One book

[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

It's been a good year for reading military history, but then it always is. If I had to recommend one military history book I've read this year it would be David Stevenson's With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 (London: Penguin, 2012). Stevenson's previous book, 1914-1918 (published as Cataclysm in the United States), was a good survey of the First World War, even an excellent one; but it didn't hint at the magisterial nature of this book. In fact, I was worried that With Our Backs to the Wall might simply prove to be a padded-out version of the 130-odd pages in 1914-1918 covering the same period. Of course my fears were groundless.

The first third of With Our Backs to the Wall provides the narrative backdrop for the rest of the book. Here, Stevenson explains the events of 1918: in particular the German gamble on the Western Front in the spring, the successful Allied defence and the ultimately even more successful Allied offensive leading to the Armistice. This section by itself is almost worth the cover price (especially if you bought it in paperback like I did): it's easy to focus on the 'classic' period of trench warfare between 1915 and 1917 and forget the return to a war of movement in 1918. But where Stevenson really shines is in the following thematic chapters which explore how the war was fought in 1918, how it had changed since 1914 and why it didn't continue into 1919, as was widely expected until the autumn. There's something for everyone here: technology, intelligence, logistics, morale, finance, economics, gender. Of course the approach is necessarily largely synthetic, though Stevenson does often use primary source material to great effect. Each topic is treated in depth to a satisfying degree: even if you are familiar with the scholarship you are likely to find something worthwhile (as I did in the section on airpower), and if you aren't you'll learn a lot. But despite the density of the text and its length (nearly 550 pages excluding endnotes), I found With Our Backs to the Wall a compelling and even gripping book. Highly recommended. (But if it's not to your taste, perhaps try Claudia Baldoli and Andrew Knapp, Forgotten Blitzes: France and Italy Under Allied Air Attack, 1940-1945, London and New York: Continuum, 2012.)

So if you had to recommend one military history book you've read this year, what would it be? What one book most impressed you, informed you, surprised you, moved you?

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8 thoughts on “One book

  1. While I will admit upfront that the following book is based on my supervisor’s PhD I do not think that it lessens the importance of it. My recommendation would be Peter Gray’s ‘The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945? published by Continuum. This book brings a new look to an old story in many ways. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book is its interdisciplinary focus. Gray uses a deep understanding of contemporary leadership theory to explores the problems that confronted the likes of Harris, Portal and Churchill in the conduct of this vital campaign.

  2. It is used well in its historical context. Peter deals very effectively with the legal position of the use of bombers in its legal sense in particular the discussions emanating from Geneva etc. He also deals with the legal advice given to the Air Ministry. I admit I have been lucky to receive a copy for review.

  3. As an ex-bookseller, and current publisher, I like to suggest that links (in contexts like this) should be to the publisher, not a.n.other bookshop, as the publisher is more vital to author support. So: (or your favourite 'all good bookshop').
    Offered at 52 quid, too, all of which goes to the publisher, and their costs...


  4. Alan Allport

    David Edgerton's Britain's War Machine. I'm not sure I totally buy the argument, but a valuable work of revisionism all the same that brings life to what was otherwise a rather moribund field of research.

  5. Post author


    I think I'll need to get it for that part alone...


    Fair point, I try to make a point of linking to publisher websites over Amazon myself. That said, every single page on this site usually has at least one Amazon link, in the sidebar widget that displays 'what I'm reading'. There's no easy way to get rid of it, and I console myself at least a small cut of the action goes to LibraryThing who get nothing out of me other that the US$25 I paid them 5 years ago!

    Also, you didn't pick a book!


    Good choice, and I agree with your point: even if you aren't persuaded by the whole there's much food for thought in his individual set-pieces. But surely you meant to say 'David Edgerton's Britain's War Machine'? :)

  6. My issue with War Machine was that it seemed to me like a restatement of much of Edgerton's work of the past 20 years for a popular audience; having read most of his previous academic stuff, I enjoyed it but didn't get as much new out of it as out of say Warfare State.

    I've not read much straight military history this year, so will have to think about whether there's anything I can recommend...

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