So many books to read, so little time.

The history of ‘warriors for the working-day’

with 6 comments

As a teenager I cut my teeth reading military history. John Keegan’s The Face of Battle (1976) came as a revelation. Keegan wrote of three great battles (Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme) at the level of ordinary soldiers – Shakespeare’s ‘warriors for the working-day’ – rather than that of generals and staff officers, as had been the case. 

“I do not intend to write about generals or generalship….I do not intend to say anything of logistics or strategy and very little of tactics in the formal sense.”

More recently the pendulum has swung back, with historians writing very good books that balance the perspective of the ‘poor bloody infantry’ with the operational, strategic and political levels of war. Casting an eye across my book shelves (not my anti-library, I hasten to add), I spotted Adam Zamoyski’s 1812 and Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad, both of which exemplify this approach to military approach.

A few days ago I was dipping into Carl von Clausewitz’s On War and came across an interesting discussion about approaches to the study of military history (chapter 5, Book 2). Clausewitz considered whether military history (and by this he meant the actions of the great generals) should be studied from an omnipotent vantage point (the eye in the sky perspective that the gods enjoy in The Iliad). Or whether it should be studied “as nearly as possible” from the point of view of the general, watching the battle unfold through his eyes – with all the noise, confusion, uncertainty and danger that entailed. 

When you think about it, most military history is written as though we are Olympian gods. Beevor’s Stalingrad, for example, takes you from front line combat to the Russian and German formation headquarters and on to the war councils of Hitler and Stalin. This makes for great comprehensive coverage. But it strikes me that a variation on Clausewitz’s idea (and Keegan’s approach), of following a battle or campaign through the eyes of an individual or a group of men – ‘warriors for the working-day’ – would be something fascinating and different. 

This has been done in fiction, war memoirs, such as Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier, and film (‘Band of Brothers’ springs to mind). But I haven’t come across any military histories like this. Have you?

Cross-posted at Kotare: The Strategist


Written by kotare1718

October 21, 2008 at 9:26 am

6 Responses

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  1. There needs to be a good balance between the totalizing macro-view and the individual view. I usually stick to the macro-view, but sometimes I prefer reading something like “Generation Kill” or “Black Hawk Down” to help illuminate larger truths.

    Adam Elkus

    October 22, 2008 at 5:35 am

  2. You usually get the view from the bottom in memoirs, biographies or fiction. Of course there are lots of good books in each category.

    Not sure exactly what you otherwise mean by “following a battle or campaign through the eyes of an individual or a group of men”. Cornelius Ryan’s books (“The Longest Day”, “The Last Battle” and “A Bridge Too Far”) do something like that. He brings the narrative back repeatedly to various individuals, some at the top of the chain of command, others at the bottom. Other books that do this include “Black Hawk Down”, “First Day on the Somme” and “Waterloo: Day of Battle” do this.

    Lexington Green

    October 22, 2008 at 6:43 am

  3. The problem with military history books is that we know the result in advance, even if we don’t know the detail of how the result came about. To take Clausewitz’s idea, we would follow a campaign as a participant saw it, ie, without knowing in advance what the result would be, without knowing what lay beyond the next hill, and what the next 24 hours might hold.

    This might give us a greater appreciation of the dilemmas that commanders face in battle – having to make quick decisions of great consequence in a climate of uncertainty, swiftly changing circumstances, fear, danger and conflicting information – the situation that Clausewitz eloguently wrote about.


    October 22, 2008 at 7:11 am

  4. […] a comment » Yesterday I advanced the idea of new form of military history – of following a battle or campaign through the eyes of […]

  5. A few books cover the taste of war from the prospective of the soldier better than “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa,” by E. B. Sledge.

    Rick Atkinson’s Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa 1942-1943 and The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-44, are two excellent examples of not only seeing through the eyes of gods, but also the eye of the individual soldier.


    October 23, 2008 at 3:31 am

  6. Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden is a good look at postmodern soldiery.

    Adam Elkus

    October 23, 2008 at 5:56 am

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