Friday, 12 August 2016

Doing some revision

My recent piece on Zuber’s book on the Battle of Mons mentioned that I’m inclined to be open to revisionist interpretations of history. I thought it might be useful to discuss this further and explain why.

I’m not a sucker for new and shiny stuff really, but new approaches to historical subjects are valuable, as long as they’re conducted using a proper historical method and not made up of a rag-bag of bits and pieces stuck together for effect. In this context I’m thinking of that appalling book about China “discovering” the world for example that is complete gibberish, and others that rely heavily on the word “if” to prove a point.

There’s a real danger in the “everybody knows” school of history. If we just take the accepted view uncritically we can collectively be lead into error. Up until 10 years ago “everybody knew” that the Battle of Northampton was fought under what is now a railway yard. Without serious revisionist work the actual site would now be under a carpark and sports pavilion. The same is true of the Richard III burial. Until recently “everybody knew” that he was hacked up and chucked in the river, body lost for ever. Right up until he was found under the car park.

The important thing for me is that we need to teach the facts, not just the story. And once we have the facts we should check them and re-examine them so that we know them to be facts. Nothing in history should be accepted as an act of faith. If it is it can’t be challenged even if it is wrong. What then makes it worse is that these matters then move from matters of belief to matters of opinion. Thus with the Holocaust. It is only possible to deny it if you deny the facts. If it is an article of faith then it can be challenged by those who don’t share your faith. Every generation needs to be taught how we know what we know. If you understand the evidence it is harder for you to be lied to and manipulated.

Revisionist thoughts and views do move into the mainstream. Verbruggen’s work on medieval warfare means we now don’t take at face value the size of armies in the descriptions of battles. The sources for the Battle of Northampton and the historians who have taken them at face value (and those who have taken those historians at face value) would have you believe 100,000 men fought in the battle. As Mike Ingram’s book shows a simple check on the size of an encampment required to take the 40,000 Lancastrians shows the numbers can’t possibly be right. They just don’t fit in the space available. You can find similar calculations in Richard Brook’s works as well. Armies of 20,000+ end up being about 2,500 in practice.

For the First World War the “Lions Lead By Donkeys” rubbish peddled by Alan Clark and still believed by many continues to give a lie to the achievements of our ancestors. The work done by Paddy Griffiths, Gary Sheffield and others has moved our understanding on considerably in respect of the post-Somme British Army, rehabilitating not just commanders but those who served in our largest ever citizen army.

What we need is a level headed properly trained historian to go over the ground turned over by Zuber and build upon what is ground breaking research. There may be value in what he says, however the book can’t be relied upon. If there truly is a Mons Myth then it needs to be disposed of. When legend becomes fact we can’t continue to print the legend. This book just leaves the accusation hanging in the air like a bad smell. I didn’t mention it in the previous blog on the subject, but Zuber also makes great play of (uncorroborated German) reports that British troops pretended to surrender and then shot the trusting, unsuspecting, noble Germans when they stood up to take the surrender. So much so that they had to threaten to shoot prisoners to stop it happening again. Make of that what you will.

There of course does need to be an element of caution. In my university days one of my lecturers on American history, Richard Carwardine, used to put up a cartoon of a slave being punished. Another slave is saying to him “Don’t worry. In time a revisionist historian will prove this never happened”.

So, not revisionism for the sake of it. Revisionism to improve our understanding.


  1. Of course the major problem today is that so many people- both in our world and outside simply do not understand the difference betwen fact and opinion.
    I wholly agree with your stance here though it was not simply Verbruggen who taught us to shrink Medieval armies.
    However in the wargaming world these days I suspect that many would opine that such actual facts don't matter as its only a game .
    Now I know where I stand on this one !!

    1. Everyone being entitled to their own opinion if you're arguing about which type of wallpaper you like or who the best Doctor Who is.

      The "it's only a game" argument is fine for fantasy but if you're doing historical games I think it is only right to respect the history.

  2. I'm in process of reading 'Ring of Steel: Germany & Austria-Hungary at War, 1914-1918' by Alexander Watson. Only one-third through but so far it's really interesting to learn about the experience of 'the other side' and why they acted as they did. And no axes being ground as far as I can see. Thoroughly recommended so far - and I got it for 50p in a charity shop !

    1. Looks like a good book at a good price. I shall keep my eyes open for it.