British author, historian and BBC television personality Dan Snow is taking military history to a new level. Having jump-started his career right out of university with the popular, award-winning series Battlefield Britain (2004)—co-hosted with his father, journalist Peter Snow—the 37-year-old has presented additional television series and authored several books, covering topics from ancient and medieval battles to World Wars I and II. His latest endeavor is to bring military history into the digital age with his podcasts, social media presence and interactive apps. Just as his Twitter handle, @TheHistoryGuy, asserts, Snow aims to one day be the go-to guy for all things history. Military History recently caught up with Snow, who shared his thoughts on producing history programs and where the future lies for history in the digital world.
‘I consider myself someone who eats, sleeps and breathes history. I write it, read it, research it, tweet it, Facebook it, film it, record it and speak it’
What prompted you to study and pursue a career in history?
There was never any choice; history is just so exciting. Growing up visiting castles, battlefields, cathedrals and museums, I never doubted that the past was alive, vivid and important. I wanted to experience the excitement of the past, and I also wanted to understand why on earth this crazy world is the way it is. History is where the present and future come from.
Did your family history play a role in your career track?
My grandmother and my aunt were wonderful storytellers and great historians. My grandfather told me stories about his time in the Royal Navy during World War II. My father and mother were both television journalists, and they gave me a love of trying to explain complicated ideas through that medium.
What sparked your own career as a historian and television personality?
I was studying history at Oxford and rowing at the same time. A TV crew came to do a piece on our rowing team, and a producer thought I might make a good on-air presenter. The BBC suggested pairing me up with my father. He didn’t like the idea at first, but I talked him into it. I was just ridiculously lucky.
Many of your programs focus on military history. Why is that?
I’m fascinated by military history, because the entire range of human emotions and impulses can be present on one small patch of earth, sea or sky. Hatred, love, courage, terror, ambition, selflessness—everything. How can anyone not be fascinated?
Is there a certain era in military history that most interests you?
I’m particularly fascinated by the 18th century. I’m interested in those classic early-modern, often quite small-scale clashes at places like Plassey in 1757, Quebec in 1775 and Yorktown in 1781; they were battles that did much to shape our world.
Why make the shift to digital media platforms?
The digital medium is just so flexible, and it makes history immediate. You can have maps on which the front lines move, you can hear the actual voices of veterans, see moving images of past events and choose from a panoply of content.
What has been your most rewarding history project?
They’ve all been rewarding. Actually meeting people who have been through major historic events is an unbeatable thrill. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and speak with one of the last survivors of the World War I trenches; with men who as Royal Air Force pilots in 1940 helped defeat the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain; and with a woman who survived genocide in eastern Congo. Their stories will live with me forever.
You traveled to Syria in 2013 to film a series on its history. What challenges did that location present?
Security was our constant concern. Syria is a society tearing itself apart, and the conditions on the ground are very dangerous. All the various factions were suspicious of us, and it was a terrible situation in which to operate.
On what topic, battle or era will you next focus?
I’m looking for new Viking sites in Britain at the moment. Then next year I’ll be taking a new look at the terracotta warriors of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang, after which I’ll travel to Canada’s Yukon for some 19th century history.
Do you consider yourself a historian or an entertainer? Where do you draw the line?
I consider myself someone who eats, sleeps and breathes history. I write it, read it, research it, tweet it, Facebook it, film it, record it and speak it. I don’t really know what I should be called. But I’m relaxed about it.
‘I believe we will ultimately give up war. But it won’t happen until people in places like Darfur, Afghanistan and Chechnya have the same standard of living as the residents of London’s Notting Hill’
Your program My Family at War covered the World War I service of your great-grandfather Lt. Gen. Sir Thomas D’Oyly Snow. What did you learn about him?
I learned that he, like all his peers, was utterly unprepared for the challenge of modern warfare. He and other senior commanders of his generation struggled with the advent of effectively unlimited firepower, the distances of a vastly expanded battlefield and the logistical challenge of keeping massive numbers of infantry on the battlefield year-round. He managed well when defending at Ypres in 1915 and Cambrai in 1917 but fell far short in an offensive role—as did nearly everyone else.
Did you ever consider service in your nation’s military?
Yes, of course. But I grew up in the ’90s, a time when the military life looked quite dull. I made the decision not to enter the military, and then 9/11 happened. The world’s been on fire ever since.
From what you’ve learned about military history, do you expect human beings will ever cease fighting?
Yes, I believe we will ultimately give up war. But it won’t happen until people in places like Darfur, Afghanistan and Chechnya have the same standard of living as the residents of London’s Notting Hill. Until such a time there will be lots of grounds for conflict.
What is your ultimate ambition in the history niche? More programming? Books? Teaching?
Quite simply, I would like to do it all—and ultimately become the go-to guy for digital history. MH