It has long been said that it is always better to learn from others than to learn for yourself the hard way. Busy leaders need to pull off a neat trick, however, to really get the most out of their bookshelf: reading long to get the context and underlying theory, and reading wide to exploit different perspectives, but keeping things focused, relevant, and therefore genuinely useful.
With that in mind the following represents a selection of personal accounts from the rich seam of British military experience over the last 150 or so years. Touching on the grand-strategic through to the micro-tactical, this “top 5” deliberately avoids the better-known classics. They are all books very much of their time, but collectively they illustrate in many ways a British approach to warfare: under-stated, stoic, and pragmatic. In short, a celebration of the triumph of the moral and conceptual, often over the physical, components of fighting power.
Whilst you can learn much of the universal nature of strategy and tactics, what emerges are the fundamentals of leadership in war: clarity of thought and purpose; humility; and the need to maintain, and project, a sense of perspective and, when the chips are down, of humor. The best learning can come from unexpected sources: two of these books were found by chance in second-hand book stores. Always keep your eyes, and your mind, open.
John Akehurst, We Won a War: The Campaign in Oman, 1965-1975 (1982)
This account of the successful Dhofar campaign of the 1960s is almost frightening in its clarity. It is all here: a simple coherent strategy, joint and interagency operations in practice, and the clever blending of conventional, special, and partner-nation forces with nonkinetic operations. This secures the population; wins “hearts and minds”; and contains, turns, and defeats a determined and well-supported enemy. The bold yet successful incorporation of Communist defectors into the plan offers a salutary lesson for the risk adverse.
Francis de Guingand, Operation Victory (1947)
As we reset for “warfighting at scale” any account by a senior officer in a key WWII Allied headquarters “from the Nile to Baltic” is a great read. One written by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s chief of staff offers unparalleled depth of understanding and wide-reaching perspectives. Whilst it is easy to focus on the relationship with “Monty,” his renowned commander, “Freddie” de Guingand’s descriptions of operational design and planning, the handling of combined-arms battles at army and army group level, sustaining the force, the functioning of deployed headquarters, and building successful joint and Allied relationships offer enduring lessons. Again, under-stated and matter of fact, but gripping. I first read this book in parallel with Montgomery’s memoires: a fascinating juxtaposition of the commander and his staff’s wartime experiences.
Hubert Gough, Soldiering On (1954)
A junk shop find extraordinaire. At times this account of General Hubert Gough’s full and sometime controversial military career spanning 1888 to 1942 reads like a cross between a Flashman novel and a grand-strategic political expose. His experiences from young cavalry officer on imperial policing duties in India through to commanding the Fifth Army on the Western Front in 1918 show how much the demands on the military can change over time: from Victorian expeditionary wars of choice in the late nineteenth century to a rapid reset to nondiscretionary warfighting a few years later. A theme well recognizable today. Gough’s unique career and often outspoken honesty, however, are the real charms of this book. Read it for, amongst other things, insight on how it feels to be relieved of your post as an army commander, first vilified and then celebrated, becoming a national hero after breaking the siege of Ladysmith, firing the first shots against an invading German army, and how to get away with mutiny as a general officer. Like all good British Army cavalry officers, wherever he is he also finds time for the obligatory hunting, shooting, and fishing.
Henry Brooke, Brigade Commander: Afghanistan (2008)
There are a plethora of recent titles examining the challenges of defeating an insurgency in the complex and harsh operating environment of southern Afghanistan; the difficulties of aligning military and political efforts to an ambiguous aim, and operating amongst an, at best, ambivalent population, all with scant resources and at the end of a very long supply line. Originally published in 1881 as the Private Journal of Henry Francis Brooke, Late Brigadier-General Commanding 2nd Infantry Brigade, Kandahar Field Force, from April 22nd to August 16th, 1880, this is not a fashionable COINista offering, but an eerily “back to the future” account of ground and a problem set recognizable to many. I first read this atmospheric account of the British Second Afghan War just a few miles from where it was written. Brooke’s appreciation of the enemy and ground was as applicable to the Kandahar Field Forces’ intervention into the heart of the Helmand insurgency and the hasty, economy of effort, defense of Kandahar as it was to NATO-led efforts 125 years later. A salutary lesson in reading history and (perhaps not) learning from it.
Eric Newby, Love and War in the Apennines (1971)
In keeping with his later, better known, and highly recommended 1958 tale of derring-do, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Newby’s wartime memoires epitomize the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adventure and adversity. Newby’s Military Cross-earning experiences of a high-risk 1942 Special Boat Section raid on the east coast of Sicily, told so matter-of-factly, warrant a book in themselves. But that is just the start. He offers an inspiring account of his escape from captivity and his subsequent efforts to evade capture by Italian Fascists and the Wehrmacht in the harsh forests and mountains of the Apennines. A homage to the brave Italian people who risked all to shelter him, he also finds time to describe their harsh existence, how he made some firm friends, and some firm enemies, and how he fell in love with the woman who later became his wife. This simple but inspirational account of courage, dignity and humour reminds us that war is ultimately a human endeavour, and to that end, this is the one of the five I’d retrieve under fire.