The view from the top

3 March 2012
Over the Rainbow Paul Pickering

Simon & Schuster, pp.303, 16.99

Halfway through this book, the veil lifted, and I thought: ‘I see! I see what he’s trying to do!’ Pickering gets his characters, and moves them along, and then, after… Read more

Triumph of the redcoats

4 February 2012
All the King’s Men Saul David

Viking, pp.573, 25

Given the choice between philosophising in the company of Socrates or fighting in the army of the soldier-monarch Charles XII of Sweden, most men, Dr Johnson observed, would prefer arms… Read more


Stronger than fiction

21 January 2012
Warrior: The Amazing Story of a Real Warhorse General Sir Jack Seely, illustrated by Alfred Munnings

Racing Post Press, pp.176, 14.99

I think it was a Frenchman — it usually is — who observed that the English love their animals more than their children. At first glance, General Jack Seely’s Warrior:… Read more

Ugly old Europe

31 December 2011
Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1945 Neill Lochery

Public Affairs, pp.306, 18.99

There are moments and places in history that one would have paid good money to avoid, and wartime Lisbon was one of them. For those rich enough to afford the… Read more


On His Majesty’s Silent Service

3 September 2011
Sea Wolves Tim Clayton

Little Brown, pp.448, 20

Sub Danny Danziger

Sphere, pp.304, 17.99

Of all the Allied fighting service branches in which you wouldn’t have wanted to spend the second world war, probably the grimmest was submarines. Of all the Allied fighting service… Read more

All in a night’s work

27 August 2011
We Are Besieged Barbara Fitzgerald

Somerville Press, pp.400, 12.99

This inter-war story of an Anglo-Irish family in crisis opens with a bang. Caroline Adair, recovering from measles at Butler’s Hill, her aunt and uncle’s lovely house in the South-west,… Read more


What was it like at the time?

30 July 2011
In the Garden of Beasts: Love and Terror in Hitler’s Berlin Erik Larson

Doubleday, pp.448, 20

At midday on Thursday, 8 June 1933 — Erik Larson is very keen on his times — the newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a call put through to… Read more

Casualties on the home front

16 July 2011
Ghosts By Daylight: A Memoir of War and Love Janine di Giovanni

Bloomsbury, pp.271, 16.99

War correspondents aren’t like the rest of us: they can’t be. War correspondents aren’t like the rest of us: they can’t be. Most of the writers I know sit at… Read more


Ghosts of the Teutonic Knights

9 July 2011
Forgotten Land Max Egremont

Picador, pp.356, 20

Do the trees of East Prussia still whisper in German when the wind blows in from the Baltic and across the featureless plain? The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky thought so… Read more

Coolness under fire

25 June 2011
Tides of War Stella Tillyard

Chatto, pp.375, 12.99

On His Majesty’s Service Allan Mallinson

Bantam, pp.317, 18.99

The early 19th century was the age of the dandy, and the essence of dandyism was cool self-control. The dandy shunned displays of feeling. There is feeling a-plenty in both… Read more

Patience v. panache

18 June 2011
Monty and Rommel: Parallel Lives Peter Caddick-Adams

Preface, pp.618, 20

Forgotten Voices: Desert Victory Julian Thompson

Ebury Press, pp.384, 16.99

The square jaw and steely gaze are deceptive. In reality, next to a prima donna on the slide, no one is more vain and temperamental than a general on the… Read more

Those who die like cattle

18 June 2011
Wish You Were Here Graham Swift

Picador, pp.353, 16.99

An ex-farmer whose brother has died fighting in Iraq is the man at the centre of Graham Swift’s new book, a state-of-the-nation novel on a small canvas. An ex-farmer whose… Read more

Clashing by night

18 June 2011
Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign Sherard Cowper-Coles

Harper Press, pp.352, 25

Cables from Kabul is Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles’s valedictory account of his years as ambassador to Kabul (2007-9) and as this country’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009-10). Cables from… Read more

The price of victory

11 June 2011
With Our Backs to the Wall David Stevenson

Allen Lane, pp.688, 30

In the patriotic mythology of British arms 1759 may be the one true annus mirabilis, the ‘year of victories’, the year of Minden, Quebec and Quiberon Bay, but has there… Read more


Hall of mirrors

4 June 2011
And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-occupied Paris Alan Riding

Duckworth Overlook, pp.399, 20

After the Nazi occupation of Paris was over, Sartre famously said — somewhat hypocritically, given his own slippery behaviour — that the only possibilities had been collaboration or resistance. After… Read more


What did you do in the war, Mummy?

28 May 2011
Millions Like Us Virginia Nicholson

Viking, pp.508, 25

By tradition, ‘What did you do in the war?’ is a question children address to Daddy, not to Mummy. By tradition, ‘What did you do in the war?’ is a… Read more


Goodbye to Berlin

28 May 2011
House of Exile Evelyn Juers

Allen Lane, pp.383, £25

Peter Parker is beguiled by a novel approach to the lives of Europe’s intellectual elite in flight from Nazi Germany In his time, Heinrich Mann was considered one of Germany’s… Read more

A conflict of loyalty

21 May 2011
Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War Giles Milton

Sceptre, pp.352, 20

Reluctant Accomplice edited by Konrad H. Jarausch

Princeton, pp.412, 24.95

What was life like in Hitler’s Germany? This question has long fascinated authors and readers alike, as books like Alone in Berlin, The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas and The… Read more


Redefining the war

14 May 2011
Afghanistan: How the West Lost its Way Tim Bird and Alex Marshall

Yale, pp.304, 19.99

Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and the Real Story of Britain’s War in Afghanistan Toby Harnden

Quercus, pp.610, 18.99

Follow Me Home Patrick Bishop

Hodder, pp.304, 14.99

There are more than 100,000 American and Allied troops in Afghanistan. That is, there are more than 1,000 troops for every suspected al-Qa’eda ‘operative’. Not for the first time in… Read more


Why the heck not?

12 February 2011
The War That Never Was Duff Hart Davis

Century, pp.400, 14.99

Philip Hensher recounts how a handful of British mercenaries in the 1960s, headed by the Buchanesque Jim Johnson (pictured above), trained a rag-tag force of Yemeni tribesmen to defeat the… Read more


Beasts in battle

29 January 2011
Tommy's Ark: Soldiers and their Animals in the Great War Richard Van Emden

Bloomsbury, pp.336, 16.99

‘Never such innocence again’ wrote Philip Larkin of an unquestioning British people on the eve of the first world war, and much has been made, not unreasonably, of the trusting… Read more


Hell or high water

22 January 2011
Unbroken: An Extraordinary True Story of Courage and Survival by Air, Sea and Land Laura Hillenbrand

4th Estate, pp.475, 20

As his battered bomber hurtled towards the Pacific in May 1943, Louis Zamperini thought to himself that no one was going to survive the crash. If he had had the… Read more


A far-fetched war

30 October 2010
Crimea: The Last Crusade Orlando Figes

Allen Lane, pp.575, 30

First, a disclaimer: this review will not touch upon some recent, odd behaviour of this book’s author, Orlando Figes, because I can’t see that it’s relevant. First, a disclaimer: this… Read more


. . . and they did to us

9 October 2010
The Blitz: The British Under Attack Juliet Gardiner

Harper Press, pp.431, 25

The craters are all filled in, the ruins replaced, and the last memories retold only in the whispery voices of the old. Apart from celebrating the resilience of our parents… Read more

What we did to them . . .

9 October 2010
Surviving Hitler's War: Family Life In Germany 1939-48 Hester Vaizey

Palgrave Macmillan, pp.252, 55

The perception of war changes, remarked the poet Robert Graves, when ‘your Aunt Fanny, the firewatcher, is as likely to be killed as a soldier in battle’. The perception of… Read more