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.