Our Top Five... notable and collectible military documents

When people think of militaria collecting, they usually think of weapons and paraphernalia which have seen action on the battlefield: Swords, antique firearms, helmets, armour and the like.

However, often the closest we can get to understanding what it was like to be involved in a battle or war is to see documents detailing the event, or the run-up to it, which might contain eerily accurate predictions - or the reverse.

With that in mind, here's a look at five of our favour war-related documents:

Nelson's Disobedience

Admiral Lord Nelson was a great tactician, and had a sizeable slice of arrogance to go with it. In Christie's manuscript sale of June 2010, a handwritten letter from Nelson to his second in command John Thomas Duckworth represented a famous act of disobedience in which Nelson, having repeatedly refused orders from Lord Keith to send all available forces to Minorca, sent a small force without marines instead.

The 1799 letter, written because Nelson believed Naples to be more important and valued his own opinion above that of Keith, earned him a formal rebuke - a very lenient punishment which reflected the value of Nelson's service. The letter sold for £5,000 - a modest price which makes it an excellent investment.

We may need more gunpowder...

Nelson's adversary Napoleon was of course a tremendously successful general, but ultimately the tide of the wars he pursued turned against him. One key moment in the wars was his costly failed invasion of Russia in 1812-13.

The cost was not merely material. It showed that Napoleon could be genuinely vulnerable. A low-key letter to his trusted Duc de Feltre marks an important moment, as Napoleon questions whether there is enough gunpowder stored in the Prussian cities of Stettin, Cüstrin and Magdeburg.

Check the gunpowder - Napoleon to the Duc de Feltre

Prussia had been subdued by French forces, but its Prince had just left French surveillance to head to Breslau (near all three cities) with the intention of bringing Prussia back into the war with a series of rousing speeches.

Napoleon was canny enough to realise from the off the danger of the Prince's move. The letter is available for just £4,500.

Churchill's first hand view

Winston Churchill naturally left any number of intriguing war documents. But he was involved in war long before he ended up prosecuting WWII against the Nazis.

Churchill was captured during the Boer War. In the last page of an autograph manuscript fragment of a dispatch for the Morning Post from the first day of the 20th century, he takes a quick look back at his time in captivity.

"Two days before I had written to an officer in high command at home ... 'There has been a great deal too much surrendering in this war and I hope people who do so will not be encouraged'.

"Fate had intervened, yet though her tone was full of irony she seemed to say as I think Ruskin once said 'It matters very little whether your judgments of people are true or untrue, and very much whether they are kind or unkind'".
The document sold for just £3,000. This was something of a bargain, but naturally documents relating directly to Churchill's time in WWII tend to be in more demand, such as this annotated typescript of Churchill's answers regarded supplies to Russia.

Total surrender - or nothing

Of course the greatest loss of life on single days in WWII was not directly connected to Churchill or Europe at all, but was caused by the dropping of American atomic bombs on Japanese cities by President Harry Truman, the USA's new President after F D Roosevelt died before the completion of the war.

Japan was forced to open negotiations, and Truman was not prepared to be flexible. In these negotiations, the key document was the Potsdam Declaration, which declared the requirements for Japan to end the war.

The text, agreed by Truman, Winston Churchill and Chiang Kai Shek by telegraph, was stern, requiring not merely the renouncing any territory gained during the war, but all the territory back to pre-1894 levels. It also refers to 'unconditional surrender'.

The only known complete text of the declaration went under the hammer at Alexander Autographs last year, listed at $150,000.

Attack Richmond, or give up the job

In America's Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had many troubles to deal with, not least amongst which was the mistrust of his top General. He had to dismiss his head of command at the start of the conflict due to the latter's pronounced reluctance to go after the Confederates.

Instead he turned to General George B McClellan, a 'young Napoleon' of 34 who he hoped would prove dynamic and effective in leading the troops.

McClellan was a Democrat and believed that Lincoln would not grant him the resources which he would grant a Republican.

Lincoln to McClellan
Just do it! Lincoln loses patience with McClellan

McClellan therefore stalled his attack on Richmond and repeatedly emphasised the forces against him and called for more resources. Lincoln lost patience with the exaggerations after it became clear that Confederate forces were moving North in some numbers.

His letter to McClellan on May 25 1862 dispensed with charm:

"The enemy is moving North in sufficient force to drive Banks before him—precisely in what force we can not tell. He is also threatening Leesburg, and Geary on the Mannassas Gap Railroad from both North and South—in precisely what force we can not tell.

"I think the movement is a general and a concerted—such as could not be if he was acting upon the purpose of a very desperate defense of Richmond.

"I think the time is near when you must either attack Richmond, or give up the job and come to the defense of Washington. Let me hear from you instantly."

Lincoln's blunt telegram brought $482,500 in the James S Copley Library sale at Sotheby's in Spring 2010.


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