Research Dispatch from Sydney: New Directions in War and History

by Dr Huw J. Davies 
Today is the penultimate day of my research trip to Sydney (with Canberra and Wellington thrown in). The trip has been what I now call a harvest. I’ve photographed literally thousands of documents, unsure whether they are useful. I’m deferring the actual process of research until a later date. Still, like the many thousands of tourists on Sydney Harbour, I have occasionally looked up from the screen of my digital camera to glimpse what I’m actually taking photographs of.

The man whose papers I have come to see, Lachlan Macquarie, before becoming Governor of New South Wales, served in India for decades, visited China, and journeyed overland from India through Iran and Russia in 1807. I didn’t know that. Moreover, his correspondence from Sydney in the 1810s clearly indicates that his decision-making was influenced by his past experiences.

So often, though, when undertaking research in a library, one stumbles upon other useful little nuggets. Probably my most surprising find was a series of sketch-maps, by Thomas Livingston Mitchell, of Spain in 1813. Mitchell was a Rifleman, but also an excellent draughtsman, so was seconded to the quartermaster general’s department to identify possible routes along which the army could march. One of the maps was on calfskin, and though so finely detailed as to be unreadable, I practically skipped over to the curator’s desk and said, wide-eyed and excitedly, ‘look, it’s an illegible map of Spain… From 1813… On calfskin!’ The curator seemed mildly interested, though I imagine her finger was hovering over a button marked ‘Security’.

Mitchell, though, was more than a mapmaker. In another notebook, I found a set of military maxims derived from the classics, and contemporary military theorists such as Guibert and Henry Lloyd, of whom I have written previously here. For a historian who is dealing mainly with circumstantial and speculative links between theorist and practitioner, direct evidence like this is both rare and pant-wettingly exciting when it crops up – particularly in the most unexpected of places.

All of this at least serves to prove that my research on the development of military thinking and innovation in the eighteenth and nineteenth century has some legs. The subject of military innovation was also a major theme of a conference on New Directions in War and History which I attended at the Australian National University in Canberra.

The study of military history has diversified considerably in recent years: a more appropriate term for the discipline might be ‘history of the military’ or ‘war and society’, as one speaker at this excellent conference highlighted. Despite an everlasting fear that the discipline is under siege from more popular and fashionable genres, military history endures, and like Madonna, regularly reinvents herself.

Traditional operational history – the study of buttons and bullets and blobs on a map – has declined but remains important, as important insights can be offered into the mentality and psychology of human decision-makers under intense pressure. This decline has nevertheless created the impetus for a broader range of study and debate, encompassing other genres, some traditional, and some radically new.

Social history, cultural history, economic history, political history, art history, literary history, media history, gender history, class and religious history, sexuality history, and myth and memory. All were represented with a particular focus on the study of the military. As the keynote speaker, Professor Jeffrey Grey, argued, ‘we take out opportunities where we can’.

As a result of this conference, the study of military history, seems to me to be re-invigorated. The military is closely linked with other aspects of society, and it is impossible, indeed a disservice, to separate these elements from one another. The same currents and challenges that drive adaptation and change in wider society, wields important effects on the military. To study the military in isolation from these undermines our understanding of it as an institution.

Two days after this conference, I flew to Wellington, New Zealand to meet with Professor Charlotte MacDonald and Dr Rebecca Lenihan at Victoria University Wellington, who are studying the social and cultural impact of the garrison state in New Zealand between 1840 and 1870 – the period of the brutal Anglo-Maori Wars.

The communication of ideas, information and knowledge within the military was subject to the same social and cultural currents and upheaval that other parts of society was. The enlightenment of the eighteenth century exerted important influences on the way those in the military thought about their profession, the impact of which continued to be felt well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

From my own perspective, the outcome of this conference confirms for me that the study of military history by the military remains vitally important. Not only does military history offer and opportunity to investigate and analyse command decisions, both successful and unsuccessful, but the subject offers a real opportunity to understand the impact of the military on society and vice versa.

The military frequently feels outpaced by societal developments over which it has no control: this is not a symptom of the Twitter generation, but has always been the case. The military has frequently been caught up in social and political movements and contests, and study of this under-examined aspect of military history can yield important and useful lessons for dealing with different challenges faced today.

You can see the programme from the conference here.

My paper, entitled ‘The Evolution of the British Army’s Use of its History’ is available for download here.

Read about the Soldiers of Empire project at Victoria University Wellington here.

And check out a podcast I recorded when I was in Canberra for The Dead Prussian on Wellington, strategic culture and military innovation.

Image: Reading Room at the Mitchell Wing, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. As always, no research would take place without the help and support of librarians, archivists and curators. Those at the Mitchell have been extraordinarily helpful in meeting my requests over the last two weeks. 

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