GREAT MILITARY LIVES – A Century In Obituaries

For me one of the best things about the broadsheets are the obituaries

Edited by Ian Brunskill, Guy Liardet and Michael Tillotson.

The internet is a wonderful thing, and, let’s face it, we wouldn’t be here without it.

With it’s webbed feet firmly under the media bed, there were dire predictions that the age of the newspaper was dead. This has proved to be false but only time will tell if there will be a terminal decline in the printed news word. Whether you prefer your news to come red-topped and brash or broadsheeted and composed, it’s fair to say that much of what you read will go in one eye and out the other, so to speak. For me one of the best things about the broadsheets are the obituaries. Lives are explained and defined. Important aspects are picked over. Stories are told. You can learn a great deal from these wonderful features and it is true to say that obituary writing is one of the great journalistic arts.

You may well have noticed that both The Times and Daily Telegraph have not been slow to exploit a treasure trove of lives remembered by publishing compendiums of obituaries. They make good stocking fillers and will hopefully encourage a need for further reading. It often amazes me how the lives of some of the giants our past can be truncated into a few inky pages, but I felt I was on solid ground when I directed my son to read the obits to help him with his upcoming English exam. It remains to be seen if he takes note.

This book from The Times is a fascinating collection of appreciations of some of the most significant military leaders of the past two centuries. Any book that brings the likes of Wellington; Sitting Bull; Allenby, Monty, Nimitz and Harris under one cover has to be worthy of your attention. The editors attempt to bring the obituaries into context, perhaps best illustrated by the appreciation of Cetwayo the Zulu leader, published in 1884 which is nothing more than a substantiation of British imperialism.

The book has the subheading Leadership And Courage – In Obituaries and there is a large image of a Victoria Cross on the back cover. While many of the subjects showed undoubted and sometimes immense courage in battle before rising to positions of high seniority, the book lacks any accounts of the lives of the people remembered for their gallantry alone. If you read obituaries in the press today you will find that the majority of military subjects are the people of more humble rank and station as the majority of significant top level commanders are long dead. The book ends with the life of Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, C-in-C of the British during the Falklands War, who pretty much brings us up to date.

As said, this book is a good stocking filler. It showcases lives you may want to learn much more about. For a cover price a penny short of fifteen quid you get an awful lot of history for your money, and, who knows; you may decide that the daily newspaper obituaries, in print and on the web, are a good source of knowledge. It’s a win-win situation. William Hague reminds us in his forward that when asked who were the three greatest generals in history; Monty replied “The other two were Alexander The Great and Napoleon”. Black and white print offers so much Technicolor.

Published by Times Books with Harper Collins
ISBN 978-0-00-72227670-7

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.