An MA in Marlburian logistics?!?

A new reader inquired as to whether it would be a good idea for a new graduate student to write their thesis analyzing the D. of M.’s role in logistics (presumably during the WSS).

That’s a tough one.

I have difficulty answering the question for several reasons. Most flippantly, I don’t teach grad students, so what the hell do I know? And I won’t base my recommendation on peering into my non-existent crystal ball to predict who would hire such a degree-holder. (The reason for the degree obviously looms large in the discussion.)

But thinking a bit longer on the question, I do have more substantive concerns. Perhaps commenters can resolve these, extend them, or add their own.

I’d start with the premise that there actually does need to be serious work done on the role of logistics in the Spanish Succession. But yet I hesitate recommending it for an MA student. Why?

  1. As we’ve discussed before, logistics is a difficult subject. It requires rifling through thousands of fragmentary administrative records, often poorly organized and catalogued, and trying to recreate their meaning. It doesn’t help that early modern bookkeeping practices could be quite shoddy, and somewhat arcane. All this helps explain why there is relatively little historiography on early modern logistics before the better organization of the mid-18C, and what there is, is largely impressionistic and anecdotal, financial rather than operational, and often based off prescriptive manuals, edicts and the stray contract. It’s a lot easier to analyze operations and grand strategy from campaign accounts and correspondence, or harvest quotes for a tactically-themed thesis.
  2. I think this particular logistical subject would be much more challenging to research than, say, J.S. Wheeler’s works on English logistics during the English Civil Wars or D.W. Jones’ War and Economy in the Age of William and Marlborough, because of its coalition aspects. I’d think it difficult for the average MA student to acquire the languages necessary to tackle the task. Assuming only two years or so to complete the degree, someone wishing to study Marlborough’s logistics would absolutely have to have a reading knowledge of English, Dutch and French. Highly recommended would also be Spanish if you wanted to look at the civilians or local authorities in the Spanish Netherlands, and German if you’re looking at the German contingents and the Imperials in the later campaigns. The language requirements would also be compounded by a wider variety of archives you’d need to consult in various countries.
  3. Reading Dutch in particular is an absolute necessity for the topic, as we’ve also discussed in the past. First, the Dutch and their field deputies and subcontractors were largely in charge of the minutiae of the Allied army logistics. If you want to read the sources on “Marlborough’s” logistics, you need to look in the Dutch archives. Second, the best historical research on the question has been written by Dutch scholars such as Olaf van Nimwegen, in Dutch.
  4. This last point raises a question that I don’t know the answer to. How exactly does an English-speaking grad student write an MA thesis on a topic whose pre-existing literature is unfamiliar to most English-speakers (because it’s in Dutch) – knowledge of the decade-old Dutch historiography that in and of itself would significantly alter the English understanding if it was translated into English – yet after the student has ‘changed the field’ by ‘translating’ the literature’s ideas to an English audience, he/she still has to contribute something new? How do you balance repeating Olaf’s argumentation in detail (necessary because you can’t assume your audience is already familiar with his claims and evidence) with adding your own, especially if your argument assumes a detailed knowledge of his argument (which you can’t really assume)? In short, how do you avoid making your original contribution simply a minor aftershock to the much larger earthquake resulting from translating the existing Dutch scholarship into English? (Scholarship that will, since it’s a book, undoubtedly be much more in-depth than your MA thesis.)I’m sure students do it all the time, probably when studying other oft-ignored countries. But this case seems more challenging because even though nobody reads Dutch, your work is directly affecting a much larger English historiography that everybody does know (or thinks they know). This means you will have to outline a variety of assumptions about Marlburian logistics held by many English scholars, then detail what Olaf and a few other scholars say about the subject and how it confronts the English school, and then, finally, what you say about both the English and Dutch historiography. That seems a rather large project, at least for a MA thesis. Hopefully your contribution doesn’t get lost in all that. For my diss, I didn’t have to worry about another scholar stealing my thunder (though I had a scare in the French Archives de Guerre), nor that I would have to introduce Vauban and his historiography to the English-speaking world. Just about every military historian had heard of Vauban whether they read French or not, and there was enough written in English (all saying the same things) so I didn’t have to translate recent historiography. It also helped that the French literature hadn’t departed that much from the English-language lit. (I should add that there was a certain amount of convergent evolution with some of my claims and some of the work published by Michèle Virol. Whose early book I fortunately discovered while touring the Maison Vauban.)

    The logistical case is further complicated because I know that an editor from Brill has been working on a translation of Olaf’s book for several years. Which makes me wonder the extent to which we should avoid a topic if it’s already been written about, but in a language we can’t read, or in a language our intended audience can’t? Even if the MA student does know Dutch, what happens if such a translation were to come out before or right after they finish their degree, or, even worse, as the MA student works on his/her PhD dissertation? I should also add that John Stapleton’s work on the Anglo-Dutch war effort in the Nine Years War will also have much to say about the theater’s logistics, so that too must be taken into account. And Aaron Graham’s on the financial side of the English equation…

    You don’t want to find yourself in the awkward position of waiting for works to be published before you know the extent to which you need to incorporate them into your own framework. Nor do you want to see your smaller contribution swallowed up or made irrelevant or obsolete by just–published scholarship. Which is why you want to network as early as possible. But it’s hard when there’s almost no published English-language historiography on your subject.

    On the other hand I don’t know if it’s a good idea to choose a topic defensively, fearing “the scoop.” And it may not be particularly relevant for an MA degree in any case.

So, as usual, my pessimism and “can’t-do” attitude paralyzes me. It seems you need to take into consideration numerous variables, both macro and micro:

  • marketability of the degree (depending on why you’re pursuing the degree)
  • program and advisor availability
  • historiographic interest among other academics
  • historiographic sophistication of the topic (i.e. it needs to be something that more than a few other historians care about)
  • source availability
  • language skills
  • time/resources to acquire the languages and pillage the (archival) resources…

Personally, I could see a more-focused MA on a particular campaign, maybe even a particular theater of operations or a specific subset of logistics (Olaf’s book focused on bread), although this doesn’t resolve several of the above concerns, and it necessarily limits the impact of the final product. A serious, balanced look at the 1704 march to the Danube would be an obvious start and have the largest impact, but frankly I don’t know whether there are more sources on the topic beyond what Olaf has already uncovered, and you’d really need to delve into the German/Austrian side of the equation as well if you’re doing 1704. That’s a pretty full plate (and consequent risk) for an MA student, especially if it requires learning Dutch as a prerequisite.

But that might be better than what too often happens – just look at English sources and write as if Marlborough controlled every aspect of his army’s supply.

Solutions to these problems? Suggestions for an aspiring grad student?


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8 responses to “An MA in Marlburian logistics?!?”

  1. Gary Dickson says :

    The academic employment market must be even worse than I’ve heard if the subject of your Master’s thesis is critical to being hired. I mean, aren’t most theses rather narrowly focused? Plus, if we’re talking about the university market then there’s still a PhD program to finish and a dissertation to write.

    • jostwald says :

      There are a whole bunch of assumptions in the original question that will vary from person to person. If someone is independently wealthy or they just want to get a degree, they can do whatever they want (or whatever their advisor/committee will let them do) – they don’t need my advice. But an MA in history doesn’t get you much of anything job-wise, unless you continue on to get your PhD, and from the stats I’ve seen the vast majority of people who go to grad school in history want to be a professor (or in the case of military history maybe they’ve got a military job lined up, or some other special situation that isn’t the ‘norm’). So I was assuming a professor/research position is the ultimate objective.

      If that’s the case, you shouldn’t waste two years of your MA doing something that isn’t building toward your ultimate objective of the dissertation – at the least it will delay your graduation. Even twenty years ago we were advised that every course paper we wrote should build towards a publication – either the dissertation, an article… I wouldn’t recommend wasting your time doing research on an MA topic that you will then jettison for a different PhD project. There are lots of skills, languages, books/articles, primary sources, paleography… that you need to master and accumulate over the many years of your graduate program (average MA+PhD length in US history programs is about 8-9 years). If you switch topics after two years, you’ve lost a lot of time, money, effort and knowledge that presumably won’t contribute to your dissertation. Admittedly there are some fields that are easier to switch to than others, and you can indeed broaden out from a narrow thesis. I speak from experience, switching in my second year from Russian/Soviet (what I’d done undergrad) to Early Modern Europe with a minor in Military. I’d had neither early modern nor much military history previously, which meant I had a lot of catching up to do – this is part of the reason why it took me 9 years to finish.

      Jumping back to the job market, extremely few history departments in the US are interested in hiring military historians, and in some cases they may be actively hostile towards the field. Which means you need consider carefully what your CV will look like when you do apply for jobs in 5+ years – do you want military history on it if you’re not even going to teach it? So in answering the question I assumed switching away from military history after the MA wasn’t part of the scenario.

      But I was also speaking as an academic military historian. I would argue that there are some topics that simply cannot be done well on the quick/on the cheap, or if there’s very little historiography, or by those who have to learn languages at the same time as they read the historiography, master the paleography, visit the archives and so on. And the sources for logistics are in and of themselves more challenging to analyze. The challenge of doing all of these things is one of the main reasons why the English-language Marlborough historiography is in the mess it’s in. If you can already read Dutch and French and English then Allied logistics is easier, but that’s a relatively rare skill set (at least from this American’s perspective).

      Nor can you just say “narrow your focus.” Say you focus just on logistics in Marlborough’s army in the Low Countries in 1706 – that still requires all the language, paleography, foreign-language historiographical and primary source work described in my original post. Or you could ignore Olaf’s work and the Dutch perspective, but then you wouldn’t be a serious scholar of the subject and people (like me) would rightly call you on it for missing a huge piece of the puzzle. Nor can you really just focus on 1706: the logistical system as it existed in 1706 wasn’t created that year, but earlier, which means you can’t just focus on a single year. You need to broaden your chronological scope to see whether 1706 was the same or different from Allied logistics overall. If you have a decent pre-existing literature, that’s easy to do. But Allied logistics (in English) isn’t one of those fields.
      So that’s where I was coming from.

      • Gary Dickson says :

        Getting back for a moment to something you mentioned in the original post, I get that theses are supposed to advance the field, but I wonder if that is the reality. I’ve read a number of theses that simply regurgitate what is already known. These are often from students at military institutions, so maybe they’re a special case that we should ignore in this discussion. Taking a very quick look at the titles of recent dissertations from the Russian history program at the University of Illinois (, I see a number of what I, possibly out of extreme ignorance, would label even more esoteric than a study of Marlboro’s logistics. (Working class drinking and taverns in St. Petersburg?)

        Let’s say, for the sake of extending an already interesting discussion, that your future grad student were to seriously pursue her dream of becoming an expert on 18th century military logistics. You’ve given her a good dose of reality and she’s ready to buckle down. She writes her MA thesis, choosing a topic so as to avoid the head-on collision with Dr. van Nimwegen’s work that you mention, then goes on to pursue her PhD. In the course of this she develops a reading knowledge of Dutch, French, Spanish, and German, as well as experience in the relevant archives. Wouldn’t that be attractive to a hiring committee, or do you think the taint of military history would be too much?

        I’m just thinking out loud; it’s this or go mow the lawn!

      • jostwald says :

        Good discussion. I did my last-mow-of-the-year on Thursday.

        Yes, many MA theses can be unoriginal, although the better ones aren’t. My MA thesis wasn’t worth much: I asked what I think was an interesting question, but I’m not particularly proud of it now, largely because I was limited to published primary sources (and I didn’t know Dutch at that stage!). I managed to transform it into my 2000 Ramillies article, but it required a lot of additional work.

        There’s been much debate over the years as to the exact status of military history (and its practitioners) in the academic world. Statistically, there are almost no jobs teaching military history in American civilian universities (i.e. with a focus on it), and academic military history graduate programs aren’t exactly growing either – just try to find early modern European military history grad programs today. I believe a recent poll of academic historians had perhaps 1-2% of them self-identifying as military historians, similar or even slightly more than diplomatic historians FWIW.

        Why that’s the case is more contentious. I’ve witnessed various examples that suggest that there is still a significant portion (or at least a vocal one) of non-military academic historians who consider military history either dangerous (encouraging militarism, or at least legitimizing war), or are dismissive of its utility or its intellectual rigor, or, at the least, the subfield certainly is not worth a position when there are so many other more “interesting” fields to hire in. The debate held in the Historical Society’s Historically Speaking a few years back was interesting in that a few of the academic military historians (e.g. Dennis Showalter) basically said ‘who cares if the academy hates us, we can teach in military schools.’ Mark Grimsley’s contribution to the debate several years ago (“Why Military History Sucks”, online) gives, I think, a representative view of non-military historians, though Mark is of course a military historian himself. If you’ve heard John Lynn talk enough you’ve undoubtedly heard his stories of being a military historian at Illinois. Anyone who attended his retirement mini-conference several years back will recall when military historians were asked to justify their existence by pointing to a specific theoretical advance the field had made, i.e. the only legitimate academic history fields are apparently those that provide some broadly-applicable theoretical construct. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was what motivated Lynn to publish an article on the “coercive variable” in history – he was looking for a way to legitimize military history for his peers. In his ‘Embattled State of Military History’ article he tried a different approach to gain legitimacy by encouraging the incorporation of culture and gender into military history (several of his former students adopted this strategy). This is also why most military historians in academic schools are of the War & Society genre, i.e. they tend not to focus much on combat because few grad programs teach it in the first place, there’s little (grant) money in it, just as few job openings in it, and likely very little respect from some/many of their academic peers (which is why there aren’t many positions in it).

        In this context, I’d suggest that operational logistics of the Spanish Succession would be deemed far more esoteric to many academic historians than Russian working class drinking, unless you’re in England and you can tie Allied logistics to the fiscal-military state (frankly England has a much greater interest in ‘traditional’ military history than the US). (Of course two such candidates would probably never compete against each other for the same position.) I can see that topic being considered sexy because it addresses class (part of Lynn’s trinity of class, race, gender), and it is History from Below, undoubtedly talking about power and agency among other popular concepts. Plus it analyzes a particular cultural practice (drinking and taverns) which I’m sure lots of people are generically interested in (so they would find it interesting talking with this person as a colleague and they can personally relate to the subject in a way they can’t with war). Analyzing a microcosm like that is also a popular way to thematically structure your work these days, especially if it’s a modern topic where you need to limit your topic somehow. Some have expressed wonderment that a historian could spin a mental worldview out of a study of chairs, but there’s a lot of that kind of thing.

        To your final hypothetical, I don’t think a search committee really cares about the skills required to write on a subject if they aren’t interested in that subject, or if that isn’t the subject they consider worth hiring in. Most job positions are quite specific in the field/period/place they want, i.e. they’ve been hashed out in advance by the department (or left vague because of a lack of consensus). They are almost never dedicated military history positions, and rarely do those positions with some leeway explicitly suggest military history as ‘preferred’ or ‘will be considered.’ If it’s a position in early modern Europe, all of the qualified candidates will have various language skills. They might all have archival experience too, but there are at least some historians who are more than happy to avoid archives and solely focus on published works (or physical artifacts…) – they aren’t likely to give much credit for grubbing around in dusty archives. In my experience, the historian’s skills are largely invisible and/or taken for granted, especially to historians hiring you (who are in totally different fields).

    • Martin H T Jourdan says :

      Good points from you both. I am a very mature Masters Student (Age 72) and am not therefore really bothered about the job market! But I would like to get hold of Olaf van Nimwegen’s paper and translate it if necessary. I cannot find it anywhere; can you help?
      Martin Jourdan

      • jostwald says :

        His book on Allied logistics is only in Dutch – not sure if it’s still for sale or not. You could check a European online bookseller to see if there are copies available, new or used. Its title is De subsistentie van het leger, published by Bataafsche Leeuw.

  2. Martin Gibson says :

    I would suggest that, given that there are relatively (perhaps even absolutely)more academic military historians in the UK than the USA and that most of the archival research would be in Europe, one solution would be to do the degree at a British university. That might lead to the student ending up having their academic career in the UK.

    One point about military history at British universities is that quite a lot of British military PhDs are written by middle aged people like myself, who have either been made redundant on generous terms or taken early retirement from non-academic jobs. This might suggest that military theses are not as attractive in the British academic job market as the number of them would suggest.

    British universities like grad students from outside the EU because they are allowed to charge them more than EU ones. Of course, the student has to be able to afford the fees.

    If the student wants to study and work in the USA, would it be possible to frame the thesis so that it is more social/economic/political history? For example, the impact on the British economy or society of the logistical effort required by the WSS.

    One of my fellow War Studies Masters students wanted to do his thesis on German tactics in the First World War, but could not read German. Instead, he wrote on the British response to German tactical innovations. This was a 15,000 word thesis as part of a taught Masters. Is the project under discussion a research MA?

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