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Spencer Jones [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to another episode of Military History, plus the history podcast that studies military history in all its aspects. I’m Dr. Spencer Jones, and I’m joined, as always, for my friend and co-host Gary Sheffield. And today’s a little bit of a personal episode for us because today we are going to be offering some book recommendations. And I have to say these books have been chosen completely unsigned. Typically, they’re just genuinely books that we have enjoyed in the past and recently and that we would highly recommend as potential summer reading. So without further ado, Gary, what book do you recommend for the listeners this summer?
Gary Sheffield [00:00:37] Well, I’m a cheat while recommending 12th book. Actually, it’s the the series of George running phrases. Flashman novel. Flashman, of course, is is a minor character in Tom Brown schooldays. He’s the bully who gets chucked out of rugby. About halfway through the book and George Canning Fraser, who was died sadly about about ten years ago. He was a journalist and just a wonderful writer, decided that Flashman actually deserved a second attempt after I’d fight. And so basically he picked up Flashman from the point he was chucked out of rugby in the 1830s, and he makes him a an officer in the British army, and he sends him through a whole series of Victorian military campaigns. He does other things unrelated to military history as well and produces one of the great historical characters, in my view, hugely entertaining, based on an awful lot of careful study of history, because George Little Fraser actually knew his history. And I must say I learned an awful lot of what I know about Victorian military history originally through reading Flashman.
Spencer Jones [00:01:54] Well, there are no complaints by the fact you’ve cheated and chosen 12 books there, because I’m also a great fan of the Flashman books, and I think Juvenile First is something but remarkable that he presents this character who is an absolute cad and a rotter and yes, no redeeming features whatsoever. And yet the talent is you find yourself, if not exactly cheering him on, certainly taking some pleasure in how he manages to wriggle out of all these tight situations. Well, I have a favourite volume in the trouble.
Gary Sheffield [00:02:30] Oh gosh. Probably Flashman at the charge, which of course, he gets involved with the charge of the Light Brigade. He’s tried desperately not to be sent to the Crimea, but he ends up being sent there anyway. He’s captured at the end of the charge a light brigade, and then he disappears into this amazing series, Adventures in Central Asia. I won’t say anything more for those who haven’t read the book because it’s it’s a wonderful read. But of course, it shows, I think, traces one of his great talents is to pick really, really obscure parts of mid-19th century military history and make it come alive by inserting Flashman into the most into the most out of the way at outrageous circumstances in many ways. I think my favourite Flashman book might have been the one that was never Russian. Is Flashman in the American Civil War? Because George Fraser on several occasions teased us by mentioning that Flashman was involved not only on both sides where the Confederacy and the Army, and he never lived to write the book. But going back to your point about some Flashman being be a CAD and a Rorschach and all the rest of it all that’s true. Except the one thing which I guess doesn’t quite ring true for a night for a 19th century Victorian army. It makes him much more 20th century or even 21st century is actually despite of everything, despite the fact he’s an appalling racist liberal use of the N-word and the rest of it, he actually show some remarkably liberal streaks at various times. He doesn’t come to sympathise with the underdog, if only because on frequent occasions he found himself being what? Yes, in many ways one of the most problematic books or could have been problematic books is is Flash for Freedom, in which Flashman is a slave up and gets involved. Must be said, you know musket. She spent a judgement with the underwriter Underground Railroad in the United States in the 1840s, and he comes face to face with slavery both as a as AI, as a literal slave driver, but also of course, he felt naturally he falls foul of the of the slave owner who was employing it by seducing his wife or rather probably being seduced by his wife, and he ends up being shipped off to become a slight himself.
Spencer Jones [00:04:54] Yeah, it’s.
Gary Sheffield [00:04:55] So and so he comes up with with, you know, views which all. Calling at the at the time that they were done by Fraser in the sixties and seventies, even more so today. And yet Fleischman actually comes to recognise or to identify to, to to some extent with those at the bottom of the plot. All that I think, makes him a very, an anti-hero, but nonetheless someone which is does have some redeeming features in spite of what what you might think.
Spencer Jones [00:05:24] I think that’s absolutely true. One of the talents, though, is that ability to you do end up sort of appreciating watchmen in certain ways and then it’s repetitive. You want the same succeed. One thing I’d also add is a lot of the supporting cast are just as rotten than miserable as FlashForward. You know, some of the the administrators he meets in their adventures these colonial bumpkins, buffoons with enormous sideburns who are complete idiots. And you enjoy seeing him get won over those was the language used. This is controversial. On any advice or comments for readers approaching these novels for the first time about this?
Gary Sheffield [00:06:04] Yeah, you need to be warned. Flashman is made to use racial language. The N-word gets used frequently. He also has the most appalling attitudes towards women, who he treats as little better than chattels. So accept Flashman for what he is. He’s a real yes and all character. But as I previously mentioned, I think that he has a heart of gold. He’s putting it strongly, but actually he does have some sort of more liberal ideas creep through. But it’s not something I would suggest that you go into unless you’re aware of what you’re about it. I mean, you might well find this highly offensive, but accept it as the way that it’s put across, which is an evocation of a period which which is now which is now certainly I wonder whether anybody wrote those books today. They would even dare use that. It’s written in a different. So, I mean, even when the first book appeared, I think in 1969, in terms of attitudes, that’s a different view.
Spencer Jones [00:07:09] Absolutely. I think that’s a very fair summary of it. But I hope any listeners who’ve never read me Flashman, I hope that prepares you rather than put you off because these really are a terrific read and it’s one of those books you may start and read the first for the Occupation thing. I’m not sure how can I possibly like this character in these adventures, but trust me, you will. And I really think they’re a treat if you’ve not read them before.
Gary Sheffield [00:07:32] Right? So take all 12 copies of all 12 books with you on the beach this summer. Right over to What’s your first recommendation for poolside reading this summer?
Spencer Jones [00:07:43] Think this is a heavy volume. I think that that this is in some ways the anti fashionable stuff I’m going to recommend and it’s a book that I I tend to actually picked up from charity shop originally because I wanted something to read on a series of long, long journeys. It’s not the easiest book to carry. It’s it’s called Hero The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Michael Korda. And it’s a hefty volume. It’s including it’s index. It’s it’s pushing 800 pages, 762 pages. I just checked, actually, and this is as the he as the title implies, this is a very positive assessment and biography of Lawrence of Arabia. And so we’ve gone from the great anti-hero, Flashman, to a character who Michael Korda is an American author and describes openly as a hero. Lawrence of Arabia.
Gary Sheffield [00:08:35] I don’t know this book, though. I’ve read some of the biography of Lawrence, so he’s basically repackaging Lawrence as a hero in what sort of contemporary terms or First World War terms.
Spencer Jones [00:08:47] So he plays this, Lawrence, very much in the context of the First World War place, in back in that context rather than as a figure of the sort of the consequences that will follow. And in this, I think it was written before the the quite influential book by Scott Anderson Lawrence in Arabia, which is much more about the Middle East and war and its political consequences. A court has books very much just about Lawrence the person, and why he was considered a hero in his own time, and also about why Lawrence himself had a very complex relationship with that description of himself. And I think it’s it does two things extremely well. I think it’s extremely readable. It’s it really does flow for page. I find it difficult to put down in places and not just the descriptions of action and adventure, but also the nuances of Lawrence’s early life and of course his post-war life, which were complicated, which were controversial, very, very easy to to read, very readable book packed with information. And secondly, the scope of this. So this is a biography that goes from Lawrence’s birth right up until his death. Of course, the bulk of it is about the war in the Middle East. But there’s a lot about Lawrence as a person as well. And Lawrence. His relationship with family and so on, relationship with other figures. I just found it a very yes, it’s positive. And by Biden, anything less that he admires Lawrence, he admires what Lawrence did and he wants to sort of place Lawrence back in that context. It’s easy to, Porter says in the book, it’s easy to criticise Lawrence because he ultimately doesn’t achieve his aim. He does not his the Arab revolt does not lead to a pan Arab state. That’s not necessarily Lawrence’s fault, that there’s a lot of other powers at work here and to criticise Lawrence for not achieving something that nobody else has ever achieved is in some ways harsh, when in fact he did achieve a great deal with with pretty remarkable limited resources. And so.
Gary Sheffield [00:10:44] I’d just like.
Spencer Jones [00:10:45] Fascinating.
Gary Sheffield [00:10:45] Cards on table. I’m a bit of a Lawrence sceptic. I remember reading a copy of who it was, but some years ago somebody arguing that actually Lawrence wasn’t really a great commander, he was a small quartermaster and really all of the command decisions were taken by other people and he sort of seized seize the credit, or I should say, had the credit seized for him, if I can. Where does that all start?
Spencer Jones [00:11:11] In the corner really takes aim at this one. And he his presentation of Lawrence’s influence here is heavily linked to, of course least typical parts of Iraq is that the de facto military leader of the Arab revolt. And he thought his argument is that without Lawrence Faisal, astute politician, astute organiser, knew the ins and outs of intertribal power politics better than anybody, but not intrinsically an aggressive or bold commander, not somebody who would have taken the sort of risks that Lawrence did. And Cortez argument is that Lawrence is more than just a quartermaster, is more than just an organiser. He does have some real flashes of brilliance in this and that it’s his vision of what the revolt can be and his willingness to do all due forcefully with Feisal and with others. That’s crucial. And he does make an interesting point about the fact that Lawrence is an outsider, allows him to speak to Feisal in a way that he would not be able to do had he been part of the Arab revolt. And so he’s able to bring an independent attitude, an adventurous attitude, a risk to either risk takers, just like all his life to this and that with Arab thought the Arab revolt would probably repeat tonight. It was like many revolts, it had to. But you don’t. Success without success, even Peter Right. And Lawrence gave it successes, whereas Feisal himself a great politician, great organiser that he was, was not going to take those type of risks. He just wasn’t psychologically or militarily inclined towards that. And so I think that’s called his career. Without Lawrence, this revolt probably peters out. It never goes much further than the seat in the siege is in the south, and it probably collapses around about 1980 because, of course, Feisal is is does have some interaction with the Ottomans about calling this revolt all at various points without Lawrence providing victories, it’s quite possible the entire revolt would have collapsed.
Gary Sheffield [00:13:07] Well, I mean, final question I’d ask about this is because one of the the major problems of assessing Lawrence is so much of the evidence is Lawrence’s own writing. Yes. Palace of Wisdom Revolt in the Desert, I think was responsive, was a shorter version. And of course, that has been criticised as being not entirely historically accurate. I mean, I do you agree with that? And B, how does Calderdale deal with.
Spencer Jones [00:13:29] So this whole section on Lawrence’s writings is really interesting in this book because of course he wrote other things as well. Of course his view is that large chunks of seven poems was largely accurate and Lawrence was really trying to create something that he thought would be a masterwork. Unfortunately, he’s not a brilliant writer. Seven Pillars is a very dense read. There’s a long discussion in particular about the famous passage in which Lawrence’s sexual assault, when he gets captured by the Turks in late 17, about how many drafts that went through his interactions, where he’s discussing it with Charlotte. Sure. That the wife of George Bernard Shaw accordingly concludes that it’s accurate, even if not down to the exact detail. But the fact that Lawrence is one of those famous people of the British Empire writes a multi-page description of an extremely violent sexual assault, This isn’t something you do for kicks. It’s it’s a huge matter. And the fact that it doesn’t cause more controversy is good estimation. People just didn’t read the book. Sometimes Whitlam’s huge respect generally concludes that even if Lawrence is wrong on points of detail, he’s right in the essence of what he’s writing. And that is Lawrence is an enigmatic figure who enjoys playing with perceptions and so on, but with seven pillars with some quarters. Argument is he really wanted to create something that was going to be lasting, that was going to mean something he didn’t because he fell short of that. But his intentions were more honest and more earnest than his critics would allow.
Gary Sheffield [00:14:57] Thank you. Right. Well. Or. So my extremely long list of books to be read.
Spencer Jones [00:15:03] Yes. And it doesn’t say a heavy one to count. So that’s we’ve gone from anti-hero to hero. But what’s next on your list, Gary?
Gary Sheffield [00:15:11] Right. Okay. Well, this one is a it’s a very recent book published, I believe, last year called Wellington’s Waterloo Allies by Andrew Wakefield, just published in 2022. I’ve got a long standing interest in the Waterloo campaign. Well, the British Army in the Napoleonic Wars in general may well be doing some writing on this at some point in the future. And one of the things that’s always struck me is before Waterloo, if you read some older books, it’s all about the brick bricks again. In fact, of course, Wellington was commanding a multinational coalition army, which had very large numbers of troops from various German states, from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which actually included Belgium and and of course, the King’s German Legion, who were in British service, but they were basically Hanoverian soldiers. And in recent years, well, I think last 20, 30 years, there’s been an increasing recognition of this and some very useful material has appeared. And what this why I like this book in particular is, as I call it, a deep, deep dive, if I can coin it coin a phrase into the Brunswick area. Does Nassau and Netherlands contingent based on close reading of original sources accounts, much of which is not originally in English? In fact, the vast majority majority of it is not in English. And so it’s a very accessible way of looking at these different elements. Andrew Field, who I don’t actually know is a former Army officer, British army officer, and he’s got that stamp on it. And there’s an interesting early chapter in which he talks about military effectiveness. Now, speaking as someone who is supervised, I don’t know how many dissertations and essays on the military effectiveness of ex army in whatever war is. It used to see this come across in using Napoleonic. And he makes a I think, a very good argument that actually what took two things first of all that the the allied contingents under Wellington’s command have actually tend to be downplayed by British historians not recently but historically. And their contribution to Wellington’s victory has, I think, been largely overlooked or underplayed. It was a better way of putting it. Let me just quote from the conclusion. And he says this The allied contingents did not take the brunt of the tough, close combat, but carefully managed and sparingly committed. They achieved what was necessary for the victory. Now, his argument here is that Wellington and this, I think, only adds to my sense of Wellington’s greatness as a commander, knew perfectly well the strengths and indeed the weaknesses of the contingents that he commanded at Waterloo and was careful not to cost them too much. I think he field refers to battlefield management at various times, so wherever possible, he actually integrated allied contingents with reliable British and King’s German Legion contingents. He tended to leave the Allied contingents either in reserve or put them out into parts of battlefield, which were not the main effort of the French. So they didn’t actually take that much fighting. And he was able to, if you like, to sort of ease them through the process, the process of battle and his all, which I think is is a strong one. And in the end, the allied troops on the whole did pretty well all that you could all of the bearing in mind that they were many of them were raw, not very well trained, certainly in experience and a combination of their fighting fighting ability, plus some very good low level leadership by their officers. And Wellington’s own management of them throughout the book brought the Allied Army through to victory. And he makes a point. It’s actually quite ironic that some of the officers of which the British were most concerned at the beginning of the battle, those who had served under Napoleon prior to Napoleon’s first application in 1814 proved to be hugely valuable because they brought that experience of campaigning with the French army. And so even though they might be regarded as being politically unreliable, as in most cases, that was that was very unfair. Their experience proved to be absolutely what was needed to to get these raw troops through a really, really gruelling battle. In fact, in some cases, two battles because they fought it out for two days before Waterloo, as.
Spencer Jones [00:19:54] It sounds absolutely fascinating. And I can just tell from your enthusiasm. But this book. But this is really feature interest. Is this a book on what you’d recommend to somebody who’s new to the subject, or would you say it’s from the more advanced reader?
Gary Sheffield [00:20:10] I would say it’d be a second order because if you’re absolutely brand new to Waterloo, read one of the general accounts and actually the account written by Bernard Cornwell, the the author of Shell, which I think is his only non-fiction book. That’s quite decent, actually, from a Waterloo. So I say read something like that and then go on to read this book of Wellington’s Waterloo. I like because it does actually presuppose a certain level of knowledge.
Spencer Jones [00:20:41] Mm hmm.
Gary Sheffield [00:20:42] So, so I’d actually say that I should actually say I’ve read other stuff I he wrote, unless I’m completely confusing him with somebody else. A very good book on cultural, which actually opened my eyes to some aspects of that which I hadn’t previously previously know. So what don’t actually say is that is oddly, you would have thought that so well in in in another podcast recently we were discussing or briefly mentioned Gettysburg and how that must be the most written about battle in history, if not for Waterloo. And yeah, that’s absolutely right. But for all that, we’re still getting some original books coming out of Waterloo which say new stuff actually give, give us a new angle. So it’s amazing how much you can get out of examination of or in some cases re-examination of the sources. So even some of the most familiar battles in history, there’s still more to say about them.
Spencer Jones [00:21:35] Even a tough thing. I couldn’t agree more. And as a bit of a scholar on one book, one Waterloo, in a completely amateur sense, I hasten to add, I’ll definitely be adding that to my shopping list.
Gary Sheffield [00:21:47] Well, I’m actually going to Waterloo, taking a party to Waterloo later this year. And so I will definitely be sort of looking in more detail at the Brunswickers and the and what have you. But anything else? I think we owe anybody who looks at Waterloo to look at the battle in the round. Too often it simply becomes the British against the French. And it’s from far more.
Spencer Jones [00:22:08] Absolutely, yes.
Gary Sheffield [00:22:09] So what’s your next offering.
Spencer Jones [00:22:12] You know, since you’ve been talking about Waterloo, but actually getting away from actual military history? It’s a book that I absolutely was. It was a gift, actually. It was a gift, a Christmas gift, completely unexpected. And it’s called The Fall of Robespierre by Colin Jones. I’ve been subtitle 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris, and it’s a really interesting book about Robespierre is Last 24 Hours in charge of Revolutionary France. It’s written in this this I’ve seen it done with other subjects. It’s written the almost hour by hour style. So each chapter is although. That’s the amount of time it covers does vary is essentially an hour starting on midnight midnight and then ending ultimately on midnight the following day. And it charts not only the last 24 hours of Robespierre as as forces start to prepare themselves to overthrow him as the violent dictator of basically revolution in France. But it also is buried in this and carefully presented and thoughtfully presented is a history of revolutionary France. And I found this book absolutely fascinating. I’ve always had Alex’s interest in the French Revolution. In fact, one of my activities in the very first COVID lockdown in 2020 was I became hooked on listening to podcasts about the French Revolution. I’d forgotten all about that by the time I came to the fall of Robespierre. But I just found this a terrific book, and it’s one that I would recommend so you can come to it with no knowledge of the French Revolution whatsoever. And it will teach you about that. If you have some knowledge, you’ll get a lot out of it. And if you simply like essentially a taut political thriller, because this is about a revolution, it’s itself essentially, and eventually it has to a turn on Robespierre, then you’ll enjoy too, and the hour by hour style, which might seem like a gimmick or a barrier to deep history, is actually brilliantly presented. And it does. It did spark an idea in my head. Could could something be done similar to 24 hours at a bottle or so? And I know there have been some books that have tried this, but I think this is the best book for that type of approach. And I couldn’t put it down. I just find it absolutely fascinating.
Gary Sheffield [00:24:33] Well, to my shame, I haven’t read it, though I do remember reading some reviews when it first came out. I actually I’ve met Colin Owens on several occasions. He actually it may now be retired, but he’s professor at one of the London colleges from memory.
Spencer Jones [00:24:49] I’ve got yes, he’s a clean man physically very.
Gary Sheffield [00:24:52] Well, but he’s an academic, historic. But well, we know that academic historians can actually write and. Stop bloodshed. That that’s exactly what what he’s done. It’s not a sort of a difficult go call academic read.
Spencer Jones [00:25:08] No, it’s not. The only thing I would say on this is and this is my only real criticism of the book is I wish I had been included at the start a a list of key characters, because there’s a lot of characters in this. And of course, some are pro-Russia, some are plotting against him. And though this great pen portrays soccer as they were introduced, there are a lot of names, and I would love to have seen a little list of names just to remind you who they were and what their role was. And what I actually did was I started making little crib notes just so I could remember who was who. But otherwise, it’s it’s a really well-written book. And there’s a ton of detail in this up and notes included as well. But it’s presented in a in an exciting sort of way. And it’s written in this because it’s written about it’s written with this immediacy, which I find really, really enjoyable. Some people might might reject that because it’s written in the present tense because it’s talking about what’s happening, that our what’s happening about our. But I just find it really it reads like a sort of it’s about a conspiracy. It reads almost like a spy novel. It really does. And highly recommended for even the general reader.
Gary Sheffield [00:26:17] Well, I mean, certainly that genuinely wasn’t my to to to, to read list. I’ll move it up from possibly 780 to 630 or something like that, just as I took a nap. A few problems with people who have written books in the present tense. But you didn’t find that grating?
Spencer Jones [00:26:36] No, and I think but that’s because it’s got this very distinct. This is happening in this hour. So between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., these characters are doing this and it works because it feels like you’re you’re inside the conspiracy, you’re there. You can feel the urgency of it. And what I think Colin joins us very well as he moves from describing the immediacy of what a character is doing to moving to describing what’s happening in Paris at this time, a sort of wider history of the French Revolution and of course, the ongoing war, which is in the background. And then back to what’s a character doing in this immediate moment. Very well. And I didn’t find that grating at all. And actually I thought it was it was almost novel because I have I as you, I find history in the first person extremely grating. And but in this case, it just worked really well. I thought it added to immediacy rather than creating any kind of friction. I really can’t say enough good things about this book. I absolutely looked at it and it completely unexpected. It was a presence that I didn’t ask for, just unexpected from my father of all people. A terrific If you only buy one book about the French Revolution. Let’s I start with this one.
Gary Sheffield [00:27:48] Plus. That’s quite a recommendation, of course. Yeah. Playing through my head is is the name of citizen Camembert and all the other characters are real because, I mean, there’s a semi-serious point involved. And at the end, the French Revolution, I think as far as popular memory in Britain is concerned, seems to be rooted very firmly in the past. It’s people wearing wigs and having their heads chopped off and everything. But actually, you said at the beginning it’s how a revolution eats itself that does he actually make explicit comparisons with the French, obviously with the Russian Revolution or other revolutions or or do they simply lend themselves to you when you read.
Spencer Jones [00:28:30] That they they lend themselves quite distinctly. And one thing I think he that Colin Jones gets across extremely well is the consequences of Robespierre, his actions and his discussion of just that. The horror of the terror is remarkable. The it’s something that we forget. I think, as you say, we tend to think of the French Revolution as weeks the Scarlet Pimpernel odysseys you know it’s it’s not doesn’t have a great deal of cultural weight in Britain of course, in France, Bastille Day is a public holiday. It’s celebrated. And the what’s presented here is just how grisly the terror was. You’ve probably heard that phrase, but its meaning is sporadic. And there’s a passage early on which I thought, although the comparison is made explicitly, it really struck me and I would draw comparisons with the Soviet terror up to Stalin’s terror. There’s a passage about the guillotine block in Paris, and it’s so many people being guillotined in this particular area of the city that it was creating a drainage problem. There was so much blood and bone and gristle in the area that it was blocking the drains. It was stinking. It wasn’t being washed away. Rather than stopping and saying, My God, we’re executing so many people so quickly, we’re blocking the drains. And so the solution was, Well, we’ll just have to move the guillotine block to somewhere with respect to drainage. And it reminded me of a passage in Simon Sebag Monte Furies book called The Red Tsar, which is about Stalin, another highly recommended book where he was mentioned some. Detail about Russian railway managers coming up with inventive solutions for moving hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands, certainly of dead bodies, rather than stopping and saying, my God, what are we doing instead? It’s all I’ve done really well. I’ve moved eight post boxes this week and about how the bureaucracy of terror is. It’s in some ways so mundane and yet so horrific. And I thought that came across very strongly. And, you know, there’s no punches pulled on what it really meant to be. It made revolution in France.
Gary Sheffield [00:30:29] Okay, well, moving on. I’m going to do my last.
Spencer Jones [00:30:33] Yes. What have you got for us?
Gary Sheffield [00:30:35] Well, my last book is The First Day on the Somme by Martin. Now, actually, I’ve written somewhere about the impact, the impact this book has had on me as a as a young boy at the age of 13 when I read it, it’s one of the reasons I became interested in the First World War and went on to take a First World war course at university, and the rest is history, as they say. But the reason I’m rereading it at the moment is I’m going to the Somme in a few weeks time, taking a party across for the first time since before the and this, I suspect, is the longest time of had away from the Somme in the last 3030. Now for those people who don’t know, Martin Middlebrook was a Lincolnshire chicken farm who went on a trip to the Somme in the middle sixties, was blown away by what he saw the cemeteries at the memorial and at that time the battlefield tour industry as it has become, was really underdeveloped and so this was very much a backwater which pretty few Brits visited. He came back and he decided to write a book on the Somme, and he did so by conducting interviews with large numbers of survivors of the Somme, both British and German, of course, which there were a large number in the late 90. And the book came out I think in 1971, and it became an instant classic and it really was the first of those books, series of books based on interviews with with combatants, which was down to the present day people like Lynne MacDonald and various other people. Peter Hart I’ve taken this format and use it today, but really this, this is the first and in my view it’s now his technique is one which he didn’t actually use, interestingly, not very much in his later he zoomed in on on a handful of individuals and told the battle largely though not entirely through there. So for example, one was a company, Sergeant Major Percy Chappell, who was with a battalion of some light infantry, and he looks at the battle through through what? Percy Chappell Now it’s absolute mine of information as much about social history as military history, about the background of Kitchener’s armies, its recruiting, the impact on local areas, what actually happened to to, to, to individual. But the core of the book is, of course, the narrative history. And having spoke about Colin Jones’s, this is a bit like that in a sense. It actually takes you through the battle chronologically and giving snapshots of what is happening on the battlefield at certain times. The one thing I really liked about is that at various times he stops. And so, for example, Chapter eight is a review at 8:30 a.m.. Chapter ten is Review of noon at noon. Chapter 12 is a review at dusk. Actually, it is a very gritty, granular look at what’s quite a complex. But in terms of pure military history, I think we can criticise it today. Things have moved on. So for example, I think he underplays the importance of tactical development which we were seeing even on the 1st of July. He sort of goes for the idea that the everybody advance very slowly getting out of that trench and going forward. I mean that’s a bit unfair. But he obviously didn’t have access to the vast amount of tactical research has been carried out over the last 50 years. I think that his views on roles that Haig could probably do with a bit of a brief refresh in the light of modern scholarship. But nonetheless, it’s absolutely enthralling. And every time I pick it up and I read it, I don’t know, every four or five years, something like that, to remind me. I’m struck every time by the nuances, by the riches and how this is a book which you can read time after time again. You never get tired of it and you always get some. If I was asked for my favourite military history book, I suspect this would be in the top five or six. Not the best military history book that I read, but my favourite one of one of my favourite ones is had a huge hit.
Spencer Jones [00:34:55] What a what a great summary I think of a book, but that’s one of the most. Influential books on scholars, the First World War and Future Influence on my own work, and in Gary Bauer experience of teaching the First World War, I may well bounce. And the number of students who came to us and said that the first hands on was an introduction that sparked their interest. I struggle to think of another single volume where so many people have said this was my introduction to the subject or it was my. It was the spark that ignited the fire. To read more on this, I’m a huge fan of the book. I couldn’t agree more on your assessment of it, that this is just a wonderfully written book in the great tradition and this is no way to criticism, a great tradition of amateur military history. I think, as you say, Martin Middlebrook was a chicken farmer who decided to do this and produce something of such enduring value. And it’s it’s extremely readable as well. It’s something that you never get bored of. It’s never a slog, that’s for sure. And I really I couldn’t agree more. And if you’ve not read it, if as listener, if you’ve not read it, you’re in for a treat, you really are. And if you have read it, it’s well worth revisiting. I’m sure he’d agree.
Gary Sheffield [00:36:06] Gary Well, absolutely. I mean, it’s worth saying something about Walter Middlebrooks subsequent career, because he wrote only one other book on the First World War, which actually on the Kaiser’s bottle, the book on the 21st of March 1918, which again is a single battle snapshot, which also I think is very, very good. And then after that, he wrote a lot of books on Bomber Command, and he did a book on the Fort Washington, all sorts of stuff. I, I haven’t read all of his books. I’ve read many of them. None of them quite matches the almost perfection of the first post post down on the sub. I, I kind of got to know him slightly in later years. He was a bit defensive about some of the criticisms of his book by a military historian. So, for example, I know Hugh Strawn wrote a quite a critical review all first down to some back in the 1970s or early eighties in which Hugh was actually quite he was actually quite, quite critical. In a funny way. This actually is a tribute to the importance of first of the first on the Somme, because actually it was reviewed in a scholarly journal by a prominent scholar who took it seriously as history said, okay, I like this, but he gets this, this in this role. And I’ve a different interpretation. The fact that a guy, you know, without wanting to to denigrate. Martin but what an amateur historian who did not have a scholarly background produced a book that was thought worthy of that sort of attention, I think is in itself is a tribute to the quality of of of the book. One thing that’s slightly great is corrected at the time actually, and has ever since is I don’t know whether it’s in this book or one of his other ones. He says that he doesn’t really like history books that are written totally from libraries and archives. Well, actually, unless you’re actually capable of going out and speaking to survivors from the battles from the battles, that pretty well condemns all sorts of military history, it just struck me as a rather strange thing to say. So there are blemishes. There are a few things that I certainly would expect differently if that book was being written now by someone with a skull around. But I don’t take away from what what is an absolute book and just how books sometimes, you know, you read a book and it brings back memories. You can remember the circumstances under which you bought it and when you bought it. I know I bought this particular book on my first ever Battlefield tour. I went on as a as a punch up with a major Mrs. Holt in, I think 1983, 82 or 83. I bought it at the Dell Little Wood Bookshop and Cafe. Not even sure if it’s still there, but actually it was certainly there then, and it is signed by Martin Middlebrook. And so I got this copy of the book and I got rid of the tatty, literally falling to Bits paperback I had picked up as a 13 year old at a job also. But it’s a book which continues to have resonance for me.
Spencer Jones [00:39:11] An excellent choice, I think. And interesting comments too, about Hugh Strong’s review, which I’d actually forgotten about it to you too. You mentioned that and that I can understand, you know, the frustration and this is my comment on Hugh’s review as a whole, but sometimes that a certain amount of carping criticism about certain elements, but it’s not a comment on that review particular but I have seen is sometimes guilty of this for certain tiny technical details and then we will of course we want to be slice the things I met most of it too, and I know he was a little bit much later in life. I suspect he was little bit still had a little bit of a chip on his shoulder about not being taken as seriously as as perhaps he felt he deserved to be. But I agree with you that this is different. His masterwork. I do have a soft spot, actually, for his book on the Kaiser Charlotte The Seattle story, which I think is is a fine piece of work, too. But yeah, first down the song. Yeah. If you’re not read it, read it.
Gary Sheffield [00:40:12] For a moment before we go on to talk about. Excuse me. Final point before we go on to talk about your last choice, is that how shall I put it? Some. Here’s a family show. It’s the job of the historian to go through life raining on people’s backside. And so if you pick up a book like the first time on the Somme, and if you’re a scholarly historian, you all really because it’s your job to point out things that aren’t quite right or different interpretations or that that’s not to say that the book is necessarily bad or shouldn’t be read, but actually that’s what we do for a living. We literally rewrite history. And so I can understand why Martin Middlebrook might be a bit peeved about a review like cuz I think we understand why he wrote the review in the way he did because actually it’s two ways of looking at history from two different Absolutely.
Spencer Jones [00:41:07] And details must they really the right?
Gary Sheffield [00:41:09] I would too. What’s your last one.
Spencer Jones [00:41:11] My last one is something completely different now. A little bit of background to this. Growing up in the in the late 80 seconds, the early nineties. One of my absolute favourite books of book series, I should say, were the Fighting fantasy books from Ian Livingston and Steve Jackson of Games Workshop and later the projects. And these were adventure books that were there was a game involved just roll dice and things. They were set in a whole host of settings. It was fancy, you know, sword and sorcery. There was science fiction that was post-apocalyptic, there was spice, there was even horror as well. And I love these, but I still have a more put more of those fighting fancy books in their original format than I care to admit. And I’ve always loved game books in that sense, and my recommendation is a book full disclosure. But a great friend and colleague of mine, John Buckley, and it’s called The Armchair General, and you defeat the Nazis on this. This is essentially fighting fantasy. Or you might know that there’s a similar game series called Choose Your Own Adventure, which had less of a game element but was more of a story. It’s it’s doing that except for military history. It consists of eight separate scenarios which are individual individually wrapped that cover a variety of subjects. So in order that you can once will Britain’s Darkest hour. And it’s about the political battle between church and Halifax. There’s a chapter, The cities, the war, the Bad. This is the Battle of Midway on this studies Russia’s war on this is the bombing offensive market garden. And there’s a mixture of different scenarios. Each of them are individual, individually wrapped. Some are political, some are some cover the whole war, some cover just a few hours of really interesting use of time and the broken sections. And at the end of each section, you, as the reader, offered a choice. What do you do? Depending on what you choose, you go to a different page of the book and you read a different section, and that can in turn lead you to an alternative outcome. Or in some case it leads you to another choice. And it’s really, really clever. It’s it’s a great idea and one that I know people have attempted in the past, but I have attempted it with quite so much polish as this one. Even if we know about the war and you’re well informed about World War Two, it’s actually really good fun because you get to sort of do things that you know, is a do you know what happens, do things that, you know, didn’t happen, just see what happens. So let’s a let’s let’s let’s meet Lord Halifax, the prime minister, and see what happened. So let’s not build an atomic bomb and see what happens. And it’s just it leads to a really interesting interpretation. Then, of course, the truth of counterfactual history is you’re free to disagree. These are John’s assessments about what would happen. And, you know, that’s quite interesting. But with the game element, the decision element is really fun. And following through this I think is a really fun way to do history. Of course, you can just follow the historical roots, in which case it’s a it’s a summary really of what really happened, but written in a sort of adventurous style and exciting style. This isn’t academic history. This is blood and bullets. And, you know, you go right into the frontline or into the cockpit of dive bombers and this sort of thing, which I think it’s just a great idea and it’s well-executed. And I really enjoyed it.
Gary Sheffield [00:44:36] Right. Well, I should actually say full disclosure, John is a good, good friend and colleague of mine. So perhaps in in recompense for the number of times he text me when my football team is losing, I hope to blag a copy of of of this book off of it. Actually, no, I, I but I must confess I. The ladies have actually flipped through it in a bookshop. But it struck me as being an absolutely brilliant idea. What are those things? I first thought is what someone think of it before and B, why didn’t I think of it?
Spencer Jones [00:45:12] Absolutely.
Gary Sheffield [00:45:12] But it’s also worth saying, of course, John actually is a serious historian. In fact, he’s a prize winning historian and wanted to be the leading authority on the British army in the Northwest Europe campaign, 19 4445. So actually, you’re dealing with someone who really, really does just does not know his subject.
Spencer Jones [00:45:31] Absolutely. And on that prize, he pitched, he thinks the top prize of the Templar medal in 2014 for his book Monty’s Men about Northwest Europe. And I say pinched because like a runner up for that year’s competition with stemming the tide at the end of the book about 1948. So yes, he’s he’s a bona fide prize winning historian. And I think that shows in the book that there’s a level of knowledge in this book that underpins it. This isn’t just taking wild guesses about what might happen. This is the serious consideration here. And those of you who are into the wilder side of counterfactuals and are looking for Nazi moon bases and super weapons, you’re not going to find them here. There’s a real attempt to present what was likely to happen rather than, you know, wild flights of fancy. And that sometimes means that it’s actually quite difficult to change the history. And I think that gets across the fact that it’s certain in camps and battles and decisions are heavily weighted in certain directions. But I think because I think as an introduction to this topic, it’s incredibly exciting. It’s certainly if I’d been a young teenager or or so on, and I think this book would absolutely thrilled me even more so than it does as an adult, because I always loved that sort of game element, and I think it’d be a great introduction if you’re you’re not that knowledgeable about World War Two, and if you are knowledgeable about World War Two, it’s a fun way to explore counterfactuals in a different way. Well, can you be open to all kinds of possibly stupid discussion too on that subject?
Gary Sheffield [00:47:05] Well, counterfactuals are something we may well return to in a light like two photographs. But I want to hear what you said. None of the counterfactuals are or two to wild and, you know, to to fall off of, of course. Because actually, if you think about any period of particularly military history. So there’s only very, very small changes could make a major difference.
Spencer Jones [00:47:27] Absolutely right. And one thing one of the chapters that I actually found particularly interesting in that regard is John’s chapter on Midway. And I know that the sort of the broad outlines of Midway, you know, reasonably well and so on, but that you actually are tasked with at one point do you go as a dive bomber squadron, You’re flying over the open ocean. What do you do? You go east to west. I’m just that simple. And of course, convincing reasons are presented to go either way. And I actually came to that book. I don’t actually know which way to go. I don’t know which way they actually turn. My knowledge is not granular, and it struck me that just such an important battle could turn on on such a relatively minor decision. That sort of nexus points are really interesting and and that not only do you have these kind of very narrow tactical decision, but also bigger and bolder decisions about the whole conduct of Bomber Command’s offensive, for example, or how does Russia conduct the war effort? And and so you get to look at it and, you know, the very narrow tactical levels, the high strategic levels. And of course, one of the joys and I again, full disclosure, John commented on this to me some reviews that that came across this is reviews from from members of the public reported were talking about well, I didn’t think this counterfactual was very good or I didn’t like that the outcome about this. John said, well, that’s the counterfactual history. If you don’t like the counterfactual, to come up with a different one. But his his argument is very much he’s really put effort into making these realistic. So you get the histories and you get the excitement.
Gary Sheffield [00:49:01] If only somewhat of thought of writing this book on the first. Well, if.
Spencer Jones [00:49:04] Only they have. Well, I’ve got a surprise for you, Gary, and listeners thoughts. But you may be stunned to know that John and I are heading the sequel to this, which is called with the Stunning originality. We didn’t choose the title The Armchair General World War One and You win the Great War, in which you’ve done the same for the Great War. And it’s been more when you listen to this podcast, it’s either forthcoming or it’s out and we’ve done the same thing.
Gary Sheffield [00:49:32] Well, you could have knocked me down with Trevor.
Spencer Jones [00:49:34] It’s shocking. I know, I know.
Gary Sheffield [00:49:37] No, no, it’s it’s. I’m really looking forward to the First World War. I must go back and properly read the Second World War. Okay, thanks, but we’re coming to an end now. So we’ve actually given you six recommendations touting the Flashman books as being one. So we’ve have. A series of military history novels. We have a book on the First World War, a non-military book on the French Revolution, a book on the Waterloo campaign, and a series of alternative histories of the Second World War. I missed anybody else.
Spencer Jones [00:50:18] No, I think you’ve covered that with aplomb. So there’s a slight weighting towards the First World War, as you might expect from the First World War Scholars. But at the same time, I think there’s something for everybody with a love of history in our list.
Gary Sheffield [00:50:31] Well, absolutely. Well, we wish you all have a really, really good time wherever you’re going on holiday. Maybe if you’re stay staying at home plenty of time. I hope to catch up on your reading of military history and we’ll say goodbye to you and see you on the other side of the holidays. So from me, Gary Sheffield. Goodbye.
Spencer Jones [00:50:51] And for me, Spencer Jones. Goodbye.
Gary Sheffield [00:50:53] Goodbye.