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review 2018-03-08 15:27
Entertaining, but limited
The Great War at Sea, 1914-1918 (Oxford Paperbacks) - Richard Alexander Hough

The title of Richard Hough's book promises more than it delivers, for instead of providing a comprehensive coverage of the naval campaigns of the First World War he offers a study focused on the arms race involving dreadnought construction and the stalemated confrontation between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet between the start of the war and the battle of Jutland. While Hough's focus is understandable, it comes at slighting the myriad other aspects of the naval war: of the sixteen chapters, only five do not address either one of these two relatively narrow aspects of the war at sea. Yet Hough is an able writer who provides a gripping account of such events as the pursuit of Germany's Pacific Squadron or the battle of Jutland. Readers seeking an entertaining account of the naval war will not be disappointed by this book, though those desiring a more comprehensive analysis would be better served turning to Lawrence Sondhaus's similarly titled The Great War at Sea.

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review 2018-03-03 15:22
How the naval campaigns shaped the First World War
The Great War at Sea: A Naval History of the First World War - Lawrence Sondhaus

Over the years I've developed criteria for judging new surveys of well-covered historical subjects. First, does it offer any new information? Second, does it offer a different perspective than other books on the same subject? Third, does it do a better job of covering its subject than its (sometimes innumerable) predecessors? In the case of a book like Sondhaus's history of the naval dimension of the First World War, it faces the added burden of being measured up against Paul Halpern's superb account of the subject, which was published not even two decades previously.


In terms of the first criteria, the answer is mixed. Sondhaus does take full advantage of the works published in the intervening period (such as Nicholas Black's book on the British naval staff during the war) to flesh out some new aspects to the story. None of it really revises our overall understanding to the conflict, but it does help him to offer a different perspective from Halpern. In this respect, Sondhaus does offer something different from Halpern's book, for while he covers many of the same battles and campaigns he spends his first chapters on the prewar naval arms race and focuses more on the broader political and strategic aspects of naval operations during the war itself. Because of this, Sondhaus's book is arguably a better overview of the subject than Halpern's book, especially for someone who wants to understand the impact of the naval war upon the overall conflict.


Does this mean that Sondhaus's book is better than Halpern's? The answer depends more upon what the reader is seeking than anything else. For a history of naval operations during the war Halpern's book remains unsurpassed for its coverage and thoroughness, as Sondhaus's own reliance upon it as a source can attest. Yet as an introduction for the uninitiated Sondhaus's book enjoys a slight edge. Fortunately we don't live in a world where we have to choose between the two books, and can benefit from reading both, yet Sondhaus's is definitely recommended first for a reader new to the subject before having them turn to Halpern's more richly detailed account.

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review 2018-02-15 01:41
My ninety-first podcast is up!
The Road to Armageddon: Paraguay Versus the Triple Alliance, 1866-70 - Thomas L. Whigham

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Thomas Whigham about the second and concluding volume of his history of the Paraguayan War (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!

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review 2018-02-14 16:52
An excellent history of a monumental conflict
The Road to Armageddon: Paraguay Versus the Triple Alliance, 1866-70 - Thomas L. Whigham

The second volume of Thomas Whigham's history of the Paraguayan War picks up where his previous volume, Causes and Early Conduct, left off, with the forces of the Triple Alliance — Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay — preparing to invade Paraguay after having driven Paraguayan troops out of Argentina. Though the Paraguayans initially checked the Alliance's advance, their defeat at the battle of Tuyuti devastated their army. Yet while the leaders of the Alliance expected such a loss to result in Paraguay's surrender, the Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano López refused to accept terms which required him to give up his position, thus dooming Paraguay to a drawn-out and destructive defeat.

As Whigham explains, a key factor behind Paraguay's ability to endure for so long was its cohesion as a population. With their nation under attack, López was able to mobilize the population to sustain a seemingly unimaginable war effort. With Paraguay's access to the outside world cut off by an Alliance blockade, the Paraguayans were forced to undertake extraordinary expedients in order to sustain their war effort. Yet not even the total mobilization of their population could overcome the increasingly capable Alliance forces from taking the fortress of Humaitá in 1868 and capturing the Paraguayan capital in the new year. Only with López's death in March 1870, though, did the war finally come to an end, with ramifications to be felt for decades to come.

The product of years of archival labors and writing, Whigham's book is a superb account of a war too often underappreciated in the north. With a narrative that reflects the tragedy (and even absurdity) of the conflict, he captures well its epic nature while analyzing the various factors at work in the conflict, from the command structures to logistics and medical care. Together the two volumes combine to provide readers with the definitive study of the Paraguayan War we have long needed, one that nobody interested in the subject can afford to neglect.

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review 2018-02-13 16:42
A masterful account of the start of an epic conflict
The Paraguayan War, Volume 1: Causes and Early Conduct - Thomas L. Whigham

If you ask most Americans to name the most destructive war in history, the answer you are likely to get is the World War II. A good case can be made, though, for awarding that dubious distinction to the Paraguayan War, in which the South American nation fought against the "Triple Alliance" of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, For six years the two sides waged a war that resulted in the deaths of well over half of the Paraguayan population, transforming victor and vanquished in ways that rippled outward for decades.


While the Paraguayan War has received considerable attention from historians in the region, studies of the conflict have usually been constrained by a variety of factors, from nationalist bias to the diffuse nature of the archives and the limited resources available to scholars to undertake the research necessary for a truly comprehensive account. This is one reason why Thomas Whigham's efforts are to be lauded, for he has invested years of study to provide just a work. Through his research in archives on three continents he has brought together a formidable amount of material to detail the events of the war, which he then used to provide the most detailed examination of the conflict ever attempted. He traces its origins to the post-independence politics of the region, where new countries coalesced out of the fragments of Spain and Portugal's New World empires. With boundaries undefined and national identities gestating, disagreements persisted for decades over the shape of these new countries, sowing the seeds for future disputes.


One such area was the Rio de la Plata, where Argentina and Brazil faced off for control. As early as the 1820s the two countries fought each other over the region. The inability of either side to gain the upper hand led to the formation of independent Uruguay in 1828, though this did nothing to deter conflicting Argentinian and Brazilian ambitions in the region. The brief Uruguayan War in 1864 provided an opportunity for Paraguay's ambitious leader, Francisco Solano López, to assert a greater role for his landlocked nation, as he intervened on behalf of the ruling Blanco Party in Uruguay against the Brazilian-supported Colorados. This soon led to war with Brazil, and when Argentina refused to allow Paraguayan troops to transit through their territory López expanded the war to include them as well. Invading Argentina, his forces seized territory in Corrientes and Rio Grande del Sul provinces, yet by the end of 1865 the newly-coalesced Triple Alliance succeeded in driving Paraguay out of the territory they occupied. Whigham concludes his volume with the Triple Alliance preparing for an invasion of Paraguay that, unbeknownst to them, would lead to four more years of warfare and the total occupation of the country.

By carefully detailing the events in the region, Whigham proves a masterful guide to the complex factors behind the war. His account of the early battles are no less accomplished, as he makes excellent use of the surviving accounts to reconstruct the various developments. To fill in the blanks he provides an analysis that is assured and well-informed, helping the reader to understand the reasoning behind his conclusions. All of this makes for an authoritative account of a war, one that is required reading for anyone interested in it or the larger history of post-independence South America.

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