Annual Booklist 2017-2018 : Ashley Truluck

Major General Ashley Truluck CB CBE, is Chairman of the Society for Army Historical Research.

A record number of books were entered for the SAHR Templer Medal competition this year – and many more have been written on Great War themes recently. Between them, they provide an excellent academic overview of the political and social dimensions of the campaigns concerned. By way of balance, I add here a few soldier-authors who provide enduring and compelling accounts of the realities of war.

Costello – a true Story of a Peninsular War Rifleman edited by Eileen Hathaway. Wellington’s Light Division was the British Army’s first All-Arms and Multinational division and the crucible for the development of rifle technology and light infantry tactics – and so a fascinating subject for study. Although uniquely well documented by diarists such as Smith, Kinkaid, Leach, Simmons, Green, Harris and Costello, each diarist can only give their own myopic coverage of the particular events they were involved in. This excellent anthology (based on Costello’s diaries) overcomes this by providing a linking historical narrative and pulling in quotes from other diarists present at the same events. The resultant cross-cutting perspectives provide a fascinating triangulation on events you thought you were familiar with.

Of Living Valour – the Story of the Soldiers of Waterloo by Barney White-Spunner. Lieutenant General Sir Barney White-Spunner (President of the Society of Army Historical Research) takes a similar approach in his anthology of Waterloo. The difference is that this is a complete history of the epic battle, based on a wide range of eye-witness accounts from the soldiers involved, and written by an author who has seen much operational experience himself. The result is a comprehensive and compelling account which brings a much-needed fresh perspective to a well-known story.

Bugles and a Tiger by John Masters. I return to this classic every 10 years or so, and never tire of it. Masters gives a warm, nay loving, account of his initiation into a Gurkha battalion serving on the North-West Frontier in the inter-War years. Although Masters subsequently fell out of favour with his British Gurkha colleagues, his book gives a warm description of the close community which a Gurkha battalion represents and explains how the very special bond between Gurkha soldiers and British officers is built up through shared cultural and operational experience.

Quartered Safe Out Here by George MacDonald Fraser. Moving on a few decades, George MacDonald Frazer also finds himself as a young subaltern closely observing the exploits and idiosyncrasies of the soldiers he is privileged to command – in this case hardy Cumbrian countrymen serving with The Border Regiment in Burma. As one would expect from the future author of the Flashman series, Fraser knits together events and personalities into a dialogue which moves along with the pace and excitement of a novel whilst painting a very personal, perceptive and penetrating perspective on what makes soldiers fight and function under extreme pressure.

High Command – British Military Leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan by Christopher Elliott & Dead Men Risen – The Welsh Guards in Afghanistan by Toby Harden. These two books need to be read in tandem, as they provide complementary but equally compelling strategic and tactical insights into the same phenomena, i.e. the determined but ultimately disappointing performance of the British Army in Afghanistan. In his book (winner of the 2015 SAHR Templer Medal ‘First New Book’ award and subject of the 2016 Templer Lecture) Major General Christopher Elliott points a well-argued finger at MOD’s inability to understand the complexities of modern warfare or manage the strategic issues involved. Meanwhile Toby Harden’s book (which was initially ‘banned’ by MOD) paints a searing picture of how this lack of strategic thinking played out for an infantry battalion operating ‘on the ground’. Both are brutal but balanced reads – and prove the old adage that ‘those who ignore the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them’. If only those concerned had spent more time reading these book recommendations beforehand …

As for the book that hasn’t yet been written – but needs to be: Despite the passage of time and the plethora of books on the subject during the past four Centenary years, I think we are still waiting for the definitive history of the British Army in the First World War. Judging by the number of revisionist views that have recently emerged, and the continued concentration on the horrors of the early years of the war at the expense of the successes of 1918 and in particular the last ‘Hundred Days’ (when lessons were learned, resources were at last available, and it all came together), - it would appear that the jury is still out on such issues as British generalship, soldier morale, and our national contribution vis a vis the French and Americans. Give it another fifty years!