Culture & Criticism Since 2003
“Battles do not truly decide wars.” That is the main argument to be taken from The Allure of Battle, and the sentiment can be equally applied to the two other books reviewed here – Great Strategic Rivalries and Britain’s War: Into Battle. Each of these three titles strive to delve far beyond a mere examination of military tactics and strategies, piercing through to those actual factors that ultimately decide conflicts between nations.
The stand-out of the three books is Britain’s War, which was rightly featured on many book-of-the-year lists in 2016. I believe it merits praise on multiple fronts as well. In this dense and fascinating book, the first of a two part series, Daniel Todman paints a complete picture of the political, social, economic and military faces of the British war effort from 1937 to 1941.
What sets Britain’s War above many other popular history books on World War II is found in the way Todman presents a complete history of the event rather than limiting himself to select aspects of the conflict. In turn, this approach offers the reader a complete experience rather than just a superficial overview.
One of Todman’s greatest achievements here is that he’s able to master a massive amount of information, synthesizing his argument into a clear, coherent and highly readable narrative. This is quite a feat, as many other authors with similar ambitions would struggle to convey the message that’s in their heads. Going further, Todman shows that he’s also accomplished at making the mundane interesting – in his hand, subjects like budgets, committee meetings and workforce relations compel attention.
Todman also brings out facts in Britain’s War that are not universally known. For example, before reading this book, I was not aware that Britain could have just as easily gone to war with Japan in 1939, not Germany. In addition, his depiction of the impact of the war on the Middle East (particularly on India’s push for independence) sheds light on an aspect of the war that is rarely ever mentioned.
After more than 70 years, World War War tends to be overly- mythologized in Britain, with hindsight at a premium. However, to Todman’s credit, he is able to avoid these typical minefields by sticking to the facts as they occurred. In turn, he manages to tell his readers what people were actually thinking during the war while building a seminal reference about a seminal time in British history.
Great Strategic Rivalries offers another enjoyable and informative history-based read. Edited by James Lacey, the book frames an introductory chapter around 16 essays on long-term rivalries, featuring conflicts between powers from the ancient world to the Cold War era. The introductory chapter sets up the premise of the book well, while the chapters that follow consider the questions posed in the introduction. This classic academic format makes it effortless for the reader to compare and contrast the information presented.
Great Strategic Rivalries serves as an engrossing and informative reference that highlights well-known rivalries along-side lesser known conflicts. Standout essays include examination of the varying conflicts between England/Britain and France; the nineteenth century rivalry between France and Germany; and the twentieth century rivalry between China, Russia and Japan.
The Allure of Battle offers a colorful roller-coaster ride through the history of battles, analyzing topics such as military officers, defense-tactics, and the philosophy of war in a rich and entertaining way. However, readers should be well-aware that this reference employs a classic academic style not well-suited to those looking for a fast and superficial summary of the genre.
Vanessa Moir is a British writer who holds a History degree from the University of St Andrews, Scotland and a Masters in International Relations from King’s College, London. She lives in Oxford, England and works in publishing. Reach her through The Electric Review.