Why Military history is important

3 mins read
Major-General Julian Thompson CBE, OBE is a military historian and former Royal Marines officer who commanded 3 Commando Brigade during the Falklands. He is also a Visiting Professor at the Department of War Studies, King's College, University of London

‘History is more or less bunk.’ Henry Ford, 1916

The primary purpose of studying military history is not, in my opinion, in order to ‘ape’ the tactics of past commanders, but rather to use it to learn about leadership, command, logistics, and the working of the  commander’s mind; in short, why some leaders, both political and military, have succeeded while others failed.

It is not enough to know that the Confederate Lieutenant-General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson carried out a left flanking attack at Chancellorsville. We should instead be more perceptive and seek to learn why Jackson did what he did, and why he succeeded. History is made by human beings, and in the case of military history, mainly by people under pressure, and usually in circumstances of chaos, danger, and incomplete and frequently conflicting information.

For example, Hooker, the Union commander at Chancellorsville, actually saw Jackson’s Corps on its outflanking march moving across his front. But because he desperately wanted to believe that Lee’s confederate Army of Northern Virginia was retreating, he committed the military sin of what Napoleon called ‘making pictures’. He continued to believe that Lee was retreating; until Jackson hit his right flank like the crack of doom.

Many senior officers in the Royal Navy in the period before the First World War dismissed the study of their own history as irrelevant. There was, in their opinion, nothing that a steam-powered, steel-warship, early 20th century navy could learn from a wind-powered, wooden-ship navy. Tactically speaking, they were right. But they ignored the human factor, and especially the lessons to be learned from the way the 18th and early 19th century admirals had exercised command. The outcome was the rigid command system that was a significant factor in the inconclusive outcome at Jutland, and at the three surface actions in the North Sea that preceded that engagement.

In spite of my earlier proviso, there are occasionally tactical lessons to be learnt from history. The SAS patrol, Bravo Two Zero, deposited by helicopter deep in Iraq during Gulf War One, is a classic. Once landed, they had to reach their target on foot, while evading a vehicle-born enemy in open desert. Even the SAS cannot outrun vehicles. They did not last long. The squadron commander, seeing the intrinsic flaw in the plan, had protested before the operation was mounted. Being on loan from the Special Boat Service, he was at a disadvantage, and was eventually sacked.

Although I doubt that those planning it were  aware of it, this asinine enterprise was, barring the details, a repeat of the first ever SAS operation in the Western Desert in 1942. The party was parachuted in to attack an airfield. Bad weather caused a dispersed drop. Once down, the soldiers had the mobility of the boot, against a mechanized enemy in open desert. For the rest of the Western Desert campaign, the SAS operated in vehicles. By 1991, the SAS was accustomed to operating in the desert in specialised vehicles, and all patrols other than Bravo Two Zero did so.

Back to the strategic level: had those who committed British Forces to Afghanistan in 2006 studied history, they might have refrained from doing so. But then Mr Blair did not believe in learning from the past. General Sir Frederick Roberts is credited with observing during the 1879 campaign, ‘the less the Afghans see of the British, the better they will like us’. The lesson of history is: campaign in Afghanistan for a limited aim and limited period of time, if you must, but then get out – hit them hard and go. Do not under any circumstance try to change anything. The present campaign is a textbook example of the folly of not heeding Clausewitz: ‘No-one starts a war – rather no-one in his senses ought to do so – without being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war, and how he intends to  conduct it.’

The comments by the Secretary of State for Defence when British troops were sent to Helmand in 2006 tell us that neither of the above provisos had been met.

Major-General Julian Thompson CBE, OBE is a military historian and former Royal Marines officer who commanded 3 Commando Brigade during the Falklands. He is also a Visiting Professor at the Department of War Studies, King’s College, University of London.


  1. To start a war when you have no clear objective as to its end result is like going on a journey where you have no clear destination; in both cases you are going lose your way. To my knowledge this is now the fourth time Britain has been ‘involved’ in Afghanistan; the first was a disaster, the second time (after the massacre at Maiwand) we withdrew having achieved our limited objectives, and the third time resulted in a tactical British victory and a strategic Afghan one. One hopes that we will do better this time, otherwise the lives of those young people who have died there will have been wasted.

  2. It’s interesting to know that military history would be made by human beings, especially those who were under pressure of chaos, danger, and conflicting information. I guess visiting revolutionary war tours museums or places will help us understand more about what the soldiers went through. Because of their sacrifices, our country is free and powerful which is why I want to pay my respects by recognizing their work and sacrifice.

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