Influential Historians of War

[Cross posted at Thoughts on Military History]

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?

22 responses to “Influential Historians of War

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  2. I would have thought John Keegan was fairly important, if only for The Face of Battle, which was AIUI pretty ground-breaking.

    I’m not going to comment on anything pre-20th-century, as it’s Not My Period… (does Gibbon count as a military historian?)

    For the modern UK, maybe Hew Strachan and David French? I think Adam Tooze’s Wages of Destruction is hugely important for the European side of the Second World War, but does one brilliant book make you an influential historian?

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  5. Jakob some interesting points. Yes I agree, does one book make you influential…Probably not.

    Keegan is important if only for FoB. Have you re-read it recently. I did, it was less impressive the second time around but does have a place in the historiography though.

    Yes I think Gibbon’s counts. The problem with writing from the medieval/early modern period is that they are tied in with the grand narratives of the time.

    • Taking quality out as a factor defining influence, I would agree Keegan has to be in there, but I’d set him alongside Michael Howard. I agree with Ross though, considering quality; Keegan simply doesn’t cut it. All of his chapters have some serious scholarly flaws and challenging the (forthcoming, yet to be approved comment from Scott) his Agincourt chapter has some good bits (horses’ reactions in battle) but much of it is pure speculation (heavy over-emphasis on the soldiers being liquored up for example). Then again I’d still say that’s the best section of the three.

      I agree with Roberts as setting the boundaries of the original military rev debate but despite this I wouldn’t put him in my list. I’d rather say Geoffrey Parker whose subsequent works entirely reframed the discussion, and in many respects it was as much his work authors have challenged and built upon as Roberts’s.

      I think there’s some huge names left off the list here (but understandably so). E.H. Carr & George M. Trevelyan absolutely have to be mentioned in dispatches for their work on defining the boundaries of the historical profession in general. Trevelyan for Clio: A Muse and the defence of history as literature, or written art. Carr for continuing and formalising the historical method which became THE set text for any new student of history and heavily influenced some ‘proper’ historians of war. Nevertheless neither were really historians of war so I’d plumb with…

      Charles Oman. I had to read (some) of his History of the Peninsular War a couple of years back and was thoroughly impressed with the breadth of information and ability to form a clear narrative from clearly confusing events. Perhaps a bit whiggish for modern tastes but influential? No question.

      My other shout would be GFR Henderson. He influenced a generation of military leaders and thinkers, while his didactic approach in his works and teaching method distilled Clausewitzian principles of strategy (and a healthy dose of tactics) into functional examples. Spenser Wilkinson also deserves an honourable mention for his professional influence and forward thinking in the military realm, as well as a nod to C.E. Callwell for his Small Wars and war office work etc.

      I’d disagree with Liddell Hart as influential for Great War historiography, I think Churchill and Lloyd George were much more important for shaping contemporary opinion. But for general thoughts on war and forwarding his ‘indirect’ approach there’s no doubt about it. There’s a tricky issue here though, you include LH and then you need to think what about JFC Fuller who (until tarnished by the brush of being a massive raving fascist) also contributed to the debates LH engaged with arguably as much as LH in the early inter-war years. Furthermore quality rears its head. Ultimately I can’t really say LH was a historian. He was a thinker and theorist first, historian second. He’d have disagreed, but his interpretations always seemed to trump a contextual and objective account. It’s also for this reason that I’ve left (as anyone who knows me will testify) my boy CvClausewitz off.

      I’ve no arguments with Edmonds but I think his influence is a little narrow. If we’re talking First World War historians with wider appeal I’d go for two: John Terraine who in my eyes was one of the finest military historians to have lived. Some would argue his defence of Haig was too apologist, and that’s fair to an extent but given the almost unbroken opposition his style was suited to the environment he was writing in. When you boil something like Haig: The Educated Soldier down to its constituent parts he was essentially arguing for proper historical principles (such as context, circumstance and at least a degree of objectivity) to be applied to an individual that found himself in entirely unique conditions. Furthermore, his interests breached the boundaries of the First World War and his writings on the American Civil War and the Second World War justify his selection in the top 20 for me.

      Secondly, Martin Middlebrook. He made Oral History cool again. As a historical approach AJP Taylor once described it as “old men drooling” but MM demonstrated its utility as one source of historical evidence even if he was prone to trust many of the testimonies too much.

      Breaking the boundaries of Europe Peter Paret’s one to consider as an influential American, and I’d also plumb for Israel’s Azar Gat although the latter may well be a bit too poli-sci for some. Nevertheless I loved Gat’s War in Human Civilisation precisely for its fusion of anthropology, evolutionary biology, archaelogy and history.

      I’m sure there’s more I’ve missed out here but I am supposed to be on holiday here so gimme a break! South Africa is pretty wonderful if anyone’s interested!

      • Oops just saw Fuller made the list. Doh! Glad to see we agree on that point Ross!

  6. Definitely add John Keegan to your list. The Military Channel now features shows that attempt to depict what soldiers saw and felt. You can trace this fascination back to Keegan. I did read his account on Agincourt recently and it is still good.

    Herodotus and Xenophon need to be on any list too. Herodotus, of course, was the first military historian. Xenophon too provided military history and a glimpse how a phalanx protected by cavalry and light infantry could overwhelm the Persian armies.

  7. Like him or loathe him Basil Liddell Hart’s impact on the historiography of the Great War must be worth consideration – but for real impact James Edmonds’ achievement with the Official Histories has to be in there.


  8. 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.

  9. It does depend very much on what you mean by ‘influential’ — CEW Bean arguably influenced the culture and memory of an entire nation, that’d be pretty hard to beat!

    But going with influence on historiography … I’d go with Liddell Hart over Fuller. Politics aside, if L-H’s conclusions were ultimately driven by his theories then JFC was a much worse offender. Also, what historiographical tradition has Fuller influenced? Generals as donkeys/Blimps, perhaps, but that would have been around without him. Mahan and Clausewitz were also strategists/theorists as much or more than historians, but have undeniably influenced history writing.

    Marwick, yes. Overy, yes. Paul Fussell? Despite some question actual history, he undoubtedly legitimised new ways of looking at war. Perhap Omer Bartov for the barbarisation of war stuff. I tend to agree that one really important big is not quite enough, but on that basis you’d have to discount Keegan.

    I’m not dissing him at all, but does Meilinger really belong on the same list as Thucydides? 🙂 On the classical guys, maybe Caesar? There must be more in the ‘middle’ bits of history. How about Tolstoy, for War and Peace?

    The ultimate value of such a list, of course, is to make it painfully clear how poorly-read I am 😦

  10. Useful thoughts. Not sure about Carr et al. It depends on the form of their contibution. Terraine and Edmonds are good coices. Certainly Terraine for bridging a gap that existd at the time.

    I am slowly leaning away from Keegan. Simply because while FoB was a good book the rest of his work has been hisgly suspect.

    I agree Meilinger was a bit of gut choice. I wrote the list on the train and I was thinking of key Air Power historians. I would porbably no replace him with someone like Spaight or if more modern then Mason should be there.

    Just to give an idea of the difficulty of this here is another list I created. More concentrated on key writers from specific people, which 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 – ?
    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 gaps for the Dark Ages/Medieval. One thought for the Dark Ages could be a Heroic Peom such as Beowulf, which was the historical tradition of the period.

  11. The main “suspect” book in Keegan’s catalogue is his latest release on the American Civil War. It was slapped together from a series of articles and is riddled with errors. However, you have to look at Keegan’s work and his influence as a whole. There is hardly a military historian of the past three decades who has not been influenced by his work. In fact, I would be shocked to hear of a successful military historian, in the English-speaking world of course, who has not read Keegan.

    I actually enjoyed A History of Warfare better than the Face of Battle. You do not have to agree with his assessment of Clausewitz to appreciate his narrative on the cultural influences and evolution of warfare. In addition, his book on the Second World War has become a textbook in various universities and colleges. The Mask of Command is another book that has received praise and it too has found its way into schools.

    In the end, Keegan is old school. Many historians, myself included, are obsessed with getting every single one of our facts correct that we spend weeks of research just to communicate 500 words. History has become more science, than art. My last 10-page research paper included 63 footnotes! On the other hand, Keegan is more concerned with the story, the personalities, and the human experience. He may be dying breed, but he is 100-times more influential than Michael-freaking-Howard!

    Howard, by the way, said that The Face of Battle “without any doubt is one of the half-dozen best books on warfare to appear in the English language since the end of the Second World War.” I’m just saying.

  12. And for the late-Medieval period, consider Christine de Pizan. She has unfortunately been regulated to feminine studies, but this women wrote heavily on the history of war and its practices during her time.

  13. Scott – Keegan is in not in any way more influential than Howard. Howard is the man responsible for the creation of the ‘War Studies’ school of thought here in the UK. That single fact makes him more important than Keegan. Regarding Keegan’s work, yes they are ‘old’ school at that is the problem. He does not produce original scholarship in any way. His work on the First World War spent two-thirds of the work on the period 1914-1916 and made little or no attempt to consider the massive strides made by all armies in the latter part of the war, although of course he did laud the Germans. With regards to History of Warfare, the reason it is a bad work is simply because he has mis-read Clausewitx and thus starts his anaylsis from a poor position. Had he not attempt to do this and just that the work was his view of warfare then it may have more merit but because of this sloopy scholarship I think it is a poor work.

  14. Ross, I am enjoying this discussion.

    I guess we have different definitions for “influential.” I take it mean having a powerful effect on people. In the military history realm, I see an influential work being one that changes the way people analyze, read, write, and talk about past wars. While War Studies are important and influential, they do not constitute a larger influence than Keegan has had on the field of military history. Simply put, Keegan has touched more people than Howard. He even influenced Howard himself. Keegan challenged military historians to put more emphasis on the soldiers’ experience and writings today reflect that. In addition, faulty/unoriginal scholarship (debatable) and misinterpretations of Clausewitz do not hinder Keegan’s influence. I am not saying that either is acceptable, but influence can be good and bad.

    Military History magazine did an article a few years back about the “greatest” military history works. This is of course subjective, but they based their ranking on votes from military historians. Among the “winners” were Sun-Tzu, Clausewitz, and Thucydides, but also The Face of Battle. That is influence.

    Now, if your list is for the “Most Important, Most Accurate Historical Works,” then you should surely remove Keegan, but while you are at it, please take out Plutarch.

  15. While I think comparing individual influence is a bit too abstract a proposition to be anything other than subjective opinion, if we’re doing it then something we need to consider with the Howard/Keegan debate is who precisely finds them influential. Keegan has had broad universal appeal amongst historians which has thusly influenced the development of young historians. Keegan was the go-to-guy in the age of left-wing dominated history, he made military history ‘ok’ to study as long as it was draped in experience of the common soldier. While no doubt important in readjusting the environment for up and coming war studies scholars, I think his influence on academic professionals is limited to a legitimising role for military historians today. Howard on the other hand did much more, he genuinely changed the discipline, broadened the spectrum of analysis and his own works made difficult concepts accessible. Moreover he groomed some of Britain’s finest while at King’s College London.
    It’s a tough call for me, but both operated in the highest levels of society but Howard did much more in an academic sense.

  16. Scott apologies for my delay in replying. Been busy marking, that is another story that I won’t bore you with.

    I agree this is an interesting debate and I do think we are viewing influential in a different way. I am certainly viewing from an academic perspective. I fear Howard is being modest about Keegan’s influence on him. He would probably also argue that Liddell-Hart influenced him but that does not mean he agreed with him. Yes Keegan has, possibly, reached more people in a popular sense but does that automatically equate with influence within the historical profession, I suspect not. Howard has had an enduring influence on the development of the subject. He pioneered is at a time when military historians were pariahs in the profession. He has helped us become more respected in academia, though I will admit there are still barriers to overcome.

    Regarding Keegan’s History of Warfare it would maybe not have been such a bad book had he not attempted to analyse Clausewitz. In doing that, and getting it wrong, he puts the work on a rough analytical foundation. Had he said that this was he polemic view of warfare it might have not been as bad.

    As to Howard’s impact I will quote Brian Holden Reid’s opening lines from his article on him last year:

    ‘It is difficult to think of a single scholar who has had more influence on thinking about military issues, contemporary strategy, or the practice of military history than Sir Michael Howard.’

  17. Ross, Scot, Stuart & Brett, it sounds like a gathering of the Clans (well done Brian, at least your name sounds English) in which case there will never be an agreement, given my limited understanding of Scottish history.

    The original task being ‘list of influential historians who have been critical to the development of the field (War Studies)’, can I assume the term ‘historian’ is synonymous with ‘scholar’ for the purposes of this exercise?

    And Ross, can we consider the impact of the individual/s to be named as Reid suggests of Howard (as per your quote above) to have a significant impact ‘on thinking about military issues, contemporary strategy, or the practice of military history’ ; and that this criteria being essential for his [or indeed her] selection?

  18. Ross, I agree with you that Howard has been and will be impactful for different reasons than Keegan. However, I do not think it is fair to infer that Howard was modest about Keegan’s influence on himself. Unless we are reading minds, we have to take Howard at his word. Consider too that Howard identified Keegan’s A History of Warfare as “the most remarkable study of warfare that has yet been written.”

    I understand your concern with Keegan’s interpretation of Clausewitz. The Prussian has been mistranslated since his work became popular. Keegan’s critique of Clausewitz is geared toward the popular interpretation of Clausewitz, not the correct one. This is not a defense, but you cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater on Keegan concerning this point. Clausewitz represents maybe 15% of the book while the rest is a fascinating analysis of warfare throughout history. I agree with Howard on this point, because I have yet to find a better single volume on the topic.

  19. Without wishing to stray too far off-topic here, I think you’re rather underplaying Keegan’s Clausewitz error Scott. He’s not simply been the victim of mistranslation but demonstrated that his reading of On War is either only cursory or intentionally blinkered. Let’s not forget how he starts the book: “War is not a continuation of policy by other means’, punchy inflammatory and wrong. Typical Keegan. His error with Clausewitz was to place far too much emphasis on the primacy of policy, and ignore the other aspects of CvC’s argument. Additionally, many of his examples prove to only reinforce the Clausewitzian interpretation of politics, the trinity and the overthrow of the enemy’s armed forces through martial prowess or breaking of the will to oppose. What’s worse though, was for a book that professed to elevate cultural factors (a noble goal) he never once defines quite what that would mean. Perhaps he thought it implicit in the examples, or something everyone just ‘knew’. I disagree; where does politics end and culture begin? Is a ‘cultural’ decision to wage war in a certain fashion, ala Mamelukes, Samurai or Easter Islanders not also a political decision on how to organise society and wage war? Are they not inherently linked?

    • For medieval/crusades Dr J. France would be a decent choice, he writes heavily on this period, in particular millitary history of the time. Moreover he does not stick to the “traditional” ideas within his field, rather he challenges some of the more established views such as the why so many christians were motivated to take up the cross and go on a Crusade, argueing that their motivation was far more selfish and that they went to get rich as well as gain spiritual salvation.

      If not Dr France then perhaps Riley Smith, one of the most respected Crusading historians ever probably, with many of the contemporary theories originating from him.

      I’m only just starting my first year as an undergraduate in war studies in the coming weeks and don’t have any where near the same histiographical skills that you do. That said from what I have read and studied on this subject then these two historians would be my two contenders in the list.

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