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Practical Military History

The purposes of this paper are first to introduce the idea of a new approach to military history, explaining its nature and role in the study of military history. Secondly, it is to demonstrate that this new approach has broad benefits beyond simply increasing our understanding of warfare. Thirdly it will lay out the form that practical history would take. It will conclude with some suggestions of how the subject might be integrated into university teaching.

In recent years military history has been described as falling into two categories, old military history and new military history. According to Peter Paret new military history made its appearance in the 1960s and he offered the following definition.

Most military historians and others conversant with the discipline would probably agree that the New Military History refers to a partial turning away from the great captains, and from weapons, tactics, and operations as the main concerns of the historical study of war. Instead we are asked to pay greater attention to the interaction of war with society, economics, politics, and culture. The New Military History stands for an effort to integrate the study of military institutions and their actions more closely with other kinds of history.[1]

At the same time, in the forward to his book, The Nine Years’ War and the British Army, 1688 – 1697, John Childs wrote that both forms of military history were necessary, explaining the difference between the two, but also pointing out their inter-dependency.

The ‘new military history’ has principally been concerned with the study of military institutions and their interaction with social, political and economic forces. Campaign history has been deliberately eschewed as representative of the ‘old military history’, a form too often practised by ‘amateur’ historians and retired service officers. Expressed crudely, the ‘new military history’ has been adopted by ‘professional’ historians at universities to bring academic respectability to a branch of their discipline which has long been the poor relation of its political, religious, social and economic brothers. A modus Vivendi between the two varieties is slowly emerging, especially in the military history of the twentieth century, but divergence remains strong in the early modern period. Armies were raised, at great expense, to conduct legalised violence against both the internal and external enemies of the state. Their campaigns, actions and methods are as historically vital and relevant as their institutions and personnel. To study armies without investigating their wars and battles makes as much sense as learning to write but not to read.[2]

More recently William P Tatum has offered a different division of military history.

Instead of trying to maintain the tired division between ‘old’ and ‘new’ military history, we should instead look to the natural division between the History of War and the History of the Army.

He clarifies his proposal, speaking of dividing ‘academic military history between the study of War as a phenomenon and the study of the Army as an institution…’ In arguing for his proposed division he suggests that there is a fundamental problem with New Military History, which is ‘the reduced role of combat within analytical narratives’. [3]

Paret’s paper was first given at the annual meeting of the American Military Institute in Durham, N.C. on 22 March 1991. The theme of the conference was ‘The New Military History’ and in his Conference Review Essay John Whiteclay Chambers wrote;

The criticism against a tendency within the ‘new’ military history to avoid the study of war and battle is a point already well established in the literature, and has already contributed to a ‘new’ combat history emphasizing the experience of the common soldier in battle and a ‘new’ operational history integrating tactical, strategic, and administrative concerns into analyses of economic mobilization, political, and cultural influences.[4]

Amongst the discussion of the nature of ‘old’ and ‘new’ military history both Tatum and Chambers make a significant point. New Military History has resulted in historians becoming less concerned with combat. Perhaps, as suggested by Childs, in order to achieve some perceived respectability for military history, its practitioners have seized upon the readily available methodologies of other forms of history and thus moved away from combat which those methodologies are not able to analyse. Indeed, in arguing for his division of military history, Tatum argues that Military history has failed to develop its own methodologies and instead relied upon the ready made options offered by other forms of history.[5] Furthermore, one has only to look at recent military history PhDs or military history conference agendas to see how infrequently analytical studies of combat make an appearance. Work featuring combat still tends to be of the ‘old’ narrative type.

In recent years a number of historians have endeavoured to address this shortcoming. In his Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, covering the period of 1688 to 1748, Chandler’s aim is ‘a fairly full examination of how the regimental officer and soldier fought and manoeuvred’ and he achieves a great deal of success.[6] However, as he deals with all arms and the major European nations it is perhaps not surprising that he does not get down to the detail of how Marlborough’s own army fought.

Writing about military history books dealing with the period 1689 to 1763 Brent Nosworthy wrote ‘The so-called higher levels of warfare, generally referred to as the “operational” and “strategic” levels, are particularly well covered’. However, he goes on to write ‘Though we are given general information, such as the types of formations the troops employed and some of the methods they used to fire their weapons, the picture blurs as soon as we increase the degree of magnification.’[7] Elsewhere he has expressed his view more bluntly, ‘The traditional approach used to dissect and analyse battles which explains “what” occurred during a particular contest has unfortunately largely ignored the “how” and the “why”’.[8]

Nosworthy himself is not entirely successful in his stated aims;

The goal of the present work, The Anatomy of Victory: Battle Tactics 1689-1763, is to reconstruct each of the major tactical and grand tactical doctrines as they existed during the period under consideration, and to explore how these doctrines evolved to produce what could be called “Fredrician warfare.[9]

He does indeed explore the tactical doctrines of the European nations through the period, primarily France and Prussia with who he deals in some considerable depth, looking at their doctrines and ongoing tactical evolution. But this is still ‘what’ rather than ‘how’. Despite his claimed goal he still fails to explain the detail of the how and why things occurred as they did.

Clearly there is something missing from the current approach to Military history that is not provided for in ‘new’ or ‘old’ military history nor in the History of War and the History of the Army. This is the study of the procedures and practices of armies, how they did things. I have called this Practical Military History.

Practical Military History serves two immediate purposes. First, it enables the military historian to make a correct interpretation of contemporary accounts of military events. James Wolfe considered Bland’s Treatise of Military Discipline indispensible to the military education of young officers.[10] This is the knowledge that a junior officer in the British Army required in order to carry out his duties, but many historians endeavour to understand and explain the functioning of the army without the same knowledge. Without this knowledge it is considerably harder to understand why things happened the way they did. This, of course, does not prevent the production of accurate narrative accounts of battles and campaigns, particularly as these tend to be based on the accounts of officers and men who did have the professional knowledge to understand events. Similarly other aspects of military history, such as training, finance, uniforms, equipment, strategy and social history aspects can be effectively addressed without this knowledge. Yet military historians risk misunderstanding or even completely misinterpreting those accounts written by professionals, because they do not share the same knowledge of how things were done and managed. In turn this gives rise to the danger of drawing incorrect conclusions about tactics and doctrine.

Secondly, narrative military history that is not supported by a thorough knowledge of the military practices and procedures of the army or period under consideration can only be a composite of contemporary descriptions of events translated into a modern idiom and placed into a chronological and topographical framework. It cannot offer any more than is in the accounts, it cannot analyse those actions beyond stating whether or not they were successful. However, with a thorough knowledge of the full repertoire of military practices it is possible to consider whether or not the best options were chosen in a given situation and to assess the skill with which the chosen course of action was followed. Although, naturally, any assessment will be subjective, that is still a considerable advance on a simple account of events.

There is also a tendency amongst narrative military historians to give credit for the successful execution of a battle plan to the general who devised it without consideration for the skills of the troops who execute it. However, a military genius cannot make bad troops good, whereas good troops can make a mediocre general look good. A knowledge of military practices at all levels, from private to general, allows an assessment to be made of where the responsibility lies for the outcome of an action, be it victory or defeat.

For example, it has long been maintained that the defeat of the British force under Braddock on the Monongahela River in 1755 was the result of the poor quality of the infantry involved and the unsuitability to the circumstances of employing European style tactics. Stanley Pargellis, however, has argued that is was the failure of Braddock and his officers to employ European tactics properly that lead to the defeat. In making his argument Pargellis refers to the principle military manual of the period written by Humphrey Bland.[11]

Practical military history can also be of assistance to historians taking the new military history approach to armies. They are studying armies as institutions and armies as institutions are shaped by their function and that function is to fight. The manner in which armies function, their practices, therefore have a direct bearing on their nature, on the form of the institution, on its requirements and culture.

In addition to improving the understanding of academics of military history I believe that there are other benefits of Practical Military History. As a result of my museum experience I am only too aware that there is often a gulf between the academic in a university and the subject specialist curator in a museum. The first is rarely concerned with the material culture of war while the second often neglects the context of that material. The nature of military material culture and the procedures that employ it are inextricably linked, each influences the other, thus Practical Military History can bridge that divide between academic and curator, university and museum to the benefit of both.

Military history today is a subject that is frequently seen as politically incorrect and is consequently neglected, yet it has thousands of fans, reenactors. Reenactors are almost by definition most interested in military procedure, as well as military material culture, but they lack academic rigour in their activities and are often not taken seriously by academics. Yet they are enthusiastic supporters and advocates of military history who can provide opportunities for practical research as well as being enthusiastic customers for its products.

Practical Military History is a missing field in the study of military history that could provide many benefits. It is a vehicle through which academics, curators and reenactors could be brought together to the benefit of all parties and the strengthening of the position of military history.

In concrete terms Practical Military History has two parts, first learning and understanding the practices of an army in a given period and secondly applying that knowledge to the study of military history. For an example of how this might work it is convenient to consider the British Army of the mid-18th century. As stated above, James Wolfe considered Bland’s Military Discipline as a key work for study by any new, junior officer. Hand in hand with this, however, went instruction from senior NCOs and other officers. A study of Bland under the guidance of someone who understands and is familiar with its contents would provide exactly the level of knowledge that Wolfe believed was required. It would provide a working knowledge of weapons, which in turn would lead to an understanding of why they were deployed in the way they were. This in turn would lead to knowledge of drill and tactics including the correct contemporary terminology. Such knowledge would enable the correct interpretation of accounts of battles and an analysis of the actions of participants rather than the more usual simple narrative outcome of a study. A knowledge of weapons would also provide a good link into the material culture of the period.

In doing this Practical Military History would improve ‘old’ military history and be in a position to make a contribution to the relatively new field of battlefield archaeology and interpretation. For example, something as simple as understanding how the New Model Army was paid has already lead to an accurate statement of that army’s strength and thus its deployment at Naseby.[12] It could also help the interpretation of warfare and its associated material culture in museums.

In addition to a combat orientated knowledge this sort of study would deliver knowledge of what might be termed the non-combat practices of the army. This would result in a clearer understanding of the way of life of soldiers, how and why campaigns were conducted as they were. This is where Practical Military History could have a beneficial effect on ‘new’ military history. Most obviously it would reveal practices that would impact on the local people, economy and landscape. A deeper understanding of a soldier’s way of life would lead to a greater level of empathy. The social history aspect of the army would be more easily understood.

It would not be possible to do more than introduce students to the concept of Practical Military History, having, as it does, an application to any army in any period. However, an effective introduction could be achieved through the study of one army in one or two periods where contemporary material is readily available along with the necessary expertise to explain it. Most obviously, in the United Kingdom, the English Civil Wars and the mid-18th century suggest themselves as possibilities. Contemporary material is readily available through Early English Books on Line and Eighteenth Century Collections Online. There are a number of English Civil War sites ready for study, particularly Naseby and although a little remote the battlefields Culloden has been subject to considerable archaeological study in recent years. Both sites are associated with contrasting museum projects. In the United Sates of America the American War of Independence or the American Civil War would provide opportunities for study. The 18th century would also provide rich opportunities in Europe.

Whether undertaken as a part of formal university teaching or as adult education in museums Practical Military History could only help to deepen understanding of past events. It can bring together bring together academics, curators and re-enactors in an alliance that could only benefit all involved and the subject of military history. As an approach to history that could be applied in other fields it offers military history the opportunity to be at the forefront of history rather then the poor relation that no one talks about.

[1] Peter Paret, ‘The New Military History, in Parameters, The US Army’s Senior Professional Journal, Autumn, 1991, p. 10

[2] John Childs, The Nine Years’ War and the British Army, 1688 – 1697, (Manchester, 1991), pp. 2-3

[3] William P Tatum, ‘Challenging the New Military History: The Case of Eighteenth-Century British Army Studies’, History Compass, 5/1 (2007), pp. 79-80

[4] John Whiteclay Chambers, Conference Review Essay: The New Military History: Myth and Reality, The Journal of Military History, Vol. 55, No. 3 (Jul., 1991), pp. 395-406

[5] Tatum, p.74

[6] David Chandler, The Art of Warfare in the age of Marlborough, (Staplehurst, 1990), p.9

[7] Brent Nosworthy, The Anatomy of Victory, Battle Tactics 1689-1763, (New York, 1992), p xi.

[8] Brent Nosworthy, Battle Tactics of Napoleon and his Enemies, (London, 1997, paper back edn.), p xv.

[9] Nosworthy, The Anatomy of Victory, p xiii

[10] Stuart Reid, Wolfe, The Career of General James Wolfe from Culloden to Quebec (Staplehurst, 2000), p. 133 and Humphrey Bland, Treatise of Military Discipline, (London, 1727)

[11] Stanley Pargellis, ‘Braddock’s Defeat’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Jan., 1936), pp. 253-269

[12] David Blackmore, ‘Counting the New Model Army’, Civil War Times, No. 58, (Leigh on Sea, 2003), p. 3, Martin Marix Evans, Naseby 1645, The Triumph of the New Model Army, (Oxford “007), pp. 30, 58-61


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