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Professor Sir Michael Howard OM CH CBE MC DLitt FBA FRHistS FKC
Late Coldstream Guards
by Professor Brian Holden-Reid FRHistS FRGS FRUSI FKC FRSA Emeritus
Academic Member of Council, King’s College London, 2010-19
and former Resident Historian, The Staff College, Camberley

The sudden death of Professor Sir Michael Howard on 30th November 2019 aged 97 marks the end of an era. He was probably the most famous, distinguished and respected military historian in the world. Howard did more than any other scholar to shape the study of war, founded a school of historians, and established enduring institutions to carry out that study, particularly the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He was also something rarer: he had experienced the harsh realities of war at first hand as a decorated veteran of the Second World War. He later acknowledged that his wartime experience ‘gave me my initial interest in military affairs’. He served in the Coldstream Guards, 4th December 1942 until 1st October 1945. In 1951 he published The Coldstream Guards, 1920-1946 with John Sparrow, his first book. He thus ranks among the most distinguished of Guardsmen and also among the longest-lived of Coldstream veterans who had served in 1939-45.

Michael Eliot Howard was born on 29th November 1922 into what he later called ‘a very orthodox upper-middle-class family’ with strong Quaker traditions, the youngest of three brothers. His father, Geoffrey Eliot Howard, was chairman of the family firm of pharmaceutical manufacturers; his mother, Edith Edinger, came from a wealthy family of German-Jewish immigrants who had long since converted to Christianity and indeed had been presented at the courts of both Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm II. Howard was educated at Wellington and Christ Church, Oxford, where he read modern history, though his studies were interrupted by wartime exigencies. Howard had first joined the OCT at Wellington, and his military service was deferred on condition that he continued to attend the Oxford OCT, two afternoons a week plus all one Sunday each month. The CSM and adjutant at the latter were both Coldstreamers, and the adjutant suggested that Howard join the regiment. Howard also favoured any body of fighting men whose slow march was a Mozart aria from the Magic of Figaro. The Regimental Lieutenant Colonel, Colonel J C Wynne-Finch MC, proved courteous but confused, because he could not find Howard’s name in Debrett’s among either the Norfolk or Carlisle branches of the Howard family ‘and that I neither hunted, fished nor shot’. He inquired urgently why he wanted to join the Coldstream? Howard replied haltingly and vaguely, he recalls in his memoirs, Captain Professor (2006) that he had ‘always wanted to join the regiment. This was neither true nor the answer to the question, but it was the correct reply’.  Wynne-Finch ‘grunted approvingly. I was in’.

In truth, Howard was not an automatic candidate for a commission in the Coldstream: he did not hail from a landed family or even one with a long military tradition, and his father was ‘in trade’. Howard appeared ‘a natural’ only in retrospect. Yet all this is irrelevant, for the Regimental Lieutenant Colonel showed shrewd judgment, for the Coldstream Guards became Howard and he became the Coldstream. Nonetheless, though some military historians might be considered to have a natural empathy with the Army, Howard was forcible in conversation with me (and also in an interview with the Editor of The Guards Magazine) that but for the upheavals caused by the Second World War, he would never have contemplated even the briefest of military careers.

Following ‘a last defiant lunch at the Ritz’, Howard joined the Army in August 1942 and reported at Mons Barracks, Aldershot.  He quickly turned out on the parade ground with other Oxford chums and they found themselves being ‘drilled to within an inch of our lives’ under the watchful eye of the terrifying RSM R ‘Tibby’ Brittain. Howard then proceeded to the Training Battalion at Pirbright to learn ‘the taboos of the tribe’ and thence to the Holding Battalion for ‘public duties’ at ‘Buck House’, followed by a posting to the Sixth Battalion and the ‘battle school, and here we were seriously prepared for war’. He was promoted lieutenant on 4th June 1943.

On 5th September 1943 Howard received his posting to the Third Battalion serving in the Mediterranean theatre, which he joined after the Salerno landing, though the beach-head remained shallow and precarious. Howard gained his baptism of fire leading patrols. His first major action as a platoon commander came with a feint towards ‘the Pimple’, a small hill overlooking Salerno. Its seizure would give sight of the valley beyond. Howard reflected years later that ‘the whole affair proved so wonderfully illustrative of [Carl von] Clausewitz’s “friction of war”: chaos, error, confusion, lateness, getting lost – ‘this happens quite often in battle’; all this served as the prelude to an unexpectedly triumphant debut. Stumbling up the hill, dodging German grenades, Howard realized ‘There were only four or five men still with me and I roared abusively, summoning the others’. They advanced beyond the woods ‘shouting like madmen and shooting at the dim figures we saw scuttling away ahead’, and then reached the summit. Howard remembered his training and organized an ‘all-round defence’. The company commander, Alan Davidson, arrived beaming. ‘I had done all right’, Howard observed modestly.

This experience was only the start of a long slog, for by the end of the Salerno battle, especially after Point 270, Howard had learned much about the realities of war. He realized that he was not playing David Niven in a ‘B-movie’, as Niven was never shown supervising the burial of the dead. In the midst of the Italian Campaign, he reflected ruefully, ‘I felt obscurely that I was now paying back for all the happiness of my life up until then’. He caught malaria and was wounded twice in October and December 1944. The malaria took Howard out of  operations for some time as the battalion advanced eventually towards Florence. He was informed that he had been awarded the Military Cross for his exploits at Salerno and received promotion to Captain on 21 May 1944. Although Howard’s platoon action on ‘the Pimple’ is mentioned in The Coldstream Guards, 1920-1946, his decoration for gallantry is not alluded to in the text. Such discretion is common among the winners of medals for courageous acts, but I have always believed that Howard was far too severe on himself in Captain Professor when he admitted he felt a fraud and had not exhibited a constancy in gallantry, ‘any fool can be brave in his first action’.
Nobody could deny that Howard had enjoyed a ‘good war’. Latterly he had served as entertainments officer, second in command of a company and as training officer in April 1945 after the absorption of some of the Third Battalion into the Second Battalion the previous February. Demobilized in October 1945 Howard returned to Christ Church, Oxford, to complete his degree as if nothing had happened, but of course, rather a lot had. He felt totally disorientated; he could not settle to his studies and graduated with a mediocre degree. He had scant idea as to which profession he might enter and he would remain unsettled for some years.

Fortunately, the Coldstream Guards came to his rescue and offered him the chance to complete the regimental history that had been started and then laid aside by John Sparrow. In his memoirs he calls this stroke of good luck the first of two ‘lifelines’. Howard joined the ranks of those post-war historians who cut their teeth either in the composition of regimental histories or volumes of the official histories (mostly in the civil series). The Coldstream Guards, 1920-1946 is a joint enterprise, but of its 378 pages of text only 59 were drafted by John Sparrow, so it is predominantly Howard’s book. It is a work that exhibits some very fine writing, as it is exciting and vivid in its command of detail and regimental soldiering – for instance, Howard captures the drama but also the eerie loneliness felt by the troops caught up in the fall of Tobruk on 21 June 1941. At the same time, he does not neglect the broader context that shapes the regiment’s conduct. Not surprisingly, given Howard’s own experience, the book is unsparing in evoking the confusion, muddle and chaos that prevails in even the best planned battles and explains how these were overcome. He also dilates on gallantry and the self-sacrifice of which the human spirit is capable, sustained by camaraderie and love of regiment. Howard found his mature authorial voice in writing The Coldstream Guards, 1920-1946 and laid down seed corn in the history of the Second World War that would offer a splendid harvest over the following decades. His own experience as a young officer distilled in this volume underlined the supreme importance of three aspects of warfare that Howard returned to repeatedly in the following decades, logistics, morale and leadership.

The second ‘lifeline’ that Howard grasped was his appointment in 1947 as assistant lecturer in the History Department at King’s College London, despite an uneven undergraduate performance and a complete lack of postgraduate qualifications. Uncertain at first, he considered reading for the bar, but once he discovered his métier, he believed he had to prove himself. He increasingly specialized in the 1950s in ‘War Studies’. Under Howard’s guidance this eventually became a separate discipline. It focused on ‘the problem of war in a very much more general sense’ and included studies of law, technology, economics, sociology, even theology, as well as political science. An important catalyst in the broadening of the subject lay in the emergence of another discipline, strategic studies, then primarily concerned with the problems created by nuclear weapons for the future of war. In his endeavours, Howard always acknowledged the seminal influence of Sir Basil Liddell Hart, an immensely influential ally who introduced Howard to many of the rising stars in the field, including Dr Henry Kissinger. But, however varied the combination of disciplines, for Howard the core of War Studies remained history. An understanding of technology, however brilliant, could be constraining if not informed by an understanding of history and culture. In 1963 his explorations were rewarded with an appointment to the Chair of War Studies and in 1966 he seceded from History to found the Department of War Studies.

After 21 years at King’s, Howard left in 1968 to take up a Fellowship in Higher Defence Studies at All Souls College, Oxford. From here he was elected as Chichele Professor in the History of War (1977-80) and then appointed as Regius Professor of Modern History (1980-89).

Howard’s developing concept of how military history should be written embraced an understanding of the ways social structures affected the nature of war, and indeed how war affected them. This approach can be viewed to best effect in The Franco-Prussian War (1961), which is not just a superb study of military operations but also of competing belligerent societies in their totality. His later books written while at All Souls, Grand Strategy, volume IV (1972), and his concise synoptic studies, The Continental Commitment (1971), War in European History (1976), and War and the Liberal Conscience (1978), his own favourite among his books, all reveal an ability to focus on war and strategy as specific social and political phenomena. Howard regarded his English language edition of Clausewitz’s On War completed in collaboration with Peter Paret (1976), as his pre-eminent contribution to schlarship. Howard self-consciously abandoned the utilitarian approach to military history. As he put it during an interview in 2008: ‘You don’t study history in order to learn lessons, you study it in order to understand the past, and by understanding the past to understand yourself and your own society’.

Michael Howard was a short man, 5 feet and 7 inches, though he seemed taller at the podium. By his fifties he developed an imposing, even intimidating grand manner, though this fell away in old age. His time in the Coldstream Guards, though comparatively brief left an enduring mark. It brought out and gave further sheen to pre-existing qualities, social self-confidence, a talent for entertaining, gentlemanly bearing, authority and a polished style. I was always struck by his charm and grace and concern for the feelings of others, plus an essential thoughtfulness. He was an incredibly diligent and dedicated scholar but he was certainly not a solemn individual and when relaxing with friends, he was good and amusing company. He did have a sharp temper that often caught out the unwary or the bigoted. Howard enjoyed the company of actors and had a pronounced histrionic talent himself, and all his lectures were marked not just by fluency but also by a natural stage presence and skilled use of gesture. As an orator, he enjoyed, moreover, the rare gift of elegant urbanity. Howard could always find just the right words to match the occasion in a way that nobody else could. I shall never forget his brief, elegiac speech at the Cavalry and Guards Club to celebrate the publication of Simon Doughty’s The Guards Came Through (2016). Howard summed up in one word the quality that differentiates the Guards from all others, their ‘panache’. He had us all in the palm of his hand. Such a kaleidoscope of talents as those exhibited by Michael Howard is very rare, perhaps unique, and his loss is truly irreplaceable.

Professor Holden Reid is Michael Howard’s official biographer

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