The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Edward Gibbon (1776-1789)
“History is little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortune of mankind, ” Gibbons wrote in this classic history tracing the Roman Empire from the 1st Century BC to the 15th AD. Vast, learned, opinionated, and witty, it is an absolute epic.
A Farewell to Arms
Ernest Hemingway (1929)
Set in the Italian theatre during the FirstWorldWar, Hemingway’s short, powerful, semiautobiographical novel is guaranteed to make any grown man cry, but it is also a penetrating study of camaraderie in the face of danger and is, as you’d expect, beautifully written in telling sentences.
1066 and All That
W C Sellar and R J Yeatman (1930)
Subtitled “A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates” 1066… is a tongue in cheek send-up of the way history used to be taught, and may yet be again.
All Quiet on the Western Front
Erich Maria Remarque (1929)
“This book is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure”: so begins the remarkable semiautobiographical, humane and poignant novel about Remarque’s experiences in the trenches and back in Germany after the war.
Legion of the Damned
Sven Hassel (1953)
A History of the English-Speaking Peoples
Winston Churchill (1956-1958)
A magisterial, if patchy, four-part history of Britain from Anglo-Saxon times to 1914, it was begun in 1937 but subsequently much delayed. Subjective, erratic, with a romantic view of the world, it is full of character and incident, and is beautifully written.
Sword of Honour Trilogy
Evelyn Waugh (1952-1961)
Loosely autobiographical, this three-part meandering, tragic-comic farce paints a convincingly chaotic picture of the British muddling their way to winning the war. It is beautifully world weary and cynical, as the hapless hero is buffeted by the forces of class, waste, spite, cowardice and inefficiency.
A History of the Crusades
Steven Runciman (1951-1954)
A classic three-part history of the crusades written with such elegance and dash, one might think he was making it all up. Historians have since frowned on his technique, and recent research has revealed some factual flaws, yet Runciman remains required reading.
The Making of the Middle Ages
R W Southern (1953)
Joseph Heller (1961)
The blackest and yet funniest book ever written on any subject. The “hero” is a bomber pilot flying sorties over Italy where thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him, but it is not them he’s most frightened of: it’s his own side who seem determined to do the job themselves.