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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 2020-08-31 06:37
The general who built an army
George C. Marshall: Ordeal and Hope: 1939-1942 - Forrest C. Pogue

As the fifteenth Chief of Staff of the United States Army, George Catlett Marshall oversaw the transformation of the United States Army from a modest constabulary into an organization capable of waging war on a truly global scale. Though such a metamorphosis was due to the efforts of thousands of people working over the course of many years, as Forrest Pogue demonstrates in the second volume of his biography of the general and statesman Marshall’s contribution was key to the development of the Army into a force that would play a vital role in defeating the Axis powers and establishing the United states as a global superpower.


This was no small achievement, nor was it an easy one. As Pogue notes, Marshall would regard his two years of service as Chief of Staff as the most difficult of his tenure, far more so than the four years he spent in the post during the war itself. Much of this had to do with the dimensions of the task before him. When Marshall took up the post in September 1939, the Army was both under-funded and under-strength, limited by postwar disillusionment and financial constraints. Nor did the outbreak of war in Europe suddenly change everyone’s thinking. As late as April 1940, members of Congress questioned the need to expand the ground forces, believing that the low-intensity “phony war” that developed after the fall of Poland was easily avoidable. Only after their invasion of Denmark and Norway made German intentions clear did Congressional opposition to spending for a larger force finally evaporate.


Yet Marshall gained his money at the expense of time. In short order he was expected to develop a fighting force capable of deterring or defeating any German threat. Nor did the now-expanded budget solve the Army’s problems, as Marshall had to cope with the competing need to support the British in their ongoing war against Germany for weapons production. Even more problematic was the widespread reluctance of many Americans to serve in the rapidly-expanding Army for one moment longer than they were required to by the draft, a sentiment to which many powerful politicians were sensitive. So how did Marshall surmount these challenges?


Pogue makes it clear that foremost among Marshall’s attributes was a Herculean work ethic, as he dedicated nearly every day to the duties of his office. To the task he also brought considerable diplomatic skill and a sensitivity to the limits of what was possible, enabling him to navigate skillfully the formidable politics that were part of his job. Finally, there was his eye for talent, as he had an extraordinary ability to identify men of ability and a determination to place them in the posts where they could make the best use of their skills. Often this meant promoting them over older men of longer service, many of whom Marshall knew personally. That Marshall was willing to turn friends into enemies in order to prepare the Army for what lay ahead is perhaps the best evidence of his determination to succeed in his mission.


These efforts, though, were outpaced by events. Pogue spends a considerable amount of space detailing Marshall’s role in the events leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, with the goal of rebutting the claims that he was part of a conspiracy to bring the United States into the war. Nevertheless, Pogue acknowledges the limits of Marshall’s conceptualization of the Japanese threat, noting that he overestimated the Army’s Hawai’ian defenses and underestimated the ability of the Japanese to attack him. The months that followed were especially tragic, as Marshall watched with despair as the Army units stationed in the Philippines were defeated by the Japanese. Yet this did not deflect him from his commitment to the “Germany first” focus adopted before the war, as he worked strenuously to launch a second front in France as early as 1942. Though Marshall was frustrated in this by the British (whom, as Pogue notes, would have borne the brunt of such an early effort), by the end of America’s first year of the war he could look with hope to the victories he knew would soon come.


Benefiting from interviews with Marshall and his contemporaries as well as considerable archival research, Pogue’s book serves as an effective monument to his subject and his achievements as Chief of Staff. Though focused on detail, it provides more analysis of its subject than Pogue’s previous volume, Education of a General, which helps to explain Marshall’s motivations and the thinking underlying them. While further analysis would have made for an even better book, given Pogue’s proximity to many of the key figures he describes he may have felt a little too constrained to offer the sort of judgments the facts he describes seem to demand, Nonetheless, his book is a valuable resource on both Marshall and his achievements, one that will likely remain required reading on the general for many years to come.

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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 2020-06-09 18:42
The overshadowed war in India's history
 India's War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia - Srinath Raghavan
The 1940s was the most pivotal decade in the history of modern India. It was during these years that India broke away from centuries of British rule and established their independence after a bloody partition that still defines relations between two nuclear-armed powers. Numerous books have chronicled the struggle for independence and the chaos of the partition that followed, spotlighting the role of these events in shaping the nation. Yet this focus has the effect of overshadowing India's role in an even larger historical event, namely the Second World War. Indeed India is one of the few participants in that conflict for whom the war was overshadowed by other developments which assumed a greater place in the nation's history.
As a consequence, India's role in the Second World War and the war's role in India's history remain extraordinarily understudied events. To fill this gap Srinath Raghavan provides readers with a book that examines India's participation in the conflict and how it affected the lives of millions of Indians. It is a wide-ranging work that covers events from North Africa and Italy to Burma and Malaya, addressing the manifold ways in which India's participation shaped events and how these events, in turn, shaped India for better and for worse.
Raghavan begins by explaining the circumstances facing India at the start of the war. When war broke out in Europe in 1939, British politicians and administrators were dealing with a fractious Indian political scene, one dominated by the Congress Party but consisting of a range of different ideological and sectional interests. As they had a quarter century earlier, the British committed India to the war without any sort of consultation with India's political leadership, a decision which only fueled resentments. Yet these leaders were hardly united in their views on the war, with opinion ranging from Gandhi's nuanced pacifism to supporters of the war effort to those who believed that an Axis victory might lead to independence. These disagreements hampered efforts to form an united response to the war, which made it easier for the British to draw upon its resources for their war effort against Nazi Germany.
India's role in the war was substantial from the start. As Raghavan details, India played a vital role in Britain's strategic planning, with India in charge of imperial defense efforts in a vast swath of territory stretching from the Middle East to southern Asia. From the Indian perspective, the greatest threat was posed by the Nazi-Soviet Pact, as British officers in the region feared a Soviet attack through Afghanistan. Yet their ability to meet such an attack was constrained by the small size of the Indian army, which was geared towards more of a constabulary role than one of conflict against the military of a modern Western power. Efforts to train and equip Indian soldiers for more of a traditional battlefield role were hampered by a variety of factors, key among them being a lack of proper equipment and British beliefs about the "martial races" in Indian society. As a result, Indian mobilization was slow and half-hearted.
This changed with Japan's attack on Britain's empire in southeast Asia. The Japanese offensive in Malaya and Burma transformed the situation dramatically, as British military power crumbled before it. Indian units quickly demonstrated the limits of their military training, as they disintegrated in the face of aggressive Japanese forces. Raghavan describes the full impact of the war coming before India's doorstep, with hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing the Japanese advance and evacuating the eastern coastal cities in fear of a possible Japanese invasion. Yet as he details, it was at this point when India was fully committed to the struggle. Resources and equipment poured in to equip a rapidly expanding Indian army, which received better treatment and more extensive training than before. The improved results could be seen in 1944, when Indian forces proved more than a match for the Japanese army in the battles in Burma, allowing the British to retake the colony. An awakened India soon proved too difficult for a weakened Britain to manage, however, with the war's legacy contributing to the British decision to grant independence just two years after it ended.
Raghavan's book provides readers with a much-needed account of India's vital part in the Second World War. It is impressively comprehensive, covering not just the role played by India's soldiers, but the political, economic, and social impact of the war on India as well. Such a vast topic can sometimes overwhelm a book yet Raghavan's grasp of his material is impressively secure, veering off course only during his chapters covering the roles played by Indian troops in the Middle East and North African, in which his narrative deviates into more of a general history of the campaigns in those regions. Yet this does nothing to detract from the merits of a book that should be read by anyone interested in modern Indian history or the history of the Second World War, thanks to its long overdue coverage of a subject that straddles both subjects.
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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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