In November I attended a conference on new research into military history, run by the British Commission on Military History. It was a great event, in which dynamic young historians discussed complex and subtle aspects of military history spanning 600 years. Throughout the conference I was struck by two things though: the first was that the gentleman to lady ratio was about 25:1. The other was that it was a huge relief to be in a room full of people, and not have to be apologetic when I said ‘I study conflict during the Napoleonic Wars’.
These two things are interconnected. The Palgrave Advances in Modern Military History explores the issue brilliantly, highlighting how all too often military history is considered to be on the fringes of ‘proper’ history. People’s perception of military history is dominated by the belief that the research is carried by individuals who are obsessed with the calibre of a particular gun, or who will have heated debates about whether a particular button belongs to a uniform from 1789 or 1791. The reality is that this anorak-y approach is a long way from the truth, yet this perception continues to dominate people’s attitude, and as a result researchers will often give military historians a slightly patronising smile, and then tell them that their research is much more ‘mainstream’.
It has to be admitted that this prejudice does have some basis in reality. The patronising attitude means that many young researchers are reluctant to embark on projects in military history because they fear that it will restrict their career opportunities in the future. This in turn means that there is less meaningful debate, which in turn reinforces the perception that military history is the ‘runt of the litter’ in the discipline of history.
The other issue, to be blunt, is that it is very rare to find a young lady with a deep interest in war. This is not a case being prejudices. Yes, of course, there are many women doing admirable work in armed forces across the war. But how many military historians do you know who are women? I’m prepared to bet that you could count them on two hands, if not one. By comparison how many military historians do you know who are men? Now think about TV documentaries. When you watch a documentary on Henry VIII’s wives, or about society in 14th Century England, there is a good chance that the presenter will be an extremely well qualified lady, who is an expert on the topic. When it comes to WW1? The odds are it will be man who stands on a featureless field and tells you that 10,000 men were killed here is bitter fighting that last for 6 hours, and saw the fields run with blood.
To deal with this issue, then, military history needs to break the stigma attached to it. Fortunately, this is slowly happening. Military history has become much more focused in the last 20-30 years on the social aspects of conflict. The role of religion in war, what life was like in the army, and, as this blog, has shown, crime and punishment, have all become ‘hot topics’ in the world of military history. Yes, the anoraks will always be there, but this does not mean that military history cannot be as subtle as its ‘mainstream’ counterpart. It’s just a case of making people realise that military history is just as sophisticated, interesting and valuable as social and political history. This is why you will find that the social history of the Napoleonic Wars will be developing rapidly over the next few weeks, as I take my place amongst those trying to spear head the push to increase the respectability of military history.
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