Reviewed by Brian G.H. Ditcham (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-German (February, 2010)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
A Very Short (and Dated) Overview of European Warfare
This publication is somewhat curious. It is presented as an updated edition of a book first published in 1976, based on a series of lectures given by Michael Howard at the University of Warwick the year before. In fact, the core of the book (135 out of 144 pages of text) is, as far as one can judge, a barely amended reprint of the original book, supplemented by an epilogue that brings the story down to about 2004, and an updated set of notes for further reading. To a very considerable extent, therefore, one is looking at a book written in the mid-1970s--in the middle of major academic debates about the content and direction of military history as a subject (and, by pure coincidence, at the point when I was about to embark on my own postgraduate research).
It is fair to say that only the most muted echoes of these debates find their way into Howard's account, though arguably a very short overview study that seeks to cover virtually a thousand years of European warfare in 135 small pages of generous print size is not the place to expect serious historiographical discussion. Howard is inevitably obliged to paint with a very broad brush indeed, and one cannot criticize him too much for doing so. Potential readers (and particularly those who may be tempted to use this book in a teaching context) do, however, need to be aware that Howard's account of warfare in the Middle Ages (his "Wars of the Knights") was very dated even in the 1970s, as it looks back essentially to the rather dismissive early-twentieth-century views of writers like Sir Charles Oman and Hans Delbrück. His approach to warfare in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries does, on the other hand, betray the influence of the then-recent writings of Michael Roberts and other advocates of the concept of a "military revolution" in the early seventeenth century.
Overall, Howard's approach sits somewhere between the "traditional" military history focused on battles, tactics, and great commanders that was much decried by advocates of the "new military history" of the 1970s and the much more social history-based approaches that these scholars sought to advance, which were intended to be more attentive to the role of armies and the wars they fought as social and even cultural institutions. "Great Men" do play a prominent role in Howard's account, but they tend to be technicians like French artillery expert Jean-Baptiste de Gribeauval or military administrators like Michel le Tellier rather than battlefield commanders. King Gustav Adolf Vasa of Sweden figures more as a military theoretician than a general, and it is revealing that the Prussian ruler who gets the most sustained attention in this account is Great Elector Frederick William rather than his great-grandson, Frederick the Great. The only figure whose generalship is subjected to much analysis is Napoleon Bonaparte. While this is not quite "military history with the fighting left out" (a common criticism made against the new military history), no battle is analyzed in real depth. A whiff of technological determinism rises from Howard's account of the interplay between weapons, tactics, and military organization.
Above all, this work offers an account of warfare made very much from the top down. The experience of the ordinary fighting man hardly figures; his female companions (an indispensable element in every European army up to at least the Napoleonic era) are completely invisible. The common soldier is viewed in the mass, whether brutalized and marginalized (Howard's view of the standing armies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) or the putatively patriotic conscript of the standing armies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The linkage between armies, states, and the societies that sustained them is sketched in sub-Marxian materialist terms, even if Howard devotes an unexpectedly lengthy passage to explaining how Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels got it wrong by underestimating the appeal of patriotism to the masses. Irregular warfare is barely mentioned--even the Spanish guerillas of the Napoleonic Wars fail to make a mark.
Inevitably in such a short book, choices on coverage have to be made. Howard's are (perhaps inadvertently) revealing. "Europe" in his presentation is basically the Europe of the European Community as it stood at the time he was writing, plus the Iberian peninsula and Switzerland (but only for the early modern period). Russia does not appear in the text until the Battle of Austerlitz (1806), and it is never entirely clear whether Howard regards Russia and later the Soviet Union as a European power or not. The Balkans are clearly non-European (even, implicitly, in the present day--the epilogue almost ignores the wars that accompanied the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, which admittedly fits at best awkwardly with Howard's overall thesis that warfare within Europe has become unthinkable since 1945). Following his account, the Baltic lands are barely more European--while Sweden gets a brief mention in the seventeenth century (its role in Roberts' "military revolution" could hardly permit its exclusion), the region vanishes after Gustav Adolf's death, and Karl XII of Sweden--one of traditional military history's greatest commanders--is never mentioned. The lands that made up the Warsaw Pact powers in 1975 are also excluded from Europe (except to the extent that the then-GDR could be seen as heir to the Kingdom of Prussia). Thus, for instance, no mention is made in the medieval chapter of the Hussites and their devastatingly effective employment of artillery and field fortifications, which influenced warfare as far west as France. The Mediterranean is implicitly not a European sea--the rather patchy and poorly integrated sections on naval warfare focus entirely on "blue water," oceanic environments. In practice the core of the book concerns France and Germany, with England/Great Britain as a kind of licensed oddity on the fringes and other places dipping in and out as the traditional narrative of military development requires. Italy, with its complex relationship between state-building, nationalism, and military developments in the second half of the nineteenth century, would have provided an interesting counterpoint to the German-centered view, but Giuseppe Garibaldi does not rate a mention (though Giuseppe Mazzini does).
European imperial and colonial enterprises are almost literally pushed offshore for most of the book. The original text of 1975 included a section ("The War of the Merchants") that covered the naval aspects of European expansion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but had very little to say about what happened on shore in those faraway lands. Thereafter, colonial warfare is barely visible--until the final updating epilogue, which says more about the processes by which Britain, France, and the other European powers lost their empires than the original text did about how they came to acquire them in the first place. Given the importance of the colonial world to military careers in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe, this omission seems major.
The original text bears the marks of its origins in a set of lectures that were no doubt stimulating but did not necessarily transfer well to written form. The result is a rather fragmented presentation that sees coverage of major conflicts like the Thirty Years War and even the First World War split up between different chapters. Other conflicts, including even the Second World War, get rather scanty and superficial coverage. The text is also riddled with errors, what were probably citations from memory, and sometimes odd judgments. Howard talks of a "War of Investiture" in medieval Italy (p. 18)--presumably he means the Investiture Contest, which was as much a war of words as of weapons, and happened a couple of centuries before the implied date. He places the operations of the "Great Company" in Italy between 1338 and 1354 (p. 25); this depiction seriously oversimplifies a complex set of developments over a rather different time scale. Talking of Edward I's Welsh Wars as "more like hunting game than war between Christians" may just possibly reflect the views of the average English knight of the times (p. 11), though I am unaware of any contemporary who put matters in quite those terms, but suggests rather disturbing implications. Admittedly, these examples come from the early sections of the book, where Howard is furthest from his areas of competence, but similar issues arise even in the rather unsatisfactory updating epilogue. Osama bin Laden is not "an ayatollah ... from Saudi Arabia" (p. 142) since "ayatollah" is a formal clerical grade known only in Shi'a Islam and bin Laden is Sunni. The total omission of Soviet involvement in Afghanistan seems curious to say the least. The whole epilogue has a rather rushed and provisional feel and some of its judgments already look dated.
Michael Howard is undoubtedly one of Britain's most distinguished military historians, but this volumes by no means displays his best work. It is now mainly of historiographical interest in its demonstration of the ways in which the field of military history has changed in the past three decades.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Brian G.H. Ditcham. Review of Howard, Michael, War in European History.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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