Brigadier Peter Young and the Evolution of War Studies in the UK

It is true that the establishment of the Chichele Chair in the History of War at the University of Oxford and Sir Michael Howard’s seminal role in the establishment of the War Studies Department at King’s College London are of central importance in the evolution of the subject.[1] However, there is a third strand that has been overlooked, the establishment of the Department of War Studies at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1961. In 2011, the department organised a conference on the theme of ‘The Challenge Facing Military Education in the 21st Century’ to celebrate its 50th Anniversary.[2] Central to this organisation is the persona of Brigadier Peter Young.

Young was a decorated officer who had served with the Commandos in the Second World War; by the end of the war, he was commanding 3 Commando Brigade in Burma. Previously he had served with No. 3 Commando in Europe. He received the DSO and MC with 2 bars. He also served with the 9th Regiment of the Arab Legion.[3] However, it is perhaps his role at Sandhurst that is most important. He was offered the position of Reader in Military History in 1959; the previous incumbent was Professor Ken Boswell. The study of military history had been an ever-present element of the curriculum at both Sandhurst and Woolwich; however, it was the ever-evolving strategic landscape of the Cold War world that saw the study of War was to take on an ever more central role in the education of the Army. Young strength lay in his decision to bring together young academics who wanted to publish. He treated them like university lecturers and encouraged them to write and think as well as teach.[4] As John Keegan noted:

A great deal of the published work produced…has been military history in the strict sense; but the Military History…[department]…have also made important contribution in the wider field of strategic and associated studies…[5]

This remains much the case to this day. The department operated, and does still to this day, within the changing confines of the military. The department has had to deal with changing views on the nature of professional military education. Despite this, the establishment of the department remains an important stepping-stone in the evolution of War Studies as a subject. This may not have happened had it not been for the leadership of Peter Young.

Perhaps the key importance of the department at Sandhurst is the number of academics, past and present, who have worked there. A short list includes names such Professor Gary Sheffield, Professor Stephen Badsey, Dr Niall Barr, Dr Dan Todman, Dr Paddy Griffith, Dr John Pimlott, David Chandler, John Keegan, John Adair. These are all important names in the past and present evolution of War Studies. Additionally, the current department includes leading scholars in the field of War Studies such as; Dr Stephen Hart, Dr J P Harris, Dr Duncan Anderson, Lloyd Clark and numerous other key academics. This group continues to influence the subject to this day.

Perhaps its one key limitation when compared to its counterpart at King’s is it sole focus on history. However, it should be remembered that this serves an important pedagogical purpose in the training of young officers by introducing them to the theory and practice of war through the study of the past. Additionally the other side of the War Studies coin is dealt with the complementary Department of Defence and International Affairs.

It seems to me that the evolution of Department of War Studies is an important area of study that has yet to be dealt with. Given that many of its members are, still with us it would seem an opportunity to research the role of this department in dealing with the changes in the Army and preparing officers for their future roles.


[1] Brian Holden Reid, ‘Michael Howard and the Evolution of Modern War Studies’, The Journal of Military History, Vol. 73, No. 3 (2009), pp. 869-904. See also Howard’s memoir Captain Professor: The Memoirs of Sir Michael Howard (London: Continuum, 2006)

[2] ‘The Challenge Facing Military Education in the 21st Century’ (2011) – http://www.army.mod.uk/documents/general/rmas_conference_2011.pdf

[3] Alison Michelli, Commando to Captain-Generall: The Life of Brigadier Peter Young (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2007)

[4] Michelli, Commando to Captain-Generall, pp. 213-225

[5] Cited in Alan Shepperd, Sandhurst: The Royal Military Academy and its Predecessors (London: Country Life Books, 1980) p. 193

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3 responses to “Brigadier Peter Young and the Evolution of War Studies in the UK

  1. Pingback: Brigadier Peter Young and the Evolution of War Studies in the UK « Birmingham "On War"·

  2. Surely Richard Holmes and Christopher Duffy warrant recognition too. It is curious that the present incumbents do not seem to have the ability to ‘crossover’ in to and inspire the public domain in the same way that Chandler, Duffy, Young, Keegan and of course Holmes had/have.

  3. You are quite right. I forgot about Richard Holmes and Christopher Duffy. Don’t ask how I did but I did. I do think though that they reinforce the point that the department is an important source of key figures in the field.

    I am not sure I agree with you on the latest generation who are teaching in the department. You see many of them as talking heads on various documentaries. Perhaps one of the issues is that in the past ten years we have seen a proliferation of places for military historians to work. This has led to a degree of osmosis of knowledge. Years ago I suspect that you went to Sandurst or King’s for a talking head. Now you can go to numeorus departments around the UK, Therefore, they are not a s prominent as before.

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