I used to be invited by the Staff College at Quetta to give a talk on the evolution of warfare, and at the conclusion, to suggest a method for studying military history. I confess that the only time I deliberately researched the subject was when I appeared for a couple of exams, but that was clearly not what the college had in mind. They wanted a wider perspective spread over the course of a career. So, looking for an answer I did what most people do nowadays, and Googled a question on how to study military history.
One of the best methods was outlined on a site sponsored by the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence. It suggests that military history should be studied in three dimensions: in width i.e. how warfare has developed through time; in-depth i.e. taking one campaign or battle and examining it in detail including memoirs, diaries, and even historical fiction; and finally in context i.e. its social, cultural, economic, human, moral, political, and psychological dimensions. It also stated that studying the military is a life-long effort and should be approached systematically over the course of a career.
I had no reason to disagree with this method, but it is relevant to a society and an officer corps with a habit of reading. Unfortunately, this is not the case in our army. Therefore, I told my audience of majors that the first step towards studying military history was to develop a desire to read, by starting with any subject that interested them. Ideally, like me over time they would gravitate towards reading literature related to their profession. To elaborate further, I would show just one slide with the dust jackets of a cross-section of books that I have read over a lifetime.
I landed up in the military academy and after gathering my wits, I started visiting the library. I was in no frame of mind for any serious reading, but the PMA library was void of anything that could be categorised as light literature, except classic novels – which I somehow never fancied
The bottom left shows my first stage in reading military-related literature. Please don’t laugh because they were childish comics and adventure books like Biggles, set around events during the Second World War but as a 12-year-old I found them exciting. They introduced to me the names of famous battles and events – Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Imphal, Ghazala, the D-Day Landing, Battle of Britain – and some of the better-known commanders – MacArthur, Eisenhower, Rommel, Montgomery and some more. My next stage in reading military literature was around the age of 17 years, with powerful novels like Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls that placed in context the First World War and the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. A popular author in the 1960s was Leon Uris whose first novel Battle Cry (1953) was based on his own experience with the 6th Marine Regiment during the Second World War. Uris covered the Suez Crisis as a war correspondent in 1956 and through his novel Exodus (1958), I learnt about the genesis of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
There was another reading stream that was developing in tandem from the top right-hand corner. My father spaced his serious reading with romantic novels and the ones I latched onto were historical romances by Georgette Heyer. They were set within the Regency Period of the early 19th century, and I particularly enjoyed one called The Infamous Army. It was a very well-researched novel on the battle of Waterloo and Heyer claimed that every word uttered by the Duke of Wellington in her novel was spoken or written by him in real life. However, this novel introduced me to Napoleon, whom I met again when I read Tolstoy’s monumental work War and Peace about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. I wasn’t yet into studying battles, but I found military personalities interesting and as part of my general reading went through a few biographies including Patton and Alexander the Great.
Around this time, I landed up in the military academy and after gathering my wits, I started visiting the library. I was in no frame of mind for any serious reading, but the PMA library was void of anything that could be categorised as light literature, except classic novels – which I somehow never fancied. At the bottom right-hand corner is one of the first books that I drew – Twenty Letters to a Friend, an autobiography by the daughter of Stalin. I found it a fascinating account of the memories of her father and her description of growing up amongst the highest ranks of the Communist Party. I could not resist reading a biography of Stalin which led me onto reading one on Khrushchev by his son. During the Second World War, Khrushchev had been the political commissar with Zhukov, the great Soviet general, and I was lucky to find his autobiography From Moscow to Berlin in the library.
By the time I left the academy, I had read the Battle of Kursk as well as Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak which gave me an in-site into the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War. A few years after seeing Lawrence of Arabia starring Peter O’Toole, out of curiosity I bought his autobiography The Seven Pillars of Wisdom from a second-hand bookshop in Rawalpindi. It’s a recogniSed classic of military literature, covering the British Campaign in Palestine and the first book that I read on the Great War of 1914-18. It led me onto reading the biography of Field Marshal Allenby who had a large number of Indian troops under his command. From there I progressed to reading the role of the Indian Corps in France by Lt. Col. John Merewether and was lucky to acquire its first edition for Rs.8 when the Station Library in Lahore was selling off its old books. Without realizing it, these readings were part of the process of acquiring the ‘width’ i.e., the first dimension of studying military history.
I was over-awed by some of my fellow students who had already served in the Directorate of Military Operations or on staff in active formations. They so confidently discussed strategic directives, hypotheses, ripostes, counter-offensives, the river corridors, and main and secondary efforts. But three things helped me to quickly catch up; one of course was hard work; the second was the well-qualified and patient directing staff; and third but not least, my grasp of military history
When I was commissioned into the Pakistan Armoured Corps, I was fortunate that my father’s library had a selection of books related to the employment of tanks in the Second World War. In the top left-hand corner is Brazen Chariots, an account by a squadron commander in North Africa which was essential reading for all young officers (YOs) in the Armoured Corps. Next to it were two easy reads: Rommel-The Desert Fox by Desmond Young and General Guderian’s most popular book, Panzer Leader. I couldn’t resist reading Manstien’s Lost Victories but enjoyed it a lot more when I re-read it a decade later. Hitler’s War Directives by Trevor-Roper was my first insight into the framing and contents of a strategic directive. Guderian’s pre-war book Achtung Panzer on the theory of armoured warfare and General Fuller’s lectures on the same subject I read much later, when I progressed from reading the conduct of battles to the art of warfare. I also found in his library John Master’s two-part autobiography – Bugles and a Tiger and The Road Past Mandalay. John Masters, whose original name was Jack McMasters, was with my father in Sandhurst. He was a Gurkha officer and these two military classics introduced me to the British India Army and the Burma Campaign. After my retirement 50 years later, I would extensively research both these subjects.
As I struggled through my promotion and staff college entrance exams, for the first time I was compelled to expand my scope of military history to studying campaigns. Just like the US Army guideline suggested, I was now looking at warfare not only in greater width but in depth. The campaigns were very diverse both in time and space and included the First Afghan War of 1839-42, the Allied Invasion of Sicily in 1943, the Korean War of 1950-53 and the Six Day Arab-Israeli War of 1967. The scope expanded more after I attended my staff course at Camberley UK, where I was introduced to maneuver warfare. Two highly acclaimed books on the subject were published soon after and became part of my library: Race to the Swift by Simpkin and The Art of Maneuver by Leonhard. They were joined on my bookshelf by Liddle Hart’s Strategy of the Indirect Approach.
My approach to studying military history would rightly seem a little disjointed. However, like a traveler with no fixed itinerary but experiencing the joy of just travelling the road, I too went along letting one book connect me to another. Thus, The Infamous Army took me to read about Wellington and Napoleon and further on to the Battles of Austerlitz and Borodino. What I realised later was that the wider one’s reading, the more events and commanders are interlinked. So, while reading Manstein’s Lost Victories, I already knew a fair amount about the Russian Campaign because I had already read Zhukov, in the right-hand corner. Similarly, John Master’s Road Past Mandalay provided me a better understanding of FM Slim’s Defeat into Victory.
What should those who are interested in expanding their understanding of military history take away from this article? Firstly, go from the easy to the difficult; first the commanders and their battles and later the theory
In 1989, I was detailed on the War Course after serving for three years as a staff officer in the Saudi Ministry of Defence. It’s a very intensive course of ten months and my performance would determine my career path. Having spent three years abroad, I was pretty much out of touch with the Pakistan Army and its operational thought. In the early stages of the course, I was over-awed by some of my fellow students who had already served in the Directorate of Military Operations or on staff in active formations. They so confidently discussed strategic directives, hypotheses, ripostes, counter-offensives, the river corridors, and main and secondary efforts. But three things helped me to quickly catch up; one of course was hard work; the second was the well-qualified and patient directing staff; and third but not least, my grasp of military history.
I knew what a strategic directive should contain because I had read Hitler’s War Directives. I was familiar with the analysis of options available to the enemy because I had read Allenby’s biography in which the author FM Wavell covers this in fair detail. I knew the dynamics of a counteroffensive because I had read and enjoyed Defeat into Victory. I could readily grasp the meaning of an Offensive Baited Gambit because I had read Guderian’s Panzer General and the German invasion of France. I could frame a concept of operation because I had studied the Allied invasion of Sicily for my Staff College Entrance Exam (which I twice failed) and could recite verbatim Field Marshal Alexander’s concept that was eloquently framed in a single paragraph.
I had also some idea of what was the essence of an operational doctrine because I had read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence, and marked and re-read his thoughts on the nature of the conflict (unconventional warfare) as they crystalised while he lay sick in his tent in the desert. “My wits hostile to the abstract, took refuge in Arabia again. Translated in Arabic, the algebraic factor would first take practical account of the area we wished to deliver, and I began to idly to calculate how many square miles: sixty: eighty: one hundred: perhaps one hundred and forty thousand square miles. And how would the Turks defend all that? No doubt by a trench line across the bottom if we came like an army with banners; but suppose we were (as we might be) and influence, an idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about l like a gas? Armies are like plants, immobile, firm rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. We might be a vapor blowing where we listed. Our kingdom lay in each man’s mind, and as we wanted nothing material to live on, so we might offer nothing material to the killing. It seemed that a regular soldier might be helpless without a target, owning only what he sat on […]”
Reportedly Chairman Mao conceived his strategy of fighting a Peoples War after reading this book, which was published in 1926.
What should those who are interested in expanding their understanding of military history take away from this article? Firstly, go from the easy to the difficult; first the commanders and their battles and later the theory; first Napoleon and Rommel and later Clausewitz and Liddell Hart. Secondly, don’t limit yourself to one period or campaign or commander. Go where the road is taking you as long as you find it interesting and don’t force yourself to change direction just because you think you must read a particular campaign or commander. Finally, if you have already read them then re-read the classics like Manstien’s Lost Victories, and Brig Sultan Ahmed’s (SJ & Bar) The Stolen Victory. You will find jewels of wisdom that you missed in your previous reading.
I’m re-reading Hart’s thoughts on the indirect approach right now. I find most authors who address the subject get too focused on tactics or confuse strategic and operational thinking.
One of my favorites is Machiavelli’s the Prince bc he understands how politics and military power relate to each other. As I explain here, the Muslim world’s military elite should take particular note of his ideas:
Thanks so much for your comments. Enjoy your reading.
Very interesting article, very methodical approach to getting hooked up to history. The king’s start education of their sons with history and geography vital to introduce them to past glories and blunders. M.history taught in afwc was ineffective.
Excellent four-directional concept, sir. What Heyer did for you, Herman Wouk did for me, the romance of War, in The Caine Mutiny and the Winds of War. I agree, the desire to read, as my English teacher in college said, is primary, “Read porn if you have to, but develop the desire and stamina to read first”. Thanks for a enlightening article
Wow! That was a fascinating read! I have read several of the books you mention but not all of them.
I really liked the Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence but did not know that Mao may have derived his tactics from that book. He did work as a librarian early in his career at the Beijing Library.
Guderian and Rommel are fascinating in so many ways as are writers such as Liddell-Hart.
You have probably read far more military history than most military officers in Pakistan.
What do you make of Pakistan’s military history?