Reviews: Reference Books

The Hand of History: an Anthology of History Quotations and Commentaries

Leventhal, Michael (ed.). The Hand of History: an Anthology of History Quotations and Commentaries. Elstree: Greenhill Books, 2011. 185 pages.  Illustrated by Chris Riddell. ISBN# 9791848326231. £13.99.

“Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.”  A Nigerian proverb.

Recently, historians from around the world were asked to share their own observations on history or the writing of history; or they could choose a quote by someone else that they thought was important.  They were also invited to write a short (one page or less) commentary explaining their choice.  The contributors could write about any topic they wished and their subjects ranged from Thucydides to Napoleon to Tony Blair to Cetshwayo to Churchill to Al Capone to the Holocaust.

The Hand of History includes the musing of many Napoleonic historians including Jeremy Black, Charles Esdaile, Donald Graves, Philip Haythornthwaite, Andrew Lambert, Allan Mallinson, Alexander Mikaberidze, and Jonathan Riley. Other contributors, better known for their studies of different eras, include Rick Atkinson, Asa Briggs, Ken Burns, Amanda Foreman, Ian Knight, Desmond Seward, and Stephen Turnbull.

A few examples that illustrates the quality of the choices and how thought provoking they are, include . . .

Allan Mallinson chose a quote by Field Marshal Sir William Slim:  “Armies do not win wars by means of a few bodies of super-soldiers but by the average quality of their standard units”. Mr. Mallinson pointed out that “The British Army’s success over the years has lain in just this maxim: that it is the high average quality of the ‘standard units’ – predominantly the infantry – which counts. Notwithstanding the performance of the more elite airborne forces at Arnhem and in the Falklands, time and again it has been the regiments of the line – sometimes even the most ‘unfashionable’ – that have pulled off those feats of arms which stand so high in the estimation of other armies.”

Alexander Mikaberidze looked at the impact of war on the individual soldier with his choice of a quote by Camilo José Cela:  “There are two kinds of men: the ones who make history and the ones who endure it.” Dr. Mikaberidze explained that “it is not enough for me to understand how military institutions evolved, what motivated commanders to make particular decisions, or how the battle’s course unfolded throughout a day.  I am equally interested in how ordinary soldiers were affected by such decisions, how they lived through the events of that day or what motivated them to act the way they did. . . I seek to explain what guided those famous pontoniers of the Grande Armée who stood in the frozen waters of the Berezina building the bridges on which the army escaped the Russian wrath; or what ordinary soldiers felt or experienced as they waited in their bivouacs on the eve of a decisive battle.  Such micro-historical analysis only enriches history and allows us a better understanding of the past.”

Not all of the choices are about the military, the famous, and the infamous.  Don Graves’ topic was Sir Arthur Doughty and his impact on Canadian history.  Sir Arthur was responsible for organizing and modernizing the national archives of Canada and many of the country’s provincial archives.  He said, “Of all national assets archives are the most precious; they are the gift of one generation to another and the extent of our care of them marks the extent of our civilization”.  Mr. Graves’ choice is very apropos, considering how important to the historian being able to access archival material is.

The Hand of History is not a book that you will read in one reading, but one that you will find yourself turning to time and again. It is an enjoyable read and with its wide range of subjects, it is a must buy for any library or personal collection. It is well worth the money!  

On a final note, all proceeds from the sale of this book goes towards supporting research to cure Parkinson’s Disease.

Reviewed by Robert Burnham

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2011

 

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