REVIEW BY TOBY CLARK
Here is a history of the Second World War with a twist. John Buckley is a professor of military history at the University of Wolverhampton and a writer with both academic and popular histories to his name. Buckley’s flair for bringing new analysis to pre-existing assumptions has gained him a reputation for moving ahead of trends. His monograph British Armour in Normandy questioned whether British tanks and crews were actually a match for the German armour in the summer battles of 1944 – an argument that has since become popular. And Buckley refights historical battles using models. Put this all together and Buckley is not a typical historian.
So it should be no surprise to find that The Armchair General is not a typical history, either: the reader is invited to examine counterfactual, or ‘what if’, history. The counterfactual is a popular device within novels, but it has been derided as an ‘idle parlour game’ by academics. Which means there are not many other books competing with Buckley’s.
Robert Cowley brought together many big names for his compendium of counterfactual essays, What if? Military historians imagine what might have been (1999). In it, Cowley argued that the road not taken still belongs on the map. But that book is more than 20 years old now.
Written as a cross between war gaming and military history, The Armchair General invites readers to ignore hindsight and to occupy the minds of important, but not always famous, wartime characters. Using archive material, Buckley gives the reader the same information that their character had. It is a different approach to history and one that is highly rewarding.
Having been presented with the evidence, the reader is given two page numbers with instructions to move to the page that corresponds with the decision they have made. One of these pages is the start of the counterfactual narrative. It is a credit to Buckley that the ‘what ifs’ feel authentic and might require a double take.
There are some drawbacks to this approach. Structurally, the book is complicated. Of the eight chapters, each is broken down into sections: sections 1, 3, 4, and 6 are true, while sections 2, 5, and 7 are counterfactual. By keeping the real and the counterfactual arguments in their own sections, Buckley avoids any charge of false teaching.
However, The Armchair General is not a linear narrative, and readers must skip forward and back. I would suggest using two bookmarks, one for your current page and one for the contents page at the beginning of each section. This being said, images, text boxes, and maps assist in guiding the reader.
And helpfully, Buckley has ended each of the chapters with a summary bringing together the reality and the counterfactual. Also, while no doubt helpful for sales, the use of ‘Nazis’ in the subtitle undersells the vast geographic reach of this book: ‘Can you defeat the Axis?’ would have been more accurate.
The Second World War is exciting enough – so why make bits up? Ultimately, this book is exciting because of the fiction. For people who have read countless books on the period, they will find that rare thing here: a narrative where they don’t know what happens next. Pessimists might argue that this does not matter and that, worse, half the pages are wasted on words that are not fact.
However, the purpose of this book is to place readers in historical situations and make them feel how it really was. With paths disappearing off into the undergrowth and no ability to see what is on the other side of the hill, the reader realises how complicated and difficult it truly was to defeat the Axis powers.
The Armchair General: can you defeat the Nazis?
Century Books, hbk (£14.99)