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A Guide to British Military History

Ian F. W. Beckett
Forty years ago military history meant battles, campaigns, great commanders, drums and trumpets. It was usually written by retired military officers and was sometimes nationalistic in tone. Now, however, the study of war has been integrated into the wider narrative of history: the “war and society” approach. It tends increasingly to be written by heavyweight journalists like Max Hastings or serious academics like Ian Beckett. Dr Beckett is certainly well-qualified. At present he is Professor of Military History at the University of Kent. He has previously held distinguished academic appointments in the UK and USA, including at the US Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia and the US Naval War College, Rhode Island. He is the author of numerous books, including The Great War, 1914-19, Riflemen Form and Wanton Troopers: Buckinghamshire in the Civil Wars 1640-1660.

This is a valuable book, for which academic and armchair historians, military officers studying for professional exams and historical fiction writers checking their background detail will be grateful. A Guide to British Military History is full of interesting information; a number of popular assumptions have been corrected; there are a user-friendly index, copious explanatory notes and notes on reference works, sources, archives, teaching and research centres. Dr Beckett has been extremely generous in this respect.

It seems ungracious to criticise such a splendid work, which must have involved an enormous amount of research. Nevertheless, in the interest of balance it has to be stated that the title is slightly misleading. The book does not cover the spectrum of British military history; it begins in 1500. A purist might argue that some of the most historically significant battles in which England, Scotland and the other parts of the UK were involved took place before that date.

The author does not wear his learning lightly. A Guide to British Military History is not an easy read. At times the intrinsic fascination of the author's subject-matter is in danger of being eclipsed by his dense prose, which is stuffed with numerous references. Somebody picking this book up - in Waterstone's, for example - might be put off by the clunking titles of some of the chapters: The Historiographical Context and The Methodological Context are two less-than racy examples. As a result, I suspect that this is a book to which I and other readers will resort as a useful reference work when checking our facts and will tend not to read it from cover to cover; which is a shame, as we can learn a lot from it. For that reason I have awarded only 4 mushroom-heads.

For a less serious and very enjoyable book on military history - ideal Christmas or birthday present material - I recommend Jeremy Archer's A Military Miscellany. Not clunking at all and often very funny, it is another potentially-useful reference work and very readable to boot.

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