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Article – Where to Begin with Military History?

“History is largely treated as a marginal embellishment instead of a core of military education”[1]

In a perfect world, all of us would have more time to devote to our professional study, not least to the study of military history. There are thousands of possible case studies, all of which add to a greater understanding of warfare, however, time is a limiting factor. The volume of material and case studies available can threaten even the keenest military historian with information overload. How to choose what to study is problematic so the following considerations may be relevant:

  1. What battles, campaigns or events are relevant for my future jobs or positions or my likely career path?
  2. What battles, campaigns or events are important to the Army’s psyche and collective history?
  3. What historical events do I need to understand in order to better grasp the current or future world order?
  4. What sort of conflict or theatre am I personally interested in?

Coming soon to the #BreakIn is a series of historical training packages aimed to assist battalion and company level professional development. These packages could be used as a stand-alone product, a discussion-starter, or to supplement other resources or articles. The packages have been designed to recognise the 100th anniversary of a number of key battles from World War I, and the 75th anniversary of battles from World War II while at the same time offering relevant discussion points across the spectrum of warfare.

The premise of this series is that through historical case studies it is possible to better understand future conflict. This intimately relates to a Clausewitzian understanding of war, where it has an enduring nature but changing character. To that end, discussions within units around these case studies should look to focus on enduring lessons that can be derived.

In examining history, there is value in not automatically defaulting to modern publications as the only source of relevant analysis or discussion. Primary and secondary source material is also often available. Although on initial inspection these sources might look like an historical remnant, this material can often provide different insights and place the event in historical context that might otherwise be misunderstood or overlooked. No matter the age of the material (be it book, journal or documentary), there is also relevance in analysing the resource for the bias which it naturally has. This may require the consideration of questions such as?

  1. Why is the author writing or producing this? Is the author trying to expose, illustrate, romanticize or debate?
  2. What is the author’s background and how is this likely to influence their perspectives?
  3. How rigorously have they researched their material?

To help understand the relevance of military history, a number of articles are provided below. These should be read prior to embarking on the subsequent training packages to help frame the discussion of ‘why study military history’. Read the articles and lead a discussion with work colleagues around the following questions:

  1. Is the enduring nature and changing character paradigm a helpful way of studying history?
  2. In looking at military history case studies, which ones are most relevant? Those that address tactics, operational art or strategy?
  3. How do we avoid getting bogged down in irrelevant (but interesting) details from historical accounts or studies?
  4. How can we be more efficient in our study of military history so that its examination is not a laborious task? How do we make it more interesting so that we are likely to read and examine more?

Primary reading list

Military History and the Study of Operational Art by Milan Vego

Australian Army Journal Edition 005 Feb-Mar 1949 ‘How to Study Military History’ page 47-56 

Secondary reading list

The Use and Abuse of Military History by Michael Howard

The Perils of History by Dr  N.A.M. Roger

[1] Paul K. Van Riper, “The Use of Military History in the Professional Education of Officers,” Marine Corps Gazette (February 1994), 50


About the author: Sally Graham is a Major in the Royal Australian Corps of Transport. She has sixteen years worth of experience serving in a variety of different corps and non-corps postings throughout her career.

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