Military History as a Separate Subdiscipline
Thucydides wrote the history of a war, and – like some other ancient historians – himself saw service. But it would not be reasonable to call him a military historian. It required the growth of professional armies and the concomitant influence of the Enlightenment for the ancient historians who wrote about conflict to be treated as military historians rather than as historians tout court.
The Influence of Professional Armies
In the 1590s, Maurice of Nassau developed systems of infantry drill and of military organization that standardized tactics and were emulated throughout Europe. This was the basis for what in 1956 Michael Roberts called the ‘military revolution’ – a clutch of changes that occurred in warfare between 1560 and 1660. The Thirty Years’ War in Central Europe, the Fronde in France, and the British civil wars served to disseminate the principles of the ‘military revolution,’ which found their seventeenth century apogee in the Swedish army of Gustavus Adolphus. Subsequent historians have elongated the chronology of the ‘military revolution.’ Geoffrey Parker sees its origins as before 1560, in the growth of a new style of artillery-resistant fortification, the trace italienne. Others have highlighted developments after 1660, calling the growth in army size under Louis XIV and the maintenance of armies in peace as well as in war a ‘second military revolution’ (Rogers, 1995). The essential points are that over the course of the period 1500–1800, armies as we now recognize them evolved, and that those armies then became the basis of imitation within Europe and the foundation of empire outside it.
During the course of the eighteenth century the aristocracies of Europe, now subordinated to the crown and state, made soldiering their vocation. Military academies were established, not only for the training of the scientific arms – the artillery and engineers – but also for the cavalry and infantry. The combination of institutional continuity and professionalization promoted the study of war. The writings of the ancients were supplemented by the effusions of eighteenth century practitioners – including Maurice de Saxe, Henry Lloyd, and G.F. von Tempelhoff – who combined theoretical musings with a distillation of their own experiences. Military history had didactic rather than scholarly origins.
The study of past wars as a means of improving present practice was, at one level, entirely consistent with the precepts of the Enlightenment. War, like any other human activity, could be seen as a science, based on unchanging principles, themselves derived from actual experience. The wars of Frederick the Great, a child of the Enlightenment and a major writer on war, served to promote these connections. Over 70 works of military theory were published in the seventeenth century, but more than twice that in the eighteenth century, in particular, over 100 during the period 1756–89 (Gat, 1989).
Napoleon was both a product of this tradition and its most distinguished advocate. William Napier, an unstinting admirer of the emperor, established British military history with his account of the Peninsular War. Although Napier eschewed theory, his history was influenced by the most important military theorist of the nineteenth century, A.H. Jomini. Jomini’s Traité des grandes opérations militaires (first two volumes, 1804) became a five-volume history of the wars of Frederick the Great and Napoleon, with a resumé of the general principles of war tacked on as a conclusion. His Précis de l’art de la guerre (1838), which shaped the syllabuses of military academies into the twentieth century, put the theory first but still relied on history to make its points (Shy, 1986; Alger, 1982).
Carl von Clausewitz was critical of Jomini, but like him, wrote far more history than theory. Moreover, his principal work, the unfinished and posthumously published Vom Kriege (1832), relies on history for its evidential base. Clausewitz stressed his anxiety to break with the nostrums of earlier military writers, but he is no different from them in his readiness to cull military history for normative purposes.
At one level, therefore, the influence of the Enlightenment on the development of military history operated internally – it helped define how and by whom war was fought. But its consequences were also external to the subject. The phenomenon of war itself appalled the philosophes – not the least Frederick’s friend, Voltaire. Their efforts to curb and moderate its effects, stoked by the memory of the Thirty Years’ War and its terrors for the civilian population, took shape through international law. War became an activity clearly distinguished from peace, undertaken by specialists separated from civilian society but who, crucially, acted not on their own account but on behalf of the state. For the philosophes, war was not necessarily endemic in society. Those who built on the legacy of the Enlightenment, the liberals of Victorian Britain in particular, could see it as an activity that was not honorable but reprehensible, maintained by the aristocracy with the aim of sustaining their own hold on society, and replaceable by alternative forms of interstate competition, particularly trade.
Academic Neglect of Military History
The legacy of liberalism was a belief that military history was not a proper study for universities. As history gained a foothold in the curriculums of European higher education in the last third of the nineteenth century, war ought to have been central to its preoccupations. Indeed, at one level it was. Historians of the ancient or medieval worlds could not neglect war entirely, but they still preferred to focus on more humane developments, on ‘progress’ in law, religion, or the machinery of state. Equally, no nineteenth century scholar could neglect the impact on Europe of the Napoleonic Wars or the wars of German Unification – as Archibald Allison showed for the former, and Heinrich Friedjung for the latter. But they neglected the conduct of war itself: war was an aberration, inimical to the ‘Whig’ view of history. The advent of nuclear weapons in 1945, with their threat of a war so awful and so complete that war and peace became absolute terms rather than points on a scale of relative values, completed this marginalization. Diplomatic historians looked at why wars occurred, at how they were ended, and at efforts to avoid them thereafter, but the history of war itself was left to its practitioners.
This picture of academic neglect, still propagated but with much less reason in the twenty-first century, is overdrawn. There were major exceptions, even if it remains true that those exceptions prove the rule.
The founding father of academic military history, Hans Delbrück, served in the Franco-Prussian War and believed that universities should recognize military history. He planned to do his Habilitation on a military historical topic, but both Heinrich von Treitschke and Theodor von Mommsen, the leading historians in Berlin, opposed the idea. Delbrück persisted with his enthusiasm and in 1883 announced his intention to write a general history of war in its political context. Leopold von Ranke told him that the study of war was not appropriate to a university, and when Delbrück was appointed to a chair in 1895 (ironically as Treitschke’s successor) it was in ‘universal and world history.’ In 1900, Delbrück published the first of the four volumes of his history of war. Mommsen told the author that he would not have time to read it (Bucholz, 1985; Deist, 1998).
Delbrück also alienated those to whom his work ought to have appealed. He argued that Frederick the Great had not sought decisive battle but had preferred to exhaust his enemies by maneuver. The German army’s general staff was incensed. Its own studies of Frederick’s campaigns were extensive, but their purposes were more didactic than scholarly. Institutionally, this loyalty to Frederick (rather than to Napoleon) as the founding father of modern war predisposed them to see him as the advocate of a strategy of ‘annihilation’ rather than of ‘attrition’ (Bucholz, 1985; Lange, 1995).
At one level, therefore, Delbrück was an isolated figure – virtually unique in the academic world of Wilhelmine Germany, and vilified by the one institution that thought deeply about the history of war. But he was not uninfluential. He had been tutor to the Kaiser, he was a Reichstag deputy, and he edited the Preussische Jahrbücher. He emerged from World War I a leading figure in Germany’s public and intellectual life. As a role model his legacy spread in two directions. First, his interpretation of military history was essentially Clausewitzian; he studied war as a state activity, and as an agent for the implementation of strategy. Second, he treated war as a discrete phenomenon, possessing an integrity from the ancient world to the modern. Historical knowledge so defined was the basis for pronouncements on current strategic issues.
Delbrück’s institutional legacy proved more short lived. Military history was established at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin after World War I. But the subject was usurped by the Nazis. For a long time after World War II there was no established chair of military history at any German university, with the exception of the post created for the Clausewitz scholar, Werner Hahlweg, at Münster in 1969. Only in the 1990s did the subject reassert itself in research terms, and a professorship was established at Potsdam.
In Britain, also, individual careers punctured the image of academic neglect. The Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford between 1904 and 1925, Sir Charles Firth, was a historian of the English Civil War and of Cromwell’s army. The same university’s Chichele Professor of Modern History from 1905, Sir Charles Oman, wrote a massive and definitive history of the Peninsular War. In the same year Oxford created a lectureship in military history, strategy, and tactics, and in 1909 established the Chichele chair in the history of war. Thus in Britain, unlike Germany, the subject acquired an institutional focus. Two years later, Cambridge followed suit with the Vere Harmsworth chair of naval history. King’s College London, whose professor of modern history, J.K. Laughton, had been involved in the formation of the Naval Records Society in 1893, formed a department of naval history in 1913 but failed to make an appointment (N.A.M. Rodger in Hattendorf, 1994).
In Germany, the effect of World War I was to institutionalize personal initiative; in Britain, its effect was to undermine the progress already made. Spenser Wilkinson, who had been appointed to the Oxford chair, had been a journalist, and – like Delbrück – had linked the study of military history to current policy issues. But, unlike Delbrück, Wilkinson did not join the public debate on the strategy of World War I. He turned to scholarly studies of the eighteenth century and, his eyesight failing, became a marginal figure. Until the appointment of Sir Michael Howard to the chair in 1977, his successors lacked academic punch (Ernest Swinton), were tarred with the brush of journalism (Cyril Falls), or were unproductive in publication terms (Norman Gibbs). The burden of actual teaching throughout this period fell on C.T. Alkinson, whose output was considerable, but who tended to antiquarianism as well as personal eccentricity. In Cambridge, the Harmsworth chair married naval and imperial history in 1932, to the eventual detriment of the former.
General Staffs and Official Histories
The failure of the universities in Britain to master military history was displayed by the allocation of responsibility for the official histories of World War I. The accounts of naval and military operations were both put in the hands of civilians – Sir Julian Corbett and Sir John Fortescue, respectively. Neither man held an academic post. Corbett was a lawyer by training, but his interest in contemporary maritime doctrine, as well as in naval history, qualified him admirably for the task. Fortescue was writing a History of the British Army in what proved ultimately to be 13 volumes, but he derived his principal income from his appointment as Royal Librarian. His enthusiasm for colorful accounts of Napoleonic battles produced a prose style and a conceptual approach unequal to the nature of modern war. He was replaced by a team of soldiers, headed by Sir James Edmonds.
Thus, the bulk of Britain’s official history program ended up, by default, being run on lines not dissimilar to those of the other belligerents. In the wake of Prussia’s victory in 1871, the major land powers had established or reestablished their general staffs, charged with planning in peacetime and operational direction in wartime. The staffs’ study of history flowed from their responsibility for doctrine and training. During the period 1871 to 1914, massive military histories of continuing scholarly importance were published, either by the historical sections of the general staffs (the Germans devoted 19 volumes to the campaigns of Frederick the Great) or by individual officers with staff training. The conceptual basis of current understanding of Napoleonic warfare was established in this period, by French officers such as Jean Colin and Hubert Camon.
These were the bodies and individuals made responsible for the official histories of World War I: the Austro-Hungarian was in the hands of the Bundesministerium für Heereswesen and the Kriegsarchiv, the French in those of the Ministry of War, and the German in those of the Marinearchiv (for naval operations) and the Reichsarchiv (for land operations). Although the latter were nominally independent of the armed forces, in reality the personalities and the agenda showed the thread of continuity.
Thus, the biggest projects in military history ever undertaken were given to soldiers rather than scholars. Their justifications became didactic, and their focus tactical and operational rather than political or economic. Full accounts of campaigns were not matched by comparable analyses of economic mobilization or strategic direction.
After World War II, academics regained some of the ground they had lost, but the effects were partial. The British official history was conceived in much broader terms, and a division of labor between dons and soldiers established, the former being tasked with both the ‘civil’ and the ‘strategic’ series. In the USA the history of naval operations was entrusted to S.E. Morison, a Harvard professor. Elsewhere, however, military history narrowly defined, remained largely in the hands of the successors to the general staffs’ historical sections. France has services historiques for each of its armed forces, and there are few historians of warfare in university posts. With distinguished exceptions, such as the medievalist Philippe Contamine and the modernist Guy Pedroncini, the study of war in French academic life has been dominated by its relationship to social history – either the social composition of armies (André Corvisier has been a pioneer here) or the impact of war on society itself (where Jean-Jacques Becker has been a leader). In Italy, although in the 1960s and 1970s Giorgio Rochat, Massimo Mazzetti, and others began to challenge the domination of the official histories, the armed services’ grip on the subject has remained powerful. In Germany, the Militärgeschichtliche Forschungsamt was created in 1957 under the auspices of the Bundeswehr. It has, however, recruited civilian scholars as well as uniformed members, and its publications have maintained rigorous standards that defy the self-serving purposes of the didactic tradition to which it is nominally the heir. Its monumental history of Germany in World War II shows a willingness to confront its armed forces’ recent past, which contrasts strongly with the pattern in Japan. Here, the rejection of a nation’s militarist inheritance has also resulted in the atrophy of military history.
The Didactic Tradition
Governments and armed forces sponsored the writing of official history because they hoped to derive from it ‘lessons’ for future application. But their labors produced accounts so voluminous and so long in production that the lessons were in danger of being lost or forgotten. Into this gap stepped others, preeminently but not only J.F.C. Fuller and Basil Liddell Hart in Britain, who unashamedly used military history as a prescriptive basis for the future. Like Delbrück, they ranged from the ancient world to the present, but unlike him, their focus was tactical rather than strategic. Even Fuller’s and Liddell Hart’s ostensibly historical works, whose popularity endures, retain a theoretical purpose.
The ‘New’ Military History
In the short term, therefore, the effect of the two world wars was the reappropriation of military history by the armed forces for purposes that were instructional rather than academic. But in the long term the all-embracing nature of both wars made the marginalization of military history within university circles unsustainable. Once the first half of the twentieth century entered the curriculum, war could no longer be left out.
The idea of total war was used to underpin the idea of total history. War became central, rather than peripheral, not only to the period 1914–45 but to every other period as well. Ancient and medieval history was particularly susceptible to this approach. But its success can best be measured by consideration of the eighteenth century. The ‘didactic’ tradition had seen this as the era of limited warfare, when armies maneuvered rather than sought battle, and wars were indecisive affairs conducted by professional armies cut off from civil society. Current scholarship sees eighteenth century warfare as involving a much larger cross section of society, and is far readier to apply the vocabulary of modern war to conflicts like the Seven Years’ War and the American War of Independence. Their length and geographical extent are seen by some as prefigurings of world war.
The ‘new military history,’ a term coined in the USA in the 1960s, indicated that the history of war was not simply about ‘great captains’ and their conduct of operations (Paret, 1992). Military history embraced the study of armies in peacetime, and war’s cultural, economic, and social effects; it had a responsibility to explore its links with other subdisciplines in history. The main directions in which the subject moved were toward ‘war and society,’ both narrowly and broadly defined. The narrow definition meant the analysis of an army’s social composition, and also its effect on civil–military relations. The broader definition considered war’s effects – economic and cultural – on civil society.
As a campaigning tool the ‘new military history’ proved remarkably successful, not the least in the USA. In 1954, only 37 of the 493 colleges and universities in the USA offered courses in military history. By 1989 164 of the 554 institutions taught military history, and more than 2% of all historians in America were military historians. This calculation excluded the officer training courses (the ROTC), which accounted for about 400 more military historians. In the mid-1970s in the USA about 100 doctoral theses a year embraced military history; 20 years later the figure had tripled (Don Higginbotham in Charters et al., 1992; Kennedy, 1989).
Military historians established their subject by redefining themselves in interdisciplinary terms: they explained why they were not military historians, or at least not in the traditional sense, but ‘total’ historians. Although its advocates continue to promulgate the ‘new military history,’ its point has been made – it is now not so ‘new.’ So well absorbed have its points become that academic military history is increasingly returning to a narrower definition of its roots. Warfare itself is now a subject fit for self-contained study, and academics working in the field publish in journals devoted exclusively to military history rather than to general history. The argument that war is part of total history no longer has to be made.
The Rediscovery of Clausewitz
One of the reasons why Delbrück was at odds with the general staff was that he and they were not comparing like with like. Delbrück’s focus was on war as a political act, as the means to fulfill strategic objectives. The general staff saw war as a self-contained phenomenon. Since 1945, Gordon Craig, Gerhard Ritter, and, above all, Michael Howard and Peter Paret have operated within the Delbrückian interpretation. It is hard to underestimate the intellectual consequences in the anglophone world of Howard’s and Paret’s translation of Clausewitz’s Vom Kriege, which appeared in 1976. It relieved Clausewitz of the incubus of obscurity and ambiguity, and it put the focus firmly on books 1 and 8 of Vom Kriege – those that deal with the relationship between war and politics: this was a primer for the vocabulary of nuclear deterrence as much as it was an insight into Napoleonic warfare.
Although Paret approached the task as a historian of ideas, Howard did so as a student of strategic studies. Through his revitalization of the war studies department of King’s College London in the 1960s, Howard reforged the links between military history and current policy (Howard, 1983). His own subsequent distinction in both fields, at Oxford and then at Yale, ensured that, in the UK at least, the health of military history was tied in to the study of international relations. In the USA as well as in continental Europe the relationship between military history and strategic studies has been more antagonistic. The cynic would say that, deprived of the armed services’ commitment to the study of the subject, evident especially in Germany and France, and lacking the financial resources of the history departments of American universities, British military history has had no option but to embrace a marriage of convenience.
There are therefore distinct national approaches to military history, reflections in large part of the institutional diversity of its roots. Comparative military history has barely begun. Moreover, the strengths and weaknesses of each national school can reflect the fact that this form of history above all is tied in to the nation-state, its formation, and its self-identity. German military history since 1945 has predictably been concerned with World War II to the detriment of earlier wars; the Soviet Union largely ignored Russian military history before 1917. But both these patterns are being broken down. And Britain, which according to this sort of logic ought to be leading the world in naval history, actually let the subject crumble in the 1970s and 1980s.
‘Popular’ Military History
The popularity of military history outside the confines of universities and staff colleges, at least within the UK and the USA, makes military history an obvious route by which to introduce the nonspecialist public to history more generally. Some of the writing, such as that of Henri Lachouque or Georges Blond in France, can come close to romantic nostalgia; the work of others, such as Paul Carell on the Wehrmacht in World War II, can seem striking for what it leaves out. But the best work in this genre – both German Werth and Alistair Horne on Verdun, for example – deserves, and has received, serious attention from scholars. In Britain, John Keegan and Antony Beevor have thrived on the back of military history’s flowering in academic circles. Much of what they do is traditional. Keegan, like Liddell Hart, ranges across time and space; like Liddell Hart he also writes with the fluency and ease of a journalist; and, as with Liddell Hart, there is a didactic thrust. But the appeal is also in the narrative, as the staggering success of Beevor’s Stalingrad (1998) displays. Keegan (1976) criticized historians of war who focused on its operational and tactical level but failed to explain the experience of combat itself. Beevor’s book puts such precepts into practice. The academic world has also responded to Keegan’s call. Research on war ‘from below’ not only has popular appeal but also interdisciplinary potential.
Military historians continue to complain that they are marginal figures in the academic world. In mainland Europe, that complaint has some substance, but becoming less year on year. And in the USA, where it is stated most vociferously, it is without serious foundation. However, its current strength derives in large part from its past battles to establish itself. Lacking a linear pedigree, military history is a hybrid whose resilience derives from the multiplicity of its approaches.
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