Annual Booklist 2016-2017 : Andrew Bamford

Author of Sickness, Suffering, & the Sword: the British Regiment on Campaign 1808-1815 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013); A Bold & Ambitious Enterprise: The British Army in the Low Countries 1813-1814 (Frontline, 2013); Gallantry and Discipline: The 12th Light Dragoons at War with Wellington (Frontline 2014).

As someone who has worked extensively on the regimental system, my first choice is perhaps an unsurprising one – Carole Divall, Inside the Regiment: the Officers and Men of the 30th Regiment During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (Pen & Sword, 2011). The companion to an earlier narrative regimental history of the 30th in this era, this book considers the regiment as an institution and as a body of men and does much to bring out the importance of the human factor in facilitating regimental identity and effectiveness. That the book also contains an extensive and illuminating discussion of the court martial process is an added bonus as this is an aspect of the era that requires more coverage.

Staying with the Napoleonic Wars, Rory Muir, Salamanca 1812 (Yale, 2001), is a model account of a Peninsular War battle. There are surprisingly few such books on Wellington’s campaigns that can be presented as definitive battle studies in the way that this work can, but what sets Muir’s book apart from the competition is his extensive discussion of his sources, how they have been used, and any problems relating to them. This is, therefore, not only an excellent piece of history but also a ‘how-to’ guide.

Moving back a little in chronology, David Blackmore, Destructive and Formidable: British Infantry Firepower 1642 – 1765 (Frontline, 2014) is a clear and readable account of a topic which could very easily end up being extremely dry indeed. Blackmore’s book not only takes the reader through the intricacies of the various firing drills as theory, but it also looks at their use in battle. The author has his own argument for a common British tactical methodology across the era, and marshals a considerable body of evidence to support it, but the book is no polemic and even a reader left unconvinced by Blackmore’s arguments would find plenty of meat in the descriptive core of the book.

It would be impossible to produce a list of five best books on the British Army without including one of Richard Holmes’ works. I have found no other author quite as inspirational when it comes to writing good military history that is also good literature and can be read and re-read for pleasure. Although Holmes’ Marlborough biography came very close to being my recommendation, my choice for this list has in the end to be Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914-1918 (Harper Collins, 2004). For someone like myself who is not a First World War scholar, this single volume goes a long way to encapsulating both the technical and human aspects of trench warfare, and bringing to life both the tragedy and the triumph of the British Army in the Great War.

My final choice is also one that takes me away from my own era of interest. Having expressed the opinion in conversation with my then-publisher that experience of modern soldiering does not, in and of itself, automatically confer the ability to write about historical soldiers, I was handed by way of counter-argument a copy of Mike Snook, How Can Man Die Better: The Secrets of Isandlwana Revealed (Greenhill, 2005). Although I stand by my original contention, particularly when applied to the social aspects of military history, there is no doubt that Col. Snook here uses his own experience of soldiering, and an excellent first-hand knowledge of the ground in question, to fill in the narrative gaps left by the lack of British survivors from the final stages of the action at Isandlwana and the vagueness of the
oral histories passed down from the victors. A sequel, dealing with Rorke’s Drift, is an equally moving narrative but lacks the near-forensic analysis that makes this volume stand out and earns it a place on this list.

Insofar as a gap in the scholarship is concerned, I have already noted that too few Peninsular War battles have been the subject of a truly definitive account. Other than the fine job done for Salamanca by Rory Muir’s volume recommended above, only Albuera has received comparable treatment. Whilst, therefore, I would welcome any similar study of a Peninsular battle, there is one in particular – Vitoria – that stands out as having received next to no modern coverage in English and so it is this gap that I would most of all like to see filled.