Bryn Hammond on writing ‘popular’ WW1 history
I interviewed Bryn Hammond two years ago, just after his excellent book El Alamein: The Battle that Turned the Tide of the Second World War had come out. So when I found out he would be talking at the Bromley House Library series of talks on WW1, I wanted to hear what he had to say about writing ‘popular’ military history.
Bryn initially led us through some background history to modern war history writing. WW1 generated a great deal of writing on the subject. Conan Doyle visited several front lines, before writing A Visit to Three Fronts, June 1916. However it was largely only after All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque had been published in 1929 that the race was finally on to write the British version. The result was many accounts from soldiers or people involved with the war. However, the accuracy of these works is now a matter of debate because they were written for profit and the accounts have been difficult to verify. The writing included high-ranking officers’ memoirs, as well as those of more junior officers and soldiers.
But popular history of WW1 only really began to take off in the late fifties and the early 1960s, initially in the form of Alan Moorhead’s book Gallipoli which won a great deal of praise, but was later criticised as being flawed. Leon Wolff ensured appropriate authority was brought to his book In Flanders Fields: The 1917 Campaign about the third battle of Ypres by enlisting Major General Fuller to introduce it. These books sparked off a trend that, instead of adopting a top down approach and tactical overview, took into account the perspective of the troops on the ground.
Bryn mentioned several 1960s authors, such as the colourful Barrie Pitt, who relished Guinness, wore brocade waistcoats and dressed in spats and Correlli Douglas Barnett was the historical consultant and writer for the BBC series ‘The Great War’. However, the works of both men have come under criticism by military history experts. But it was the veracity of Alan Clark’s ‘lions led by donkeys’ (that has become synonymous with the leadership of WW1) which sparked the most controversy, as Clark finally admitted he had made it up.
The 1970s saw authors such as Martin Middlebrook and Lyn MacDonald come to the fore. MacDonald particularly used a great many anecdotes to illustrate the particular moment in time she was writing about. This can be very helpful in enabling a reader to gain a depth of perspective to an event, but can prove problematic with regards to accuracy as memories become less sharp over a period of time or inadvertently mentally rewritten. This is certainly the reason why MacDonald has been criticized by academic military historians. and is why Bryn will verify person accounts either by locating two or more similar accounts from other people, as well as cross-referencing official accounts to ensure the particular events being described had actually happened. The juiciness of personal accounts might be too tempting to leave out and the potential inaccuracies will be perpetuated by subsequent writers.
The lack of notes left behind by authors also means it is impossible to see how they have found the information for their books. So this means that a military historian should keep good records just in case they are ever called on to verify their work (academic researchers usually keep research diaries to make sure they can, if necessary, present an accurate audit trail of their research). Referencing is also now used extensively by authors such as Gary Sheffield who is a Professor of War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton.
Martin Middlebrook may have begun his research and writing career while working for the Egg Marketing Board, but he was fortunate to be taken under the wing of Miss Rose Coombs who worked at the Imperial War Museum and introduced him to working with the type of original resources that should now be used as a matter of course by military history writers. Middlebrook began writing just as the official documents from WW1 had been released at the public records office source under the ‘Fifty-Year Rule’. Resources such as individual diaries are now also available and it is better to work with original resources rather than memoirs because, for example, Field Marshal Haig has a different version of events in his memoirs compared to his diary. So understanding background and putting things into context is important because certain individuals may have an axe to grind (something to bear in mind when reading memoirs of senior commanders).
Miss Coombs influence on military history research can still be felt today, as Chris McCarthy at the Imperial War Museum, knew Rose Coombs, and is responsible for unit histories of war and fired up Bryn’s writing and research. There is also an Ypres rampart name after Rose Coombs.
Bryn discussed the difficulties now faced by writers of military history, particularly with regards to WW1 which is increasing being written about. However, there are still opportunities to find something different. In Bryn’s case he approached the issue of the use of tanks at Cambrai by looking at the overall campaign, as previous books had focused on the first day. This is particularly important because of the mythology that the first day of Cambrai was the day we could have won the war, which in fact was not true because the battle went on for another two weeks. The reason for this is intriguing and politically based because it is the version presented by two people, Basil Liddell Hart, a military theorist in inter-war years, and Major-General John Frederick Fuller. The tanks were not as useful as they led everyone to believe and were in fact flawed instruments of war (not because of the bravery of the men in them, but because they were still in their infancy and very inefficient). But, with the next war looming there was a need to develop effective tanks, so they marginalised the incidents that were not useful to this military necessity.
Bryn told us that the first use of tanks was on the 5th September 1916, but the first mass use of tanks was Cambrai and in a situation where the tanks could be used over largely dry rolling countryside which made them more effective. Bryn’s own research for Cambrai 1917: The Myth of the First Great Tank Battle revealed that by the time of the Cambrai offensive the British Army had developed tactically and logistically, to become a substantial fighting force, capable of drawing together a range of many different techniques. That specialist units such as field survey companies, proved invaluable for effective artillery bombardments are the types of details that have to be taken into account when writing about a particular military action.
Not only is thorough research and verification required as part of a military historian’s writing process, but they also need to be competent and engaging storytellers using the types of literary devices you would find in any novel, such as employing central characters as dramatic devices. Junior officers are useful and can be used generously in a book in order for a reader to get a better view of activity. Their position makes it possible to capture a picture of the energy and drive at a particular moment.
A writer of military history also needs at times to inject some humour. Bryn talked about a quote he used from a young subaltern who, having shot in the buttocks in the El Alamein campaign, referred to his injury as feeling as if he had been caned. However, although these anecdotes create depth and bring the book to life, care needs to be taken that the book has a good narrative and logical structure or it just becomes a list of quotes strung together.
Both the books Bryn has required the same meticulousness he had applied to his thesis (on the theory and practice of co-operation between British tanks and other arms on the Western Front). Unfortunately, along with many other military history writers he has to fit in his writing around a day’s work. The practicalities of getting document in German translated also added to time issues.
It is also important when your writing has been commissioned (many non-fiction publishers are approached with a proposal, before the book is commissioned) to keep to your deadlines which is very strict in commercial publishing.
Although military history still remains a niche market (there are few military historians making enough money to concentrate on just writing), there are specialist publishers such as Osprey and Pen and Sword.
Writing military history is hard work because it must be accurate. But Bryn feels that it is always an opportunity to get close to the individuals involved in the events he is writing about and hopes the stories he has told were done honestly and with accurate detail.