Soldiers: Great Stories of War & Peace, by Max Hastings

A delightful book that provides enormous entertainment.
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Soldiers: Great Stories of War & Peace

Most civilians have no idea how soldiers think, how they react or what motivates them, while journalists are constrained by deadlines and column inches and find it difficult to expand when presented with the broader canvas of a book. Although one may not always agree with his conclusions, Max Hastings has been around the Armed Forces long enough to know how soldiers operate and what makes them tick, and he long ago escaped from the restrictions of journalism.

This book is very different from the author’s usual writings in that very little of it is actually written by him. Rather, in the manner of Archibald Wavell’s Other Men’s Flowers, he has assembled a vast collection of anecdotes to illustrate specific aspects of wars, campaigns, battles and personalities, interspersed by a few lines to sum up each one. The range of writers is impressive, from the Old Testament through Herodotus, Macaulay, Voltaire to the First Duke of Marlborough, William Cobbett, Napoleon I and Palmerston to Nancy Mitford, John Keegan and General Rupert Smith and a host of others, including many whose names will not be familiar to the majority of readers.

4,000 years of military effort are included, from the biblical campaigns of Gideon (surely the world’s first recorded war criminal) through those of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan to the recent Gulf Wars and Afghanistan, and touching not only on the major conflicts but on many hitherto unknown colonial campaigns too. If nothing else the selection well illustrates the author’s catholic tastes in reading, and the works of those whom he quotes would in themselves compile a very decent library. If there is a prevailing theme in the anthology it is the reaction of the individual to war, from general to private soldier, British, American, Russian, French, German, Indian, male or female, whether that is one of fear, jubilation, wonderment, horror or just quirkiness.

While Hastings does include his own reporting on the culmination of the Falklands war and a well-phrased essay on the morality of the warrior ethos, he also includes some unlikely events in his extracts. Did King Edward III really refuse to come to the aid of his eldest son at Crecy? How believable is the nurse who says she conversed with men of the 47th Sikhs in Hindustani (Urdu), when in fact the language of that regiment was Punjabi?

The book does not shirk from facing the fact that at some time or other soldiers in all armies, including our own, can commit atrocities or remain complacent in their commission, but all in all the impression is of decent people trying to do their best in a situation where they cannot control what surrounds them.

This is a delightful book, which can be dipped into anywhere and which will provide enormous enjoyment to all those who are interested in how people react to war.

Gordon Corrigan is a historian and writer, and author of The Second World War: A Military History, Mud, Blood and Poppycock.

Sir Max Hastings is interviewed on the Aspects of History Podcast.