Book reviews: Books on a war theme

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It‘s been a bumper autumn harvest for military historians, with the publication of a range of excellent books. Pride of place must go to the late Richard Holmes’s Soldiers (HarperPress, £25, *£20), which is both a highly entertaining yet sympathetic story of the British Army by a man who knew it so well. Best remembered for his television series War Walks, and his other popular military histories, Richard, who very sadly died earlier this year, was also a Brigadier in the Territorial Army and colonel of his local infantry regiment. He taught a generation of army officers about their forebears, both what to avoid as well as what to emulate, and this book is a fitting epitaph to his life’s work. He died just as he finished it.

Then there is Gen Sir John Wilsey’s The Ulster Tales (Pen & Sword Books, £19.99, *£17.99), which takes a look at the Troubles in Ulster from a variety of different perspectives-the soldier’s, the policeman’s, the reporter’s and the widow’s, among others. It is an important book and again a sympathetic account of a campaign that, although so important at the time and so recent, now seems almost forgotten. Sir John, himself a former General Officer Commanding in Northern Ireland, knows his subject better than most and his analysis is telling.

Perhaps one of the best-researched and authoritative military histories of the year is Ian Kershaw’s The End: Hitler’s Germany 1944-45 (Allen Lane, £30, *£25). Prof Kershaw, former professor of Modern History at Sheffield, has written extensively on Nazi Germany, but this book goes further than any other I’ve read to explain why Germany kept fighting in the last months of the war, when its situation was hopeless, and when it took its greatest proportion of both military and civilian casualties.

Gary Sheffield’s biography of Haig, The Chief (Aurum, £25, *£20), is another most import-ant book by a distinguished professor. Prof Sheffield is almost alone among modern historians in trying to interpret the actions of the Allied generals in the First World War from the perspective of the realities they faced at the time, rather than from the fashionable postwar view that the level of casualties made them all irredeemable ‘donkeys’. No one knows Haig’s army better than Prof Sheffield, and, by 1918, it was arguably the best force Britain fielded in the past century.

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On a lighter note, Andrew Higgins’s With the S. A. S. and Other Animals (Pen & Sword, £19.99, *£17.99) is the story of the author’s experiences as a vet with the SAS in the Dhofar War in 1974. His role was to win the local Omanis’ ‘hearts and minds’ by ministering to their livestock-goats, camels, sheep and cattle-and then the Sultan’s menagerie of exotic birds, hyenas and bears. It’s not only fun to read, but also rather a good account of another largely forgotten campaign, from a distinctly unusual perspective.

We all know the great poetry of the First World War, but now we have some contemporary offerings as well. Heroes-100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets (Ebury Press, £10,*£9) may not rival Sassoon or Owen for a place on the A-level syllabus, but it does contain some very moving poems by servicemen and women who have been in Iraq and Afghanistan. The verse is so much better for being raw and spontaneous, written by people with no pretension to be considered as poets. Some of it is very powerful indeed. At £10, the book is an ideal stocking filler, all the more so because half of the proceeds go to the ABF The Soldiers’ Charity.

Lastly, and to alleviate a somewhat army-centric list, I much enjoyed Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Rosier’s autobiography, written together with his son David. Be Bold (Grub Street, £20, *£18) is the story of a Second World War fighter pilot who stayed on in the RAF and rose to Air Rank in the Cold War, but it’s mostly about his life in the war. Shot down in France in 1940, he went on to command a squadron during the Battle of Britain, was one of the two fighter wing commanders in North Africa, and was then deeply involved in planning D- Day and the subsequent RAF operations over Germany.

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