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review 2020-06-18 18:55
The pre-history of air-to-air combat
To Rule the Winds: The Evolution of the British Fighter Force Through Two World Wars Volume 1: Prelude to Air War - The Years to 1914 - Michael C. Fox

Michael Fox is a retired metallurgist who spent a quarter century working for the British Standards Institution. While most retirees enjoy their golden years by taking up gardening or spending time with their grandchildren, Fox has dedicated his to a much more ambitious goal: writing a multivolume history charting the development of the British fighter force from the beginning of flight through the Second World War. This book represents the first – and to date, the only – volume to appear, providing its readers with a useful account of the British military’s prewar interest in adapting the new technology of heavier-than-air flight to their wartime needs.


Fox begins by summarizing the British military’s earliest exploration of the possibilities of flight. In the century before the Wright brothers’ flyer first took to the skies, this meant balloons, which the British Army experimented with over the course of the 19th century. Though balloons were employed in various imperial wars during the later Victorian era, Fox covers these only in passing, focusing instead on the efforts to find offensive applications for a technology that was most usefully employed in observational roles. These unsuccessful efforts were eclipsed after 1903 by the increasing success of heavier-than-air flight, which soon came to dominate British military thinking.


The British military’s investigation of the potential applications of airplanes to their needs forms the heart of his book. In this respect Fox delivers more than the book’s subtitle suggests, as he covers how the army (initially through the Royal Engineers, then with the establishment of the Royal Flying Corps) and the Royal Navy developed their air arms generally during the prewar era. While air-to-air combat remained unknown in the wars prior to 1914, here Fox’s focus helps highlight the amount of thinking and experimentation went into aerial warfare. Impractical as it was with the lightly-powered early airplanes, the British nevertheless experimented with arming aircraft and followed closely similar investigations abroad. Thus, while the aerial duels over the Western Front were still a thing of the future, by the time Britain went to war in 1914 the military had already conceptualized many of the elements that would characterize aerial warfare for the next three decades and was working out the consequences of what might follow from it.


Generously illustrated and drawing upon a wealth of primary sources, Fox’s book is an excellent overview of the British armed forces’ experimentations with aerial warfare in the years leading up to the First World War. As beneficial as this is as a “pre-history” of air-to-air combat, though, his approach to the subject sometimes glosses over the other roles for aircraft explored by the British army, most importantly its employment in scouting. With air combat a means to enable scouting rather than an end in and of itself – as even the early advocates of aerial combat acknowledged – It deserved greater attention than Fox gives it in his book. Hopefully he will address this in his next volume, which promises a through consideration of the air war on the Western Front. If Fox can combine this analysis with the sort of technical and organizational detail he demonstrates in this book, it will be a considerable contribution to the study of the First World War in the air.

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review 2020-05-20 21:32
A work unsurpassed in its passion for its subject
A History of the British Cavalry, 1816-1919, Volume I: 1816-1850 - Henry Paget, 7th Marquess of Anglesey

When I was growing up one of the board games I enjoyed playing most was Risk. Part of the game involved a deck of “territory cards” on which, in addition to the color-coded territories depicted on the map, there were silhouettes of Napoleonic-era soldiers and weapons depicting infantry, artillery, and cavalry. While the infantry and artillery were and still are relatable arms to people today, the cavalry seemed much more representative of the forces of a bygone era, with their role both esoteric and archaic.


Yet the cavalry remains a subject of great fascination for many. Among their number was Henry Paget, the seventh Marquess of Anglesey. The descendant of a cavalry commander who served during the Napoleonic wars, Anglesey spent over three decades writing a multi-volume history of the British cavalry from their heyday in the aftermath of the battle of Waterloo to their obsolescence a century later. It is a monumental work in the truest sense of the term, one that details an arm and the men who served in it.


The first volume of Anglesey’s work, which covers the three and a half decades following the Napoleonic wars, is a book of three parts. The first part is an extended prologue that traces the history of the British cavalry from its origins as an elite force of armored knights on horseback to their more specialized employment for reconnaissance and as a strike force in the early modern era. What emerges from these pages is the sense of constant evolution facing the cavalry, as they adjusted to the ever-shifting conditions of war in ways that maintained their usefulness in battle, albeit sometimes in very different roles.


After a chapter summarizing the post-Napoleonic reductions in the cavalry and their employment in domestic police work (a role which became increasingly obsolete with the development of a dedicated police force), Anglesey moves on to the second part of his book, which details the social history of the cavalry. Here he explains in more detail the different types of cavalry, their assigned functions, and the lives of the officers and men who served in their regiments. The life he describes was a hard one, made even more difficult by the penny-pinching of successive peacetime governments. Here he covers as well the composition of the Indian cavalry employed by the British, showing the increasingly imperial composition of the British forces during the era.


Having described the lives of the men who served in the cavalry, Anglesey then shifts his focus to describing the wars of the era in which they served. This forms the final part of his book, and offers a cavalry-centric account of over a half-dozen campaigns waged on the Indian subcontinent. Anglesey’s coverage here is very traditional, often adopting the perspective and tone of the accounts from the era. As with his earlier chapters he describes a service that remained wedded to Napoleonic tactics and methods of training, which while increasingly obsolescent still were adequate for the wars in which the cavalry were employed. As Anglesey concludes, it was only with the challenges that the cavalry would face in the 1850s, that the need for change became obvious.


By the end of the book Anglesey succeeds in demythologizing a force which is too often stereotyped by its caricatures. While somewhat limited in terms of its research and dated in its interpretations, it nonetheless stands as the indispensable starting point for anyone interested in learning about the British cavalry or the post-Napoleonic British army more generally. In terms of the depth of the author’s understanding and his passion for the topic, though, it is unlikely every to be surpassed.

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text 2020-05-15 21:13
Reading progress update: I've read 28 out of 336 pages.
A History of the British Cavalry, 1816-1919, Volume I: 1816-1850 - Henry Paget, 7th Marquess of Anglesey

One week into my summer reading, and I've already made a dent in my TBR stack by reading three of the novels from it. I decided to take a break by starting on Marquess of Anglesey's eight-volume history of the British cavalry after the Napoleonic wars, which was one of my splurges last summer and which I've wanted to read if only to be able to post the reviews of the later volumes in a book review group I'm in.

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review 2020-05-15 07:14
The pressures of war
Policing the Home Front 1914-1918: The control of the British population at war - Mary Fraser

When Britain went to war in 1914, policemen throughout Great Britain confronted a range of new challenges. With the onset of the war the government turned to the police as agents of wartime authority and assigned to them an ever-increasing number of new duties that reflected the expanding power of the British state. Yet at the same time the police found their ability to perform their roles constrained by wartime pressures on both their professional and personal lives. Mary Fraser’s book offers the first examination of the role of the police in Great Britain during the First World War, one that describes both the conflict’s demands upon them and how they sought to meet them.


As Fraser explains, the police were strained by contrasting pressures from the moment Britain entered the war. Once Britain joined the conflict many policemen quit in order to enlist in the armed forces. At the same time, the government expanded police responsibilities by requiring the police to monitor the wives of the men who enlisted to confirm their eligibility for the Wartime Separation Allowances that were provided to them. This foreshadowed a recurrent theme of the role of the police in the war, as many in the government and in society wanted the police to provide the sort of family supervision that the men now serving at the front traditionally provided. To do so, the police turned to “special constables” (many of whom were men avoiding military service) and even employed women in policing roles for the first time.


Unlike the male police officers who came primarily from the working classes, the women who served as constables were mainly from the middle class, and personified the increasing imposition of middle-class standards of morality on the broader population. Nowhere was this better reflected than in the efforts to control drunkenness and the “khaki fever” of young women, both of which remained persistent concerns throughout the war. Another area of worry was the growth in youth crime, which resulted in surveys of both the offenders and their families in an effort to better understand both the root causes and how to address them. Here again the police were tasked with performing roles previously regarded as those of the male heads of household, which meant an expansion of the role of the state in the lives of ordinary British citizens.


The pressures on the police were not limited to their hours on duty, either. Soaring food prices strained household budgets of police families as much as they did those of everyone else on the home front, yet unlike other women the wives of policemen were deterred from seeking employment outside the home. The food crisis later in the war impacted policemen in another way as well, as many of them were ordered to work on farms to compensate for the agricultural labor shortage and help cultivate desperately needed crops. Arguably this was relevant to their responsibility to maintain social order, as food riots in Glasgow and elsewhere demonstrated the growing strains created by food shortages. Though the Ministry of Food expanded the regulation of foodstuffs, it fell again to the police to turn their directives into reality. With their expanded duties and low pay, it was little wonder that by the summer of 1918 many police went out on strike, presaging the social stress Britain would face after the end of the war.


Though the role of the British police in the First World War has long been neglected, Fraser’s book goes far towards filling this gap in our historical understanding. By drawing upon official documents, contemporary professional journals, and the secondary source literature on the home front, she succeeds in reconstructing both the role of the police during the war and the unique pressures their members faced both at work and at home. While the price of the book is daunting, no one interested in the British home front during the war can afford to neglect this ground-breaking study.

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review 2020-05-07 16:26
A comprensive history of the RFC that never loses sight of the men
The Royal Flying Corps in France: From Mons to the Somme - Ralph Barker

I first read the first volume of Ralph Barker’s history of the Royal Flying Corps nearly two decades ago. At the time I thought it was a good book but a little lightweight, likely because at that time I was hoping to find Barker's coverage more detailed than was the case. This was probably a factor in why I did not follow it up by reading the second volume, and as the years passed I felt as though I couldn’t without reading the first volume again. When I finally had the opportunity to do so, it gave me an opportunity to reassess the book and to appreciate just how much my initial judgment was in error.


What Ralph Barker provides in this book is a history of the Royal Flying Corps operations in France from their initial deployment in France to the battle of the Somme. While this may seem obvious from its subtitle, it means that the task the author sets out for himself is to cover a topic of considerable scope. At the start of the war, the RFC was a young branch of the army promising expanded opportunities to scout the battlefield. While their role was appreciated by many of the generals, it was on the pilots to get their planes across the English Channel to join up with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) – a greater challenge than might be appreciated today, as Louis Blériot’s history-making flight demonstrating that it was possible was just five years beforehand. In this respect it was a testament to the men that most of them crossed over successfully.


These pilots were soon employed in the vital task of supplying intelligence on the movement of German forces. Here Barker might have elaborated a little further on the task and the role that it played in the BEF’s operations. What Barker makes clear, though, is that the men chafed at their limits. As a group of adventurous individuals eager to press against the boundaries before them, they wanted to make a greater contribution to operations, by attacking the enemy on the ground and in the air. Here the main obstacle was a technological one, as the planes at this stage of the war often could bear little more than the weight of the pilot and his observer. Even as the pilots innovated and were provided with better planes, they were often frustrated by the challenge of firing their weapons through their propellers of their tractor-engine planes. That the men persevered, often by taking up hand-held firearms, flying inferior pusher models, or rigging workarounds, was a testament to their aggression and commitment to doing more.


Equaling the pilots in their determination to proving the usefulness of the nascent air arm were their commanders. Here the key figure was Hugh “Boom” Trenchard. Though not the first commander of the RFC forces in France, upon taking up the post in August 1915 he quickly defined the role with his assertive personality. Enjoying a good working relationship with Douglas Haig, the commander of the BEF, he was determined to demonstrate the RFC’s utility no matter what the cost. Barker portrays this as a reflection of Trenchard appreciation that the RFC’s primary role in support of the army’s ground operations. Doing this required undertaking dangerous missions and an operational tempo which pushed the men to their limits and often led to their sacrifice. Though Trenchard regretted their loss, he knew he could do no less if he was to show that the RFC was doing as much as the soldiers in the trenches.


Thanks to such efforts, by the summer of 1916 the RFC was a vital part of the BEF, engaging in missions ranging from scouting to dropping spies behind enemy lines. Barker does an impressive job of covering the full scope of the RFC’s activities, which he does without losing sight of them men who performed them. For all of his coverage of the RFC as a unit, it is these men and their individual stories which make his book such a readable account of the RFC’s operations on the Western Front. Anyone seeking to learn about the RFC and the role it played in the First World War would be well served to start with this book, thanks to its judicious balance of comprehensiveness and perspective.

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