Why didn’t I start with a smaller book???

It is one of the questions I ask myself all the time; “Why didn’t I start with a smaller book?”

Well, in truth, I did…it was only supposed to be about 600-700 pages (big enough, the average is 200-300), but has now transformed into something else…as it is, it is 1,100 pages and two volumes, which once campaign and battle maps and pictures are added, will both be about 900-1,000 pages long!

It is one of the biggest problems when writing something such as military history, to make sure you haven’t missed anything. Too often the books you read are really just ‘Chinese whispers’ passed on from one historian to another until this “Set of lies agreed upon” (as Napoleon termed ‘History’) becomes ‘established fact.’

The problem with this ‘established fact’ is that it becomes the bastion of the publishers and the ‘old guard’ of the authors. If you contradict it then sorry, but you are obviously wrong and open to ridicule. Just look at the book “Waterloo – New perspectives” – the author of that book got annihilated!

The book I am writing right now is one such book: It stands ‘established history’ on its head and says “This is what really happened” – and of course, you need to prove your case. This takes detail and study, a lot of quotes from those who were there and typically a lot of research. The older sources are often the best for this, as they remain untainted by those stating what is now ‘established fact’ – and this is a lot of books, a lot of reading and a lot of writing.

They say, when writing a book such as this, that you should have a plan. Understand what you are trying to convey and how long it will be, then stick to it. I have flouted these rules by necessity. In truth, what I had in mind completely changed as I went on and understood more….and that takes more writing to explain and justify.

Take the concept which has been ‘established fact’ from the likes of Jomini, Clausewitz, Petre, Spencer Wilkinson, Lloyd, Liddell-Hart and others right up to David Chandler – that Napoleon invented nothing new in the art of war. When I started my book, which looks in depth at the development of Napoleon’s art of war, this was something which I understood as fact. The truth? – Yes, he did, and for 200 years, nobody has seen it.

So you just try telling everyone for 200 years that they were wrong and you were right! It’s a bit like trying to convince people that the earth was round, not flat – it’s a death sentence on grounds of blasphemy!

The thing is with History though, is that my concept is exactly what it is all about. The word ‘History’ does not mean ‘Established Fact’ but ‘Enquiry’. Herodotus (the world’s first historian) invented the word, and this is exactly what it means. Looking back, questioning your beliefs and those of others and saying something new – or at least proving whatever it is that you do say.

I am deliberately cagey about the contents and method of my book, barring that it focuses upon Napoleon and will shake the established world of military history more than the battle of Austerlitz ever did. But the truth is that I never meant to…it just happened! The real sting in the tail – the bit where we discover the secret which has eluded and fooled everyone for 200 years was not the point I ever set out to make, but suddenly it was there, with me running around fetching up various books and maps and shouting up to Napoleon himself; “You clever bastard! You did, didn’t you? Clever, clever bastard!”

Well that takes a lot of explaining and re-writing, new research and proving your case. It was never going to be small, nor will it be cheap, I’m afraid to say (the print costs look frightening) but then to know what nobody else knows…what price that?

I have another 40 books in the works or in the planning already. My second book is mostly written whilst the first is still some months from completion (at the most optimistic guess) – but by now it has to be right. Some kid in three hundred years’ time will read this as I read my own 300 year-old books and will assume I am right – so I have to be.

I anticipate that I will upset people with this book, but big deal…this is history.

So why didn’t I start with a smaller book? – Because I set out to make history, and as Napoleon himself said; “Geese go in gaggles, eagles fly alone.”

Watch this space and save up…it’s going to be a shocker!

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My 2014 Military History Reading List…

This week, I was asked by the Society for Army Historical Research to join a small group of some of the most influential names in Military History today, to compile our top five books read this year on the subject.

Nobody is happier nor more pleasantly surprised than me to have my name alongside those of Field Marshal Sir John Chapple, Lt. General Sir Barney White-Spunner and a raft of famous published authors and military professors. For myself, okay, I own the ‘British Military History’ group on LinkedIn (the biggest and still fastest growing military history group on the web, I might add) and am working on some exciting literary projects, but really? Me? Influential? – Oh well!

Anyway, I have compiled my list of the five best books on the subject written this year, and am happy to share my selection below. Enjoy!

1) ‘Waterloo – the history of four days, three armies and three battles’ – Bernard Cornwell (William Collins 2014)
A wonderful and insightful account of the world’s most famous battle by the world’s most famous military fiction writer.
Cornwell combines his outstanding ability as a story teller with an excellent grasp for tactics and the the personalities involved to produce a detailed and fast-paced narrative which informs and entertains in the style we have all grown to love his work for. Action-packed, vastly enjoyable, informative and educating – even for experts, Bernard Cornwell includes the perfect balance between detail and story, which never needlessly bogs the reader down in pure fact at the expense of narrative. It is an excellent first foray into non-fiction history from my favourite author.
2) ‘Napoleon the Great’ – Andrew Roberts (Allen Lane 2014)
A vast and thumping new book of equal and suitable size and scope, Napoleon the Great is a fantastic look at the most written about (and still the most intriguing) character in history.
Andrew Roberts combines a praiseworthy narrative with excellent detail and manages with every page to say something new which is sure to always entertain and inform.
Not the typical recital of campaigns and battles, this book does more to unravel the mysteries of one of the most complex and misunderstood characters of the past and emerges with a clear-cut, blunt and often unapologetic picture of a man, a commander and a statesman. With a pounding and compelling narrative and a wealth of new and meticulous research, this book is sure to become one of the lasting cornerstones of Napoleonic history for decades to come. Perhaps best of all (from a personal point of view) Robert’s writing style is so exactly my own that it was difficult to remember that it wasn’t one of my own books! Compelling and impossible to put down.
3) ‘Waterloo: Myth and Reality’ – Gareth Glover (Pen & Sword 2014)
Every so often a new book comes along which iconoclastically breaks the mould and shatters the illusion of what has become ‘established fact’.
For Gareth Glover to take on a project on such an entrenched subject as the Waterloo campaign (particularly considering past attempts at the same by previous authors) is indeed a feat of bravery, and yet one which he has taken to task to produce an excellent reappraisal of this fascinating period of history. Compelling and challenging, always informative and with a great narrative, Waterloo: Myth and Reality forces the reader to challenge their own views and opinions as much as it questions the established versions of accepted history in light of excellent and well-presented new research. Often at odds with Andrew Roberts in a personal view of Napoleon, yet this book does not attempt to be a character study of any one of the commanders involved. In all, this is an excellent, bold and wonderfully presented view of a subject which even the seasoned military historian cannot fail to find fascinating and compelling.
4) ‘The Campaigns of Napoleon’ – David Chandler (Macmillan 1966)
Fifty years on from its first publication and this excellent book remains the definitive military study of the campaigns and battles of the world’s greatest soldier. Being lucky enough to own two copies; a later format and a first edition, I have probably read this book a dozen times in staggered format, but never until this year have I read it end to end. The late, great David Chandler remains the undisputed king of Napoleonic history, and this epic work, written for the 150th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, remains as relevant and as important fifty years on. An expert guide to strategy, tactics, politics, statesmanship and the man himself as well as his enemies and subordinate commanders, this book is – and should always be, the cornerstone of any serious collector’s library on military history.
Rich in descriptions, punctuated occasionally by Chandler’s own brand of wit and humour; always engaging and packed with detailed battle and campaign maps, there is little that one could improve fifty years on. This titanic history ensures that David Chandler’s name will be synonymous with the Emperor’s in another hundred years’ time, and deservedly so.
My first edition I bought when I was twelve, and was fortunate enough to have met the man himself before his sad passing ten years ago, therefore this book will always hold a special place for me.
One of the best and most enjoyable books one could read, with every page a fascinating piece of history.
5) ‘The Life of a Naval Doctor’ – Surgeon Rear-Admiral R.W. Mussen CB CBE MD Bch (Privately published)
A very rare and almost forgotten autobiography of one of the outstanding characters of 20th century Great Britain, which the family have asked me to edit and annotate.
What to say about this book, other than that I could not put it down? Beginning just after the Great War, the narrative tells a fascinating tale of the last days of the true British Empire taking the reader on journeys with some of the most colourful characters of the age (the author being almost beheaded by a jet-skiing Lord Mountbatten), through two coronations (and the true story of what happened behind the scenes), to far-flung corners of the empire and through the Second World War, sailing on both the Hood and the Barham both just before their fateful last voyages, all with a wonderful personal narrative which both compels and endears the reader. Written just for his immediate family, Admiral Mussen recounts some of the most engaging tales of an era without personal heroism or self-aggrandisement in an amusing, matter-of-fact style. A keen military historian and an excellent reporter, Robin ‘Paul’ Mussen appeals to readers of all ages and genres in his outstanding work, which is a privilege to read and to work on to bring it to a wider audience.
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