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Annual Booklist 2017-2018 : Ilya Berkovich

For many years a member of the SAHR Council and still the chair of judges for our Student Essay Prize competitions, Ilya is currently a Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, and is the author of Motivation in War: The Experience of Common Soldiers in Old-Regime Europe (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).


While popular memory of the American War of Independence still clings to the outdated portrayal of scarlet-clad British troops marching in serried ranks against sharp-shooting American militiamen, Matthew H. Spring’s With Zeal and with Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775–1783 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008) provides a revealing account of the actual battlefield realities of that conflict. Spring demonstrates how quickly and effectively the regular British army adapted to the new theatre of war. Spearheaded by grenadiers and highly-effective light infantry, British troops employed rapid maneuvers, aiming to outflank the rebels and then break them with a swift bayonet charge. Such quick and aggressive tactics required substantial personal initiative, not only from subaltern officers, but also from individual soldiers and NCOs. Spring’s book is thus one of the very first studies to give serious consideration to the combat motivation of eighteenth-century common soldiers.

Another book which seeks to correct a long-standing misconception is Jennine Hurl-Eamon’s Marriage and the British Army in the Long Eighteenth Century: ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). Contemporary prejudices typically depict common soldiers as serial philanderers, while ‘army wives’ were seen as a motley collection of prostitutes and suttlers. Hurl-Eamon’s excellent social history restores historical agency not only to these women, but also to their spouses, offering a fresh perspective on the experience of ordinary soldiers, many of whom were keen to form and maintain long-term relationships. Whether married or not, army couples had to navigate their way through official policy, which actively opposed marriage, to long service abroad, and the forced separation which usually came with it.

Nick Mansfield’s Soldiers as Workers: Class, Employment, Conflict and the Nineteenth-Century Military, (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016) is another fine example of growing scholarly interest in the life and experiences of common rankers. Mansfield contends that relations within the British military should be seen as a class struggle, and that soldiers continued to identify themselves primarily as workers, replicating many of the patterns of behavior and resistance which they brought with them from civilian society. While personally I remain unconvinced as to the primacy of class conscience among common soldiers, it is hard not to be impressed by the wealth of material assembled by Mansfield and the clarity of his argument. Soldiers as Workers reminds us to consider carefully the experience of soldiers before they enlisted, and the different ways in which their background as civilians could shape their subsequent military career.

My last two recommendations were prompted by recent readings I did for a little side-project on Gallipoli and the ANZAC legend. In spite of a conspicuous number of newer studies, including particularly welcome works drawing on Turkish archives, John Rhodes James’ Gallipoli, (London: Batsford, 1965) remains the single best account of the campaign. In addition to its lucid and dispassionate narrative, a great strength of James’ book is his evaluation of the main allied commanders. In a period when popular discourse was moving towards greater demonisation, which led in turn to what were often equally one-sided defence attempts, James presents a balanced view of the British generals. These were neither butchers nor saints, but products of a concrete institutional culture, which prompted these generally competent and personally courageous officers to try to solve completely new and bewildering problems of modern mass warfare with the tried and tested methods of yesterday.

One of the reasons that the Dardanelles Campaign has inspired such great popular and academic interest was the involvement of Australian and New Zealand troops. It is only very recently, though, that we finally have a biography of their first commander, The Soul of Anzac: General Sir William Birdwood and the AIF, 1914-18, (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly, 2015) by John Dermont Millar. Mostly remembered today for his leadership at ANZAC cove, where he won the respect of his soldiers by his approachability and regular tours of frontline trenches, Birdwood also served two-and-a-half years on the Western front. While his record as an operational commander in Gallipoli and in France was rather mixed, Birdwood stood out from other British generals in holding a parallel post as the Australian commander-in-chief. As such, Birdwood saw himself as responsible not only to British GHQ but also to the Australian government. Millar makes excellent use of Birdwood’s copious surviving correspondence to show how the general handled both roles, helping to forge the nascent Australian army into a formidable fighting force.

A book I would particularly like to see in print is a comprehensive study of British military and civilian justice over the long eighteenth century. Conventional views portray military courts in that period as arbitrary and brutal. Yet it was none other than Cesare Beccaria, the father of modern criminology, who praised military justice for its rejection of judicial torture. It would be interesting to consider these two systems in comparative perspective.

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