Charles Messenger (1941-2019)
by Gen Mungo Melvin
A Tribute to a Military Historian
It was an enormous privilege, as a former President of the British Commission for Military History (BCMH), to pay a personal tribute to Charles Messenger at the memorial service held in his honour on Wednesday, 2 April 2019 at the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building, Wandsworth. Many members of the Commission were present at this moving occasion at which members of his family and friends from all walks of his life gathered. Let me summarise here his work as author, editor, speaker and battlefield historian par excellence.
Born into a Devon-based military family, Charles Messenger was educated at Marlborough College, the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and at Exeter College, Oxford, where he read history at the recommendation of John Keegan. Commissioned into the Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) in 1961, he served in Germany, Libya and Northern Ireland as well as attending the Army Staff College at Camberley. Retiring from the Regular Army in 1980, he continued with his regiment’s volunteer reserve for a further thirteen years, concluding his period of part-time service as a lieutenant colonel.
I first met Charles through the Commission over 20 years ago, when he asked me to contribute to the encyclopaedic Reader’s Guide to Military History he was then editing. By this time, his huge reputation as a soldier scholar of penetrating accuracy, great industry and remarkable versatility was already well established. Significantly, Charles had joined a long line of eminent RTR historians, including Michael Carver, Kenneth Macksey and Richard Simpkin. In nearly four decades of writing, moreover, he went on to out-publish them all.
Concentrating primarily on 20th Century warfare, Charles Messenger’s two-score works and more included various titles such as The Battle of Britain and World War 2 in the Atlantic. Yet it was in the land domain that he largely focused, penning notably Call to Arms: The British Army 1914-1918 (reflecting his huge interest in and passion for the study of the First World War, and widely regarded as his masterpiece); The Art of Blitzkrieg; and The Tanks: The History of the Royal Tank Regiment 1976-2017. He also wrote equally acclaimed books on the Northern Ireland Troubles and the British Infantry Regiments, together with a number of campaign histories.
He was a very fine biographer too, writing, for example, Hitler’s Gladiator – Sepp Dietrich and The Last Prussian – Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. Indeed, I modelled my own study of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein on Charles’s work. With his typical generosity, when he brought out a new edition of Rundstedt, he kindly acknowledged me in return.
Charles always found the time to assist and encourage others, whether by providing detailed comments on draft manuscripts, or through his constructively critical but eminently fair book reviews, not least for Mars and Clio.
Unsurprisingly, Charles was very much in demand for conferences and talks – his engaging and effervescent style won him many friends and admirers across all age groups.
As a battlefield tour presenter and host he was unsurpassed. Many BCMH members will recall his dramatic descriptions of the Battle of Amiens of 8 August 1918, based on his compelling book on that action, The Day We Won the War. His highly articulate command of battle terrain, tactics and technologies held his audiences captivated, as did his wonderful stories shared over a glass or two of fine wine at the end of a long battlefield tour day.
In recent years young Army audiences too greatly benefitted from his incomparable wisdom during the series of Operation REFLECT staff rides that examined the First World War. He also contributed to the Army’s Battlefield Guide of the Western Front: I remain very grateful for the sage advice he provided me as editor of this volume.
Charles was very much a committed family man. Although often surrounded by his books and pets, he always found the time for his wife, son, daughters and grandchildren.
In closing, and in lasting memory of Charles, one is reminded of the great German Hans Delbrück, widely regarded as the father of modern military history, who chose his own epitaph to read:
‘I sought the truth. I loved my country.’
While perhaps Charles would like to be remembered in a similar fashion, I suspect that with a characteristic glint in his eye and a sweep of his rather unruly hair, he would have said simply: ‘Fear Naught’ – the motto of the RTR.
And so we will fondly remember Charles: the consummate soldier, military historian and bon viveur, a fine friend and good guide to all. In his passing, the Commission has lost one of its most prominent members. He will be greatly missed. Our thoughts go to Anne, his widow, and to his children Emma, Rawdon and Hannah.
(I would also like to acknowledge gratefully the contributions of Robin Brodhurst and Matthew Whitchurch in composing this obituary.)