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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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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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review 2020-05-02 22:35
The role of the military in America's history
For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States from 1607 to 2012 - William B. Feis,Peter Maslowski,Allan R. Millett
I had read the first edition of Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski's book back when I was in college. While I can't remember what my impression was of it back then, I proceeded through the next three decades of my life without feeling the need to revisit it. Recently, however, I had cause to revisit it, and I'm glad I did.
 
Now in a third edition, Millett and Maslowski have been joined as co-authors by William Feis, a specialist in the Civil War era. For the most part, little changed beyond additional coverage of American military history up to 2014 and the elimination of the very useful bibliography from the first edition (supposedly it was moved online, but the link provided in the book is dead). Yet rereading it I came to appreciate just how excellent of a job they did in covering the military over the centuries of the nation's existence. It's especially impressive considering their scope: while most military histories are happy to confine themselves to accounts of campaigns and commanders, the authors have provided an extraordinarily well-rounded account that addresses policymaking, military-civil relations, and the development of military theory. In this respect their book is not just a military history in terms of an account of America's wars, but of the role of the military throughout the nation's history.
 
By the time I reached the end of the book, I had a newfound appreciation for the authors' achievement. While not without its flaws — leaving out the bibliography proved a mistake, while the two chapters on the Vietnam War are overdue to be consolidated into a single one — it is an impressive book that remains the single best work for anyone interested in learning about America's military and how it shaped the country it built and defended.
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review 2020-01-22 20:18
The Thirty Years War
The Thirty Years War - Cicely Veronica Wedgwood

War is hell, just imagine it lasting for an entire generation with armies crisscrossing the same ground again and again producing famine, depopulation, and disease all in the name of religion, nationalism, and then finally simple greed.  C.V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War covers nearly a half century of history from the causes that led to the conflict through its deadly progression and finally it’s aftereffects.

 

From the outset Wedgwood sets the German domestic and the continental political situations in focus by stating that everyone was expecting war but between Spain and the Dutch while the German economy was on the decline due to the rise of new trading patterns over the course of the last century.  It was only with the succession of the Bohemian throne and the ultra-Catholic policies of the Ferdinand II after his election that started the war everyone knew was coming, sooner and further east than expected.  The war began as a purely religious conflict that saw the Catholic German princes led by Emperor Ferdinand crush the Protestant opposition because many of the Protestants decided not to help one another until it was too late due to political conservatism that Ferdinand used to his advantage.  It wasn’t until Gustavus Adolphus and the Swedes entered the conflict a decade later that the conflict turn slowly from religious to international and an extension of the Bourbon-Habsburg in which the former used first allies then their own troops to prevent the encirclement of France by both branches of the Habsburgs.  The negotiations for the end of the war took nearly five years and would change as events in the field would change strategies until finally allied members of the Bourbon and Habsburgs would cut deals with the other side to quickly break deadlocks and achieve peace but how it took almost six years to stand down the armies to prevent chaos.

 

Wedgwood’s narrative historical style keeps the book a very lively read and makes the war’s progress advancing even when she’s relating how the continuous fighting was affecting the German population.  She is very upfront with the men, and a few women, who influenced the conflict throughout it’s course from the great kings of Ferdinand II, Christian IV of Denmark, and Gustavus to the great princes Maximillian I of Bavaria, John George of Saxony, and Frederick Henry of Orange to the mercenary generals that gained in importance as the conflict continued like Albrecht von Wallenstein to finally the political masterminds of Richelieu and Mazarin.  With such a large historical cast, Wedgwood’s writing keeps things simple and straight for the read thus allowing the conflict’s long drawn out nature to fully impact the reader and how it affected those out of power.  And in describing the aftereffects, Wedgwood disarms many myths about the effects of the war that over three hundred years became considered fact.

 

The Thirty Years War by C.V. Wedgwood is an excellent narrative history of a conflict that saw the end of one kind of conflict and the beginnings of another with interesting personalities that fought and conducted policy around it while also showing the effects on the whole population.  If you’re interested in seventeenth-century history or military history, this book is for you.

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review 2020-01-06 22:09
A fascinating visual document for those interested in military vehicles and the Spanish Civil War
German Military Vehicles in the Spanish Civil War - Lucas Molina Franco,Jose María Mata,José María Manrique

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

I am not a connoisseur when it comes to military history or military vehicles, but I have recently become fascinated by unusual documents and photographs about the war, as they have the power to make the past come to life in a vivid way even for those who never experienced it. In the case of this book, 2019 marked the 80th anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War, and I have watched programmes and read articles about different aspects of it. Many talked about the air raids by Italian and especially German bombers in support of the Nationalist army and against the Republic, which worked well as a testing ground of their equipment prior to WWII. When I saw this book, it struck me that I hadn’t heard anything about other German vehicles used during the Spanish Civil War, although it made perfect sense that they would also send other military equipment to aid the war effort. And I felt curious.

This book is a treasure throve of pictures of the vehicles used in the Spanish Civil War. Apart from the photographs of vehicles (and not only German, as there is also the odd captured vehicle, like some Russian tanks), there are also pictures of insignias, medals, and some fabulous illustrations, both in black and white and in colour, of the vehicles and the soldiers. The collection includes tanks, cars, buses, trucks, ambulances, motorbikes (some with sidecars), and plenty of support vehicles (signal vehicles, anti-tank, anti-aircraft vehicles, mobile communication units…), and of course, the soldiers as well.

The text is minimal, and it contains factual information about the negotiations with the Germans, the number of vehicles and men they sent to train the rebel army, where they were posted, and there are also some charts summarising the numbers and the makes of the vehicles in each unit. As the authors explain, it is difficult to be precise when it comes to numbers, and in fact they ask readers to get in touch if they find any discrepancies or have any further information that can be updated in future editions.

The main interest for a non-expert like me, apart from seeing many pictures of vehicles I’d never seen before, was to see the soldiers and the different locations also. Many of the pictures are clearly posed, but some seem to have caught soldiers going about their everyday lives (peeling potatoes, chatting, washing by the river…). There are no overly dramatic pictures or action pictures as such, but the uniforms, insignias, and vehicles could prove invaluable to historians and writers interested in obtaining an accurate description of the era. I also read reviews that commented on how useful such a book would be for people interested in building realistic military models, and by the same token, it would also be useful to people who provide props or create sets for movies or TV programmes.

I missed an index and a bibliography, although the book seems to be based on an individual collection, that of J.M. Campesino, and that might explain why there is no detailed information.

This is a book that will delight fans of military history and military vehicles, with the added interest that many of those vehicles were tried and tested in Spain first and were later put to use in WWII. The authors have published a number of books in Spanish on historic subjects related mostly to the Spanish Civil War, and I understand that Pen & Sword are working on publishing other related titles. An informative and visually engaging book about a period of Spanish history that remains very present, and we should never forget.  

 

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