Twenty years ago, on arrival at my first Regular unit, I remember being told that at the last parade of the day I would be expected to read Routine Orders to the Company. I found this curious and asked why, only to be told that many of the younger soldiers could not read. As a 30 year old man who had benefitted from an excellent education I found this astonishing, but over the next three years disbelief turned to dismay as widespread illiteracy was demonstrated time and again. In Northern Ireland, Canada, and Iraq, I was asked by soldiers to write letters to their friends and family back home, not just because they couldn’t read and write, but because these proud young men felt ashamed of their inability or awkwardness with the written word.
I decided then, that if I could, I would find ways to improve literacy amongst soldiers; as I began to exploit the many educational opportunities the Army provides, but I became aware of the limited nature of the formal educational pathways offered to non-commissioned soldiers. It struck me, indeed it still strikes me, as unjustifiably profligate of the Army to offer so little professional military education to its people. If one looks at the average career length of a soldier, they are likely to complete only a couple of weeks of professional education before discharge, in that same time he will complete far more adventure training and sport. If we compare this to educational investment lavished on commissioned officers, it is clear that the emphasis is not on the 85% of the Army who do not hold the Queen’s commission. How wasteful to neglect one’s most ‘important asset’, moreover, how short-sighted to ignore the talent one employs in preservation of a nineteenth century structure of rank and hierarchy!
So what did I decide to do about it? Well, I was lucky enough to work close enough to Prince Consort’s Library in Aldershot to attend the book talks organised by the Librarian. On his retirement the Book talks ended so I founded the War Talks Programme to replace them, similarly I took over the organisation of the British Army Military Book of the Year (BAMBY) after a fallow year in 2017. I have written much about War Talks and BAMBY and so won’t repeat myself here other than to introduce the 2021 shortlisted books and list the previous winners.
First, we have Brigadier (Ret’d) Ben Barry’s ‘Blood, Metal, and Dust: How Victory Turned to Defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq‘ which has proven to be a provocative and analytical masterpiece and was the subject of my recent book review. Brig Barry is the Land Warfare Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and is well placed to write such an important work. Next, we have Professor Saul David’s book, ‘Crucible of Hell: Okinawa: The Last Great Battle of the Second World War‘, Prof David is an old friend of the War Talks programme and last spoke on the subject of his excellent book, ‘Operation Thunderbolt’ about the Israeli raid on Entebbe in 1976. This was subsequently made into a movie. For the second year in succession, James Holland has been listed for the BAMBY. His recent series of books, of which ‘Sicily ’43: The First Assault on Fortress Europe‘ is our shortlisted option, has been excellent, James is an eminent popular historian notably working with Al Murray on the ‘We have Ways’ podcast and organising the Chalke Valley History Festival, the UK’s largest festival of its type.
Next we have Doctor Robert Johnson’s book, ‘Lawrence of Arabia on War: The Campaign in the Desert 1916-18‘: Dr Johnson is the Director of the University of Oxford’s Changing Character of War Centre and is well-placed to look at this important campaign and the lessons we can drawn from it today. Someone who became a household name in the ‘Coinista’ community in the years after 9/11 is Professor David Kilcullen. His book, ‘The Dragons and the Snakes: How the rest Learned to Fight the West‘ is our next choice. Our penultimate book is, ‘War:How Conflict Shaped Us‘, one of the most widely debated works of the year from the legendary Professor Margaret MacMillan of the University of Oxford. Last, but by no means least, is Doctor Julie Wheelwright’s, ‘Sisters in Arms: Female Warriors from Antiquity to the New Millenium‘, a brilliant examination of the often overlooked role of fighting women in the history of war.
The list of previous winners is as follows:
2008 – Patrick Bishop’s ‘3 Para. Afghanistan 2006‘
2009 – James Fergusson’s ‘A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan‘
2010 – Andrew Roberts’ ‘The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War‘
2011 – Feargal Keane’s ‘Road of Bones: The Siege of Kohima‘
2012 – Roderic Braithwaite’s ‘Afgantsy‘
2013 – Lord Ashdown’s ‘A Brilliant Little Operation: The Cockleshell Heroes‘
2014 – Allan Mallinson’s ‘1914: Fight the Good Fight‘
2015 – Alex Watson’s ‘Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria Hungary in the First World War‘
2016 – Eugene Rogan’s ‘The Fall of the Ottomans‘
2018 – Aimée Fox’s – ‘Learning to Fight: Military Innovation and Change in the British Army 1914-18‘
2019 – Jonathan Boff’s – ‘Haig’s Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany’s War on the Western Front‘
2020 – Anthony King’s – ‘Command: The Twenty-First Century General‘
I hope you enjoy the books and encourage your soldiers to engage with them, lets fill the gap left by formal professional military education!
All the best,