The Best Books On Military Disasters

The Books I Picked & Why

Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn

By Evan S. Connell

Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn

Why 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.


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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

By Donald R. Morris

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 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.


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Culloden

By John Prebble

Culloden

Why 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.


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

By Cecil Woodham-Smith

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

Why 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.


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The Defeat of the Spanish Armada

By Garrett Mattingly

The Defeat of the Spanish Armada

Why 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’.


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