Ardant Du Picq, translated, edited, and introduced by Roger J. Spiller
University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 2017, 240 pages
Book Review published on: June 23, 2017
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to temper my expectations somewhat as I begin to read a new book. Like many of you, I’ve had my share of disappointments. However, it was impossible for me to not to get overly excited about the prospects of Roger Spiller’s new translation of Ardant du Picq’s classic Battle Studies. For me, it was the perfect pairing of one of today’s preeminent military historians with one of the best volumes ever written on the human dimension of war. Upon completion of the book, it was clear that it not only met my lofty expectations, but exceeded them.
For those not familiar with Du Picq’s Battle Studies, let me provide a brief summary of the man and the origins of the volume. Du Picq served in the French Military from 1844 until dying from combat wounds in 1870 and achieved the rank of colonel. His career was highlighted by extensive combat experience. This included fighting in the Crimean and Franco-Prussian Wars and serving in Syria and Algeria. It was these experiences that sparked his keen interest on the human dimension of war and the impetus for his writings focused on the subject.
The process that saw his interests become a book is both lengthy and intriguing. Prior to his death, he had crafted a number of essays and notes on war. This collection, at the family’s urging, was published by a family friend in 1880. The essays themselves received little editing and were essentially placed into a book as is. Despite its rudimentary condition, the volume did find its share of readership. This readership would climb greatly in the following years.
In 1903, French journalist, Ernest Judet took the volume to another level. Judet conducted some editing, added a mini-biography of Du Picq crafted by Du Picq’s brother, and made some changes in the volume’s organization. The result was a book that was far more readable and provided readers with some background on the author and his words. The volume was soon embraced by the French military and became must reading for them during World War I.
Battle Studies remained written in its language of origin until 1921. At that time, U.S. Army Col. John Greely and Maj. Robert Cotton translated Du Picq’s words into English. The translation created an accessibility to Battle Studies other than the French military. This accessibility would eventually make it a mainstay on professional military reading lists and lauded by historians as a true classic.
So what is Battle Studies? In organization, Du Picq utilizes the first portion of his volume to analyze the past. In looking at the past, he keys specifically on the leadership of Caesar in the Battle of Pharasulus and Hannibal in the Battle of Cannae. Within these battles, he also dissects the human dimension of combat. He concludes the following: “Battle is the ultimate purpose of armies, and man is the ultimate instrument of combat. Nothing can be prescribed wisely in an army: its makeup, its organization, its discipline, its tactics—all of which are like the fingers of a hand—without an exact understanding of its ultimate instrument, man, and his morale at the defining instant of combat.”
This discussion sets the conditions perfectly for the second section of the book. In these pages, the focus is more on the art and science of employing various assets and organizations on the battlefield. These include the utilization of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, and the application of battle command and fire and maneuver in combat. Throughout this conversation, Du Picq continues to weave in the human dimension of war and its criticality. As you read his words, you quickly conclude they are every bit as relevant today, despite our obvious advances in technology.
Before I address how Spiller has made a great volume even better, let’s discuss his own superb credentials. During his career, he has served in some of the most prestigious positions a military historian can hold. These are highlighted by his being selected as the first George C. Marshall Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Military History and serving as the director of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College’s Combat Studies Institute.
Spiller has also produced a body of work as a writer and editor that is equally impressive. As an editor, he has oversaw the creation of books such as Combined Arms in Battle Since 1939. As a writer, he crafted superb volumes such as Sharp Corners: Urban Operations at Century’s End, “Not War, but Like War”: The American Intervention in Lebanon, and one of the best books I have ever read, An Instinct for War: Scenes from the Battlefields of History. Clearly, Spiller’s qualifications are impressive and make him one of a select group of military historians who could do justice to this endeavor.
What has Spiller achieved in his latest project, the editing of Battle Studies? Essentially, Spiller has made a book crafted over 140 years ago far more applicable and accessible to a new generation of readers. He has accomplished this primarily in two ways. First, he has developed a superbly written introduction of nearly forty pages to present Battle Studies. Within his introduction, Spiller extensively discusses the military career of Du Picq, what he was trying to achieve with his writings, and the importance of Battle Studies. Spiller’s own words set the conditions perfectly for the words of Du Picq.
Second, Spiller has inserted annotated notes to supplement, clarify, or provide background within Du Picq’s text. Spiller has conveniently placed these notes at the bottom of the page they pertain to. The notes (nearly three hundred) are incredibly effective in providing perspective for new readers. They are also quite valuable for those who have read Battle Studies in the past. For these readers, the notes will greatly enhance the original reading experience they had with the volume.
In conclusion, Du Picq’s Battle Studies is as influential and impactful today as when first written. Spiller has taken this powerful volume and provided incredible context and perspective through his diligence and expertise. His decision to reintroduce this seminal work will expose it to a new generation of readers. Additionally, those like me who have read it previously will develop a far greater understanding of its pages. Without question, Battle Studies is a classic reborn.
Book Review written by: Frederick A. Baillergeon, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas