History of War

This strand of our one-year MSt or two-year MPhil in History is the equivalent of a free-standing Master’s in the history of war. For more details on the organisation of these programmes, click the links above.

 

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The history of war is currently a major field of research.  The narrow approaches of more traditionally defined military history have been replaced by a broader agenda which seeks to understand conflict as part of the wider human past. The changing character of war has contributed to this, shifting attention away from the previous preoccupation with conventional wars between states, to see how armed struggles have been waged by a variety of different actors with hugely varying impacts on society, economy, culture and environment, as well as differing political implications.  This programme will provide students with the structured intellectual environment and academic framework to study war across the sweep of human history.  It will serve either to complete their university education in history, or as a foundation to further doctoral study.

 

Course Organisation

Alongside the Theory and Methods and Skills courses, students spend their first term studying Sources and Historiography. This will embed core graduate skills and subject-specific historiography and methodology within an exploration of the organisation, conduct, impact and broader context of warfare from the ancient world to the present day.  A key goal will be to encourage students to recognise how war in human history can only be fully understood when a study of the more ‘technical’ aspects are combined with a fuller appreciation of the broader historical context of past conflicts. The course will explore the relationship between war’s changing character and wider historical change.  Other key topics will include aspects such as warfare in contemporary memory, cultural perceptions of war, warfare and gender, ethics and genocide, war and empire, supply and logistics, war and ideology, combat, mobilisation etc.

In the second term, students take one of a wide portfolio of Option courses.  Those particularly relevant to the history of war typically include:

 

In recent decades the political history of early modern Europe has re-invented itself in dialogue with social, economic and cultural history. Analyses of state formation and political culture have aspired to replace biographies of statesmen, narratives of party struggle and genealogies of institutional development. This course examines a series of themes in the development of early modern states to test models of political change on a range of societies from the British Isles to Eastern Europe. It aims to equip those interested in reformations, counter-reformations, rebellions, courts, parliaments, towns, nobles, peasants and witches – and in statesmen, factions and institutions – with the ideas and comparators needed to frame a sophisticated research project in their chosen field. Class topics will include:

  • the military-fiscal state
  • clientage and faction
  • confessionalisation
  • justice and the law
  • government, economy and social change
  • household order
  • communication, propaganda and magnificence
  • communication, representation and revolt

 

 

This option approaches the history of 20th-century Europe by testing the concepts of national, transnational and international history and their possible interactions. It will not compare the history of individual European countries, but rather explore how notions of regional, national, transnational and international history have been used to organize and interpret the history of 20th-century Europe. While the course is firmly rooted in the empirical history of Europe and its relationships to the wider world in this period, it will foreground questions of interpretation. These will include exploring the scope and limits of approaches to political, economic and social history based on concepts of the national, transnational and international, and assessing the advantages and disadvantages of destabilizing the dominant conventions for writing the history of Europe in the last century. The course is intended both for students who want an introduction to this history and for those who want an opportunity to extend and reconsider their existing knowledge of it. Among topics that may be covered are: 

  • The History of a Transnational Continent 
  • Political Geographies: Regions, Nations, Empires 
  • Internationalism and Rights
  • Varieties of Political Representation 
  • Consumption Regimes 
  • Boundaries and Identities 
  • Environmentalism and Transnationalism 
  • International wars and Civil Wars

 

 

This course is an introduction to the history of warfare since ca.1780, taking the emergence of revolutionary warfare and the military divergence between Europe and the rest of the world as its starting-point. The course is organised both thematically and chronologically. Students will be asked to assess whether the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries saw the emergence of a new epoch in warfare, one marked within Europe by the emergence of mass conscript armies, and beyond it by a recent but rapid European military divergence from the rest of the world. They will explore the topics of war and empire – wars of colonial conquest in Asia, America and Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries – and be encouraged to explore whether this was enabled or facilitated by the developments of the military revolution. They will explore the distinctive forms and functions of warfare which emerged in the 19th century, notably the relationships between war and the various nation-building projects at the time, and the racialized violence of colonial warfare. ‘War and Technology’ will look at how certain types of technological advance – notably rifled weaponry, steam-powered, iron-hulled armoured warships, and later air power and land armour – transformed the way wars were fought, and the international relations surrounding them, while also exploring the role of medical science in warfare. The topic of Life, Death and the experience of war will ask if historians can recreate the subjective experience of the battlefield, and the medical and psychological consequences of warfare. ‘Total War’ will explore the total mobilisation of societies to meet the demands of 20th-century warfare, focusing on the First and Second World Wars.

Throughout the degree, students work towards a dissertation.  Recent topics have included: 

  • War and technological innovation
  • Operational history in broader context
  • Military-civil relations
  • Social and cultural history of armed forces
  • Counter-insurgency and other forms of ‘small war’
  • Resource-mobilisation, logistics and the socio-economic impact of war
  • War and medicine

Faculty and Research Culture

The study of the History of War at Oxford is characterised by temporal and spatial breadth, as well as the multiplicity of approaches to understanding past conflicts.  Chronologically, current research ranges from ancient world to the late twentieth century, with particular strengths in early modernity and the period after the mid-nineteenth century.  The main areas for the middle ages are Byzantine and crusader warfare. Geographically, Europe is the primary field with particular strengths for German, French, Belgian, Spanish, British and Irish history.  Warfare in early twentieth-century China and India are also major fields, as well as nomadic warfare, and colonial and post-colonial conflicts especially those in New Zealand, Africa and the Middle East.  Important thematic interests include mobilising resources for war, military institutions, naval warfare, military-civil relations, war and gender, war and humanitarianism, disease, imperialism and war.  The history of war is connected to other historical fields and to other disciplines through the research of many scholars who study the wider impact of conflict, as well as how war and violence are perceived and remembered. Particular areas of interest include the environmental impact of twentieth-century conflict, war and ideas of nation-building, and the relationship between the changing character of war and scientific and technological development.  The majority of staff pursuing this research are based in the Faculty of History, including the related Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine.  Others are in the Department for Continuing Education and the Department for International Development.  There are strong collaborative links through TORCH, notably the Globalising and Localising the First World War project, as well as with the Changing Character of War programme based in Pembroke College.

See all their websites for more details of their research interests, and for the full range of topics on which they would be interested in supervising graduate students, only partially captured by the brief descriptions above.

Faculty seminars bring together staff, doctoral and master’s students working in the field, to hear speakers including doctoral students, external and internal to the university.

Admissions Questions

We normally take about MSt students and one or two MPhil students in this area, but numbers vary from year to year and we are able to be flexible.  If you have any questions about our admissions procedure, please check the University admissions pages and/or contact Graduate Admissions. If you have any questions about studying this topic at Oxford, please contact the Convener.

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