Military History For All (1962)

Major W. K. Stirling, 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, Victoria, B.C.
Canadian Army Journal, Vol XVI, No. 1, Winter 1962

[Enlisting as a private soldier in the PPCLI in 1943, the author served in North-West Europe during the Second World War. Graduating from the University of Manitoba in 1948 (B.A.), he was commissioned in his regiment in 1950 and saw serve in Korea, where he was wounded. A graduate of the Canadian Army Staff College, he now commands "C" Company, 1 PPCLI. – Editor.]

At one time the expression "an officer and a gentleman" was a popular and almost indisputable association of words and meaning. As with many other platitudes, this description has fallen into disuse because it is no longer meaningful. Another association of words and meaning just as much an anachronism is that the study of military history is the private and exclusive field of commissioned officers. If we pause to consider the association, is it necessarily true today? I doubt it. It is my contention that all members of the army should be encouraged to look into the past in order to better prepare themselves for the present and the future. I realize that this premise will appal many who have waded through the required reading in preparation for military history examinations.

The immediate reaction is that if I as an officer can and will only suffer an excursion into the realms of history under the prod of promotion, how can our subordinates be persuaded to indulge? I believe that if we look back after the smoke and fog of the examination battle has cleared we will admit that our studies weren't really that difficult and in some instances to our amazement our military history texts were fascinating and illuminating. I recall that when I was studying for a set of examinations in Wainwright in 1957 I put off reading Chester Wilmot's Struggle For Europe time and again because it appeared at a glance to be such heavy going, until I could delay no longer Military History was to be written the next day. I forced myself page by page into the maze until suddenly I was caught up by the spirit and enthusiasm of the author. I read all night, completely fascinated, berating myself for having neglected such a magnificent treatise for so long. I suspect that the reluctance I did played in my studies is not uncommon. It was probably built up over the years by listening to unhappy examination aspirants and by reading a few obtuse texts on compulsory reading programmes. This reluctance to pursue the study of military history is understandable but will not bear up under exposure to the enlightened reading list available to any of us today.

There are so many books available on this subject that are downright enjoyable to read that it seems a shame to spoil these readings by terminating them with an examination. Fortunately, the men in the ranks do not suffer from this shackle of study and may read with enjoyment and understanding, allowing themselves a selection as catholic as their fancy directs.

There would appear to be two problems in presenting this subject to our troops: first of all, does it have any appreciative value, and, secondly, how does one lead the men into this field without the promotion incentive? The soldier today is an educated man in comparison with his predecessors. An illiterate individual cannot survive in modern military life as he could and did as late as the Second World War. This metamorphosis has come upon us with considerable speed and we must be prepared to accept, understand and utilize this phenomenon. This higher standard of education has provided us with individuals who are more perceptive, and schooled in the faculty of correlating experience and knowledge when confronted with an unique situation. Is this not why we study history to gain knowledge from the experiences of others so as to be better prepared to meet the problems of today and tomorrow? I well realize that almost every military history book of value has been written by or about commanders and would at first impression hardly apply to the man in the ranks. First impressions can be wrong and I believe they are with respect to this matter. I'm convinced that the principles of Selection and Maintenance of the Aim, Maintenance of Morale, Offensive Action, Surprise and Flexibility apply as much to Lance-Corporal Smith fighting his section as they do to General Brown planning an assault in a major campaign the difference being, of course, that Lance-Corporal Smith hasn't much time for contemplation, and his violation of principles brings much speedier retribution.

Contrary to a popular misconception, one does not study military history for principles of war alone. There are so many lessons to be learned that apply to the junior leader as well as to the senior. I will mention only a few, such as maintenance of leadership under duress, value of individual intelligence, man-management, definition and value of loyalty, the ability of an individual to change the course of battle and the commander's dependence on good soldiers. Present-day thinking indicates that success on the nuclear battlefield will depend on junior leaders grasping the initiative and enforcing their plan with the help of the enlightened leadership of intelligent soldiers. If this type of action is common across a front, the sum total will no doubt be successful. There are many lessons to be learned from a study of military history that will help to equip our soldiers for this challenge.

The next question to be answered is, how can we interest the men in the study of military history? This is not nearly as difficult as it might appear at first thought. It is the approach to the subject that is important, and my experience indicates that the subtle or "the indirect approach", as Liddell Hart might call it, is the most successful. I would not recommend that the subject "Military History" appear on a syllabus for senior NCOs or for any other training course below officer level. As a matter of fact, it is just as well to avoid if possible the use of the term with its various connotations. Most men interested in their chosen profession are motivated by a desire to succeed, or by simple curiosity. This interest factor can be tapped in a most casual way by the provision of simple but exciting reading material for perusal during slack periods. During the training period of one sub-unit in which I was involved, two mornings a week were devoted to exhaustive physical training. In order to salvage as much as possible of the remainder of the training day, I devised a recreational reading programme based on a number of books I had read and found to be very interesting and which could he obtained in paper-back editions. The books were provided and the men were asked to choose any one book, read it and record their impressions on a single sheet of paper. I allowed two weeks for the project and was amazed at the results. I got reports at the end of two weeks all right, but each man had not only read his own initial selection but also by interchange had read all the books provided. In addition, various members of the group brought forward other books they had read and asked that they be placed on the available reading list. Throughout the three-month training period the provision and interchange of books went on until I was pushed to keep up with my reading of new titles submitted for the available list. It was obvious from the many comments and "break-time" discussions that the men were fascinated with their discoveries in print and were eager to progress further in their reading. It would be trite to say that a whole new world had been opened to them, but without fear of contradiction I can say that their horizons had certainly been broadened. This reading programme I have described was introduced in 1959 and the results are still apparent. The men involved are better soldiers today because they have greater knowledge. They are no longer apprehensive of the written word, and accept the necessity of reading and studying pamphlets, papers and texts much more readily. They are proud of their knowledge and names like Guderian, Slim, Riel and Popski drop easily from their lips and they have a slightly condescending attitude towards the ill-informed within earshot. They still approach me from time to time and the remark is usually "Have you read…? Boy, it's a good book!" This experience in training and subsequent observations have indicated to me that perhaps we should redirect our Military History programme to include everyone in the Army. All ranks can read, most enjoy it and there is value to be obtained by anyone who reads a good book by a good author about a good soldier regardless of rank.

The following is not a bibliography but a suggested introductory reading list for men. I have found all these books to be easy reading, exciting, and of value, some much more of course than others. Many of them can be obtained in paper-back editions: