Influential Historians of War

[Cross posted at Birmingham “On War”]

For a project at uni I have been set an interesting academic task. I have got to come up with a list of influential historians who have been critical to the development of the field. In the end I need a list of about 20 but at the moment I have come up with a preliminary list of 10. Some of these may be contentious, for example, why have I picked Laughton over Mahan or Corbett? Well I have done this on purpose in order to generate some discussion. You will also notice that the list is Eurocentric and is missing historians from the medieval and early modern period. Who would be key in these periods? Does the like of Vitalis’ The Ecclesiastical History, which contains tracts on the Crusades, count? Is he influential?

I am interested in hearing other peoples opinions so please chime in. The key criterion is why the person you choose is influential. Hopefully there will be some interesting choices. I should add I am thinking about the history of war in its broad context of military, social, economic, political and cultural perspectives.

This is more academic than my list of Top War Films and more like Mark Grimsley’s attempt to populate a military history department.

My list:

  1. Thucydides
  2. Hans Delbruck
  3. Sir Michael Howard
  4. Arthur Marwick
  5. Alan Milward
  6. John Knox Laughton
  7. Richard Overy
  8. J F C Fuller
  9. Philip Meilinger
  10. Tacitus

So who do you think is influential?

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17 responses to “Influential Historians of War

  1. Both because I think they defined large areas of military history for decades after their work. By this, I mean that they made arguments that were important enough to drive the conversation in military history for a long time, and arguments that, in some sense, redefined military history in the eyes of its practicioners. Roberts’ Military Revolution remains a vibrant topic to this day and, for all its flaws, offered a theory of warfare that also spoke outside of military history by looking at issues like nationalism and state formation. Keegan’s Face of Battle (though it has its flaws and his work after that was not nearly of the same quality) redefined how military history was done. In some sense, military historians had always looked at the face of battle, but Keegan crystallized that as a method.

    I’d add Alfred Thayer Mahan, for the same reasons.

  2. I must agree with the addition of Mahan. When thinking of American strategists, Mahan is of the most influential and recognized scholars.

  3. If you’re really interested in the international field of war and society studies and the movers and the shakers…well here it is below:

    Richard Preston, Sidney Wise, and Herman O. Werner (later Alex Roland) began the shift towards the field of war and society with the publication of Men in Arms: A History of Warfare and Its Interrelationships with Western Society (1956)

    Men in Arms by Theodore Ropp was the in the same vein as preston, wise and roland and perhaps better as the footnotes read as a second text that provide context and anecdotes that continue to please readers.

    The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road 1567-1659 (1972) by Geoffrey Parker is a superb example of the “new” military history. Examining the 80 years war, Parker asks the question of how the Hapsburgh Monarcy, the richest and most powerful in all of Europe failed to suppress the uprising in the Netherlands. This is not a book about major battles or the brilliance of tactical innovation. Instead it focuses on the inner working of the Hapsburg Monarchy, the Armed Forces that served the Kingdom, and the influences of the broader world on the war in the Netherlands. Examining logistics, as well as mobilization, organization, pay, morale of the soldiers, while never losing sight of the international political context, Parker presents a clear portrait of the 16th and 17th Century war.

    John Keegan with the Face of Battle (1974)….he singlehandedly brought the everyday grunt back into the picture and study of war and society.

    Through the lens of “High” literature, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) by Paul Fussell incorporated a missing component of war and society studies…looking at the role of culture, albeit snotty high culture but culture nonetheless.

    In 1982, William H. McNeill produced The Persuit of Power: Technology, Armed Forces, and Society since AD 1000. Examining 1000 years of history, McNeill examines the evolution of the armed forces and social transformation. The economy, mass production, control of the government, demographics and political upheaval are but a few of the threads that weave in and out of McNeill’s exploration of the armed forces in the past thousand years. Within, there are nuggets of wisdom that force some deep thought. Case in point, McNeill sees military discipline as the primary tool that allowed European armies to overwhelm those around the world. The scientific revolution and advanced weapons only furthered that cause. Ultimately, McNeill’s overarching argument suggests that this millennium must be viewed as an aberration where human activities were dictated by the free market, which outpaced government control.

    Eliot Cohen’s Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leaders in Wartime (2002) is a wonderful look at the push and pull of military leaders and political leaders…wonderful study!

    Death So Noble, Memory, Meaning, and The First World War (1997) is a text about Canadian memory. Vance’s Study is an example of the more recent work on war and society in a Canadian Context. Death So Noble is to the Canadian understanding what Paul Fussell was to the international literature, but more sophisticated. In Jonathon Vance’s own words it is about the construction of “a mythic version of the events of 1914-18 from a complex mixture of fact, wishful thinking, half truth, and outright invention…” Historians have long understood the divisive nature of the First World War on Canadian soil, perhaps most overtly illustrated by the conscription crisis. Nevertheless, the deaths of 60,000 Canadians and the wounding of a further 170,000 left virtually no one unaffected by the horrors of war. Vance argues that through grief Canada searched for meaning to the Great War. In that collective search “sanctity to the fallen…was paramount. No truth was so important to discover, no fiction so important to puncture, that it could justify calling into question the sacrifices of the dead.”

    There are others like Paret, new generation military historians who question the cold war paradigm of the previous understood histories of the Great War and Second World War like Terry Copp.

    Anyway this should give you plenty to chew on…

    Cheers,

    Matt

  4. Thank you for the replies so far. I will reply more fully later on. Early morning now!

    I will caveat this by define influential as being people who have contributed to the development historiography of war throughout history. I think it is easyt o some up with a list of influential historians of the 20th century. What I am thinking is of the development of the subject and the contribution people have made to it. For example, from the 16th Century we could possibly include Machiavelli’s work as a work that contributed to the development of military history and is still influential today. Also it is representative of the state of the subject int his period.

    Trust me this is no easy task. I have written several list already and each one is different.

  5. Not necessarily an historian, Antoine-Henri Jomini wrote a handful of works that had a profound impact on 19th-Century European and American military strategy. Consequently he might be worthy of consideration.

  6. C.H. Firth pioneered the study of administration and logistics at a time when most history (including Firth’s non-military work) was all about Whiggish narratives of high politics. Cromwell’s Army has its limitations but is still worth reading, which is quite an achievement for a book that’s more than 100 years old.

    I agree that Michael Roberts has had a huge influence on early-modern military history, although I’m not that interested in the military revolution and wish everyone would just forget about it and think of something new!

    Joshua Goldstein’s War and Gender is a book that I think should be influential, but it doesn’t seem to be talked about that much.

    Then there are the historians who have had a bad influence by telling a pack of lies which have been repeated by so many people that they start to look true, eg Clarendon on the English Civil War.

  7. Here’s my top ten FWIW:

    Xenophon – not only for the epic tale of the journey home of his mercenary band in the Anabasis, but also his study of the various wars in Persia and the accession of Cyrus. Politico military relations in the world’s largest empire. He was a soldier and knew much about his subject.
    Caesar – although the Gallic War and Roman Civil Wars are entirely self-serving accounts, they are vivid and rational accounts of the process of command
    Titus Livy – talks a lot of sense about military affairs, politics and diplomacy, with relation to the Punic Wars
    Ammianus Marcellinus – another field commander, particularly good on the habits and practices of his enemies
    Froissart – the man who wrote up the 100 Years’ War as its participants wanted to remember it. Classic use of spin in military history, but ripping stuff nonetheless.
    Anna Komnene – a woman and a Byzantine princess, fantastically learned on all things military
    Machiavelli – by all accounts an undistinguished soldier, but far ahead of his time.
    Fortescue – for the sheer scale of his output and excellent writing skills.
    Oman- where would we be without The Art of War in the Middle Ages?
    Michael Howard – first to bring military history and academe together – sort of a shotgun wedding…
    John Terraine – unorthodox, brilliant and master of the then new medium, TV.
    Paddy Griffith – always original sometimes controversial, a genuine thinker and philosopher, he even looks like one!
    Joanna Bourke – Great new wave military historian, An Intimate History of Killing is shocking and revelatory and has introduced a whole new methodology

  8. I’m going to go for Terry Copp who has already been mentioned. I think his influence is only just beginning to be felt, but his two volumes on the Canadian Army in NW-Europe are absolutely excellent in their focus on combat at all levels and are a breath of fresh air.

    I’ll throw in a curve-ball and add Field-Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, principally for his postwar histories of his campaigns. The reason for this is his particular contention, in “Normandy to the Baltic”, that the fighting around Caen went exactly to plan. If one considers how many volumes of militay history have been built around contending that one statement, and how often it is brought up to this day, you can see its influence.

  9. David and Robert – While I completely agree that Mahan is influential, and probably more so than Laughton, I would say that this is in the field of strategic studies where his influence is felt. This is why I would tend to stick with Laughton, though of course there is always Corbett too. Robert I would suggest the same with Jomini. He is not really a historian in the traditional sense. Plus I have question marks over his real influence except for the problem he causes the US armies in the Civil War.

    Matt I have to disagree with Keegan. Face of Battle was a good work but does one book make you influential? I suppose the same criteria can be applied to Jomini too. Keegan’s work has slowly gotten worse after FoB with History of Warfare being extremely poor. As to describing Parker as an example of the ‘New’ Military History is stretching it as he does not fit the mould. Influential? Possibly. His work regarding the Military Revolution debate has possibly been as useful as Roberts in shaping the current state of the debate. As to the others they may have contributed to the field but they do not fit the remit of what I am thinking of. Will there works be remembered in years to come?

    Gavin Firth is a good choice. What is your thoughts on influential writers in the 17th Century?

    Toby nice list. Froissart is a particularly interesting choice. Shows I need to go do some more reading. Always with the reading!

    Jeremy I agree Copp has been influential but I think it is hard to measure that influence just yet.

    Just to give an idea of the difficulty of this here is another list I created. More concentrated on key writers from specific people, this is what I am looking at. The purpose of this is primarily to identify key historians throughout historians and their subsequent influence.

    1. Greek – Thucydides/Xenophon/Homer
    2. Roman – Plutarch/Tacitus/Ceaser
    3. Dark Ages – ?
    4. Medieval – Oderic Vitalis
    5. Early Modern – Machiavelli/Voltaire
    6. 19th Century – Delbruck/Henderson
    7. 20th Century – Howard/Terraine
    8. Naval – Laughton/Mahan/Corbett/Marder
    9. Air – Spaight/Groves/Mason
    10. Non-European – Ibn Khaldun

    Still a gap for the Dark Ages. One thought for the Dark Ages could be a Heroic Poem such as Beowulf, which was the historical tradition of the period.

  10. Pingback: Influential Historians of War « Birmingham "On War"·

  11. May I ask why Richard Overy? Most of them you choose had already pass away, Overy is the few who remain alive today.

    I do want to hear your reason. No offense. 🙂

  12. The purpose of the exercise was to identify historians who have influence the Writing of the History of Warfare. Overy was originally on the list because I felt that his work bridged the gap between traditional and ‘New’ Military History through his study of the economics of World War II.

    The final list ended up being:

    1. Homer
    2. The Buble
    3. Thucydides
    4. Froissart
    5. Bernal Diaz
    6. The Earl of Clarendon
    7. Mahan
    8. Delbruck
    9. Howard

    This selection has formed the core of a final year unit entltled. ‘The Writing of the History of Warfare’, which has the aim of:

    ‘This module addresses general questions relating to the historiography of warfare and considers how the subject has evolved from ancient times to the present. The principal schools of military history are considered together with those individuals who have made a major contribution to the evolution of the discipline.’

  13. Thank you Ross,

    And I found the final list is the same as the Birmingham upcoming new programme: History of Warfare. I interest in this subject, thus I think I will list Birmingham as one of my postgraduate programme choice. : )

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