Barney White-Spunner, what first attracted you to the period or periods you work in?
Personal experience. I have been very lucky in that my military career has exposed me to events and places which I want to understand in greater depth. Being a soldier also gives you an innate interest in military history, particularly in soldiers and why they behave as they do. Also being a general, and having had the privilege of commanding on operations, allows me to understand, at least to some degree, the pressures and problems which commanders have had to face over the centuries – and which are so often over simplified.
Can you tell us a little more about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?
Research is the enjoyable part of writing a history book – the hunt, if you like, and there can be few days as enjoyable as those spent digging through archives, the less known the better. I tend to do all my own English research. I speak adequate German but writing Berlin: The Story of a City I was helped by Sabine Schereck who is bi-lingual; the problem with so much German material is not so much the language as the script – Fraktur.
I worry that there is going to be a large gap in historical archives from about the mid-1990s until however long it takes to organise our digital archives properly. How many of us can find an e mail or electronic letter from our parents written to us at school? Yet I have files of handwritten letters. Paper is still a more reliable method of storing material; ultimately that will change but until it does we are creating a historical black hole. British Army records are a case in point. When there was an Army Historical Branch, documents were filed and kept. From the Balkan operations in the mid-90s onwards most of them will have disappeared into some graveyard of hard drives.
The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?
Yes – partly, not least because so often the losers’ records are destroyed or never existed. Caesar’s Gallic Wars, for example, is largely propaganda, but who could contradict it? No one thought to write the story from the Gauls’ perspective. Researching Waterloo, it is very difficult to form an accurate picture of the French army between 18th June and Napoleon’s exile because the Napoleonic system broke down. We still don’t know the full extent of French casualties.
There is also a danger of what is probably best described as ‘cyclical revisionism’. A historical narrative is established, it is later questioned, then that revised approach is itself questioned in turn until a sort of balance is arrived at. Take the First World War. In the two decades after 1918 the war, hideous and horribly costly as it was, was seen as having been generally necessary and well conducted. Haig was a national hero. Then post 1945 historians, some serious, others sensationalist, began to question its conduct and its cost. Fatuous parodies were produced like O What A Lovely War!. Historians now take a more balanced approach with recent objective biographies of Haig.
Are there any historians who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?
I would love to answer this ‘Thucydides’ or ‘Macaulay’ or some such intellectual heavyweight. The truth is that it is modern historians, writing when I was young, who have really influenced me. Top of my list is Barbara Tuchman, and my two favourite books of hers, which I would recommend to any budding historian, are The March of Folly and A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century. Apart from being able to write gripping and fluent history, Tuchman is able to link past events to the present in a most common sense and unpatronizing manner. I would also recommend The March of Folly to any politician who fancies themselves as an international statesman. Otherwise the best recent, or at least relatively recent, military history is Thomas Pakenham’s Boer War. This is unrivalled in how it combines the political, military and personal histories of that extraordinary conflict and made all the stronger for including interviews with veterans who were still alive when he wrote it. Unusually for someone who has not experienced operational soldiering at first hand, Pakenham portrays the realities with uncanny accuracy.
Lastly, and I know he is, possibly correctly, seen as a controversial figure, but few authors can link historical fact to military theory as accurately as Basil Liddell Hart. His A History of the First World War is a masterpiece of precise, economical writing and the conclusions he drew from it were, of course, literally ground-breaking.
If you could meet any figure from history, who would it be and why? Also, if you could witness any event throughout history, what would it be?
The Emperor Constantine. I long to ask him what motivated him throughout his extraordinary career, uniting the Roman Empire, converting it to Christianity, founding a new capital at Byzantium and establishing an administrative system that would last for a millennium. Did he see Christianity as inevitable in a world that was becoming increasingly settled and prosperous?
As for events, it would have to be Waterloo, simply because I have studied it, written about it, visited its sites and researched its characters to such an extent that I feel I would just have to position myself on the Mont St Jean ridge on that sultry June morning two hundred years ago.
If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?
I would replace the current diversion that is the GCSE History syllabus with a course that covered British and European history from 1485 until 1989. I cannot see how students can make sense of detailed study of isolated events, issues and movements without understanding the continuum. And I would include within that a lot more about Indian history which is so much part of the British story.
If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?
Note and reference everything – every page, every quote, every idea; there can be nothing as frustrating as spending days searching for a source just because you were so excited in a library that you omitted properly to mark up your notes. I once had to make three separate trips to Kew to search for one document as I had not referenced a quote accurately.
Can you tell us a little bit about the project you are currently working on?
O dear! My problem is that I always have about a dozen ideas floating, to the chagrin of my ever patient friend and agent, Fiona Petheram. We will hopefully settle on one soon and I will complete this section then!