#Reviewing A History of Warfare

A History of Warfare. Field-Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein. London: Book Club Associates, 1982.

Field-Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein led the British Eighth Army across North Africa in pursuit of Rommel. In 1944 he commanded the Allied land armies in the invasion of Normandy, eventually leading the 21st Army Group. Despite this experience, few give him the acknowledgment he deserves as a military intellectual and analyst of history, despite his time teaching at the staff colleges in Camberley and Quetta in the interwar years, or his authorship of the British infantry manual.

Nevertheless, A History of Warfare is a reflective and insightful read for military professionals—though admittedly not something to use as an authoritative reference on historical military details. Rather, think of it more as sitting at the feet of a master as Montgomery uses history to demonstrate the lessons of war that he found the hard way. It is a commentary more than a study, ignoring the detail and background in order to cut to the main points that he wants you to take away. In the 1982 edition’s foreword, Lord Carver reminds us that this was a strength of the Field-Marshal—an ability to find simplicity in the complex and act as an iconoclast that was not satisfied with the conventional.

As you might expect from a man that played a large role in the shaping of history, Montgomery’s approach is very much aligned with the great man theory of history, traversing thousands of years of conflict by analysing each commander and each leader. He uses them as a constant against the changing character of war, focusing on great captains while giving passing mention to those not worthy of the Pantheon. It is very much a history informed by the sources available in 1960s Britain—for instance Montgomery labels Clausewitz as “exceedingly difficult to understand” with a preference to rely on historians of his “own nation and language.”[1]

The history element of this book is at its best when Montgomery links his own experience with history, drawing similarities across events through time. For instance, while analysing Anulf, the Frankish king who in 891 defeated the Vikings at Louvain, he is able to confirm the marshy nature of the terrain due to his occupation of the position in 1940 commanding the UK 3rd Division. Further he relates with Edward III, who forced Philip VI to attack in 1346, with low evening sun in their eyes—a tactic Montgomery used in March 1943 at the Battle of Mareth.

Zero Hour: The Mareth Offensive, 1943. Cameron Highlanders (Jack Chaddock/Wikimedia)

Somewhat ironically, as he pays little credit to Chinese warfare, Montgomery uses a quote from Mao Zedong to explain his reason for writing:

All military laws and military theories which are in the nature of principles are the experience of past wars summed up by the people in former days or in our own times. We should seriously study these lessons, paid for in blood, which are the heritage of past wars. That is one point. But there is another. We should put these conclusions to the test of our own experience, assimilating what is useful, rejecting what is useless, and adding what is specifically our own. The latter is very important, for otherwise we cannot direct a war. Reading is learning, but applying it is also learning and the more important kind of learning at that.[2]

But for those not excited by the task of 567 pages, you can get more value from a selective reading. Again in the 1982 edition’s foreword, Lord Carver recalls meeting Montgomery in 1968 just after the first edition was released. Montgomery passed Carver a copy, adding, “If I were you, I’d read the first two chapters and the last three first.”[3]

The first two chapters are “The Nature of War” and “Generalship.” By structuring the book in this way, Montgomery gives you his conclusion first—the summary of all he has learnt in war. Therefore, as you walk through the journey from Jericho to the Nuclear Age, you look for evidence to reinforce his thesis.

Usefully, he provides some early definitions:

  • “War is any prolonged conflict between rival political groups by force of arms. It includes insurrection and civil war. It excludes riots and acts of individual violence.”

  • “Grand strategy is the coordination of all the resources of a nation, or group of nations, towards the attainment of the political object of the war—the goal defined by fundamental policy. The true objective of grand strategy must be a secure and lasting peace.”

  • “Strategy is the art of distributing and applying military means, such as armed forces and supplies, to fulfil the ends of policy. Tactics means the dispositions for, and control of, military forces and techniques in actual fighting. Put more shortly: strategy is the art of the conduct of war, tactics are the art of fighting.”[4]

True to his word to Carver, the back end of the book is also strong. It is hard to miss his passion for the factors that lead to the First World War, but it is also hard not to superimpose contemporary events on those historical threads. Montgomery explains that during the last quarter of the 19th century (perhaps as with the first quarter of the 21st), powers were so concerned with limited wars that they neglected to study the lessons of the major conflicts—such as the American Civil War and the Franco Prussian War. “Tactics received more attention than strategy. Then, as technical change progressed and the experience of actual war in Europe receded, theory became less realistic.”[5] This at a time (1874-1896) when expenditure on defence rose by 50 percent and Britain laid down eight ships in a year in the lead up to 1914.

Prussian Guards at the Battle di Gravelotte-Saint Privat in the Franco-Prussian war (Wikimedia)

But once you get to the Great War and the subsequent conflicts in which he was active, he gives surprisingly little additional insight than that of the Battle of Blenheim. As opposed to some histories of great men, his prime years and ringside view of history during World War I, World War II, and the early Cold War is modest. As a result, the reader might, like me, feel somewhat cheated. Additionally, his conclusions on the failings of the Western Allies to bring about a peace based on political objectives could be lifted from J.F.C. Fuller.

As the book concludes, you get a sense that Montgomery just wants to push home the lessons that future generations should apply. He disagrees with the adage, “If you want peace, prepare for war” which originated in Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, but was popular after 1918. Montgomery suggests that this is likely to lead to an arms race and strategic miscalculation. He prefers the adage, “If you want peace, understand war,” used by Liddell Hart, an author he quotes verbatim throughout the work.

In trying to explain the Cold War environment of the 1960s, Montgomery refreshingly bemoans some frustrations that are echoed in contemporary defence and strategic commentary, “Things don't just happen in this world of politics and war; they take place because of national policies or lack of them—particularly in respect of wars.”[6] Also, “[O]ne has a feeling today that there is a lack of long-term strategy; responsible leaders, and their officials, are preoccupied with coping with the complexity of day-to-day affairs with the result that too often short term improvisations masquerade as policy.”[7]

Wartime photograph of the then Sir Bernard Law Montgomery with his Miles Messenger aircraft (Wikimedia)

But perhaps Montgomery’s strongest warnings go to current debates centring on nationalism, materialism, and values:

Throughout our study it will be seen that national history is no story with a happy ending, but a fight which goes on from age to age: each advance has to be won, each position gained has to be held. In war, the enemy is plain and clear. In peace a nation is confronted with a more insidious foe: the weakness within, from which alone great nations fall.[8]

Montgomery, after passing much responsibility onto the political classes, concludes his book on warfare not through the lens of a general, but by reflecting on politics and society:

The ultimate strength of a nation does not lie in its armed forces, nor in its gold and dollar reserves. It lies in the national culture, in its people—in their virility, in their willingness to work, in their understanding of the truth that if they want prosperity and economic strength they must get it for themselves or go without it.[9]

As countries fracture ideologically between globalists and nationalists, the application of this advice in the contemporary world is up for grabs. But as our societies begin to fracture along these lines, we should give pause to encouraging the unravelling of the post World War II global order. As a man who led warriors in battle, and had their blood spilt for the stability and prosperity that our generation currently enjoys, Montgomery makes us think of whether our current debates are worth the destabilisation that they could produce, “The peace we enjoy now is the peace of victory over the beast in men, and this victory will not survive if the virtues which gained and sustain it are lost...What worth is peace without freedom, or freedom without justice between one man and another.”[10] The conversation between past and present is the most important takeaway from The History of Warfare and the lasting legacy of an old soldier.

Craig Beutel joined the Australian Department of Defence in 2006. He has deployed to Afghanistan and is a graduate of Australian Command and Staff College. His views do not represent the Department, or the Australian Government.

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Header Image: General Bernard L. Montgomery watches his tanks in North Africa, November 1942. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia)


[1] Montgomery, A History of Warfare, (London: Book Club Associates, 1982), 20.

[2] Ibid., 19.

[3] Ibid., Foreword.

[4] Ibid., 14.

[5] Ibid., 459.

[6] Ibid., 554.

[7] Ibid., 556.

[8] Ibid., 15.

[9] Ibid., 564.

[10] Ibid., 566