There are two answers to this: a long one, and a short one.
The short one is ‘because I was asked to.’ When a prestigious publisher such as Oxford University Press invites you to write a book for them, I suspect that most historians, especially those still in the early stages of their academic career, would leap like a salmon for the opportunity. Getting the chance, with a reasonably priced volume, to speak, not just to a coterie of other academics, but to a broader trade audience, while retaining the intellectual bite to satisfy the demands of my masters and the Research Excellence Framework was too good a career opportunity to overlook.
The longer and less flippant answer goes as follows. This year marks the last of the First World War’s centenary years. August 2014 already seems a long way away. For a historian interested in memory and narratives of the past, it has been fascinating to observe how we collectively have chosen to remember and commemorate it. There have been some major triumphs along the way. I’ll mention just two: the Poppies, first at the Tower and then on tour around the country, took us all by surprise and offered a kind of secular but still semi-sacred focus of pilgrimage; and we’ve seen fantastic engagement by local people all over the UK with the wartime history of their communities. Alongside the triumphs, however, as always there have been areas where I think we have fallen short. I don’t intend to go through them all here: perhaps I will in a later post. But one failing is particularly relevant to my book, Haig’s Enemy. The failing I have in mind is that we’ve been unable to break out of the habit of seeing the First World War as an almost purely British event. Rarely, in the course of the centenary commemorations, or in the popular memory of the conflict more broadly, have we been reminded that this was an international event, which saw not only British and Commonwealth, but French, German, Italian, Russian and Turkish families also ripped apart. The 888,000-odd poppies represented well the dead of the Empire but said nothing about the young men from France or America who never came home, to mention just 2 countries, never mind the German, Austrian or Turkish soldiers who fell, too. Even professional historians have tended to write the German history of the war, or the French history of the war, or, most often in this country, the British history of the war; but rarely have they put them together. I am a pretty simple bloke, but this always seemed a bit of a problem to me. There are two sides to every story, after all.
So, the first thing I wanted to try to do with this book was to see what the First World War would look like if you looked at it through German eyes, rather than those of Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen. And the best way of doing that, I thought, was to find a particular individual who was closely involved in as much of the war as possible and to follow his experience through. It needed to be somebody who hadn’t been much written about, especially in English, and so I settled on Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, Haig’s Enemy and the most famous general you’ve never heard of. I’d come across him when writing my previous book, Winning and Losing on the Western Front and thought he might be interesting. Anyone who has read much about the Generals of the First World War will know that they tend to be somewhat one-dimensional characters whose interests outside soldiering were limited to horses and golf, but Rupprecht was different: he had a real hinterland and lived a long and in some ways tragic life.
In later posts I’ll talk more about who Rupprecht was, why he was important and interesting, and will preview some of the things I think we can learn about the First World War, and indeed modern history more widely, from studying him.