Annual Booklist 2018-2019 : Dr David Morgan-Owen
Dr David Morgan-Owen is an historian and lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College London, where he works at the Joint Services Command and Staff College. He is the author of The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914 (Oxford University Press, 2017), which won the SAHR Templer Best First Book Prize in 2018.
Befitting the centenary of the conflict, the last several years have seen the publication of a number of very significant books on the British Army in the First World War. Reflecting this fact, and my own interest in the conflict, my recommendations are united by their focus on aspects of that conflict.
Occupying first and second place on my list are Dr Aimée Fox’s Learning to Fight: Military Innovation and Change In the British Army, 1914-1918 (Cambridge, 2018) and Dr. Jonathan Boff’s Haig’s Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany’s War on the Western Front (Oxford, 2018). Both books present innovative and original perspectives on the War – no small achievement after a century of studies attempting to explicate aspects of the conflict.
Learning to Fight highlights the ways in which the British Army sought to adapt and to and overcome the unprecedented challenges which the war presented – both on the Western Front and beyond. The book received the British Army Military Book of the Year award in 2018, demonstrating its ongoing relevance to the armed forces today, and presents a highly readable and engaging account of the British Army between 1914-1918. Haig’s Enemy is similarly well-written, and demonstrates to great effect the value of understanding a campaign (or series of campaigns) based upon a balanced reading of the source material available to both sides. Both books are at the cutting edge of First World War research, and deserve a wide audience.
Following these two excellent titles is a third book whose focus is on the First World War, but which ranges far beyond that single conflict: Prof Christopher Bell’s Churchill and the Dardanelles (Oxford University Press, 2017). Whilst not directly about the British Army, this work sheds significant light on one of its most ill-fated campaigns. Bell makes an important shift in our understanding of Churchill’s role in the ill-fated Dardanelles and subsequent Gallipoli campaigns, but also sets that experience within a broader story of Churchill’s career. He writes with admirable clarity and this account, which has received widespread plaudits and was shortlisted for the prestigious Gilder Lehrman for Military History, is well worth picking up.
Fourth, I’d like to recommend Anthony Morris’ Reporting the First World War: Charles Repington, The Times, and the Great War (Cambridge University Press, 2015). Repington’s own promising military career was cut short by scandal, but he used his knowledge of the Army to position himself as one of the most prominent sources of public comment on the institution, and on defence policy and strategy more broadly, for the first two decades of the twentieth century. Eminently readable, this book will appeal to a broad readership interested in the First World War, or the role of the press in war more generally.
My final work illustrated the ongoing relevance of the First World War to debates about strategy today. Sir Hew Strachan’s The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2013) is about much, much more than the War’s continuing importance, yet he uses the conflict of 1914-1918 artfully to make a series of insightful critiques and reflections upon the practice of strategy in the twenty-first century. This is probably the book which I recommend most frequently to students at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, and it’s a wonderful example of how history can, and should, be brought to bear on current debates.
As to books which I’d like to see exist, I’ll prose two. The first has already enjoyed a long-life as a published work, but is increasingly difficult to locate for anything approaching a reasonable price. As such, I’d very much like to see an affordable re-print of Hew Strachan’s The Politics of the British Army (Clarendon, 1997), which remains a vital contribution to our understanding of the role of the Army within British society. Second, and on a related theme, I have a long-standing interest in the Victorian Army. I am particularly interested in the politics of the organisation, both internally, and within the broader picture of the British state. I am therefore eagerly awaiting the publication of Prof Ian Beckett’s A Profession of Arms: The Politics of Command in the Late-Victorian Army (Oklahoma University Press, 2018), which is released in late-2018.