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review 2018-10-28 12:00
A must have for scholars, researches, and WWI enthusiasts.
The Great War Illustrated 1918 - William Langford,Jack Holroyd

Thanks to Alex, Rosie and the whole team at Pen & Sword for providing me a Hardback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

Despite my interest in the topic, and although I have read some books and watched some movies on WWI, I am not very knowledgeable about it, and I am more familiar with WWII, which feels (and is) much closer. I recently read and reviewed, another one of the books published by Pen & Sword, which explored a historical topic through pictures from the period, and I found it a great way of learning about the era by bringing it to life.

When I saw this book, the last in a collection of five volumes, one per each year of WWI, I was curious. Although I had seen pictures from WWI, they were mostly of soldiers, who had posed in uniform for their families, or political figures, and when I think about war photography, I think of WWII, the Spanish Civil War and later conflicts. This particular volume contains over a thousand photographs, including some in colour, maps, and drawings, of the various campaigns of 1918. The authors explain that some of the images are well-known (I was only familiar with some of the politicians, well-known figures, like T. E. Lawrence and Wilfred Owen, and some of the royals), but they had never been presented as a full collection or in an organised manner. The images are numbered and people interested can obtain copies from the image library in the Taylor Library Archive, and that makes this book a great reference for scholars and other people looking for visual documentation from the period.

The volume is divided into eight chapters: 1) Zeebrugge and Ostend Raids – Naval War, 2) The German Spring Offensives –The Kaiserschlacht, 3) Salonika, Mesopotamia, Palestine, 4) The Italian Front, 5) Battles of the Aisne and the Marne Rivers, 6) Americans at Cantigny, Château-Thierry, St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne, 7) Battle of Amiens – The Hindenburg Line – Advance to Victory, 8) Some Consequences of this Global War. Although the big protagonists of the book are the photographs, the text guides us through the campaigns, including also the original captions from newspapers, the citations for the medals they received, and some observations that help us understand the sequence and the consequences of the events.

Although I knew that in WWI there had been a lot of destruction (of lives, animals, and buildings) because of the use of weapons unknown until then, the impact of seeing pictures of towns and cities completely destroyed, of mustard gas attacks, tanks, planes, aerial pictures, dead soldiers and civilians, and famine is overwhelming. And the stories… From inspiring bravery to incredible cruelty (or perhaps it was just a strong sense of duty, but what would make a commander launch an attack two minutes before the armistice was due, resulting in thousands of dead men on both sides is beyond my comprehension).  As I read some of the captions of the pictures and the stories behind some of the photographs, I could imagine many books and movies inspired by such events and individuals (and I am sure there are quite a few, but not as many as there should be).

I marked pages containing stories I found particularly touching, inspiring, or almost incredible, too many to mention, but I have randomly chosen a few of them to share as a sample.

The caption to a picture of plenty of smiling men brandishing their knives in page 222 explains that they are Italian soldiers of the elite Arditi Corps ‘the Caimans of the Piave’. ‘They numbered around eighty and were trained to remain in the powerful currents of the Piave for hours. Carrying only a Sardinian knife –the resolza – and two hand grenades, they acted in a communication role between the west and east banks of the Piave.’

There is a picture on page 260 of a worker with the Y.M.C.A. serving drinks to American soldiers on in the front line, and it says that one centre at a railway site served more than 200000 cups of cocoa to soldiers each month.

The book also remembers civilians who died, like those working at the National Shell Filling Factory in Chilwell that was destroyed on the 1st of July 2018, with 134 civilians dead and 250 injured.

There are stories that are the stuff of movies, like that of The Lost Battalion, the 77th Infantry Division, cut off by the Germans for five days, who were eventually relieved, but had by then lost half of the men.

Or the one of Corporal Alvin C. York ‘–later sergeant – at the place where he systematically began picking off twenty of the enemy with rifle and pistol. As an elder in a Tennessee mountain church at the beginning of the war, he was a conscientious objector, but then changed his mind to become the most efficient of killers.’ (405) He took the machine gun nest, four officers, 128 men, and several guns.

There are amazing feats by men of all nations and horrific devastation as well. The last chapter serves as a reminder of the heavy price imposed on the losing side and the consequences derived from it. The peace would be sadly short-lived, as we all know, and some of the issues of sovereignty that seemed to have been solved then would resurface once more a few years later.

In sum, this is a book for people interested in WWI (the whole collection is) at a personal level, invaluable for researchers, as it provides a good reference to a large body of archival images, and it is packed with bite-sized information that will provide inspiration to many writers and scholars. Another great addition to Pen & Sword military catalogue and one that I thoroughly recommend.

 

 

 

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review 2018-10-25 16:08
The imperial German way of war
Imperial Germany and War, 1871-1918 - Richard L. DiNardo,Daniel J. Hughes

Though Daniel Hughes and Richard DiNardo call their book an "institutional history" of the imperial German army, a more precise description of it would be an examination of the imperial German way of war. In it they detail the evolution of the army's doctrine and strategic planning, from the post-Napoleonic ideas of Carl von Clausewitz and their application by Helmuth von Moltke the Elder to the subjection of their preparations to the test of war in 1914. As they explain, the experience of combat on the Western Front forced the army to abandon their emphasis on mobile warfare and the battle of annihilation in favor of a less costly employment of positional warfare while trying to defeat the Russians in the East. While the army attempted to switch back to mobile warfare in 1918, the units in the west (most now manned primarily by wartime inductees) had to relearn the prewar concepts, only now mobile warfare was reapplied without a clear strategic goal to pursue.

 

While this focus dominates Hughes and DiNardo's book, readers will find much besides this within its pages. Rooted in a vast range of sources in both German and English, its descriptions of the various branches of the German army, its analysis of the army's place within the German constitutional structure, and its assessment of its institutional deficiencies provides readers with an in-depth examination of a feared fighting force. Though missing any description of the combat experience of the soldiers themselves, this is nonetheless the most comprehensive single-volume study of the imperial German army available in English, one that is both a valuable starting point for the novice and a useful reference work for those more knowledgeable about the subject.

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review 2018-10-10 06:05
As comprehensive a history of the battle of Kursk as is possible
Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka - Christopher A. Lawrence

It is possible to write an all-encompassing history of a subject, particularly when that subject is the largest battle in human history? This is the question that Christopher Lawrence's mammoth book on the battle of Kursk seeks to address. It is a massive tome of a book, coming in at a little under 1700 pages of multi-columned text generously supplemented by maps and statistical tables, all of which reflect the nearly quarter-century of labor the author and his associates put into compiling every available bit of data. This Lawrence then employs to parse the chaotic events of July and August 1943 in order to construct a comprehensive description of the battle. This is no small feat, and on its own deserves respect.

 

Lawrence's efforts are tinged with a degree of irony, for one of the points that emerges early on is that, for all its scale, the battle was in some respects anticlimactic. As he explains, the battle of Stalingrad forced a fundamental reconsideration of Germany's strategic goals on the Eastern Front, as it was uncomfortably apparent that with the destruction of the Sixth Army Germany no longer had the forces necessary to defeat the Soviet Union. With the prospect of a second front in France looming, German planners knew that 1943 would be the last year in which they could design a campaign without worrying about splitting finite resources with their comrades in the west. Yet the best that could be hoped for now was a stabilization of the front and consolidation of Germany's gains. An outright Soviet defeat was simply not possible anymore.

 

The strained German resources helped determine Germany's focus on the Kursk salient, as collapsing it would help the Germans to consolidate their lines. This was also obvious to Soviet leaders, who began concentrating their forces in the area as well. Thus when the Germans launched their offensive on July 5, their territorial gains were not followed up by the breakthrough that had characterized previous Wehrmacht offensives. Moreover, once the Soviets counter-attacked a week later, it was the German armies which suffered massive casualties and which were forced to retreat, signalling an end to the last major strategic offensive on the Eastern Front and the surrendering of the initiative to the Soviets.

 

Lawrence relates this in a book rich with detail. While incorporating the strategic dimension and quoting freely from personal accounts collected in the decades that followed the war, his focus is primarily operational, as he recounts the movement of units and their engagement in combat. Nor is his account focused on the ground war along, as his chapters on the fighting in the skies above explain the impact of the air campaign upon the battle for both sides. Throughout he engages in asides that offer brief biographical portraits of the main figures and consideration of longstanding issues about the weapons and their roles in deciding victory. Though the sheer mass of it can be daunting, this is an absolute must-read for anyone with a desire to learn about this battle in nearly every detail, with an analysis of the fighting that will factor into every subsequent study of the conflict. Just be sure to lift it with your legs.

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review 2018-09-23 18:39
The best explanation of the hows and whys of the air war over North Vietnam
Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 - Marshall L. Michel III

During the eight years of its engagement in the Vietnam War, the airpower of the United States was involved in a bifurcated conflict. In the south American warplanes enjoyed an uncontested dominance of the skies, which they used to deploy American resources and surveil and attack the enemy. Air Force and Navy planes entering North Vietnam airspace, however, found themselves in a much different situation, as they faced an air defense network that grew increasingly sophisticated as the war went on. In his book Marshall Michel analyzes the air war fought over the skies of North Vietnam, detailing its twists and turns as both sides sought an advantage in a key front in the conflict.

 

As Michel notes, given the tactics and technology employed, the air war in North Vietnam "was the one area of the Vietnam War that has military significance in the global balance of power." There both sides deployed planes and weapons designed for a potential war in Europe between the Soviet Union and NATO. For the United States Air Force, this meant using F-105 fighter-bombers designed to strike their enemies quickly, relying upon speed for protection. Armed with heart-seeking and radar-guided missiles, they were designed without cannons in the belief that, in the new age of missiles, dogfighting was obsolete. This was soon proved mistaken, as the smaller and more agile MiG-17s posed a challenge for which the F-105s were poorly equipped. Armed with cannons as well as missiles the Navy's F-8s proved much more capable of meeting the threat, though their pilots were also frustrated by technical problems with the missiles and rules requiring visual confirmation before attacking, which often inhibited the ability to launch their weapons.

 

As the war went on, all sides adapted in response to what they learned. For the North Vietnamese, this involved developing an elaborate ground control interception (GCI) system that employed both North Vietnamese fighters and growing numbers of anti-air cannons and missiles. While both the Air Force and the Navy sought improved weapons and supporting technology, the Air Force's exclusive reliance on technical fixes contrasted with the Navy, which in 1968 established the Topgun School in an effort to improve dogfighting abilities. New aircraft were also introduced — the F-4 for the U.S., the MiG-21 for the North Vietnamese — which also represented an escalation in ability prior to the termination of the North Vietnamese bombing campaign by President Lyndon Johnson in March 1968.

 

When Johnson's successor Richard Nixon resumed the bombing in North Vietnam in 1972, the new lessons were employed in full. The Air Force found themselves launching ever-larger missions to bomb tough North Vietnamese targets, while North Vietnamese pilots adopted new tactics to contest control of the air. By now the superiority of the Navy's approach was becoming more indisputable, reflected as it was in the superior kill ratios of North Vietnamese places to their Air Force counterparts. As a result, once the war ended in 1973 the Air Force moved to establish their own Weapons School to teach the hard-won lessons of the now-concluded conflict and employ them to secure American air superiority in future wars.

 

As a former F-4 pilot who flew in Vietnam, Michel brings a firsthand familiarity to his subject. This he uses to interpret the mass of staff reports, expert assessments, and personal narratives that he draws upon to detail the various airborne engagements that defined the war. His is a dispassionate approach that favors analysis over dramatic narrative, yet his book engages the reader with its clearheaded insights and perceptive conclusions. While it suffers from the lopsided nature of his coverage favoring the Americans (understandable, given the relative inaccessibility of North Vietnamese records), this is nonetheless the best history of its subject, one that explains the hows and whys of the air war in North Vietnam better than every other book out there.

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review 2018-08-04 02:47
The human side of an epic battle
Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943 - Antony Beevor

Though the Second World War was decided in battles waged over several years and in multiple regions, the most important front of the war was the one in eastern Europe. There the German war machine which had conquered so much of Europe with seemingly little effort was ground down in an extended clash against the Soviet Union. Millions of soldiers not just Germans and Russians, but Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Croats, Italians, and others fought and died on an unprecedented scale, with the slaughter ending only with the final defeat of the Nazi regime in the ruins of Berlin.

 

While numerous battles defined the course of events, the decisive clash on the Eastern Front came in the autumn of 1942 in the city of Stalingrad. There the German Sixth Army fought a grinding campaign to conquer the industrial center, only to be encircled by a surprise Soviet counter-offensive in November. Debilitated by the twin forces of battle and winter, tens of thousands of troops surrendered in February 1943, inflicting the greatest defeat yet suffered by the Third Reich. One of the strengths of Antony Beevor's history of the battle is in its detailing of the experiences of the men who fought and died on both sides. Drawing upon letters, diaries, and other records, he describes the nearly unimaginable conditions they faced during their long months of struggle against each other. To this he adds a perceptive explanation of both the events leading up to the battle and how is was that the sides sustained such a debilitating effort, both on the national and personal level.

 

By clearly detailing its events and recounting the lives of the soldiers who fought in it, Beevor has written an excellent history of the battle that is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand it. And yet the book falls short in one important respect. For while Beevor conveys well the human side of the conflict, it doesn't quite capture its truly epic nature. Scale is missing, as the war-defining nature of the event lost amid the stories of the men and the details of the campaign. While the effort to do so would result in a very different book, perhaps only then might it be possible to fully appreciate the importance of the titanic struggle waged there, both for the people involved and for the broader war itself.

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