Yesterday a customer, just back from a Flanders battlefield tour, came in to order a book on Vimy Ridge. There, he told me, 3400 men died in one day, to capture one hill. Sometimes history jolts you out of your current preoccupations. ( When historian E.P. Thompson was researching Hiroshima he sometimes had to stand up and just stare out of the window, mentally processing the eye-witness accounts).
“To attain peace, we must study war”, thought the war philosopher Clausewitz. So it is a good thing that military history is a growth area, with an increasingly broad readership. Anthony Beevor, Max Arthur, Stephen Ambrose and others, have got war onto the book review pages and gift lists.
My military section has grown from one to four bays, with sales exceeding gardening or reference. Booksellers have generally lagged behind the demand for war books. Bourgeois liberals, they have been about as keen on “Military” as ‘old- blood- and- guts’ General Patton was on crochet. A learned fellow, Patton knew how useful a military book could be, famously screaming at Rommel’s retreating panzer, “I’ve read your book you bastard!”. His belief in reincarnation made him a student of Thucydides too: no war section should miss out on the Penguin classics.
Military publishers inspire extraordinary loyalty. Osprey have 25,000 people on their mailing list: some own all 2300 books, and even have spinners in their homes. Researchers are rigorous: I fantasize that Mir Bahmanyar - Afghan Cave Complexes of the Taliban and Al Qaeda (2005) - knows where Bin Laden lives, but agreed to keep quiet if he could be allowed in with tape measure and sketchpad.
Greenhill Books flourish by visiting the wilder shores of militaria: their rep had me spluttering into my ginseng with disbelief as he showed a book on steam- powered submarines (see Wikipedia if foxed).
Imports are a rich seam. Ripcord: with the Screaming Eagles in Vietnam, looks like a cheap 2-buck thriller but reading it as vivid as watching Apocalypse Now. Ambrose called it “the best battle account I have ever read”. (If only effete cardigan-wearing UK publishers bought in such gems, instead of belabouring us with novels by Oxbridge twenty-somethings.)
Military history talks reliably attract big audiences, and old soldiers enliven proceedings. When Beevor asserted that there were no British intelligence officers inside Stalingrad during the battle, an old man stood up to disagree: he had been there. It was a gooseflesh moment, both then and now, as I write. During a 1993 Q&A a Somme veteran humbly corrected an error in Juliet Gardner’s talk on the battle.
War is “sprightly, waking, and full of truth.” (Coriolanus), truth which we have been reading about since Homer.
Dr Martin Latham Waterstones Canterbury