“The historian’s historian” is how the late Professor Richard Holmes once described Dr Christopher Duffy, a fellow member of the academic staff of The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, in a department headed by David Chandler and also including John Keegan and Dr Paddy Griffith.
Christopher Duffy’s main academic and published work has been the wars of the 18th Century, which means that his name may not be familiar to an audience whose interests do not stray beyond the twentieth century. However, all of his work seems to have something new to say.
I first heard of Christopher Duffy when I was a teenager at school in the 1970s. His books on the battles of Austerlitz and Borodino were amazing, and a rare chance to read an analysis of any battle other than Waterloo or the rather dubiously sourced works of Jac Weller. He had been the military adviser to the BBC TV mini series War and Peace and I suspect these books were a digression into the populist world of the Napoleonic Wars away from his passion – the wars of the mid 18th Century.
Christopher Duffy’s books on the armies of Frederick the Great and Maria Theresa are essential reading for anyone interested in the Seven Years War. His book of the Irish Wild Geese tells the story of the expatriates who served in the armies of Europe. His military biography of Frederick the Great was regarded by many Germans as the best appraisal of this Prussian Great Commander. It is hard to imagine a German historian writing the best biography of, say the Duke of Wellington or Marlborough.
For the last few years he has been an active member of the Jacobite Society and campaigned for the preservation of the heritage of Scotland’s military heritage. While Scotland does at least have a strategy to make use of its battlefields for heritage tourism some of its heritage is neglected and unprotected, such as the crumbling remains of the fortified barracks in the highlands. He has written the definitive military history of the 1745 rebellion.
Although the 18th Century has been a focus of Christopher Duffy’s interest, everything else he has done seems to have added something significant to our understanding of what happened. He managed to say something completely new about the Western Front, analysing the British army in the Battle of the Somme through the German sources. The picture that emerges of the British army challenges many assumptions. His book, “Red Storm on the Reich: The Soviet March on Germany, 1945” was probably the first English language work on this aspect of the campaign, and pre-dates the works emerging from the Soviet archives. Heinz Guderian’s “Achtung Panzer!” was a highly influential work by the “father of the panzer divisions”. originally published in German in 1937. It describes the thinking behind the panzer arm and explains what the author would do if in command of panzer troops. The first English language edition not published until 1992 until Christopher Duffy had translated the work. His scholarly annotations provide an informed and commentary on Guderian’s sources and thinking that are a mini essay of its own.
One of the advantages of organising the Battlefields Trust’s programme of events hosted by the Fusiliers Museum is the chance to choose the speakers. You can meet Dr Christopher Duffy and hear him talk about Red Coats and Highlanders at lunchtime on 17th April 2013 at the Royal Fusiliers Officers Mess, in the HM Tower of London. The Booking details are here.