Iron and Blood, by Peter H. Wilson

A magnificent and very readable explanation of a grand sweep of history.
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For military historians the top of the academic greasy pole is the Chichele Chair of The History of War at Oxford, and so one would expect any work emanating from that source to be the definitive work of its subject. Iron and Blood by Professor Peter H. Wilson is certainly that. A magisterial study covering the development of the art of war amongst German speakers – by which he means the pre-unification German states, Germany itself, Austria and Switzerland – over five centuries, this is an enormously wide-ranging survey of over 900 pages including notes and the index. It charts the development of the German art, or science, of war from the Holy Roman Empire to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.  The author not only describes the strictly military actions and wars of the period, but crucially he explains how and why each protagonist arrived at the point of military engagement. In this he looks at the development of recruitment, weaponry, tactics, intelligence gathering and administration, as well as the wider issues of politics, theology, morality, motivation, welfare and the conventions that led to accepted practices and ultimately to the laws of armed conflict.

One thread throughout the book is that while accepting that militarism has been an integral factor throughout German history, the author denies that there is some inherent martial quality in the German character. Rather, Wilson points out that pre-unification Prussia did not possess any particular genius for war but others thought it did. German participation in all of the major wars of the period are well described: the Thirty Years War (and here he punctures some of the accepted myths of the Peace of Westphalia); the Nine Years War; the Seven Years War; the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars; the Wars of German Unification; as well as numerous other engagements, some of which will have escaped the attention of many historians. The author is adamant that the German error in both world wars was in allowing a separation of the political and the military dimensions, which led to embarking on war with no end strategy in sight, a search for a victory without knowing what to do with it. Wilson feels that historically German military commanders have been too concerned with the operational and tactical levels without thought to the wider, strategic, implications.

The maps are excellent, as is the selection of plates. One can, of course, arrive at differing conclusions from the same evidence and inevitably, in a work of this magnitude, there will be points of dispute. It might also be argued that Germany lost both world wars not because the Russian, British, French or American soldier or army was more competent than the German, when all the evidence would indicate that he and it were not, but simply because Germany could not possibly prevail by taking on so many enemies all at once. Factors of population, geography, economics and industrial base determined that. But these are minor quibbles in what is a magnificent and very readable explanation of a grand sweep of history, which brings us right up to date and is unlikely ever to be bettered.

Iron and Blood: A Military History of the German-speaking Peoples since 1500 by Peter H. Wilson is out now. Gordon Corrigan is a military historian and author of The Second World War: A Military History.