While military history, broadly defined, is a very old specialisation, it endured a deeply troubled existence throughout much of the 20th century. This is all the more curious given the state of the discipline in 1900. In 1904, when Albert Pollard called attention to the need for a postgraduate history school at the University of London, naval history was the ‘first and foremost’ subject he considered, lamenting the lack of any university post in the subject. However, he revealed a fatal flaw in his argument when he admitted that this need was linked to the current security interests of British empire. Pollard pointed to the distinguished naval historian John Laughton, then Professor of History at King’s College, as ideally suited to the task. After the First World War the foundation of the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) met Pollard’s agenda, and the dedication of the ‘Naval and military room’ reflected his estimation of the relative importance of the sub-branches of military history.
Laughton’s prominence reflected his almost unique ability to function in the distinct worlds of academia and higher defence education. As a founder member of the English Historical Review and the pioneer of research in the Admiralty records he applied academic standards to defence education and policy formulation. His friend Sir Julian Corbett used high quality academic research to develop national strategic doctrine, and deliver advanced service education before 1914.
Mainstream military history output consisted of detailed operational studies, largely inspired by the methods and aims of the German General Staff History section, works which, as Corbett observed, could be read like a contemporary report on proceedings. There was little connection between such work and the developing interest of academic historians in constitutional, social, economic and other questions. The impact of war and preparation for war on society over time was of no interest to contemporary armed forces, more concerned to prepare for the next conflict than to understand their connection with the society they served. When the official history of the First World War came to be written the Army series was authored by soldiers, leaving Corbett, a civilian working for the Navy, to compile the naval and strategic narrative. The target audience comprised officers undergoing mid- and senior-level education.
After 1918 the links between service education and academic activity were largely lost, despite the establishment of two naval history chairs. The Navy’s post at Greenwich would be held by experienced cadet teachers for much of the next 40 years, while the Vere-Harmsworth Chair in Naval History at Cambridge was annexed to imperial history in 1936. At Oxford the Chichele Chair in Military History has been held by some noted historians, and those better known for work in other fields. Whether these choices reflected a lack of suitable talent, or the temper of the times, they left the discipline without leadership or prospects. No ‘schools’ were founded, and few undergraduates were taught.
Much of the running in military history between the wars was made by journalists like Basil Liddell Hart, and retired officers including General J. F. C. Fuller, and Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond. Only Richmond held a university post, on merit. Young historians who studied the subject wisely moved into more promising fields. In Britain the key volumes of the new official history series, dealing with grand strategy, were written by academics, while the majority of the operational studies were handled by servicemen. In the United States military history was career suicide in most history schools, once the official history of the Second World War had been completed.
Nor was this the only curiosity. Despite the obviously maritime nature of British history, and the central role of the Navy in national life, it has been the history of the Army that has dominated academic posts. The bitter experience of the Western Front remains the core of the discipline, outliving changes in national strategy since the end of the Cold War, methodological developments and the passing of the last veterans.
Military history broadly defined is concerned with core aspects of history, the creation of states, the development of bureaucratic institutions and responsible government: it examines the evolution of technology and the most intense experiences of mankind as individuals in society. War is the harshest test of societies and citizens, and the most potent agent of transformation. To study the past without war, warriors and war-fighting organisations is close to impossible, but not infrequently attempted. Armed forces serve societies, and they reflect much of that link in their design and conduct. They are also among the best documented aspects of the human experience. Furthermore, in a modern democracy the study of war is, like the study of cancer, intended to promote understanding and develop alternative responses.
Yet, in the absence of academic opportunities the majority of professional military historians in the English-speaking world have made their careers in defence education, or commercial writing. Today most academic military historians still work in staff colleges and defence academies. The resulting lack of intellectual exchange only exacerbated the methodological divergence between practitioners in the academic and defence education fields, leading to mutual incomprehension and increasing polarisation. It is vital for the health of the subject that it be capable of acting as both a fully integrated component of historical scholarship and a fundamental element in the development and delivery of defence education. Fortunately the trend is now towards greater inter-connection between these distinct environments.
Nowhere is this problem more obvious than in the failure of military history, and especially naval history, to develop a sophisticated historiography. With the core audience more concerned with current and future issues the development of the discipline has been marginalised, leaving new scholars with little sense of their relationship with the wider field.
Consistently denied a place in academic departments, for ideological or methodological reasons, military history has re-emerged in the 21st century as a core element in the multi-disciplinary ‘War Studies’ programme successfully pioneered by Professor Sir Michael Howard at King’s College London (KCL) in the 1960s. While it was no accident that Sir Michael chose to avoid operational military history he brought in the best practitioners from defence education, notably in naval history, revitalising and reconnecting the subject with the wider discipline in a way that John Laughton would have recognised. The IHR Military History Seminar that Sir Michael founded to further those aims celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2008.
The most significant development in military history in the twentieth century was the emergence of the ‘War and Society’ school around the Department, replacing old-style, service education driven operational studies with work that analyses the broader impact of war on national life, linking economics, sociology and the human dimension of conflict to explain why war has been, in Trotsky’s words, ‘the locomotive of history’.
In many ways this development has been the salvation of the subject. Methodological and structural inputs from other disciplines concerned with understanding the phenomena of war, from sociology, strategy and international politics to art, literature and film, have broadened the intellectual base and helped to re-establish an identity that attracts some of the best and brightest young historians. The multiplication of chairs in military and naval history has provided leadership and standing. Yet the key to the ‘War Studies’ brand remains the relationship with defence education. King’s College provides the academic input at the British Joint Services Command and Staff College, and more defence academics are employed there than in any university.
Ultimately the future for military history lies in combining the academic rigour of the university with the multi-disciplinary opportunities offered by ‘War Studies’ and acknowledging the critical role that states and armed forces have played in the development of the discipline. Military historians need to straddle these two worlds, to take their work into the debates of other scholars without losing sight of defence education; the two are not mutually exclusive, or incompatible. Current ‘War Studies’ debates include strategic culture, an approach that draws on more than one definition of ‘culture’. The challenge of postmodernism and theoretical models has been less threatening to the ‘War Studies’ approach, which has privileged such contributions, than it has been in discipline-based departments.
After a phenomenal period of growth in the last two decades military history in the widest sense is well catered for by ‘War Studies’ at KCL, the only department to address air and naval history. Leeds, Birmingham and Oxford are strong in military history, while Exeter has an excellent track record in naval history, linked to maritime history. The ‘War Studies’ approach has been developed in a number of locations, but this is a recent phenomenon, and most remain virtual departments. Links with other historical specialisations, international, political, imperial and technological, are good, and few military historians practising today do not profit from such connections. That said military history, however defined, is among the most popular aspects of the discipline, and nothing that has happened in the last century has broken the stranglehold of operational narrative on popular writing about war.
The challenge for the future is to sustain the academic standards that are essential to the credibility of the subject, and to make a greater contribution to the mainstream debates that exercise all historians, without losing sight of the fact that most military historians work for the military, and most readers of military history do not attend university.
Professor Andrew Lambert teaches in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.
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