Michael Howard

Michael Howard is Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford and the author of Clausewitz on War and War in European History, among other books. A memorial to the poets of the First World War was unveiled at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey on 11 November. Michael Howard spoke on this occasion and the words of his address appear in this issue.

Over the Top

Michael Howard, 8 February 1996

‘Mad, is he?’ George II is reported to have said of General Wolfe; ‘Then I wish he would bite some of my other generals!’ Both remarks might have been made about General George S. Patton Jr, and no doubt frequently were. His sanity was seriously in question. As S.L.A. Marshall, the most judicious of American military historians, put it: ‘Any man who thinks that he is the reincarnation of Hannibal or some such isn’t quite possessed of all his buttons.’ But this was exactly what Patton did think, and was not even half of it. ‘He declared that he had once hunted for fresh mammoth, and then in other ages had died on the plains of Troy, battled in a phalanx against Cyrus the Persian, marched with Caesar’s terrible Tenth Legion, fought with the Scottish Highlanders for the rights and hopes of the House of Stuart, [fallen] on Crecy’s field in the Hundred Years War, and [taken] part in all the great campaigns since then.’

Uniquely Horrible

Michael Howard, 8 September 1994

After the First World War Germany was compelled by the victorious Allies to accept full responsibility for the war, and in consequence to pay all the costs. In spite of the work of Fritz Fischer and his associates, few historians would now claim that this was fair. To the German people at the time it seemed outrageous. Their outrage was to be a major element in the revanchism so ably exploited by Hitler in his rise to power, and in the remorse that paralysed so much of British enlightened opinion when it came to dealing with him.

Dangerous Liaison

Michael Howard, 27 January 1994

In May 1945 I was serving with a battalion of the British Eighth Army in victorious occupation of Gorizia, some thirty miles north of Trieste. We shared the town with a brigade of Yugoslav Partisans, and the relations between us were not good. Our lords and masters had decreed that the Partisans should be, for the time being, in charge of civil administration, while we confined ourselves to military duties. So while our drill-sergeants were trying to turn us back into proper soldiers on the barrack-square, the Yugoslavs spent the days plastering the town with peremptory orders and warnings, and by night carried out what would now be termed ‘ethnic cleansing’: sending out patrols to arrest the leading members of the Italian community, partly to revenge themselves for the treatment which the Slovene peasantry had suffered during Italian occupation, partly to ensure a favourable ethnic balance in this disputed region if it ever came to a referendum. My own landlord, a gentle Italian doctor, was dragged from his bed in the middle of the night by a Partisan patrol commanded by a pleasant-faced boy even younger than I was, who told me when I protested that the doctor was on the list of notorious war-criminals. For all I know, he was. In any case, when I rang my commanding officer to ask for instructions, that admirable man told me to go straight back to bed unless I wanted to start a Third World War. So I did, and, thankfully, a few weeks later left the region for good. If that was what the peace would be like, I reflected, there was more to be said for war than I had previously realised.

UN in the Wars

Michael Howard, 9 September 1993

‘Peacekeeping’ as such was almost unheard of when the United Nations was established in 1945. Certainly it found no place in the original UN Charter. Peace, it was then assumed, would be maintained by settling disputes peacefully, and for that the UN would provide good offices under Chapter VI. ‘Threats to peace’ would come from overt acts of aggression such as were fresh in the minds of all who assembled in San Francisco to draft the Charter in April 1945, and for these Chapter VII made provision. They would be dealt with either by economic and other ‘sanctions’ of the kind that had been unsuccessfully attempted against Italy during the Abyssinia crisis of 1935, or by joint military action such as the League of Nations had so disastrously failed to take in time against Nazi Germany. For that, the wartime Grand Alliance would be reactivated under the aegis of a Military Committee which would effectively be the wartime Combined Chiefs of Staff under another name.

Sunny Days

Michael Howard, 11 February 1993

Peter Hennessy has chosen for the dust jacket of Never Again a picture that exactly captures the mood of 1945. A returning British serviceman is being welcomed home by his wife and small son. ‘Home’ is a pre-fab, decked for the occasion with Union Jacks. The wife is wearing a neat, knee-length utility-model dress. The little boy, in shorts, pullover and tie, looks healthy and well-fed. All three are ecstatic with the happiness of finding each other alive again after a war in which the family at home had been as likely to be killed as the soldier at the front. The war was over, the valleys would bloom again, and Johnny would go to sleep in his own little room again.

Every club in the bag

Michael Howard, 10 September 1992

Although most people, however reluctantly, take some interest in war, precious few bother their heads about organising for war in peacetime. It is a subject, like dental care, both dull and mildly repellent. Until the beginning of this century, few English-men thought it necessary at all. The Navy, so it was hoped, would defend our shores (probably against the French) and the Army would police, and where necessary extend, the Empire. Both Services went their own ways to general public approval, so long as they made minimal demands on the taxpayer. Then the humiliations suffered by the Army in the Boer War, and the near-simultaneous naval threat from Germany, made it clear that in the 20th century national defence would require more sustained attention than during the 19th, and that it was now too serious a matter to be left to the generals. But how it should be handled, and who should handle it, has been a matter of bitter contention, both in war and in peace-time, from that day to this.

Famous Last Screams

Michael Howard, 5 December 1991

There have never been lacking prophets, from Isaiah onwards, to proclaim the end of war, though the more recent of these have not postulated the Second Coming as a necessary condition for achieving it. Some have suggested that the more terrible war becomes, the more quickly it will die out, and, like Alfred Nobel, have devised more destructive weapons in order to hasten the process. Others, from Kant onwards, have suggested that since war is conducted only by unrepresentative élites, it will gradually disappear as democracy extends its sway throughout the world. Yet others see the best hope of its extinction in the universal imposition of a benevolent hegemony by right-minded people calling itself a ‘New World Order’.


Michael Howard, 25 April 1991

The German General Staff used to divide army officers into four categories: the clever and lazy, the clever and hard-working, the stupid and lazy and the stupid and hard-working. The clever and lazy made the best generals, the clever and hard-working the best staff-officers, the stupid and lazy could be fitted in as regimental officers; but the stupid and hard-working were a positive menace and had to be got rid of as quickly as possible. Douglas Haig belonged to the fourth group.

Impressions from a Journey in Central Europe

Michael Howard, 25 October 1990

Casual tourists from the West, travelling in air-conditioned buses and staying in modern government-sponsored hotels, may be pleasantly surprised by their first sight of Central Europe. In what used to be East Germany the countryside looks as prosperous and cultivated as anywhere in the West. City centres have been tidied up and carefully rebuilt, while the apartment blocks on the outskirts are no worse than one would find in the United Kingdom – in some places rather better. In Poland agriculture is picturesquely archaic, and in the bustling small towns the people look as well clothed and fed as they would at home. In Czechoslovakia Prague sparkles like a jewel, its streets thronged with happy holiday-makers. As for Hungary, it is hard to realise one is no longer in the West: the huge plains being efficiently (to all appearances) harvested by echelons of combines; the signs of prosperous well-being in industrial centres like Miskolc; the weekenders crowding the shores of Lake Balaton; above all, Budapest, a city in its elegance still more comparable to Paris than Vienna – is there anything seriously wrong here? The region is certainly ‘backward’ compared with Western Europe and the United States, but it always was. The cars and roads are smaller, the trains shabbier, the shops fewer and selling a more limited range of goods. But so it was with Spain or Southern Italy a few decades ago, a ‘backwardness’ almost attractive to the overfed, over-urbanised Westerner, and anyhow, surely remediable by a judicious infusion of capital, technology and expertise?’

Death of the Hero

Michael Howard, 7 January 1988

Among the distinguished group of military historians which has flourished in this country since the Second World War, John Keegan is outstanding. His talents are remarkable: a wide-ranging and speculative mind; clarity in analysis; a deep understanding of the military community; and enviable descriptive gifts to ensure that his books will be acceptable to that wide class of readership which seeks no more from military history than a jolly good read. His skills in this last direction sometimes conceal the profundity of observations which penetrate deep below the surface of military phenomena into the social and psychological conditions which produce them, but all his books can be read on the two levels of military description and social analysis. Increasingly they have been tilting towards the latter, but it is his descriptive powers as a historian which will continue to hold the attention – as in The Mask of Command.

For twenty-five years, between the studies written in its immediate aftermath and those based on archives opened a generation later, the Korean War was largely ignored. That was natural enough: there is always such ‘dead ground’ as the writing of history moves forward. But that war was so significant as a paradigm for international relations in the post-war world that we can deplore the failure of Western statesmen and, still more, soldiers, to keep it in mind as a guide-post and a warning of what lay in store for them if they attempted any further military interventions in the Third World. For a few years, under the wise guidance of Dwight Eisenhower, American leaders did so bear it in mind, and shaped their policy accordingly: they realised the unwisdom of becoming involved in a land conflict anywhere, especially in Asia. But only ten years after the truce was signed at Panmunjom in July 1953 the slide into Vietnam had begun. The effects of that terrible conflict have been longer-lasting. Even so, the United States has trembled on the verge of military intervention in Central America and does so now in the Middle East. Their present leaders, still obsessed with the memories of Munich, would do better to remember Korea.

The Great War Revisited

Michael Howard, 23 April 1987

The Great War of 1914-1918 is at last a respectable field of study for British professional historians. There has been no lack of monographs on specialised aspects of that gigantic tragedy: what have been lacking are serious synoptic studies. The highly emotional arguments over the tactics and strategy of the Western Front, initiated during the war itself by the conflicts of ‘Easterners’ versus ‘Westerners’, and continued thereafter in the battles of the memoirs, were renewed after the Second World War by the defenders and detractors of Douglas Haig: arguments which for fifty years produced a great deal more heat than light. Only a few works by quiet specialists like Shelford Bidwell and T.H. Travers indicated the true problems and achievements of the commanders on the Western Front. Over naval affairs the exchanges of heavy fire between Arthur Marder and Stephen Roskill reduced all others to awe-struck silence. On domestic politics Lord Beaverbrook and his acolyte A.J.P. Taylor gave us plenty to be going on with, even before younger specialists like Cameron Hazlehurst began to dissect the minutiae of Cabinet crises. Arthur Marwick boldly opened up the whole question of war and social change. Recently a number of younger historians – Kathleen Birk, Keith Neilson, and David French in his first book British Economic and Strategic Planning 1905-1915 – have begun to consider some of the key questions of finance and economics. But until now nobody has tried to put all this specialist work together. The last oeuvre de synthèse was Sir Llewellyn Woodward’s competent but pedestrian Great Britain and the War of 1914-18(1961). A study taking all the new work into account was just about due.’

It is only fitting that nations should honour their poets, for poets shape the soul of the nation. They take our language, use it to mould the images and the thoughts which we share in common, and in so doing they enrich and develop the language itself. They create those secret harmonies which we alone can hear; they teach our ears to hear and our eyes to see; they bind us together as a family is bound together by common experience and memories. Unlike music, poetry is necessarily and properly parochial. It is ours. No other people can say the same things in the same way. It is the true essence of a people, their peculiar inimitable voice.


Useless Eaters

14 July 2011

‘The phrase “useless eaters",’ according to Alex Lockwood, ‘was first used by German advocates of eugenics’ (Letters, 25 August). But the term ‘bouches inutiles’ was in general use in 18th-century warfare to describe the civilian population of besieged fortresses, and probably goes back a long way before that.

The Korean War

26 November 1987

SIR: Mr Halliday obviously feels strongly about the Korean War (Letters, 18 February), but his odium academicum engenders more heat than light. I can only advise your readers to consult my review and see what I actually wrote about the three books concerned: in particular, the reasons I gave for supporting the judgments of Max Hastings on the merits of the war. Whatever the legal situation, the 38th...

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