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review 2020-09-23 21:54
The Hundred Days, in detail
Waterloo: The Campaign of 1815: Volume I: From Elba to Ligny and Quatre Bras - John Hussey

There are few historical episodes as dramatic as the “Hundred Days” – the label given to Napoleon’s doomed attempt to reclaim the French throne and reestablish his empire. Having driven out the restored Bourbon monarchy of Louis XVIII, Napoleon faced off against the coalition of powers that had exiled him to the Mediterranean island of Elba less than a year before. Though Napoleon struck first and scored some initial victories, his defeat at the battle of Waterloo ended his last bid for power, and led to his imprisonment on the remote island of Saint Helena until his death nearly six years later.

 

It is an understatement to say that there is no shortage of books on the events of the Hundred Days and the battle of Waterloo, as authors began writing about it almost from the moment the guns stilled and have not let up since. Yet even when weighed against two centuries of accounts of the battle, John Hussey’s book stands out. The first of a two-volume work on the Hundred Days campaign, it is the product of meticulous scholarship and careful reassessment of every significance event and controversy involved. This is evident from the very first chapters, as Hussey looks at Europe’s long history with Napoleon and the events leading up to his decision to escape his exile – a decision born of a mix of boredom, ego, ambition, and frustration with the slights inflicted upon the former emperor by the Allied powers that had defeated him.

 

With a British officer resident on Elba to supervise him and a British warship patrolling the waters between Elba and France, Bonaparte’s decision was not without risk. His successful arrival in France, followed by his bold journey to Paris, though, defied the odds and achieved his goal. Yet Hussey describes the tenuousness of Napoleon’s hold on power, with many in France still exhausted from his reign and wary of what his return might bring. Aware of the post-exile divisions among the coalition, Napoleon hoped they might provide an opportunity to maintain his throne. Nevertheless, he prepared for war.

 

And war was coming. Hussey devotes considerable space to describing the coalition facing the returned emperor, with pride of place going to the commands led by Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher and Arthur Wellesley, the duke of Wellington. Hussey spends several chapters dealing their commands, their operations, and their activities, with intelligence operations featured prominently. This is central to his efforts to unpack the events of Napoleon’s 1815 campaign and establish clear chronologies and understandings of what the commanders knew and when they learned it. The issues can often seem trivial, but they serve a clear purpose in serving as the basis for Hussey’s analysis of why decisions were undertaken, and why alternatives were not pursued.

 

Hussey ends the volume with an account of the battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras on 16 July. Though he details the actions separately, he makes it clear that they need to be regarded as a whole. His explanation is of a piece with the rest of the book, in which Hussey lays out the facts and explains how he reached the conclusions he did. It’s a careful work of often painstaking construction, and is what makes the book such a valuable addition to the already substantial library of works on the events of 1815. Take together with its successor volume, it’s a book that serves as an indispensable history of the battle, one that no serious student of the subject can afford to ignore.

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review 2020-06-13 16:58
Jean-François Parot - L'énigme des Blancs-Manteaux
L'énigme des Blancs-Manteaux - Jean-François Parot

So, I've had two extremely busy weeks, but the time it took me to finish this book was still too much. But finally I made it (hooray for weekends).

 

As for the book itself, after a very slow start (as you might have already guessed from my previous posts) the book found its footing and a good pace, and it became a thoroughly enjoyable historical mystery, if just a bit more violent than I would have expected.

 

One thing that at times pulled me out of the reading is that the author has clearly done a lot of research on the history and many more aspects of the period he's writing about (as the impressive amount of notes peppered throughout the book), and he wants to show off his knowledge; for me at times it was interesting and other distracting, though admittedly it depeneded on whether I cared for the argument he was talking about.

 

This is a series I'm genuinely curious to read more of, if only to see if the issues with the writing were a one off, or if the different pacing and style were intentional and the author was building up to something else.

 

Still, whenever I was able to sit down and enjoy the book for more than an hour at the times, I had lots of fun. And kudos to themis-athena for providing incredible visual references to help get into the story.

 

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review 2020-04-28 20:13
A beautiful, informative and entertaining present for all ages
Churchill. A Graphic Biography - Vincent Delmas,Ivanka Hahnenberger,C. Regnault

Thanks to Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for sending me an early paperback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

I am not a big reader of graphic novels and books (I used to read them when I was younger but not that much in recent years), but this title caught my attention due to the subject matter and to the authors and contributors. The book, which was first published in French in 2018, had some excellent reviews, and although I’m not an expert, in my opinion they are well deserved.

The book is not a full biography (we don’t see the great man die), but we follow him from early childhood until the end of World War II, and especial attention is given to the war period. The book also includes a foreword by Andrew Roberts —an expert on Churchill who has written about him and about WWII— endorsing the book, and an introduction (with B&W and colour photographs) and brief biography of Churchill by François Kersaudy, historical consultant of the volume, which further enhances the content.

The illustrations are beautiful and well-executed, in a classical style, with an interesting use of colours and shadows. Although they are in full colour, green, ochre, brown, and dark hues predominate from the beginning, as if foreshadowing the coming war, and the last part of the book (approximately the last fifty pages) are dedicated fully to World War II. There is a predominance of illustrations about his public life (as a war reporter, in the military, and later as a politician), but there are also some about his personal life, where we get to see Churchill, the man. The moments of action are interspersed with some quieter ones, although the illustrations dealing with the war, attacks, and action, are particularly fine and impressive. The text complements the images perfectly, and the writer has chosen the materials well, highlighting snippets of speeches and expressions he is well known for. That does not mean the book paints an unrealistic picture of Churchill, showing him as heroic and always right, without flaws or foibles. The man emerges from the picture as well, with his stubbornness, his recklessness at times, and his determination to do whatever necessary (not always the most suitable attitude for a politician, although the opposite isn’t particularly desirable either).

This is a great book to introduce Churchill to people of all ages who might not be too familiar with his biography, or know very little about him, who like to experiment with other formats rather than the standard book or are fans of graphic novels and books, and who enjoy their history in bite-size and visual format. The book is larger than a standard paperback, and it would make a beautiful present for anybody interested in the subject, in WWII, or just fans of graphic novels.  It’s also particularly appealing at this time of crisis, when the role of politicians has come to the fore, and it’s impossible not to compare our current leaders with some memorable figures from the past and wonder how they might have dealt with the situation.

(There are, of course, action scenes depicting the war, although not particularly gross or explicitly gore, although parents of very young children might want to check the book themselves beforehand).

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review 2020-04-26 01:42
French Exit ★★☆☆☆ (DNF)
French Exit - Patrick deWitt

This satire was mildly funny in places, but not enough to keep my attention. DNF after an hour of audio and moved on to something else.

 

Audiobook, borrowed from my public library via Overdrive.

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review 2020-03-18 17:02
A stimulating interpretation of British strategy in the First World War
British Strategy & War Aims, 1914-1916 - David French

Discussions of British strategy during the First World War usually frame it in terms of a debate between “Westerners,” or the politicians and generals who wanted to focus British military efforts on the fighting in France and Belgium, and “Easterners,” or the ones who sought to open up fronts elsewhere in the hope of breaking the grinding stalemate. In this book, the first of two volumes he wrote examining the development of British war aims and the ways British leaders sought to achieve them, David French rejects this framing as a distorted product of postwar memoirs from the major figures involved. Instead he frames the debates as less a matter of “where” and more a question of “how”: namely, how the British could best accomplish their goals of maintaining the Entente and defeating Germany while ensuring that Britain would emerge from the war as the strongest of the belligerents. The hope was that by achieving these aims, Britain would maintain be in a position to dictate the terms of the peace and maintain their position as the dominant power in the world.

 

To argue his case, French begins his book by examining prewar British policy and the main people involved in making it. Here his focus is on the Liberal government of H. H. Asquith, though he also notes the important role played by the civil servants in the Foreign Office in influencing what were at times sharp disagreements on how best to advance British interests in an increasingly polarized international environment. These debates were unresolved when the war broke out in August 1914, forcing policymakers to take decisions based more on the course of events. Here the figure of Lord Kitchener looms large, as French sees his advocacy of the New Armies as key. Not only did this undermine the “business as usual” approach involving a war waged with the Royal Navy and financial subsidies that was favored by many politicians, but with the British army only reaching its maximum strength by early 1917 it would, Kitchener believed, leave Britain in a decisive position to dictate terms to the exhausted participants on both sides of the struggle. Until then, it was a matter of playing for time to achieve this position.

 

After establishing Britain’s underlying approach to the war, French then examines the response of policymakers to events as they unfolded over the next two years. Here his focus is predominantly on the high politics and the strategic views of the major actors, addressing their interpretation of developments from the standpoint of British interests and their overall goals in the war. What emerges in these chapters is the gradual shift away from prewar strategies and assumptions, which were driven by the demands of a war increasingly different from the one the British expected to fight. Yet for all the numerous ad hoc adjustments, policy deviations, and failed efforts that the British undertook during this period, their strategic goals remained the same, serving as the lodestar guiding British decisions throughout the early years of the conflict.

 

Though French’s book covers ground that has long been trod upon by other scholars, the author succeeds in providing a provocatively fresh interpretation as to how British policymakers approached the war. While it suffers to a degree from a too-rigid exclusion of consideration of domestic considerations, such as home-front politics and morale, it’s easy to see why his book and his follow-up volume have become the starting point for anyone seeking to understand the development of British strategy in the First World War. Even if one disagrees with some of French’s conclusions, it’s a book no one interested in the subject can afford to ignore.

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