Gordon Corrigan, what first attracted you to the period or periods you work in?
Inspirational history tutors both at school and at Sandhurst gave me a lifelong fascination with history, and my service in the army sharpened the focus to specialise in military history.
Can you tell us a little more about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?
I tend first to read the secondary sources, assuming there are any, and then I look for primary sources that others may not have looked at. The National Archives at Kew and the British Library are major repositories of what I need, as are the equivalent institutions abroad. Museums both in the UK and abroad are often worth trawling. The German records at Potsdam are excellent for WW1 and WW2 and their staff is most helpful. My methods haven’t really changed except that I now know of lots of short cuts which eluded me when I started.
The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?
Usually, yes, but not always. The history of the Mongols (Genghis Khan et al) was largely written by the defeated, and the German Second World War official histories are excellent.
Are there any historians who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?
John Keegan, David Chandler and Richard Holmes (now all dead). The first two taught me at Sandhurst and Richard Holmes was a great help when I left the army and decided to become an historian. I would suggest: The Face of Battle by John Keegan – dated now but at the time of publication a seminal work; The Pax Britannica trilogy by James/Jan Morris – published in the late sixties but a superb antidote to the current fashion amongst some to regard empire and colonialism as pejorative terms; 1415 – Henry V’s Year of Glory by Ian Mortimer – the highpoint in the career of the (in my opinion) greatest Englishmen ever born.
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 first Duke of Wellington. England’s greatest general. The siege of Troy, if only to show that Homer was writing a history of sorts, and to prove that it was nothing to do with the theft of Menelaus’ wife but all about control of the Dardanelles. As a sceptic, it would be tempting to ask to witness some of the ingrained beliefs, such as Muhammad ascending to heaven on a white horse, or the resurrection of Jesus Christ, if only to show that they didn’t happen – but one would then only disappoint an awful lot of people, and I’m not in the business of destroying religious faiths.
If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?
More emphasis on the history of the British Empire, explaining that while it didn’t get everything right it was in the main an enormous force for good, and (selfishly) the history of warfare from chariots to nuclear weapons.
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?
I would repeat the advice given to me in my forties by a general I worked for: ‘It is possible to be both diplomatic and outspoken. When the two conflict – be outspoken’.
Can you tell us a little bit about the project you are currently working on?
I’m looking at battles that made a difference (not many). Waterloo was not one because if Napoleon had won Waterloo he would still have lost the war. The Battle of Britain was not one because even if the German air force had obtained air superiority over the Channel they still could not have invaded because of the Royal Navy. The criteria are that the battle has to be one which could easily have gone the other way, and if it had it is reasonable to suppose that history would have taken a different path. For the outcome to be as we know it must have been dependent upon a ‘tipping point’.
Aegospotami 404 BC. The tipping point was the Spartan fleet catching the Athenian fleet in the Dardanelles – it could very easily have been the other way round – and the result is that we are the products of a Roman rather than a Greek world.
The defeat of the Spanish Armada. The tipping point was Drake’s insistence that the English use modern, new, fast ships as fireships, which the Spanish could not intercept, rather than the usual old and ready-for-the-breakers-yard vessels. Had the decision gone the other way the Spanish would never have had to cut their cables and flee north, they could have transported the army from the low Countries across to England and we would now be speaking Spanish and sleeping through most of the afternoon.
The siege of Atlanta. The tipping point was Jefferson Davis’ replacement of Johnston (who knew he had only to hold on in Atlanta until the election which all the pundits said would be won by the Democrats on their make peace manifesto) with Hood, who tried to come out of Atlanta and take on Sherman. He failed, Atlanta fell to Sherman, opinion in the north changed, Lincoln won his second term, the war went on and the union won. The alternative would have been two Americas and no USA super power. I’ve identified ten battles so far.