Historian wins Duke of Wellington Medal

  • 23 September 2022

Leading war historian Professor Richard Overy (History 1966) has won the Duke of Wellington Medal for Military History.

The prestigious prize is awarded each year to the best English language writing on military history.

Richard received the award in recognition of his book, Blood and Ruins, in which he recasts the way in which we view the origins and aftermath of the Second World War. 

An Honorary Research Professor at the University of Exeter, Richard describes the Second World War as the “great imperial war” – a violent end to almost a century of global imperial expansion.

“I wanted to write something about the Second World War that was different from other books. For a long time I’ve begun to think that we’re asking the wrong questions,” he says.

The book focuses on “the last stage of European style imperialism, waged by Japan first, then Italy and Germany”.

The three states sought to establish colonial empires on a scale with those of Great Britain and France, Richard adds.

“They thought empire could be a way of defining them as great powers. They miscalculated, of course, because what resulted in the end was a global war involving the Soviet Union and the United States,” he says.

The book also explores how war on a massive scale was fought, supplied, paid for, supported by mass mobilisation and morally justified.

Communicating war

War history can be complex and messy, so communicating it in a way that people can understand can be challenging. Richard aims to humanise his texts by including personal accounts and minimising the use of jargon and technical detail.

The historian is a regular contributor to radio and television on matters of military history, most recently historical adviser for the BBC war drama, World on Fire.

War is often "glorified or mythologised" in the media, Richard says, "so it is important to include academic historians in fact checking scripts, texts and other research".

'There must be alternative ways of solving problems'

Richard feels “depressed” to see conflicts still being waged around the world, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February a prime example.

“I’ve spent my whole career writing about the Second World War, and the more I work on it, the more I hope people read it and think, ‘you know, in the end war doesn’t pay. War isn’t heroic, it’s deadly and horrible most of the time. There must be alternative ways of solving problems’,” he says.

The historian warned there was a danger in Britain that people were becoming desensitised to war coverage in the media and choosing to switch off and tune out.

“I think it is a problem and (Russian President Vladimir) Putin will trade on that idea that in the end people will become uninterested,” Richard said.

“They will wonder why their petrol costs so much... There’s a danger that we lose sight of what war really means for the people suffering it.”

Like "all historians who work on wars of this scale", particularly those involving genocide and other atrocities, Richard said he feels affected by his research.

Initially he avoided putting graphic details into his books “because it’s too horrible to describe” but in the end he felt he had to confront it.

“As historians we need to be frank about what happens in warfare, not gloss over the reality.”

A Fellow of the British Academy, Richard has won numerous awards and accolades, including the T.S. Ashton Prize (1983), the Samuel Eliot Morison Prize for Military History (2001), the Wolfson Prize for History (2004) and the Cundill Award for Historical Literature (2014). In 2011 he was listed as one of “Britain’s top 300 intellectuals” in The Guardian.

The 'best years of my life'

He sums up his time at Caius as “some of the best years of my life”, participating in the Debating Society as well as playing tennis for the College.

“I’d come from a small village in Somerset and here I was in one of Britain’s top universities. That really opened my eyes to a great deal. I moved from right-wing when I arrived to left-wing when I left,” he says.

These days Richard describes himself as progressive.

“You have to have a view of the world in which things are getting better," he adds. "For a military historian, of course, that’s quite hard. Despite your strong desire that people do collaborate, that peace is a possibility, you’re aware all the time that war is just around the corner.”

Next in the pipeline is a book called Why War?, examining critically how human and political scientists have explained conflict from early man to the present.

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