Did I Just Write the Largest History Book Ever?
Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience. He is the author of "America's Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam" and most recently, Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (December 2015).
I think I just wrote and had published the largest single-volume history book ever. It is a military history of a World War II battle called Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka.1 Not entirely sure if it is the largest history book, but at 1,662 pages, the book has more pages than any other book I know of. The word count is 791,698, which may also be a record.2 Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is only 645,000 words long and Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a paltry 587,287 words (in English). But these are stories that the authors made up, not history. Hopefully nothing was made up in my book. We even considered the tacky tag line: “Larger than War and Peace, except there is no peace.”
We tried to work with the Russian Military History Institute (MHI) but that became impossible for political reasons, so instead Trevor Dupuy, the head of The Dupuy Institute, contracted a private team of Russian researchers. This team was headed by Colonel Fyodor Sverdlov, a Soviet veteran of World War II, a nascent capitalist, a retired Frunze Military Academy professor. This small bald veteran, who reminded me of Khrushchev in more than one way, had access to the archives as a former professor at the Frunze Military Academy. Therefore we bypassed the Russian bureaucracy.
Over the next two years the project resulted in 1,200 pages of Soviet archival material being sent to us, along with a wealth of other material and information. In 1995 Richard Harrison, Fyodor Sverdlov and I spent three days driving across the battlefield, walking the fields (in single file ... just in case of mines), and photographing the terrain. In 1996 we were contacted by a group of retired American military officers to serve as a tour guide for a private trip to the battlefield that they wanted to make. An entire chapter in General Julius Becton’s autobiography describes this rather unusual road trip from Heidelberg to Belgorod, covering half the distance of Europe by car.3 It was on this trip that I met Major General Dieter Brand, a still active duty Bundeswehr officer who had a strong interest in military history and good knowledge of the battle.
In 1999 I obtained a contract from Westview Press to write the book. My first thought was that no one was going to want to read a book written from a database. This would be truly dreadful. I figured I needed interviews, personal interest stories, biographies and so forth. None of these we had collected during the initial research as that was not the purpose of that contract. Therefore, I went back to Colonel Sverdlov and contracted him to actually go assemble over eighty interviews from veterans. At the same time the now retired General Brand volunteered for a pittance to collect interviews from German soldiers and commanders who were at Kursk. In both case, these gentlemen knew many of the soldiers they interviewed and were trusted by them. This was something they could certainly do better than I ever could. When it was finished, I had collected 115 interviews, only three done by me. I had also contracted Colonel Sverdlov to provide me with biographies of the Soviet commanders (many whom he had known),4 unit citations from the Hero’s of the Soviet Union (which we never used) and pictures of the commanders. Now, I had a little bit more than a database to work with.
I started writing the book at the beginning of 2000. I cobbled together elements from the material I had, but it was hardly refined, as I had little time away from work to commit to the book. Therefore I was writing in the evenings and weekends when I had the time. Still, by the end of 2001 I had 900 or so pages and I was reporting on our website that I had all 28 chapters in a rough draft form. I was still trying to complete the book in 2002 if I could find the time. But finding the time was difficult and the book was larger than I had originally planned for. As business was going well at The Dupuy Institute, in 2002 I switched to working two days a week plus usually a Saturday morning, continuing that pattern for a little over a year. When it was done, most of the book had been written. Still, by the second half of 2003, I had to halt regular work on the book and return back to contracted work five days a week. The Kursk book was almost complete in 2003, although it would clearly take many more months of work to finish it. I effectively was forced to stop work on the book for the next five years because of other pressing work.
Finally toward the end of 2009, our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were winding down, the defense budgets were being cut, I was handing out pink slips, and now there was time to finish the book.5 Needless to say, Westview Press had understandingly lost interest and had also changed their business model. So, they cancelled my contract. I was now faced with marketing a manuscript of 2,000 draft pages. I was not sure who would publish such a book, but at this point, I was determined to publish it and finally had the time to complete it. The Dupuy Institute has a now inactive discussion forum on its website. One day, someone on the forum from Finland, whom I did not really know, stated that some bookstore in Colorado was looking for a book to publish and would be interested in mine. He would talk to the bookstore owner. This odd contact eventually ended up with a signed contract with Aberdeen Books, a bookstore in Colorado that publishes one book every three or four years, all on World War II. In effect, the publisher is an aficionado who does it for the love of the subject. As he was willing to publish the book I wrote, it did not take much deliberation to publish with him. The book was under contract by the middle of 2010 and the final manuscript was sent to the editors shortly thereafter.
The editing process for the book took far longer than expected. The sheer amount of time involved in editing 2,000 draft pages was staggering, and there were the usual interruptions from life that further slowed the process down. We also had to assemble a considerable collection of pictures, maps, charts, and other graphics that make up the book. And then there was the challenge of finding the printers for such a large book. The entire process took over four years.
Finally, the book was sent to China in 2015 to be printed. I could claim that the book took 15 years to write, but at no point did I work on it five days a week for longer than a few weeks. I worked on it part time for four years (2000-2003) and then finished it up over a six month period of so in 2009 and 2010, and then edited it in bits and pieces over the next couple of years. So, two or three years to write the largest history book ever? Perhaps it was more than that, but I never logged my time, so have no way of knowing.
So, is a 1,662 page book an exhaustive history of the battle? Far from it. The Battle of Kursk was the largest armor battle in history. In 1943, the Soviet Union ended up with a large bulge around the city of Kursk, some 90 miles by 120 miles. The Germans decided that summer to attack both the north and south sides of the bulge. After the German attack started the Soviet Union launched a massive counteroffensive in the north, and then later, another one in the south. The two German offensives lasted less than two weeks. The two Soviet counteroffensives lasted more like a month. The 1,662 pages were spent covering the German offensive in the south, not the north and covered neither of two Soviet counteroffensives. So massive were the campaigns and battles on the Eastern Front in World War II, that we could only cover less than a quarter of this one battle in this massive book.
Was it a mistake to write a book that large? No, in fact, it was liberating. I have now written, said and covered every aspect of that portion of the battle to the degree that I wanted to. If I had cut the book down to start with, then important and relevant material would have to have been left out. On the other hand, if I published the book I wrote, I could always write a shorter book later. I made sure my contract allowed for that. If I left something out in these rewrites, it was not an issue, as this unique data had already been published.
It is clear that I will never write a book of similar size again. Mainly because I no longer have the team of researchers, translators, and interviewers that gave me far more reach and the ability to conduct far more work than I could have done working alone. I was not a single author writing a book, I was a project manager with dozens of people supporting me. I hopefully listed them all in the acknowledgements.
In the end, I am glad I stuck to the original concept and published the book I wrote. Now we shall see if people actually read the book I wrote.
1 Christopher A. Lawrence, Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO. 2015).
2 The Encyclopedia of Military History (3rd edition) by R. Earnest and Trevor N. Dupuy had 1,376 pages. The font is smaller, so its word count may be higher. It weights 6 pounds vice the 13 pounds for my book. I have put the books side by side and mine definitely looks larger. Of course, there is a certain irony in that The Dupuy Institute is competing with Trevor Dupuy, its founder, for the credit for largest single volume history book.
3 Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr., Becton: Autobiography of a Soldier and Public Servant (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 2008), “An Improbable Journey,” pages 230-240.
4 Many Soviet general officers had not completed higher level military schooling before the war. This was a result of the extensive purges in the 1930s and their rapid promotion because of the purges and the war. Therefore many of them attended the Frunze Military Academy after the war, where Sverdlov taught. As such, his biographies sometimes contained personal information that could not be obtained from official sources, for example about their conflicts with the Soviet authorities, their drinking problems, or their “front wives.”
5 This work on insurgencies and the Iraq casualty estimate is described in my book America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015).