Gordon Corrigan was commissioned from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1962 and was an officer of the permanent cadre of the Royal Gurkha Rifles before leaving the army in 1998. He served mainly in the Far East but also in Cyprus, Berlin, Belize and N Ireland. He was awarded the MBE (military) for setting up and commanding the first Brigade of Gurkhas depot in the UK. Having left the Army he considered that he was knowledgeable in only two fields: horses and history, and as working with horses is a recipe for going bust, albeit going bust in style, he decided that history was a safer bet. He is now a professional historian.
He is the author of Sepoys in the Trenches, The Indian Corps on the Western Front 1914 – 1915, (Spellmount, 1999); Wellington, A Military Life, (Hambledon & London, 2001); Mud, Blood and Poppycock: Britain and the First World War (Cassell & Co, 2003); Loos 1915, The Unwanted Battle (Spellmount, 2006); Blood, Sweat and Arrogance – And The Myths of Churchill’s War (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006); The Second World War – A Military History (Atlantic Books 2010); A Great and Glorious Adventure – A Military History of the Hundred Years War (Atlantic Books 2013) and Waterloo – A New History of the Battle and its Armies (Atlantic Books 2014) as well as numerous ‘Kindle Singles’.
His television appearances include The Gurkhas, Napoleon’s Waterloo and Battlefield Detectives, and so far he has presented five series on various aspects of military history. He has conducted military history study tours in France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Holland, Spain, Portugal, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia and is a regular lecturer on cruises with Noble Caledonia and Silver Sea and on rail journeys in Russia, Central Asia and China with Golden Eagle Luxury Trains. He has lectured in the United States and Canada and is an Honorary Research Fellow of the Universities of Birmingham and Kent, a Member of the British Commission for Military History, a Freeman of the City of London and a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Farriers. His interests include playing polo, long lunches and the Times crossword, not necessarily in that order.
The Indian Mutiny of 1857 was more than just a mutiny, although that was how it began. Of the 148 major units (battalions of infantry or regiments of cavalry) of the Bengal Army ninety-three mutinied or were disbanded as likely to mutiny. The Bombay and Madras armies were largely unaffected ...
The Battle of Crécy is the first in a series of three books covering the major land battles of the Hundred Years War, that attempt to enforce the English claim to the throne of France by right of inheritance, and to regain those English possessions in France lost by King John in the 1200s. ...
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; ThePax 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 Gloryby 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.Gordon Corrigan is the author of Berlin: The Story of a City
Six Campaigns picks six of history’s defining battles. Some are well-known, some less so. How did you choose them?Alternating well-known and lesser-known battles seemed to me a good way of illustrating my theme of policy (determined by the nature of society)>strategy>campaign>tactics. In other words, what goes into shaping a battle – an audit trail of decision making. My Hastings, for example, is a very “spare” account, and the thread is easy to follow because most people know the overall story, which helps the reader to follow the rather more complex (but essentially the same) thread with Towton. Hastings is, of course, the real start of modern British history, and I wanted to show that it was far more than just a battle on a hill in Sussex.Towton, I admit, was a battle of my boyhood, the first I ever studied, on foot, in short trousers. And the way the battle turned on three masterly tactical decisions is fascinating.Waterloo chose itself: you simply can’t ignore it. But it’s not always studied in its context as Wellington’s army’s culminating battle, and a vindication of national policy.D-Day was an entire battle in itself, not just the beginning of a campaign. It was the end of a fascinating policy>strategy>campaign thread (as well as, of course, the essential springboard of the NW Europe campaign). By focusing on Sword Beach – the most important of the allied divisional landing sectors – I could get down into the tactical long grass and demonstrate just how the highest-level decisions, including those of Churchill himself, worked themselves out at battalion level and below.Imjin River: in the same way, I’m drawn to how Truman’s decisions in the White House led to an infantry brigade group fighting the British Army’s largest defensive battle in the past 75 years. That, and how a demoralized allied army was turned round in short order by a brilliant commander who understood that nothing would go right on the ground unless clarity could be brought to the campaign plan.And then I felt I must end with the British Army’s most bruising battle of recent years – Operation Panther’s Claw, in Helmand. In many ways it’s still too raw to probe, but I wanted to tease out that same policy>strategy>campaign>tactics thread.With regard to your excellent account of the Hastings campaign of 1066, without getting into the realms of alternate history, if Harold had left the northern Earls to their fate and not gone north, could he have met William’s army as it landed and defeated it?I don’t believe that anything’s inevitable when it comes to war, unless one of the belligerents, wilfully or otherwise, ignores the principles of war. It would be easy to say that Harald Hardrada’s army was the lesser threat and could have been dealt with later rather than sooner, but King Harold couldn’t rely on the northern earldoms. England was still a relatively new polity, and frangible. And when he went north, he believed that the Norman threat had passed with the onset of bad weather in the Channel. If he’d not been drawn north, he could have met the invasion in full strength and quickly, and the Normans, with the October storms against them, would have had no hiding place. The question is though, what was Harold’s mental state? Did he truly believe he had God on his side? We’ll never know, of course.Who would you rate as History’s finest general?Oh dear: can I just say instead “General Winter”, who defeated both Napoleon and Hitler’s best generals?And England’s/Britain’s finest general?I think if you take my theme of policy>strategy>campaign>tactics, Marlborough comes out on top of Wellington, of whom (using that old avoidance clause of confidential reports) one could say “not fully tested”; by which I mean Wellington wasn’t tested at the policy level in the way that Marlborough was. As for WW2, Slim was the most admirable, but Montgomery was tested the more fully. To say that Montgomery made mistakes is to say that he made war.You are known as both a historian and as a novelist – how do you manage to keep both roles separate and avoid the line becoming blurred?I’m gratified that the question implies that I do! I’m also a journalist, and that’s another challenge. Frankly, I’ve never really been conscious of the need to try. Historical fiction has to be grounded in solid history, and history – if it’s to be read – has to have style and pace. I think the two can be complimentary without compromising one another. But I do admit to having a mind that can compartmentalize, and that probably helps.Which war or campaign in history do you most enjoy studying and writing about, and why?I’ve always, so to speak, dipped in and out of the First World War, as most military historians will have done, and most soldiers too. The first piece I wrote for History Today, for example, in 1991, was on the transformation of the British cavalry in the decade before 1914. But after writing The Making of the British Army (2009) I began thinking about WW1 more systematically, in part no doubt because of the approaching centenary. And I conceived the idea of telling the story of, as it were, the making of the British Expeditionary Force – its people, its organization and equipment, its thinking; and the War Office’s thinking about the BEF; and the Cabinet’s thinking about war. And how we threw away our small professional army needlessly in the first few months. The result was Fight the Good Fight: Britain, the Army, and the Coming of the First World War (2013). And then, to answer the second-order question “what on earth were we doing throwing bad strategy after bad strategy?”, I wrote the sequel Too Important for the Generals (2016). And during the centenary, I was writing a monthly 2,000-word piece for The Times on the course of the war in that particular month, and in November 2018 these collected pieces were published as Fight to the Finish: The First World War, Month by Month. I happen to believe that in many ways the war has far more to tell senior officers today than does the Second World War. “Relevance” isn’t of course a necessity when studying history, but for me it adds a special dimension and interest.If (heaven forfend) in a hundred years you are only remembered for one of your books, which one would you like it to be?I could say, perhaps, “I haven’t yet written it”; but it would please me if my first book – Light Dragoons: The Making of a Regiment(1992) – were remembered, as it might mean that my late regiment hadn’t been amalgamated or disbanded.In the writing of military history there are obvious advantages in having been a soldier (or a sailor or an airman). Academic historians have not been shot at, have not been responsible for the taking, and losing, of men’s lives, have not endured the privations and stresses of active service – but do you think there are any disadvantages to military service for an author?I think the preamble in many ways answers the question. I wouldn’t trade my psc (“passed staff college”) for a PhD. The two aren’t remotely comparable (and by “psc” I mean that to include military experience generally). The work of academic historians is of the first importance in establishing the facts. Without facts, you’re sunk. Interpretation is where it gets tricky, and the best academic historians have the breadth and depth to help interpret. Military experience is, I believe, ultimately indispensable when it comes to judgement – military judgement that informs decision-making. Moral authority comes with that experience, the authority to judge. However, intellect has got to match experience. The only disadvantage to military experience that I see can see is when the two are wildly out of balance.In studying history should we attempt to apply the moral standards of today to events in the past – an example is slavery, as old as civilisation, so if we are to dump Colston’s statue should we not also demolish the Parthenon? I’m not against statue toppling per se. I’d have dynamited Hitler’s if there’d been one. I’d have helped put the ropes round Saddam’s. And there’s an obvious objection to a monument lauding the institution of slavery. But that’s not the same as one that incidentally may be perceived as condoning it, as in the case of Colston’s, which is a monument to his philanthropy (if somewhat narrowly defined). I wish we could be a little subtler, by, say, erecting a statue of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield next to Colston’s, celebrating the 250th anniversary in June this year of his famous ruling, which did much to make way for abolition.If time travel existed, with the exception of the obvious ones, such as the resurrection, which event in history would you most like to witness, with the aim of improving your understanding of its impact?Oh, what a list! But high on it would be the “war council” in No 10 on 5 August 1914. As I write in Fight the Good Fight: “And so the war council – which Wilson [DMO] in his diary called ‘an historic meeting of men, mostly entirely ignorant of their subject’ – resolved to send the BEF to France, in a strength to be decided, to a place to be determined, and to operate along lines as yet unspecified. That it could have happened thus, after all the years of careful preparation, remains a cautionary tale for military planners and policy-makers alike.”As a historian, who are the scholars and authors who have influenced you most?Again, the list isn’t complete, but for intellect and wisdom, Sir John Keegan and Sir Michael Howard; for asperity, Sir Basil Liddell Hart; and for soldierly humanity, Field Marshal Lord Slim.Allan Mallinson’s debut novel was the bestsellingA Close Run Thing, the first in an acclaimed series chronicling the life of a fictitious cavalry officer before and after Waterloo. He is the author of 1914: Fight the Good Fight and his latest book is The Shape of Battle: A Study of Six Campaigns, from Hastings to Helmand.Gordon Corrigan is a historian and the author of Mud, Blood and Poppycock.