The best books on military disasters

Who am I?

I’m a freelance writer specialising in history, and I’ve picked these works of narrative non-fiction because they stand out among many others that helped to inspire my enduring interest in the past. I first read them decades ago, either as a teenager still at school, or in my twenties, while working as a newspaper reporter. Ultimately, they shaped my decision to study history at university as a mature student, and then to try writing books myself. Originally published between 1953 and 1985, all five of the books that I’ve chosen are still available in paperback editions on both sides of the Atlantic, and with good reason: they combine credible research with powerful story-telling – attributes that I’ve tried hard to emulate through my own writing.

I wrote...

White Devil: A True Story of War, Savagery, and Vengeance in Colonial America

By Stephen Brumwell,

Book cover of White Devil: A True Story of War, Savagery, and Vengeance in Colonial America

What is my book about?

During the mid-eighteenth century, Britain and her North American colonies were embroiled in bitter and protracted fighting with French Canada and its Native American allies. In 1759, when this ‘French and Indian War’ was at its height, the celebrated New England ‘ranger’ Major Robert Rogers was sent on a hazardous mission far behind enemy lines to destroy the village of St Francis, home of the implacably hostile Abenaki tribe.

Rogers executed his orders with ruthless zeal but was obliged to make a punishing retreat through hostile territory during which he and his men suffered terrible hardships before reaching safety. The ‘St Francis Raid’ made Rogers a hero among his countrymen, but the Abenaki remembered him very differently, as the ‘White Devil’. Providing a detailed narrative of the attack on St Francis and its aftermath, ‘White Devil’ also aims to put that episode into context by exploring the conflicting frontier societies and the savage irregular warfare that evolved in response to a backwoods environment. Based upon archival research, it seeks to give a lively, balanced, and nuanced account of an episode that remains controversial today. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn

Why did I love this book?

A rare foray into non-fiction by an accomplished poet and novelist, Son of the Morning Star approaches its subject via a rambling journey through the Old American West. It meanders more than the snaking Little Bighorn River itself, yet every digression helps to build a wonderfully vivid sense of time and place. Deploying a wry, conversational style, Connell analyses the historical and cultural background to ‘Custer’s Last Stand’, and explores the personalities of the key protagonists, both among Custer’s Seventh Cavalry, and the Native American tribes of the Great Plains who fought against them. At times both funny and shocking, this is an original and eloquent retelling of one of the best-known disasters in military history.

By Evan S. Connell,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Son of the Morning Star as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On a scorching June Sunday in 1876, thousands of Indian warriors - Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho - converged on a grassy ridge above the valley of Montana's Little Bighorn River. On the ridge five companies of United States cavalry - 262 soldiers, comprising officers and troopers - fought desperately but hopelessly. When the guns fell silent, no soldier - including their commanding officer, Lt Col. George Armstrong Custer - had survived. Custer's Last Stand is among the most enduring events in American history - 130 years after the fact, books continue to be written and people continue to argue…

Book cover of The Washing of the Spears: A History of the Rise of the Zulu Nation under Shaka and its fall in the Zulu War of 1879

Why did I love this book?

At first glance, US Navy veteran and CIA officer Donald R Morris might seem an unlikely author of an epic chronicle of the bloody trajectory of the Zulu kingdom in nineteenth-century South Africa. Yet when The Washing of the Spears emerged in 1965 it was immediately recognised as a major work of historical narrative. Morris traces the forging of the Zulu war machine under the ruthless and charismatic Shaka, its subsequent setbacks at the hands of Boer settlers, and its revival under Shaka’s nephew Cetshwayo. Morris’s book reaches a powerful climax in his analysis of the ferocious Zulu clashes with the British Army in 1879. He delivers riveting accounts of the disastrous British defeat at Isandlwana and the dogged defence of Rorke’s Drift that followed soon after. Emerging hot on the heels of the popular movie Zulu, The Washing of the Spears helped to generate widespread and lasting interest in the Anglo-Zulu War.

By Donald R. Morris,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Washing of the Spears as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1879, armed only with their spears, their rawhide shields, and their incredible courage, the Zulus challenged the might of Victorian England and, initially, inflicted on the British the worst defeat a modern army has ever suffered at the hands of men without guns. This definitive account of the rise of the Zulu nation under the great ruler Shaka and its fall under Cetshwayo has been acclaimed for its scholarship, its monumental range, and its spellbinding readability. The story is studded with tales of drama and heroism: the Battle of Isandhlwana, where the Zulu army wiped out the major British…


By John Prebble,

Book cover of Culloden

Why did I love this book?

Before becoming a journalist and author, Prebble served in the ranks of the British Army’s Royal Artillery throughout WW2. This experience gave him sympathy for the ordinary soldier that runs through much of his work, and especially this account of the lop-sided and bloody battle that ended the Jacobite rebellion of 1746. In Culloden, Prebble draws upon eyewitness testimony to reconstruct the brutal reality behind the romantic legends spun around the ‘Young Pretender’ Bonnie Prince Charlie, and chronicles the harsh consequences for the men – many of them Scottish Highlanders - he led into rebellion against King George II. In restrained but evocative prose, Prebble tells the grim story with balance and compassion. Culloden inspired an innovative docudrama by Peter Watkins, while Prebble himself co-wrote the screenplay of the film Zulu.

By John Prebble,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Culloden as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the story of ordinary men and women involved in the Rebellion, who were described on the gaol registers and regimental rosters of the time as 'Common Men'. There is little in this book about Bonnie Prince Charlie and other principals of the last Jacobite Rising of 1745. Culloden recalls them by name and action, presenting the battle as it was for them, describing their life as fugitives in the glens or as prisoners in the gaols and hulks, their transportation to the Virginias or their deaths on the gallows at Kennington Common. The book begins in the rain…

Book cover of The Reason Why: The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade

Why did I love this book?

Picking up on a line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade (‘Theirs not to reason why …’), the author delves into the events and characters behind a British disaster during the Crimean War with Russia. The class-based officer system of the mid-Victorian army, which permitted wealthy aristocrats like the haughty and snobbish Lord Cardigan to hold rank far above their abilities, is evoked in withering prose. Woodham-Smith also shows how the feud between Cardigan and his brother-in-law Lord Lucan contributed to the catalogue of errors that triggered the misguided attack of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854. But the worst culprit was an outdated military system that allowed such woefully unqualified men to exert authority at all. Highlighting the courage and discipline of the ordinary troopers in the teeth of suicidal odds, the description of the charge is both gripping and moving. The Reason Why provided the raw material for Tony Richardson’s celebrated anti-war film, The Charge of the Light Brigade.

By Cecil Woodham-Smith,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Reason Why as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This history is a war story of astonishing courage and honor, of stupidity, of blood, death, agony -- and waste.

Nothing in British campaign history has ever equaled the tragic farce that was the charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War's Battle of Balaclava on October 25, 1854. In this fascinating study, Cecil Woodham-Smith shows that responsibility for the fatal mismanagement of the affair rested with the Earls of Cardigan and Lucan, brothers-in-law and sworn enemies for more than thirty years.

In revealing the combination of pride and obstinacy that was to prove so fatal, Woodham-Smith gives us…

Book cover of The Defeat of the Spanish Armada

Why did I love this book?

Winner of a special Pulitzer Prize in 1960, of the five titles selected here, this is the only one to be written by a professional historian. Despite his academic background and meticulous research in Europe’s archives, Mattingly’s book is anything but dry, and remains a classic of accessible historical non-fiction. The opening chapter, describing the execution of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots in 1587, is brilliantly written, and as the narrative moves inexorably towards the sprawling naval battle between England and Spain it fills a wide canvas with equally striking events and personalities. Mattingly’s intimate knowledge of the source material, combined with his writing skills, enables him to tell the exciting story of the Armada’s disastrous fate and to place it in the broader diplomatic context - what he saw as ‘the first great international crisis in modern history’.

By Garrett Mattingly,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Defeat of the Spanish Armada as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Garrett Mattingly's thrilling narrative sets out the background of the sixteenth-century European intrigue and religious unrest that gave rise to one of the world's most famous maritime crusades and the naval battles that decided its fate. In putting the naval campaign of 1588 back into the context of the first great international crisis of modern history, Mattingly builds up, like the movements of a symphony, a broad picture of how events of the time affected men's actions, plans and hopes. He brilliantly connects a series of scenes or episodes, shifting the point of focus from England to the continent and…

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