Gary Sheffield

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What first attracted you to the period or periods you work in?

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I was surrounded by people who lived through ‘The War’, as people called it, meaning the Second World War, and they talked about it a great deal. I guess that this triggered my fascination with very recent history. This was reinforced by being part of the Airfix Generation. I made and painted mostly Second World War kits of model tanks and aeroplanes, and played with toy soldiers. I was a precocious reader, and soon graduated to adult history – Norman Longmate’s How We Lived Then (1971), a social history of Britain in the era of the Second World War was a particular favourite. By the time I went to university I had read quite a lot of serious history – and not just about 1939-45. The Napoleonic era fascinated me (and still does). But it wasn’t until I took an undergraduate Special Subject on Britain and the First World War that I discovered the period on which I have mostly worked.

Can you tell us a little more about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?

I’m mostly quite old-fashioned in my research methods, although I have bolted on new technology! I like to carry out archival research in person, although these days I take in my iPad to photograph documents. When I was a postgrad I would sit for hours in archives making notes with a pencil. Bizarrely, today as a Professor my time for research is far more limited, so I simply don’t have the luxury of leisurely work in archives. This means getting a stiff back as I spend all day bending over a table, photographing documents. Later I can go through them and take notes. In place of a pile of photocopies on my study floor, I now have the digital equivalent. A lot of material is now available online, and while it is not the same as physically having the material in front of you, it is extremely convenient. I have used research assistants occasionally to flag up passages which I need to examine, but I always look at the original material myself.

When I wrote my PhD I used a card index system. I have tried various programmes like Zotero but quickly gave up on them and now I use a very simple electronic version of my old card index. One modern bit of kit that has made my life easier is the decent voice recognition software on my iPhone and iPad. I now tend to take notes from books by dictating them straight onto a document (obviously I can’t do that while sitting on train or in a café!)

The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?

Not always. Partisans of the Confederacy and the Wehrmacht have both had, in my view, an unhealthy influence on the historiography of the American Civil War and the Second World War respectively. And after reading some books on the First World War one could be forgiven for being surprised to find that Britain ended up on the winning side. Hence the title of my book about Britain in the 1914-18 war, Forgotten Victory.

Are there any historians who helped shape your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?

I have been exceptionally fortunate to have been helped at various points in my career by some outstanding historians who were kind and generous to me. As an undergraduate and postgraduate at the University of Leeds, I was lucky to study under Edward Spiers and Hugh Cecil; and my PhD supervisor at King’s College London was Brian Bond. I really fell on my feet when as a 24-year-old I was appointed as a lecturer in the Department of War Studies, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. This was a stellar department of military historians, and among many people who influenced me were John Pimlott, Ian Beckett, Christopher Duffy and Paddy Griffith. From outside Sandhurst, I would mention Sir Michael Howard, who I got to know quite well in the last years of his long life; John Bourne; and especially Peter Simkins, former Historian at the Imperial War Museum. Pete and I have been friends now since 1981, when he gave me wise advice when I was a 20-year-old undergraduate embarking on my dissertation. I’m very pleased to say that both John and Pete work with me as Hon. Professors at the University of Wolverhampton. I first met Richard Holmes at Sandhurst, although he left after I had been there for a year or two, we stayed in touch and we linked up again many years later on the Higher Command and Staff Course at the Joint Services Command and Staff College. Richard was a huge and positive influence on me. He died, far too young, in 2011, and I still miss him.

As for ‘must read’ books I would recommend Richard Holmes, Redcoat (2001) as a model of accessible but erudite history that is beautifully written; Michael Howard, War in European History (2009, first published in 1975) as a masterpiece in compression and an example of how to make a powerful argument without oversimplifying or descending into the weeds of detail; and John Keegan, The Face of Battle (1976) – flawed in many ways, dated, but among the most powerful evocations of battle to be found anywhere.

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?

Be more organised! Spend less time chasing that elusive reference or piece of paper. I have got better over the years, although my study is what might be described as a ‘creative mess’.  

Can you tell us a little bit more about the project you are currently working on?

I am writing a book called Civilian Armies: British and Dominions Soldiers’ Experience in the two world wars for Yale. This is comparative history in two ways: comparing 1914-18 with 1939-45, and comparing the experiences of Australian, British, Canadian, New Zealand and South African troops. It is the most ambitious book that I have attempted, covering things such as the experience of battle, the role of officers and NCOs, military identities and the like. I have finished my research, and I am now writing up chapters. My progress has been slowed by the pandemic, but I am gradually getting there. Some of my findings have been made public in the form of articles and lectures.