6 books about military disasters

British journalist James Fergusson recommends histories of Napoleon's retreat, trench warfare, and war crimes in Iraq

British journalist James Fergusson shares the best of wartime writing.
(Image credit: Courtesy of James Fergusson)

Memoirs of Sergeant Bourgogne by Adrien Jean Baptiste François Bourgogne (Frederiksen, $31). Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1812 led to tragedy on an epic scale. Imperial Guardsman Bourgogne survived the crossing of the Berezina River, where the French suffered heavy losses. His bald description still shocks.

Good-bye to All That: An Autobiography by Robert Graves (Anchor, $16). The most moving account of trench warfare that I know. Before he became a successful poet and novelist, Graves survived the Battle of Loos during World War I, which saw the first mass deployment of British Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener’s army of civilian volunteers. Some 50,000 Britons were killed or wounded, for no territorial gain.

Signal Catastrophe by Patrick Macrory (out of print). This definitive retelling of the British Army’s ruinous retreat from Kabul in 1842, during the First Anglo-Afghan War, inspired George MacDonald Fraser to create his fictional cowardly soldier Sir Harry Paget Flashman.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Chickenhawk by Robert Mason (Penguin, $17). A helicopter pilot in Vietnam, Mason was made to fly more than 1,000 assault missions in 11 months — a redefinition of “military overstretch.” His tale of courage and frontline folly recalls both Apocalypse Now and Catch-22.

Naples ’44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy by Norman Lewis (Da Capo, $15). This lyrical, erudite diary of the chaos that followed the liberation of Italy contains one of my favorite lines of war reporting: “This afternoon, distraught American ack-ack gunners brought down their third Spitfire.” Graham Greene judged Lewis one of the 20th century’s best writers.

Black Hearts by Jim Frederick (Broadway, $16). A horrifying study of how, five years ago in Iraq’s Triangle of Death, south of Baghdad, members of a platoon from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division ended up raping a girl and murdering her family — the very type of people that the Americans had been sent to liberate. Frederick’s book is a classic in the mold of Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down.

James Fergusson's latest book, Taliban: The Unknown Enemy, is a history of the militant group's role in Afghanistan

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.