Sending history into battle: the lessons that war leaders have tried to learn from the past

War leaders have always tried to learn the lessons of the past. But deploying history in conflict is a path strewn with pitfalls as well as opportunities, argues Andrew Roberts

Few war leaders have been more profoundly steeped in history than Winston Churchill, who drew inspiration from his ancestor – and one of Britain's most celebrated generals – the Duke of Marlborough (left). (Images by Getty Images/Bridgeman

Beside my desk is a letter from Aldous Huxley, written from Los Angeles in November 1959, which states: “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of the lessons that history has to teach us.” One group of people who do try to learn from history are war leaders, although they do not always learn the correct lessons. As politicians and statesmen, they tend to be more interested in history than most people, and they often see themselves in historical roles that they recognise have been played in the past. Like modern-day actors watching films and videos of people playing the same parts that they themselves are about to take on, war leaders try to learn from those who went before. It’s a path strewn with opportunities and pitfalls.

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One well-known war leader recalled his school history teacher as a “grey-haired man whose fiery description made us forget the present and who evoked plain historical facts out of the fog of the centuries and turned them into living reality… He not only knew how to throw light on the past by utilising the present, but also how to draw conclusions from the past and apply them to the present. More than anyone else he showed understanding for all the daily problems which held us breathless at the time. He was the teacher who made history my favourite subject.” That was written by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf, and it illustrates how easy it has been for many people to learn the wrong lessons from history.

Hitler saw himself as a second Arminius – the leader of the Cherusci tribe and of a coalition that famously destroyed three Roman legions in the battle of the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9. But when he invaded Russia in 1941, the fuhrer ignored the blatant historical examples of both King Charles XII of Sweden and Napoleon Bonaparte in their disastrous invasions in the two previous centuries. The fact that Hitler codenamed his onslaught Operation Barbarossa after Emperor Frederick I (1122–90) was an indication that he saw the offensive in grand historical terms. The Holy Roman Emperor fought five campaigns in Italy and was a leader of the Third Crusade. Crucially, however, Frederick never campaigned in the endless wastes of Russia.

Adolf Hitler and Frederick Barbarossa
Adolf Hitler named his invasion of the Soviet Union after Frederick Barbarossa (right) – despite the fact that the 12th-century German emperor never campaigned in Russia. (Images by Getty Images)

Once Operation Barbarossa had gone disastrously wrong, and the Soviet armies were advancing on Berlin from the east – while British and American armies crossed the Rhine in March 1945 – Hitler also tried to take solace by finding a reassuring historical precedent. With President Franklin Roosevelt dying, Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, wondered whether it might be a recurrence of the moment in January 1762 when the death of Tsarina Elizabeth of Russia brought Tsar Peter III to the throne, who, as an admirer of Frederick the Great, split the anti-Prussian coalition. It was a wildly inappropriate parallel – the incoming president, Harry S Truman, fully supported continuing the Second World War – and a sign of just how desperate the fuhrer was for any glimmer of good news.

The commanders of ancient empires provide not just examples of great war leadership in themselves, but also inspiration for almost all the great conquerors who came after them. It is impossible to consider the military and political career of Napoleon Bonaparte without appreciating how he consciously saw himself as a worthy modern successor to Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar; he proved as much in his exile on the South Atlantic island of St Helena, when he wrote a commentary on Caesar’s military campaigns. It is likewise astounding how often battles like Cannae and Actium and leaders like Hannibal and Scipio crop up in the thought and conversation of the military leaders of the 19th and 20th centuries.

American heroes

Dwight D Eisenhower was fascinated by the battle of Cannae (Hannibal’s great triumph over the Romans, in 216 BC), which is still taught in military academies today. His boss during the Second World War, the US army chief of staff, General George C Marshall, was also steeped in history. His heroes were the giants of the American Civil War. As a young cadet at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), Mar-shall had seen Stonewall Jackson’s widow attend commemoration services there.

The teaching at VMI, where Civil War cannonballs were embedded in some of the buildings, used historical parallels constantly, urging its pupils to emulate such generals as Robert E Lee and Jackson himself. The tactics of leaders from other eras, including George Washington and Napoleon, were also taught.

Napoleon’s education was similarly steeped in both military and political history, from which he constantly drew parallels with his own career throughout his life. Napoleon urged his junior officers to “read and re-read the campaigns of Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Turenne, Prince Eugene and Frederick the Great. This is the only way to become a great captain.” Ancient history provided him with an encyclopaedia of military and political tactics and quotations that he would draw upon. This inspiration was so profound that, when posing for paintings, he would sometimes put his hand into his waistcoat in imitation of toga-wearing Romans.

Napoleon Bonaparte imitates a toga-wearing statesman
Napoleon Bonaparte imitates a toga-wearing statesman by placing his hand into his waistcoat. The French leader urged his men to study ancient generals such as Alexander the Great (left). (Images by Alamy and Getty Images)

While at his military academy, Brienne, Napoleon would borrow many biographies and history books from the school library, devouring Plutarch’s tales of heroism, patriotism and virtue. He also read Cornelius Nepos’ Lives of the Great Captains. One of his school nicknames – ‘the Spartan’ – might have been accorded him because of his pronounced admiration for that city-state rather than for any asceticism of character. In classes he naturally took the side of his hero Caesar against Pompey.

While his contemporaries played sports outside, Napoleon would read everything he could about the most ambitious leaders of the ancient world. For him, the desire to emulate Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar was thus neither as strange or as hubristic as it might seem today. His schooling left him with the ambition to stand alongside the giants of the past.

Those giants also extended into more recent history. Another hero of Napoleon’s was Charles XII of Sweden, who from 1700–06 had destroyed the armies of three states in coalition against him, but then marched deep into Russia, only to be catastrophically defeated, as Napoleon was to be in 1812.

Up for the fight

Charles de Gaulle, though a student of history, was curiously ambivalent about Napoleon, whom he thought a megalomaniac. (To which any Briton might add: It took one to know one.) De Gaulle drew more inspiration from French war leaders such as Joan of Arc and Georges Clemenceau, earning Churchill’s jibe that de Gaulle thought of himself as Joan of Arc in trousers. De Gaulle’s inspiration to leave France in June 1940 and continue the struggle from London seems to have sprung from the example of Clemenceau, who, as French prime minister in November 1917, had said that his compatriots would not stop fighting even if Paris fell.

Charles de Gaulle and Joan of Arc
In a radio broadcast from London, June 1940, Charles de Gaulle urges his compatriots to resist foreign occupation, as his hero, Joan of Arc (right), had done 500 years earlier. (Images by Bridgeman)

Charles de Gaulle’s father, uncle and grandfather were all historians, and he was thoroughly schooled in French patriotic history. He saw it as his mission to avenge France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, and another unfortunate period of recent history from which de Gaulle sadly drew unfortunate conclusions, the Fashoda Crisis. In 1898 Britain and France had a stand-off in the Sudan that could have resulted in war, before France humiliatingly backed down. The future General de Gaulle was only eight years old at the time of Fashoda, but his father, an ultra-nationalist minor aristocrat and history professor at a Jesuit college, took almost personal affront at France’s lost dignity, and drummed his anglophobia into his son.

De Gaulle’s father, an ultra-nationalist and history professor at a Jesuit college, drummed his anglophobia into his son

Yet the war leader who was most profoundly steeped in history, largely because he was a historian himself, was Winston Churchill, author of a four-volume biography of his great ancestor, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (the architect of a brilliant victory over the French at Blenheim in 1704). During the Second World War, Churchill rightly saw himself acting on the same historical plane as both Marlborough, and his other great hero, Napoleon.

Churchill profoundly believed that both statesmen and even entire countries could and should learn the lessons of history. In April 1956, he said of the United States, which was not supporting Britain in her clash with Egypt over the Suez Canal, “They are a wise and experienced people. They learn from history. They know well that both the great wars which have darkened our lives and dishevelled the world could have been prevented if the United States had acted before they began to prevent them.”

In the case of Suez, however, both Church-ill and the then prime minister, Anthony Eden, took the wrong lessons from history, fallaciously equating Egypt’s leader, Colonel Abdul Nasser, with Benito Mussolini. Over the Dardanelles expedition (a doomed attempt to knock Turkey out of the Great War in 1915), Churchill had also learned the wrong lesson – in this case from Admiral Sir John Duckworth’s successful forcing of the Straits in 1807.

Stiffening the sinews

Much more often, however, history came spectacularly to Churchill’s aid, particularly in the 1930s and during the Second World War when he mined it extensively for modern-day parallels. “It was not so much the triumph of distant deductive reasoning,” thought Enoch Powell, “as the long vista of historical and personal memory which, when others were still blind, revealed to him the nature and inevitable outcome of the resurgent German empire. He was a man who thought with his memory.” The historian Sir Jack Plumb agreed, arguing in a 1983 speech entitled ‘The Dominion of History’: “I think that it is extremely difficult for anyone not born into Churchill’s world or time to realise what a dominance the past had over all of his thinking and action.”

Winston Churchill did not just send the English language into battle, he sent English history into battle too

For Churchill did not just use history in his perorations like other politicians – to stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood. Instead he employed it in the body of his argument, for he truly believed that his generation had a duty to continue Britain’s work, which he saw in the classically Whiggish way of being at the forefront of human progress.

A few months after the First World War broke out, in January 1915, Churchill exclaimed to the prime minister’s wife, Margot Asquith: “My God! This, this is living history. Everything we are doing and saying is thrilling – it will be read by a thousand generations, think of that!” The war gave Churchill many opportunities for calling history in aid, as on 23 May 1916 when he said in a speech in support of compulsory conscription: “If the Germans are to be beaten decisively, they will be beaten like Napoleon was beaten and like the Confederates were beaten – that is to say, by being opposed by superior numbers along fronts so extensive that they cannot maintain them or replace the losses incurred along them.” It took more than two years of slaughter before his analogy was proved correct.

General George C Marshall and George Washington
General George C Marshall, US army chief of staff during the Second World War, was a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute, where he was encouraged to study the campaigns of generals such as George Washington (left). (Images by Bridgeman and AKG Images)

A united front

Once he had finished Marlborough in 1938, Churchill started work on another history book, his four-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples. He was not writing these books merely for the pleasure of academic research; it was always with the motive that history would be, as he put it, “helpful as a guide in present difficulties”.

And in no conflict would those difficulties appear more overwhelming than the Second World War. In a radio broadcast on 10 May 1942, Churchill was quick to use history to tease Adolf Hitler about his army’s reverses in the Soviet Union. “There is a winter, you know, in Russia,” he joked. “For a good many months the temperature is apt to fall very low. There is snow, there is frost, and all that. Hitler forgot about this Russian winter. He must have been very loosely educated. We all heard about it at school; but he forgot it. I have never made such a bad mistake as that.”

Eighteen months earlier, as the Battle of Britain reached its height on 11 September 1940, Churchill had told the world: “We must regard the next week or so as a very important period in our history. It ranks with the days when the Spanish Armada was approaching the Channel, and Drake was finishing his game of bowls; or when Nelson stood between us and Napoleon’s Grand Army at Boulogne. We have read all about this in the history books, but what is happening now is on a far greater scale and of far more consequence to the life and future of the world and its civilisation than these brave old days of the past.” The Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie wrote in his diary of the effect of that speech on Britons: “He makes them feel they are living their history.”

A recent article in a Polish historical journal has estimated that as many as 10 per cent of Churchill’s most important wartime speeches of 1940 and 1941 covered historical topics. To borrow from the American journalist Ed Murrow, Winston Churchill did not just send the English language into battle, he sent English history into battle too.

Successful war leadership requires a wide range of attributes, which include detailed planning, a sense of timing, understanding of psychology, inspirational speeches and proclamations, control of the news agenda, the capacity to be ruthless when necessary, calmness under pressure, and the ability to exploit advantages. Yet on top of all that, great war leaders also need a powerful sense of applied history.

Andrew Roberts’ latest book, Leadership in War: Lessons From Those Who Made History, was published by Allen Lane in October. He will be discussing war leadership on our podcast historyextra.com/podcast

Who is the greatest leader in history? Andrew Roberts is among the experts answering this question in issue 20 of our sister magazine BBC World Histories. 

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This article was first published in the Christmas 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine