Book Review: A Military History of Britain From 1775 to the Present

A Military History of Britain From 1775 to the Present
By Jeremy Black, published by Prager Security International

By and large, historians of the Second World War have not been keen to vary their approach to the subject.  By this I mean that most British and especially American historians tend to write about the Allied perspective only; they usually concentrate on what was happening on the ground rather than seeing a campaign as a three-way contribution by the army, navy and air forces; and any ‘revisionism’ tends to be limited to the already established narrow view of the war.  In North Africa, for example, it is Wavell’s Command, Auchinleck’s Command, Montgomery’s Command.  Wavell and Auchinleck were C-in-C Middle East, Montgomery was Eighth Army commander.  By right it should be viewed as Alexander’s Command not Montgomery’s; we should not twist the reality because of Montgomery’s rhetoric and force of personality.  The problem is that trends develop that are based on a historian’s approach to the subject, rather than the reality.  This then becomes the accepted norm. 

One person who has never succumbed to trend following is Jeremy Black, Professor of History at Exeter University, who in all his books has demonstrated his willingness to look at his subject matter with a completely fresh outlook.  This is very much the case with his new military history of Britain.  For example, instead of viewing Britain’s wars of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in isolation, he looks at them together, outlining the difficulties of maintaining multifarious international military commitments.  Similarly, both the First and Second World Wars are not seen as stand-alone episodes, but are written about within the wider global situation of a broader period.

His account of the Second World War thus begins in 1933.  Rather than viewing appeasement as the policy of politicians scarred by the battlefields of the Western Front, Black sees it as more as a practical economic policy rather than an emotional one.  Britain’s global commitments in the 1930s were massive, and he argues convincingly that the lack of powerful tanks and a modern approach to tactics and weapons in this period was more to do with the kind of demands facing Britain militarily than an unwillingness to modernise. 

Equally fascinating is his account of the war itself, which once again he frames from the point of view of Britain’s wider, global position and her ongoing commitments within the Empire.  As an overview of the war and Britain’s part in it, this is hard to beat.  Skilfully weaving between theatres, Black gives weight to the differences of strategy between Britain and America, whilst also pointing out Britain’s massive contribution to the final victory in 1945.  Highly recommended.

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