Long-time Eastbury resident Sir Michael Howard, a man once described as ‘Britain’s greatest living historian’, died on 30 November 2019, the day after his 97th birthday. Mainly known for his work on 19th and 20th century military history, he was also involved in founding a number of organisations and academic programmes, including the Institute for International Studies and the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives.
His work encompassed a far broader scope and depth than the term ‘military historian’ generally denotes, being concerned also with the wider context of the issue. It was perhaps this that informed his deep concern about nuclear weapons and, later, his opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His knowledge of warfare was by no means purely academic, for he served with distinction in the Second World War and was awarded the Military Cross. He is survived by his long-time partner Mark James.
Several obituaries have appeared since his death. This one, from The Guardian, was published on 1 December 2019.
I met Michael several times, first at some of the early screenings by the Valley Film Society. When I was told who he was I was at first too over-awed to speak to him: I am a history graduate myself and therefore perhaps even more aware than most of the gap between his intellectual capacities and my own. When I did get to know him better I found him charming and unassuming, a man who wore his erudition and his numerous achievements lightly.
About five years ago I was writing about some of the early battles of WW1 for a publishing project. I asked for his help and advice and he was kind enough to point me towards some useful works and, better still, read through what I had written. To my great delight and satisfaction, when we discussed this over a glass of wine in his living room he found fault only with a few passages. These were the very ones with which I was least happy and where I realised I was skating over thin ice; which he spotted immediately. He also gave me the run of his library at his home, a beautiful and astonishing circular room on two levels. Although the publishing project never reached fruition, I was profoundly grateful to him for his support and interest. To spend even a small amount of time of the company of a great mind is an edifying experience and one I was lucky enough to have experienced with him.
During the course of this work, I bought and read his excellent book The First World War: A Very Short Introduction. Anyone wanting a clear, concise, authoritative and beautifully written account of the momentous and complex subject need look no further. This will perhaps not be regarded as his greatest work: The Franco-Prussian War would probably claim that title. The Very Short Introduction is, however, a book of a different kind, a synthesis of a lifetime’s study. To be able to craft such a brief and compelling summary of such a conflict requires a complete mastery of the subject matter and the ability to communicate the results with complete clarity. Both of these rare qualities Michael Howard possessed to a very high degree.
The main image is taken from the cover of his autobiography, Captain Professor: A Life in War and Peace, first published by Continuum in 2006.