The Century of War: The history of War at Oxford

The study of history at Oxford is characterised by its catholic embrace of the fullest range of the past. Often Oxford, belying its conservative reputation, has pioneered aspects of history once regarded as peripheral, unimportant, or novel. Hew Strachan, the Chichele Professor of the History of War, charts one such Oxford initiative.

Chichele Professors of the History of War

  • Henry Spenser Wilkinson 1909–1923
  • Sir Ernest Swinton 1925–1939
  • Cyril Falls 1946–1953
  • Norman Gibbs 1953–1977
  • Sir Michael Howard 1977–80
  • Robert O’Neill 1987–2001
  • Hew Strachan 2002–

The chair in the history of war (or military history as it used to be) will celebrate its centenary in 2009. It is the oldest professorship in the subject in the world. It is unique in other respects as well. In recent years other British universities have created posts in military history, itself an indication of the health of the subject, but they have in the main been established on a personal basis with no guarantee of a long-term institutional commitment.

The first holder of the Oxford chair, Spenser Wilkinson, was both a military historian and a commentator on contemporary affairs. His most substantial scholarly works, on warfare in the eighteenth century, conclude with lessons for the present. He was the advocate of a general staff for the army and (less successfully) for the navy; he wrote on imperial and home defence, and he sustained a journalistic career for over thirty years. His ability to straddle military history and what we would now call strategic studies has become an implicit requirement of the post, and one which all its incumbents have fulfilled. In recent times Sir Michael Howard has been the most obvious exemplar of the tradition; indeed, despite the growth of scholarly specialisation, his career has revalidated it.

That too has become a unique feature of the Oxford chair. In the United States and in continental Europe, military historians are historians and students of contemporary strategy are political scientists. The result has been an increasing divergence in research direction. Military history is now part of ‘total’ history; to make sense it has to be set in its political, economic, social, and cultural context. In a process that is both cause and effect, the acceptability of the subject and of its practitioners has soared over the last thirty years. Strategic studies too have survived the end of the Cold War far better than the gloomier pundits anticipated, but in doing so they have moved from strategy to security, and now regard law, geography, economics and a host of other disciplines as falling within their bailiwick. Spenser Wilkinson could not have coped; one wonders whether even Michael Howard, if he were to begin his career again, would try to do so. The remit of each subject in isolation, let alone both in conjunction, is beyond the scope of one man or woman to sustain. But that is another unique, less self-congratulatory aspect of the chair. It stands alone. Oxford has had no lectureship in either military history or strategic studies to place alongside the professorship, as would almost certainly have been the case in any other university in an RAE-driven age.

women say go

The problem has been not just one of posts and cash. It is also an intellectual one. Spenser Wilkinson and his successors were right. There is a synergy to be achieved from the simultaneous study of military history and contemporary defence. Both Oxford and the subject would lose if the link were broken. War does have characteristics which make it more than the sum of other human activities. Battle, the courage required to cope with it, and the need to kill in order to win it, pose a distinct set of demands for the individual. The nation’s decision to require its citizens to undertake it, however much it may grow organically from the authority of the state, still puts the relationship between the individual and state on a totally new footing. Moreover, war is not something that soldiers or states do all the time. Doctors practise medicine by applying it every day; soldiers may train for war on most days, but they put their training into practice on very few. Their knowledge is perforce partial and incomplete; it is largely historical.

For at least the next five years, the Leverhulme Trust has helped ease both Oxford’s problem and – far more importantly – the wider intellectual difficulty which underpins it. The University has been successful in winning a UK-wide competition to run a programme, worth £1.1 million, on the changing character of war. The use of the word ‘changing’ in the title is itself a challenge to the historian. It is easy for him or her to be the cynical know-all, to identify continuities, and to dispute the prevalent idea that the both the nature of war as an institution and its place in international relations have fundamentally altered since the end of the Cold War. For the early modern historian, it is much more difficult than it is for international relations specialists to accept that the European states system emerged fully fledged from the treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The former is therefore less alarmed than the latter by its apparent weakening. For the late modern historian, it hardly seems as self-evident as it does to some other commentators that Clausewitz’s idealisation of war as a political activity has ceased to apply. The state is still the biggest actor in the application of armed force, as the Iraqis know. Intrastate or civil wars may be more frequent, but they are not new.

Seeking such continuities is a valuable corrective, but it is also the simpler part of the historian’s job. Much more difficult and much more demanding is the identification of real change. That is the task for the Leverhulme programme if it is to help us understand the challenges of the twenty-first century. Moreover, it is not one for historians alone. The project is an interdisciplinary one. Although physically located in the Department of Politics and International Relations, it represents a collaboration between it and the Faculties of Philosophy and Modern History. It boasts the involvement of international lawyers and it seeks the participation of practitioners. In particular, the proximity of the Defence Academy, the umbrella for the Joint Services Command and Staff College and for the Joint Doctrine and Concepts Centre, down the road at Shrivenham, has created the opportunity to involve those with recent operational experience in its deliberations.

The programme’s title is ‘War, norms and the state’, and it is divided into three parts. Its first is predominantly historical in its approach. Armed forces have been organised on national lines for state purposes. But in many countries, including our own, there is a gap between the forces and the societies they are called upon to defend. The European trend away from conscription and towards professional armies is widening that gap, while making Britain a model for emulation – even in France. Technological fixes suggest that modern states can fight wars with fewer men by making sophisticated weapons systems act as force multipliers. The continuities in these debates fall back on vocabulary that dates from the French Revolution on the one hand and the impact of industrialisation on the other.

The state faces another, external challenge in its use of war. The internationalisation of many aspects of war and conflict has eroded its capacity for independent decision-making, even when it still retains the capability to act on its own. The laws of war, both those relating to the decision to go to war and those governing its conduct, therefore constitute the second part of the project. Rules of engagement now shape operational and tactical doctrine, while at the other, policy-making end of the spectrum the United States has claimed the right to use war pre-emptively in the pursuit of its fight against terrorism. Pre-emption in war is not new: its study therefore presents another challenge for the historian. It also raises fundamental ethical issues, and these make up the third, philosophical plank in the programme.

The Leverhulme Trust award has enabled the creation of four posts. Three are research associateships, one in each of the core disciplines, history, international politics, and philosophy. The historian, Dr Thomas Hippler, points the direction in which the subject must go. He is German, but his thesis, for the European University in Florence, was written in English and will be published in French. A study of the introduction of conscription in France and Prussia in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, it is genuinely comparative. For far too long military history has been approached along national lines, a logical absurdity when war is an international and reciprocal activity. Moreover, his topic has immediate relevance for one set of issues which we must explore. He has now embarked on another – the use of aerial bombardment. Both political thought and ethics are germane to his thinking, and it is this sort of interdisciplinary understanding which will be essential if we are to achieve the synergy which will ensure that the project’s output is greater than the sum of its parts.

The fourth appointment is a five-year departmental lecturership in strategic studies, to be held by Dr Patricia Owens. (It is worth remarking that two of the four posts in what might be characterised as a ‘male’ subject have been filled by women.) Thanks to the Leverhulme Trust, the University is in a position, for the time being at any rate, to deliver teaching in strategic studies as a proper subject in its own right. The challenge is to sustain this development and to extend it, particularly in military history. War will not have gone off the academic agenda by the time we celebrate the centenary of Spenser Wilkinson’s appointment but the Leverhulme money will have been spent. We must now ensure that Leverhulme’s investment, large though it is, can be the seed corn for the future.


- Hew Strachan

All Souls College

Chichele Professor of the History of War