Tuesday, 24 August 1999

J.F.C. Fuller: The Decisive Battles of the Western World (1954)

Edition: Granada, 1982 (Edited by John Terraine)
Review number: 319

General Fuller's analysis of decisive battles and their effects is one of the classics of military history in English. Its editing by John Terraine into two volumes concentrating on those battles fought in Europe and the Middle East has made the work a great deal more accessible. The way that Terraine has done this is to replace the missing sections with much shorter summaries of his own. The book in generals is structured to contain alternating "chronicles", describing the events following one battle and leading up to the next, with detailed analysis of the mayor battles between Salamis and the Normandy landings.

The concept of the book is a fairly old-fashioned one. Historians at the moment tend to assume that warfare never actually decided anything; a war is supposed to have an inevitable outcome pre-determined by economic factors. Even if, say, Napoleon had won the battle of Waterloo - as he could fairly easily have done - his eventual defeat would have only been postponed. This may well be true, but then some other battlefield would have marked Napoleon's defeat and would be regarded as decisive. (Decisive, in Fuller's book, means not so much that the battle itself had a definite outcome, but that it marks the end or shows the inevitability of the end of a period of history.)

Fuller was well qualified as a military analyst, being one of those who, during the First World War, saw the significance of the tank and whose ideas were influential in the German development of blitzkrieg. His experience tells him that no general, no matter how brilliant,. is infallible, and that military campaigns are often catalogues of mistakes on both sides. (Even if the generals never made mistakes, they are always at the mercy of an incomplete knowledge of enemy intentions.)

That doesn't mean that he didn't have his heroes (Napoleon was one), but he certainly realised that they weren't perfect. Fuller too has faults, though he avoids some of the worst ones into which any kind of historian can fall. One is an unquestioning attitude to sources, which can lead to such absurdities as a statement I heard on TV the other day, that the US entered the First World War as a moral duty, to "safeguard democracy". The other is that which M.I. Finley has spent much of his career attacking in ancient historians, a blindness to anything outside their speciality. Fuller is aware that he is not just concerned with strategy and tactics, weapons and equipment. There are economic and political backgrounds to every war, and to some important wars (such as the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary wars or the Thirty Years' War), the history of ideas can be involved as well. He also manages to avoid the trap that many British establishment figures fell into after the Second World War - though Fuller could hardly be described as establishment - of thinking that Churchill was to be praised as a god. He is extremely critical of both Churchill and Roosevelt, whose political decisions he believed extended the war by some time and led inevitably to the Russian triumph in Eastern Europe and the Cold War.

One attitude Fuller shared with many other historians of the twentieth century is an anti-religious bias. (This stems from the belief many non-scientists have that science has disproved religion.) This is particularly apparent in his one sided picture of Luther and Calvin in the chronicle of events leading up to the Thirty Years' War.

The book ends with a fairly accurate prophecy of how the Cold War would develop - Fuller died long before this became obvious. The developments he did not see were the ability of guerrillas and minor powers to hold out against the major nations - Vietnam and Nicaragua for the US, Afghanistan for the USSR - and the rise of China as a major power.

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