Soldiers: great stories of war and peace

Soldiers is a personal selection of stories about war by a leading military historian following a lifetime spent studying the subject. It is not a heavyweight tome, but a fun-to-read book – if one can use such a term in this context – in which we range across the whole history of war, from the Bible to the War on Terror, and, equally, cover every aspect of war from the horrors of the battlefield the day after to the absurdities of military life.

The almost 350 extracts range from a few lines to several pages, and they are drawn from the letters, diaries, and memoirs of soldiers themselves – generals, officers, and other ranks – and from the writings of journalists, historians, novelists, and theorists.

‘Rather than citing the highest authorities,’ Hastings explains, ‘I draw upon writers and narratives that have stirred my own imagination over a lifetime. Modern scholars scorn – for instance – C V Wedgwood’s writings on the English Civil Wars, those of Cecil Woodham-Smith about the Crimea, and Barbara Tuchman’s big books. Would that the dismissive academics wrote a fraction so well! All three women were brilliant narrative historians who have been my faithful companions for 60 years.’

I could not agree more. I was delighted to find many more of my favourite stylists on matters military in the collection – Rick Atkinson, Winston Churchill, Robert Graves, John Keegan, and Elizabeth Longford, among others.

Impressive, too, is the range of sources. Although British (and English-speaking) sources predominate – a simple reflection, as the author admits, of his own expertise – we are often enough afforded glimpses of ‘the other side of the hill’. Hastings’ concern here is military experience in general, and his sympathy is with soldiers in general, regardless of their allegiance or cause.

It is quite a roller-coaster. We leap from heroic deeds to human tragedy to pure comedy to stomach-churning horror. Sometimes we are presented with a famous story – David slaying Goliath, Horatio defending the bridge, Wellington labelling his men ‘the scum of the earth’, Lord Cardigan and the black bottle incident, the charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman. Other times, we meet the obscure and little-known.

A good example is Mother Ross, one of a number of women featured in the collection who joined the army disguised as men. She enlisted in 1693 to pursue her lost husband, fought under Marlborough in the War of the Spanish Succession, was reunited with her husband, and then married twice more after he was killed at the Battle of Malplaquet. She eventually retired on a royal pension, and was in due course buried with military honours in the Chelsea Hospital cemetery.

An interesting feature of the book is the way the mood changes. War has always involved discomfort, disease, fatigue, horror, fear. But accounts of war have, until recently, tended to dwell on heroism, glory, manly virtue, and noble sacrifice. A change comes in the 19th century, and then, after 1914, no sane person can believe that war is anything other than tragedy.

Even so, amid the carnage and privation of modern war, there is still survival and coping, where humour and nonchalance demand their place. Spike Milligan’s WWII memoirs are a perfect illustration of the role of mockery and mucking about in enabling soldiers to get by.

Milligan is not included in this anthology, but that is no criticism: you cannot include everything, and there is humour enough and much lightness of touch. Recommended to all military-history buffs.

Review by Neil Faulkner
Soldiers: great stories of war and peace, Max Hastings (ed.), William Collins, hbk (£25), ISBN 978-0008454227.