Top Ten Books from the Oxford Battle Series
Oxford University Press has a series that covers classic battles from Ancient Greece to World War II. Each of these books discusses not only the battles themselves but how they were commemorated and their long term impact on history. The books try to understand not just how the battle took place, but why they became so important.
Anne Curry. Agincourt (Oxford Univesity Press)
Why is Agincourt one of the best known and celebrated battles in history? What made it remarkable? Like many of the battles in the series, the legend of Agincourt has overshadowed the battle itself. One of the most famous speeches in Shakespeare's plays (Saint Crispin's Day Speech) is Henry V's speech inspiring his soldiers before Agincourt.
Anne Curry first sets the scene, illuminating how and why the battle was fought, as well as its significance in the wider history of the Hundred Years War. She then takes the Agincourt story through the centuries from 1415 to 2015, from the immediate, and sometimes surprising, responses to it on both sides of the Channel, through its reinvention by Shakespeare in King Henry V (1599), and the enduring influence of both the play and the film versions of it, especially the patriotic Laurence Olivier version of 1944, at the time of the D-Day landings in Normandy.
Simon Ball. Alamein (Oxford Univesity Press)
The Battle of El Alamein was the most important battle of the North African conflict between German and Italy and the British Empire. The battle, which was in reality, a series of battles, has entered military legend and it is one of the best-known battles of WWII. The battle was involved some of the most famous generals of the war, including Bernard Montgomery and Erwin Rommel. Significantly, the battle was a turning point in the European theater.
Simon Ball's book turns the interpretation of the battle on its head. Based on the intensive reading of the contemporary sources, in particular, the extensive and recently declassified British bugging of Axis prisoners of war, military historian Simon Ball turns Alamein on its head, explaining it as a cultural defeat for Britain. Ball's book is well worth a look.
Murray Pittock. Culloden (Oxford Univesity Press)
The Battle of Culloden was the last battle fought on British soil by regular troops. The battle was short, brutal, one-sided and decisive. The British crushed the Jacobites and forced Bonnie Prince Charlie into exile in France. While the battle itself is of little note, the result of the battle was extremely consequential to Britain, Europe, and the North American colonies. Additionally, the Battle of Culloden and Jacobite uprising been romanticized. The books and television series Outlander center around the Jacobite uprising and the Battle of Culloden are just one example.
Pittock's book examines the battle and the brutal suppression of the Highland clans after the uprising ended. He seeks to correct the notion that battle was a dramatic clash, between Highlander and Lowlander, Celt and Saxon, Catholic and Protestant, the old and the new.
Jenny MacLeod. Gallipoli (Oxford Univesity Press)
In Gallipoli, historian Jenny Macleod discusses why the Allied plan failed, and of equal importance, how the Ottoman Army withstood the assault and emerged victoriously. Although new evidence has not been unearthed, Macleod takes advantage of digitization in accessing sources and presents an insightful look into the Ottoman military. Further, this text intentionally forgoes referring to Ottoman soldiers as “Turks,” and celebrates the ethnic and religious diversity of the Ottoman military forces. Finally, going beyond the battle, the author focuses heavily on the national and cultural consequences of the battle in the aftermath of the Great War.
Gallipoli is a detailed account of the nations involved in that battle. The book focuses more on the aftermath in the participating nations. Macleod convincingly supports her argument that due to logistics, training, and politics the Allied plan could do nothing but fail. Additionally, she conveys the respect the enemy soldiers held for each other; respect that began as hatred.
John France. Hattin (Oxford Univesity Press)'
In 1187 at the Battle of Hattin, the Muslim leader Saladin annihilated the Crusaders army of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and forced the Europeans out of the Holy Land. The Battle of Hattin was a slaughter that fundamentally changed the Holy Land because Saladin, a Sunni Muslim, had retaken Jerusalem. Additionally, the war between Islam and Christendom intensified even as Crusaders' presence in the Holy Land waned.
Hattin ultimately led to several efforts by Crusaders to retake Jerusalem. For Muslims, Hattim was become of hope that they could foreigners and has transformed into a rallying cry for radical Sunni fundamentalists. France's book places the battle into its historical context.
Peter H. Wilson. Lutzen (Oxford Univesity Press)
The Battle of Lutzen (November 1632) between the German Imperial and Swedish armies is considered one of the most important battles in history, but, curiously, it was not decisive. It neither resolved the 30 Years War nor resulted in any significant gains for the Swedish victors. Why has it become so significant?
Peter Wilson explains that Lutzen's fame is based more on Gustav II Adolf of Sweden's sacrifice at the battle than the battle itself. Gustav became a martyr for the Protestant faith and was celebrated in both Sweden and the Protestant community of Lutzen that is near the battle site. Wilson's book does an outstanding job of explaining how the Battle of Lutzen obtained mythic proportions over time.
Ian F. W. Beckett. Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana (Oxford Univesity Press)
The Anglo-Zulu war started with one of the worst defeats of British forces at Isandlwana in the 19th Century which was followed by the successful defense of a small outpost at Rourke's Drift against an overwhelming Zulu force. Ian Beckett explores the perspectives of both Britain and Zulus to better understand both the consequences of the battle and how both groups understand these battles from a cultural perspective. Britain was forced to confront the reality that its colonial policies could no longer ensure success. Instead of expanding its imperial power in the 20th century, Britain's influence dramatically declined throughout the 20th Century.
Additionally, both of these battles continue to influence both Britain and the Zulus. Two separate British movies Zulu Dawn (Isandlwana) and Zulu (Rourke's Drift) brought these battles back into the consciousness of in the 1960s-70s. Beckett explores the myths that have arisen not only from the movies but how the interpretations of these battles have changed.
Chris Carey. Thermopylae (Oxford Univesity Press)
In 480 AD, a small outnumbered Greek military fiercely fought a battle against the most powerful army to invade Greece at that time. While the Greeks ultimately ended up retreating from the battle, the Persians had only won a pyrrhic victory. They may have won the battle but Thermopylae put an end to their ambitions in Greece. Chris Carey not only examines the battle, but he is forced to separate fact from myth. Studying Thermopylae is a challenge because there are very few sources describing the battle. It is extremely difficult to determine if the sources are reliable or spreading propaganda.
Despite the sketchy historical record, Thermopylae has taken on significance in Western culture since it was fought. It has played a significant role in poetry, literature and even modern movies. Carey explains the ways that Thermopylae has taken on a significance beyond the conseuquences on the Greeks and Persians.
Alan Forrest. Waterloo (Oxford University Press)
The Battle of Waterloo has cast a long shadow over Europe. It ended the French Empire and Napoleon's aspirations and it significantly altered the direction of Europe. Unsurprisingly, the meaning and significance of Waterloo are different for all of the countries that participated in the battle. Alan Forrest walks through the reader through the battle but explores the consequences and the interpretations of Waterloo. Forrest answers how we remember Waterloo. Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands all view Waterloo through different a lens.
Mark Connelly and Stefan Goebel. Ypres (Oxford Univesity Press)
The Battle of Ypres was one of the most devasting and destructive battles of World War I. Mark Connelly and Stefan Goebel not walk readers through the battle itself, but explore the ways in which Ypres has been understood and interpreted by Britain and the Commonwealth, Belgium, France, and Germany, including the variants developed by the Nazis. People from different countries have struggled to impose their own narratives on the city and the region around it to make sense of the carnage from a national perspective. Significantly, Ypres has become the heart of the World War I battle tourism especially for tourists from Britain and other Commonwealth countries.