Stop me if I’m boring you

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Recently, I read a book review which has left me scratching my head. It's by Trevor Wilson (English Historical Review, 71 (2006), 629-31) and is about, among other books, K. W. Mitchinson, Defending Albion: Britain's Home Army, 1908-1919 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) -- according to the publisher, 'the first published study of Britain's response to the threat of invasion from across the North Sea in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century', particularly during the First World War.

Firstly, I just want to say that I admire Trevor Wilson's work greatly -- he is one of Australia's pre-eminent military historians, and I think it is fair to say one of the world's, certainly when it comes to First World War studies. I'm very much looking forward to reading his most recent work (with Robin Prior), The Somme (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2005); and his classic The Myriad Faces of War: Britain and the Great War, 1914-1918 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1986) is a treasure-trove of information on all sorts of aspects Britain's participation in the First World War. To my mind, it marks him as someone with a broad conception of what constitutes military history, not just war-fighting and high politics but cultural and social history as well.

That's why I was surprised by his review. The first work he examines is, he judges, 'a thoroughly worthwhile book'. But 'The same can hardly be said with similar enthusiasm of Defending Albion'. This is not because it is a bad book, in and of itself: 'Mitchinson tells his story appropriately'. It's, apparently, because it's a boring subject: 'But a war book which contains no battles (except for the internal, non-violent sort) is of decidedly limited interest ... it must be wondered how necessary this journey has been'. I find this attitude very difficult to understand!

I would have thought that anything that happened in the past is a 'worthwhile' subject for study by historians. Anything! It may well be the case that a book on, say, the material culture of Tasmanian shoe manufacturing between 1853 and 1877 is not going to interest me. (OK, it is the case.) But that does not mean I would dismiss it out of hand as not being worthwhile. Surely the basic criteria for worthwhileness are (1) rigour, and (2) originality. If the book is thoroughly researched and adds something new to the historiography, then it's worthwhile, whatever the subject matter. If it's interesting -- well, that's a (big) bonus. But it's not necessary: a telephone book is pretty boring, but is worthwhile, nonetheless.

More narrowly, I can't see why a 'war book' needs to have battles in it (and if it does, my own thesis is in trouble ...) War is not just a matter of life and death; it's more important than that. I haven't read Defending Albion -- though ironically, I want to after reading this review! -- but it is easy to imagine how an army that did not fight could still have a role to play. For example, the (unwarranted but pervasive) fear of German invasion was a major reason why two out of the six regular infantry divisions of the British Expeditionary Force were held back by Kitchener, instead of going to France with the others. That's a big influence right there; perhaps if those extra divisions had been at Mons, a decisive check could have been delivered to the Germans, instead of just a bloody nose. I can also think of many other interesting questions that might be answered by this book. How were the home forces perceived by civilians -- as shirkers or brave defenders? What role did they play in training men for the front, and conversely as quiet posts for veterans rotated out of the action? Were they used for internal security? Were they reactionary backwaters or did they keep up with the latest technological and tactical innovations?

I don't think it is the case that Professor Wilson is only interested in traditional battle histories or narratives about high strategy. The Myriad Faces of War proves that is not the case; also, he finds the other two books under review worthwhile enough, and they are on working class war enthusiasm, and rear area/home front care for wounded soldiers -- neither exactly from the "maps and chaps" school of military history. I can only surmise, then, that maybe Mitchinson did not make clear why his subject was interesting -- what the motivations for studying it were, what the wider connections are. That still does not, in my opinion, mean it wouldn't be a worthwhile book, but (to take something positive from all this) it is a useful reminder to novices like myself that we need to explain to our readers why exactly it is that they should find our subject matter interesting and not boring! That can be hard to remember when when we have spent months and years researching some obscure topic, the significance of which is blindingly obvious to ourselves, but perhaps not to our readers. Better to be safe than sorry ...

PS for a different take on Defending Albion, try Peter Simkins' review. He seems much more impressed by it.

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3 thoughts on “Stop me if I’m boring you

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  2. JDK

    The concept of 'a fleet in being' is a perfect example of how actually coming to battle may mean failure; ergo, by having no battles the fleet achieves its task - but presumably fails to exist on Professor Wilson's history radar...

    Wonder how he regards the Cold War? There were battles and skirmishes, but most of it was about not doing things!

  3. Post author

    Yes, good points. It's a very strange attitude, especially since, as I say, he's not an unreconstructed old-school military historian by any means. At least I wouldn't have thought so!

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