Duncan Rogers, owner and publisher of Helion & Company, one of our distribution clients, has been surrounded by military history ever since he was born. Forever doodling pictures of soldiers and making lists of battles from a very early age, he developed this interest through his teens, undertook a degree in Modern European History from the University of Warwick, and set up publishing house Helion & Company in 1996. Since then, his interest has focused on European campaigns of the C19th, notably the Prussian and Austrian armies. His collection focuses on the 1860s, and encompasses books, especially regimental histories, original paintings, prints, manuscript diaries and letters, and several thousand original photographs from the period.
So what first got you interested in military history and this particular period of warfare?
My dad has been interested in soldiers and military history since he was a dot – he was born in 1939 and spent most of the 1940s playing with toy soldiers in the garden of his home in Birmingham – where some of them are still probably lying buried! He continued this interest through his later years, and was wargaming by the 1960s. I was born into a house full of military history, maybe a family, too – a great-great-grandfather served in the Royal Warwicks in the late C19th, a great-grandfather at Gallipoli and Palestine in World War I, and a grandfather with the Worcesters in NW Europe 1944-45.
Why this period of warfare? Because I’m obtuse, and always like exploring the byways of military history rather than its highways! I remember reading about the Franco-Prussian War 1870-71 when I was about ten and thinking it had the battles, uniforms and ‘off the beaten path’ appeal. I have continued in that vein ever since.
What interests you most about it?
I like C19th aesthetics generally – the ‘look’ and feel of the period; its art, architecture, literature. The army fits neatly into that, too. I think I enjoy most of all the challenge of researching a period that is all ‘there’ – the personalities, the battles, the uniforms, the esprit-de-corps and traditions of the regiments – but still waiting to be discovered by a generation (or two) of military buffs.
Which key battles and protagonists most interest you and why?
The Campaign of 1866 in Bohemia, fought between Prussia and Austria (with the Saxons allies of the latter). As a campaign it has that ‘nearly could have been different’ appeal that I like – although the Austrians lost all but one engagement they put up a tremendous showing in all. The Battle of Königgrätz – the climax of the campaign – was the largest battle in history at that point, with over half-a-million combatants – and remained so until World War I. The period has high drama – almost like an opera at times, too. I also feel the soldiers of the time, the rank and file, deserve to be rescued from oblivion for their suffering and sacrifice on the battlefields – for their actions to be known more widely.
How did your collection get started? Tell us a bit more about it…
My collection started when I was a dot, but began focusing on C19th campaigns around 1998. Like all collections it began with ‘just another book’, then into ‘I have to have that!’ and then snowballed. It’s actually at the stage now where I have most things I set out to look for, and I’m adding only bits and pieces to it – mostly specific regimental histories I’m looking for. Rather worryingly, the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War section of my library has begun to expand rapidly in the last few months!
What are your favourite books/pieces?
The very personal and unique items, all from 1866 – the handwritten pocket diary of a soldier of the Prussian Guard Jäger; a letter written in pencil by a Prussian cuirassier officer the day after Königgrätz to his sister, telling her that “Yesterday we had a great battle, God be thanked I got through it safely!”; a few photo albums, particularly that compiled by an officer of the Prussian Guard Artillery in Schleswig-Holstein 1864, and some battlefield finds – coins and personal items from the Königgrätz battlefield.
How do you add to your collection – please can you give budding collectors some hints and tips on how to start/progress?
All the rarest items I find either on eBay or at auction in Austria or Germany. eBay is best for really rare items. I’d suggest that if one wants to build a good collection, focus on what you really want. At times, I made the error of getting waylaid because something was ‘sort of’ related – and ended up with a fair amount of stuff I didn’t really need. I’ve also settled for the idea that somewhere someone else will always have the rare items I want, and I need to accept I just can’t have everything!
What are you looking for at the moment, if anything in particular and you are willing to tell us?!
The principal items I buy now are regimental histories – Austrian and Prussian. In particular, I’m trying to obtain the Prussian regimentals published shortly after the War of 1866, focusing entirely on a particular unit’s participation in the Campaign.
Which other periods of history you are interested in?
History generally interests me, but particularly the Reformation of the C16th, the War of Spanish Succession-era, and aspects of the two World Wars, as well as modern US political history, particularly the 1960s.
What got you interested in publishing and made you decide to start up your own publishing company?
I had a lot of books around me from an early age, and I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak – I used to buy and sell records and music memorabilia in my teens. I decided to marry the love of books with a desire to be my own boss, and in 1990 actually published my first book – 100 copies no less! It was about the Franco-Prussian War. In 1996 I couldn’t face an office job – or so I thought, so set up Helion. And then proceeded to spend the next 14 years behind a desk 7 days a week 12 hours a day!
Finally, what can we look forward to from Helion, bookswise over the next 12 months? Any new directions?
I am seeking to develop our core areas – Second World War and C19th, through fresh angles. I am working with a number of Central and East European authors to bring more of that region’s military history to an English-speaking audience. So, expect to see material from Russian, Hungarian, Bulgarian and Turkish experts, for instance. I’m also putting out some military aviation titles, again in specialist areas, such as the Hungarian-Slovak border conflict of 1939.