Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico
old picture of the strand 800 x 400 ;

The History of the Department of War Studies

The Department of War Studies (DWS), based at King’s College London, is the world’s leading academic institution for the study of war. The success of DWS owes much to its founder, Sir Michael Howard, one of Britain’s most eminent and celebrated historians.

For Howard the study of war required moving beyond the confines of traditional military history, with its focus on campaigns and battles, to a consideration of its political, economic, and social contexts. While never neglecting the operational aspects of war, he sought to understand the reasons why armed conflict emerged, and to assess its wider impact. He focused on ‘the problem which is of central concern to all mankind in the 20th Century’:

Sir Michael Howard

‘Under what circumstances can armed force be used, in the only way in which it can be legitimate to use it, to ensure a lasting and stable peace?’

This required an interdisciplinary approach: ‘I was advised’, Howard later recalled, ‘to enlist the co-operation of lawyers, scientists, theologians, economists, and sociologists, in order to create an overall pattern of War Studies.’

This holistic approach – stressing the wider context and the need to be interdisciplinary – has shaped DWS since its creation.

The focus of its research and teaching remains shaped by the challenges posed by warfare as states and other actors seek to secure their interests and ensure their survival. And as the character of warfare has changed, so to the scale, makeup, and focus of DWS has adapted and evolved.


King’s has a long, if intermittent, tradition of education in military affairs. In 1848 King’s established the Department for Military Science (DMS), which trained and educated officer cadets for the British Army. The Reverend Richard W Jelf, then Principal of King’s, created a curriculum that included the study of the Bible, history, languages, mathematics and philosophy, alongside classes that concentrated on grounds more familiar to the soldier: the surveillance of battlefields, the construction of fortifications, military strategy and tactics.

However, in 1859, DMS was closed and studies linked to war fell dormant for over three decades. In 1893 John Knox Laughton was appointed as Professor of Modern History. Laughton, who had been a civilian instructor in the Royal Navy before coming to King’s, persuaded the Navy to permit limited access to its archives and co-founded the Navy Records Society. Two years before Laughton died, military studies reemerged in 1913–14 as a course for the general BA and BSc programmes.

In 1927 the University of London with British government backing decided to follow the University of Oxford’s example and create a chair of ‘Military Studies’ which found its home at King’s. It offered the chair to writer, military correspondent and academic, (retired) Major General Sir Frederick Maurice – an appointment with some irony, as his grandfather had been fired from the Chair of Theology at King’s in 1853, for heretical thoughts on divine punishment (and Maurice himself, had been forced to resign from the army in 1918 for expressing equally heretical views concerning the Prime Minister’s statements about the Western Front in a letter published in the press).

He only stayed for a few years, but the Military Studies Department (MSD) continued running courses for the Territorial Army. In 1943 the MSD was renamed the ‘Department of War Studies’, which existed briefly until its abolition in 1948. Evidently this was not the end of War Studies: the subject would return and, under Michael Howard’s leadership, a quite different kind of department with the same name would be born in the 1960s.

Howard joined King’s as an Assistant Lecturer in History in 1947. He then wrote, with John Sparrow, a history of the Coldstream Guards, the regiment with which he had served with distinction in the Second World War – a book he saw as his ‘graceful farewell to arms’, rather than the preface to War Studies that it turned out to be.

Cold Stream Guards WW2 cropped

In the early 1950s a group of senior figures in the University of London, including Sir Charles Webster, Lionel Robbins, and Sir Keith Hancock, all eminent scholars who had been involved in the British war effort and writing its history, decided that military studies should be revived in the University and its quality enhanced to become both truly academic and to reflect the full scope of war, embracing economics, society, law and ethics, and so on. The LSE had the context and a prime and obvious candidate for the post; but King’s had precedent and a ‘prescriptive right’ first claim on a new appointment of this sort, and a ‘plausible’ and willing candidate in Howard. So, the start of War Studies as we know it was an accident of intra-university politics, with Howard becoming Lecturer in War Studies in 1953.

With that appointment, Howard, who had been told by Webster to write a ‘proper book’, had to start reading about war and was given a sabbatical ‘to learn my new trade.’ Learn he did. Howard reflected:

The history of war, I came to realise, was more than the operational history of armed forces, it was the study of entire societies. Only by studying their cultures could one come to understand what it was that they fought about and why they fought in the way that they did."– Sir Michael Howard

The way in which different armies fought, Howard believed, had a reciprocal impact on the structures of those societies that sustained, supplied and configured them:

‘I had to learn not only to think about war in a different way… but also to think about history in a different way.’

Howard demonstrated the potential of his approach with his ‘proper book’, a landmark account of the Franco-Prussian War. After his appointment he was still a member of the Department of History, where he was expected to teach the full range of subjects. It was only once the Head of History retired in 1961 and Howard was promoted to Reader that he would get his own department. Four years later Howard was conferred with the Chair in War Studies.

By this time Howard had already been in effect running his own department, representing the Board of War Studies in the University of London, and working with and, fostering clusters of ‘war and society’ students, including later luminaries such as Brian Bond and Peter Simkins within History. This de facto ‘war studies’ programme was the basis for the MA in War Studies agreed in 1962 under the University of London Board. The events of 1961-2 – Howard’s promotion and his liberation to create an MA programme and a department, as well as his defining lecture on the ‘Uses and Abuses of Military History’ – are why we are celebrating the 60th anniversary today.

Strand B&W

Until the 1990s, the MA was the mainstay of the Department. Each year approximately 20–30 students enrolled on the course, with classes discussing topics that spanned military sociology, the economics of war, and nuclear deterrence amongst others. Students were also encouraged to take classes on subjects such as civil-military relations, at the LSE, as well as those that focused on the roles that law, morality and ethics play in armed conflict, at King’s Law and Theology Departments.

Early cohorts of the MA War Studies included future historians such as Geoffrey Till and John Gooch. Wolf Mendl, who had joined King’s from Cambridge to work on a PhD on French nuclear weapons policy in 1962, was the first lecturer appointed to support Howard when the new Department of War Studies finally opened in 1965. A year later, Brian Bond was appointed to join them. Mendl would later become Head of Department and Bond Professor of Military History in 1986.

Other notable figures to have passed through the offices and teaching rooms of DWS – located in the early years at 154 The Strand – were leading American strategic theorists and political scientists, such as Thomas Schelling, Richard Rosencrance and Morton Halperin. Peter Paret, the distinguished historian of culture and ideas in war, was Howard’s student for his dissertation. The two went on to translate together Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, the most popular English version of the renowned text.


In 1964, the creation of the Centre for Military Archives (CMA) at King’s enabled DWS’s quick transformation into a leading centre of research. The CMA’s early acquisitions were substantially augmented by the huge personal papers collection of Captain Sir Basil Liddell Hart (a mentor of Howard’s), after whom the CMA would be renamed in the 1970s.

Today the Centre holds the personal and semi-personal papers of over 800 senior British defence personnel, including General Sir William Robertson, Field Marshal Lord Ismay ad Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, as well as the former personal library of Liddell Hart himself. For academics and practitioners alike, the location of such important papers at King’s made the University – and by extension DWS – an attraction for those with both an interest and a stake in the challenges of contemporary warfare.

Under Freedman’s leadership, War Studies became a mainstream academic subject and DWS was transformed into one of the biggest departments at King’s."

Howard was succeeded as Professor of War Studies by Laurence Martin, who joined the Department from the University of Wales. Howard considered Martin to be an expert university politician with the requisite skills to secure the position of DWS. Martin recruited the diplomatic historian Michael Dockrill and also Barrie Paskins, who specialised in the ethics of war.

These appointments confirmed DWS’s interdisciplinary character. The Ministry of Defence’s Defence Fellowship Scheme, formally established in the early 1970s gave serving officers a postgraduate education at DWS, designed to supplement and contextualise the technical and operational competencies of their roles.

Kings Library old

In 1982, Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, a former doctoral student of Howard’s at Oxford, was appointed to the Chair of War Studies and Head of Department. Under Freedman’s leadership, War Studies became a mainstream academic subject and DWS was transformed into one of the biggest departments at King’s.

Now celebrated around the world as an historian of strategy and ‘doyen of British strategic studies’, Freedman was, at the time of his appointment, both young at 33 and relatively inexperienced. Freedman’s work on nuclear policy at the Royal Institute of International Affairs brought him to the attention of the Principle of King’s, Sir Neil Cameron who was also a former Chief of Defence Staff.

Cameron wanted DWS to inform the public debate on nuclear weapons, continuing a mission established by Michael Howard. This was a time of great interest in the issue, with growing East-West tension, the resurgence of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the British government’s decision to purchase the Trident nuclear missile system from the United States and host American cruise missiles. Freedman’s nuclear expertise thus made him the ideal candidate.

The MAs reflected the everchanging security environment, including security and development, terrorism and political violence, science and security, intelligence, and grand strategy.


As Head of Department, Freedman identified three areas in which he wished DWS to expand. First, it needed to increase student numbers if it was to have resources to invest. Second, it needed to build on an established relationship with the Royal Naval College Greenwich, to enhance King’s role in the provision of military education. Third, it should become a major contributor to policy debates in government and in the wider community. This required adapting to the economic and political developments that were transforming international relations.

Indeed, domestic reforms, a few years later, initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, as leader of the Soviet Union, signalled a fundamental change in the strategic context of the Cold War – the area in which most, if not all, of DWS’s intellectual firepower was focused.

There was a need to look at developments in other parts of the world, and in particular the Middle East. In 1990 the policy relevant work of DWS was reinforced by the formation of the Centre for Defence Studies, under the direction of Professor Michael Clarke, with the benefit of an initial grant from the Ministry of Defence.

During the 1990s DWS began to grow in both staff and students. The 1991 Gulf War and the series of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia drew attention to the Department’s developing expertise on the rapidly changing strategic environment. Most importantly, when the government removed the cap on student numbers, DWS took the opportunity to introduce an undergraduate degree – the BA in War Studies. The extra staff required for undergraduate teaching enabled an expansion at postgraduate level, including taking on extra research students.

Many new academic staff were recruited, a number having done degrees at DWS, including maritime historian Andrew Lambert, Cold War historian Saki Dockrill, who formed a powerful partnership with her husband Michael, Jan Willem Honig, and Michael Rainsborough, the historian of strategic thought, who would go on to become Head of Department in 2016. Christopher Dandeker joined DWS to teach military sociology when Wolf Mendl retired in 1990 and was crucial in developing the new undergraduate programme. Dandeker took over from Freedman as Head of Department in 1996.

FEATURE Open day Strand building 1

During the 1990s, the Department took responsibility to teach MAs at the RAF Staff College at Bracknell, a development helped by Brian Holden Reid’s secondment to Camberley and, then, Bracknell as Resident Historian. Later in the decade the College was awarded a contract to provide academic support to the new Joint Services Command and Staff College (JSCSC) at Shrivenham, formed through a merge of the separate staff colleges, as well as a separate contract to provide educational support and a discrete MA at the Royal College of Defence Studies. The JSCSC cooperation required forming a whole new Defence Studies Department (DSD). Although this was an independent department, relations with DWS were inevitably close, and today they sit together under the School of Security Studies.

The reputation of DWS increased student demand. Its academic offer also expanded, with new MA programmes, starting in 1997 with the International Peace and Security MA pioneered with the Law School by Professor James Gow, to meet changing global conditions and new research initiatives. The MAs reflected the ever-changing security environment, including security and development, terrorism and political violence, science and security, intelligence, and grand strategy.

In 2003 a major new strand of International Relations was added, when Mervyn Frost and Vivienne Jabri transferred to King’s from the University of Kent. Four years later Frost became Head of Department, taking over from Brian Holden Reid, who had succeeded Christopher Dandeker when Dandeker moved on to be the Head of the School of Social Sciences and Public Policy. Bringing us up to the present, Frost was succeeded by Professor Theo Farrell, then Professor Michael Rainsborough and the current Head of Department, Professor Michael Goodman, took up his tenure in 2019.

BH 1195 x 500

War Studies today

Today, the Department of War Studies is one of the largest departments at King’s College London. When Lawrence Freedman became Head in 1982, DWS had one departmental secretary and no word processors; it had a small group of postgraduate students, five teaching staff (one part-time), and one degree programme. Today, DWS boasts over 100 full-time academic staff (to say nothing of over 60 faculty in the sibling DSD) over 40 professional service members of staff and around 1,500 undergraduate and postgraduate students. It offers four courses at undergraduate level and fourteen MA programmes. Its teaching and research staff work with practitioners in government and the armed forces around the world to advise on policy and contribute to public debate on issues that concern security, defence, and conflict.

While there has been huge growth in DWS’s size and scope, its academic rigour, inter-disciplinary approach and commitment to vital policy issues remain perfectly intact, as does its mission to be ‘in the service of society’ by ensuring that, as Michael Howard put it, public discussion of war should be well-informed, rather than not informed at all. DWS’s vision, creativity and service carries us forward into a promising future, built on an exciting present and a rich past.


The History of the Department of War Studies draws on Captain Professor: The Memoirs of Sir Michael Howard by Sir Michael Howard, and Military Historian: My Part in the Birth and Development of War Studies 1966–2016, by Brian Bond.

This piece was written and edited by Lizzie Ellen, Lawrence Freedman, Jan Gocken, Michael Goodman, James Gow, Mark Gwilt and Rachel Kerr.

Latest news