A Short History of War, by Jeremy Black

Evelyn Webb-Carter

This short book contains astonishing facts and huge breadth.
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A Short History of War is indeed short at 240 pages, however I have learnt that it is extremely challenging putting a big story into few words and in this Jeremy Black has succeeded with distinction.  He writes in a snappy style with an abundance of facts to cover the history warfare across the globe from the time of Adam and Eve to today.  An excellent reference for any student of warfare, it includes all likely campaigns and wars they may have to study and many they won’t.  The chapters are commendably brief, and describe initially the early years BC and are taken at a gallop covering several centuries in a paragraph; the Waterloo campaign is described in two sentences. If interest is sparked, for example, by the Chinese dynasties of which there were over a dozen, Black has prompted the reader to delve elsewhere for the detail.  What is so interesting is the variety of means in which tribes, nations and armies conducted warfare throughout history.

Some astonishing facts appear such as it was Napoleon III who instigated a competition to find a non-rancid substitute to butter, margarine, for use by campaigning armies; and the fact that Portugal in the 20th century produced the greatest (less the Israelis) percentage of population in an Army.  Many of us will have been taught that Hannibal crossed the Alps with elephants when in fact only one actually traversed and the poor beast died shortly after.

Black has made a point in placing emphasis on the development of military power in and within China over the ages, something we all should take note of in the current political climate.  It was interesting to see Wuhan appear in an entirely non-Covid context as the site of the 1911/12 revolution.  The mention of Cannae, which had a disproportionate influence on military thinking in 1911 and its connection to the Schlieffen plan brings to mind the fact that although Carthage won that particular battle, Rome won the war.

The latter chapters are perhaps the most interesting as they are a commentary on our current, troubled world.  In that context the table of comparative defence expenditure in 2019 is revealing.   The points Black makes about a looming China and the potential for India to rise in the century to come are sobering, and for this reason he has dwelt less on the European story to ensure the reader grasps the historical context of these two nations, particularly China.

Black has demonstrated an enormous capacity for the length, breadth and depth of global military history which will prompt readers to explore further into campaigns they know little about.

Major General Sir Evelyn Webb-Carter saw service in Northern Ireland and Bosnia, and later commanded the Household Division, and was General Officer Commanding London District.