Annual Booklist 2016-2017 : Major General Christopher Elliott, CB, MBE
Winner of the Templer First Book Prize for High Command: British Military Leadership in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (Hurst, 2015)
George Macdonald Fraser, Quartered Safe Out Here (Harvill, 1993). George Macdonald Fraser served as a private soldier and junior NCO in the Border Regiment in Burma in WWII, before embarking on a sparkling literary career centred around the Flashman novels, the stories of Private McAuslan and as Deputy Editor of the Glasgow Herald. I was fortunate to share lunch with him once at the Staff College Camberley. In this book, Fraser answers the question in the heart of every peacetime soldier ‘so what was it really like?’ It is a totally authentic tale of the fear, fright, hardships, laughter and comradeship that is the lot of the British Infantry soldier in war, bluntly and engagingly told. It ranks alongside The Recollections of Rifleman Harris as the two books that every young officer privileged to command soldiers should read.
David Fraser, And We Shall Shock Them (Hodder & Stoughton, 1983)
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue
If England to itself do rest but true.”
― William Shakespeare, King John
General Sir David Fraser had a reputation as a somewhat austere guardsman whilst serving, earning the sobriquet of ‘Fraser the Razer’. On retirement, however, he displayed a discerning mind and a hidden sensitivity as a prolific and authoritative author. His biographies of Frederick the Great and Rommel are widely acclaimed. The book that captures me is his history of the British Army in WWII, And We Shall Shock Them. Many historians have concluded that the British were consistently out-fought and out-generaled by the Wehrmacht, but Fraser shows how this was only a partial truth. He describes graphically the inadequacies of our land forces in 1939, engaged for the previous twenty years in colonial policing and nurtured in a national sentiment of ‘no more wars’, but Fraser goes on to show how the British Army was honed by war into a battle-hardened force and, by the end, the leading exponent of all-arms combat.
Hew Strachan, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2015). I was privileged to have Professor Sir Hew Strachan as my supervisor at Oxford recently. He was noted there for being extremely generous with his time to all-comers, his acute perception and his mastery of the subject of strategy. This book is a distillation of the lectures Strachan gave and the papers he wrote over ten years, whilst he was the Chichele Professor of the History of War at All Souls. Strachan is a Clausewitz nut and his thoughts always vector back to The Master. However, above all others in my experience, Strachan has a marvellous instinct of how to make Clausewitz’s ideas relevant to modern warfare; he literally provides the instructions to break the code. Whilst the study of strategy is deceptively easy at the superficial level, it is much more difficult as you dig deeper. This book provides all the explanation and teaching that you could require, but you might want to read it several times!
Jack Fairweather, A War of Choice: The British in Iraq 2003-9 (Jonathan Cape, 2011). The British involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been chronicled vividly by a number of authors. In my view, most provide some very good analysis but fall at the final hurdle by making wild and superficial statements about a failing chain of command or
corrupt political motives. It was always much more complicated that than. As the exception, Jack Fairweather has written a compelling and believable history of this latest British military intervention in Iraq. What he does not know to be true, he does not speculate about. Thus you believe the author, and that makes the tale all the more terrible.
Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (Penguin, 2006). General Sir Rupert Smith was perhaps the most admired general in the British Army in the closing decades of the last century. He commanded the land forces in the first Gulf war in 1992, the UN force in Sarajevo when the fighting was ended, the Army in Northern Ireland when the Good Friday Agreement was signed and finished his career as Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe. In his characteristically logical approach and drawing on his wide experience, his ideas of modern war-fighting are crafted into ‘fighting instructions’ in the first half of the book and are hugely instructive. For the second half, heavily influenced by his partner Ilana Bet-El, he looks to the direction that future warfare might take, postulating that ‘war amongst the people’ is more likely than a repeat of an industrial-age clash between titans. Accept that or not, you had better be aware of the arguments.
As for a book as yet unpublished, there is a crying need for critical account of the British Army in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.