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Max Hastings on His Favourite Historians of War

Posted on 13th May 2024 by Mark Skinner

There are few more highly esteemed military historians currently writing than Max Hastings, whose riveting Operation Biting is published this May. But which writers on war does he rate the most highly? In this exclusive piece, Hastings picks his personal favourites.  

John Keegan

It is scary how quickly even many outstanding writers get forgotten, once they are no longer with us. My old friend John Keegan died in 2012. Too few modern readers visit even his finest work The Face of Battle, first published in 1976. This was a study of three great death-grapples: Agincourt in 1415; Waterloo in 1815; the Somme in 1916. It is hard to overstate the influence of the book on all those of us historians of conflict who have followed. Once upon a time, military history was about which division went this way or that on the battlefield; the thoughts and deeds of generals. John instead explored combat as human experience – its sights, smells and sounds. At Waterloo he noted the noise made by bullets rattling on bayonets and swords, the deafness that afflicted many men for days after the struggle ended. He understood, as some people do not, that it is absurd to imagine that wars in ancient times – wounds inflicted by spears, swords and arrows – were somehow less awful than those created by modern bombs, guns and missiles. John was a romantic about warriors as I am not, partly because he himself was crippled by childhood polio. He was thus unable to live among soldiers at war, though for many years he taught at Sandhurst. Some of his later books are frankly disappointing, because his physical circumstances worsened and he lived with constant pain. But nobody interested in conflict should miss The Face of Battle, and also his 1982 Six Armies in Normandy.

Antony Beevor

Antony Beevor, whom I should avow as another close friend, was over fifty when he published his breakthrough 1998 work Stalingrad, which many of us recognized as a masterpiece as soon as we read it. Although for years it had become apparent to younger historians, as it was not to our parents’ generation, that the Eastern Front was the decisive theatre of World War II, Antony’s account, matched by its 2002 successor Berlin: The Downfall 1945, brought the titanic 1941–45 Russo-German struggle to life as no previous work had done. He was critically assisted by his Russian researcher Lyuba Vinogradova, who has since helped me with several of my own books. Antony is a brilliant storyteller, and Lyuba has a genius for exploring and translating Russian material, much assisted in the late 1990s by the brief window that opened upon Soviet archives in Moscow. Antony has since gone on to write many other splendid accounts of World War II campaigns, and also examined the 1936–39 Spanish Civil War. But it was his books on the Russian role in the struggle against Hitler, sparing none of its horrors, which secured his place in the pantheon of great historians of the period. 

Michael Howard

I guess it is sort of inevitable that almost all the writers whom I cite here should be, or have been, big figures in my own life, because I have taken care to get to know the historians whom I admire. Michael Howard was a towering figure in the lives of all of us who write about war, the wisest person I have ever met. Born in 1922, he had the most unusual distinction of having served as a wartime soldier, winning an MC at Salerno in 1943, then going on to a glittering academic career for which he was made a Companion of Honour and member of the Order of Merit. His early big book, published in 1961, The Franco-Prussian War still reads well. But I also recommend his 2003 short, succinct study of World War I, packed with terse, illuminating insights; also the several published collections of his lectures and essays. I am indebted to Michael for innumerable words of wisdom about conflict in general and twentieth-century warfare in particular, often deliberately designed to provoke. For instance, a year or two before his death in 2019 he suddenly said to me: ‘Such a pity we won the Falklands War!’ I asked, of course: why so? ‘Because just as Britain was getting over the trauma of Suez and starting to come to terms with our much diminished place in the world, along came victory in the South Atlantic, to revive all the old nationalistic delusions about our importance, which eventually led to Brexit.’ I loved and revered Howard, and hear his voice in everything he wrote. 

Correlli Barnett

I first met Bill Barnett (1927–2022) in 1963, when I was the humblest researcher on BBC TV’s epic series The Great War, and he was among the scriptwriters, a famous enfant terrible among historians, for his 1960 book The Desert Generals. This sought to topple Montgomery from his pedestal as the great star of Britain’s wartime North African campaign; to rehabilitate Auchinleck, his predecessor, and especially also O’Connor, who achieved stunning 1940–41 victories over the Italians. Bill went on to write a series of controversial, outspoken works of which the first was 1972’s The Collapse of British Power, and later, in 1986, The Audit of War, which explored the reasons for Britain’s historic decline. This was allegedly partly rooted in the public school spirit which Barnett deplored, together with our bungling approach to industry. As a young man, I remember finding it a revelation to read in Barnett that in the 1880s, apparent summit of British greatness, Prussia and the US had already overtaken this country by the key measure of machine-tool production. Margaret Thatcher was a great fan of Bill. However, his reputation has slumped under assault from fellow historians, with whom he quarrelled incessantly. I nonetheless liked him a lot, and believe his books should continue to be valued for their important grains of truth, even if some of his arguments turned wild, as he became ever more a professional controversialist. 

James Holland

We must include in this list a new-generation twenty-first-century writer, and who could be more appropriate than James Holland, born in 1970, who has carved a career in broadcasting as well as authorship, chronicling the condition of British warriors in World War II. Of all the writers mentioned here, James offers the most accessible take on the wartime military experience, with such books as 2020’s Brothers in Arms, telling the story of the Sherwood Rangers tank unit in North-West Europe, and in 2023 The Savage Storm, recording the 1943 struggle in Italy. James is a splendid bottom-up storyteller, whose books repeatedly and deservedly feature in the bestseller lists. Immensely energetic and prolific, he also writes novels between his history books, and has achieved a mastery of the period which commands the admiration of his peers. 


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