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review 2018-05-20 15:15
Napoleon at his peak
Napoleon: The Spirit of the Age: 1805-1810 - Michael Broers

The second volume of Michael Broers's projected three-volume biography of Napoleon Bonaparte covers the five years of his life between the start of his campaign against the Austrians in 1805 and his marriage to Marie Louise in 1810. This was the period which can be regarded as Napoleon at his peak. With his victories against the Austrians in 1805 and the Prussians and the Russians in 1806-7, the French emperor exercised a dominance over Europe that was unprecedented. Yet one of the themes that emerges from Broers's narrative is the fragile nature of Napoleon's control, as he details the ways in which his power began to evaporate almost as soon as he won it.

 

As Broers details, the main reason for this was the circumstances in which it was won. When Napoleon led the Grande Armée our of its camps around Boulogne and into central Europe, he commanded one of the finest military forces in existence, one that was well trained and consisted of veterans of the many wars that France had fought since 1792. Yet it was an unsustainable force, one that Napoleon's regime scrambled to finance even as it won its great victories against the Austrians. The end of the Austrian campaign led to the discharge of many of those veterans, who were replaced by younger, less experienced conscripts in subsequent campaigns.

 

Though Napoleon still won many victories with his new recruits, this was just one of the many challenges he faced. Another was with his efforts to control the lands his forces occupied, as he proved far more successful in defeating the armies of the old order than he was in controlling their territories. Here Broers's expertise as an historian of the era is employed to his greatest effect, as he demonstrates how the French occupation of southern Italy in 1806 foreshadowed the problems the regime would face in Spain just two years later. Napoleon's efforts to establish his brother Joseph as king of Naples proved less than successful, as French reforms such as the end of feudalism quickly turned the Neapolitan aristocracy against the regime, forcing the French to maintain a military presence the region could not afford, and confronting Napoleon with a low-level uprising he did not know how to win.

 

Further hampering Napoleon's efforts to cement his dominance of Europe was his reliance upon his family as puppet monarchs. Here Broers astutely dismisses traditional criticisms of his use of them as rulers of the regions he conquered, pointing out that the practice was commonplace for ruling families throughout European history, Yet his brothers ultimately did not live up to the (often impossible) demands Napoleon placed upon them, and suffered the fore of his ire as a result. His frustration with them also informed his growing concern over the issue of succession, as his difficult marriage of Josephine had not produced the heir he so desperately desired. Though his efforts to wed a Russian princess ultimately proved fruitless, his negotiations with the Austrians proved more successful, and in 1810 he became the son-in-law of his twice-defeated opponent Francis II. Yet as Broers ends the volume he makes clear that the seeming solidity gained by the Napoleonic regime still rested on a foundation of sand, with Napoleon facing rebellions in occupied territories, resentful monarchs in the rest of the continent, and an ongoing war against Britain that showed no sign of resolution.

 

Broers describes all of this is a clear narrative that moves briskly through the many of events of the emperor's busy life. Drawing upon the bounty of the ongoing Correspondance générale series as well as recent scholarship on various aspects of his reign by the leading scholars of the era, he provides a fuller picture of Napoleon's rule than was possible for previous biographers. The result is a worthy successor to Broers's previous volume, Soldier of Destiny, and a book which further establishes his biography as the best one yet written about Napoleon Bonaparte.

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review 2018-05-05 15:17
A war that defined modern Europe
The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871 - Geoffrey Wawro

Of all of the wars fought in Europe between 1815 and 1914, none was more important in terms of its impact than the Franco-Prussian War. The culmination of Otto von Bismarck's strategy for unifying the German states into a single country, it saw the displacement of France as the dominant Continental power and the formation of a new nation that would dominate events in Europe for the next three-quarters of a century.

Such an epochal conflict is well deserving of study, yet for Geoffrey Wawro to write this book is in some respects an act of bravery. For decades Michael Howard's The Franco-Prussian War has been the go-to source for readers seeking an English-language history of the conflict, and little has changed since its publication in 1961 to undermine its value. Yet Wawro's book is a worthy addition to the literature on the war, thanks to the directness of his analysis and the clarity of his prose. He provides readers with a superb introduction to the conflict, starting with an analysis of its political background and the strengths and weaknesses of the two armies before detailing the major campaigns of the war. From his analysis emerges a tale of two powers, one rotted yet still possessing formidable strengths, the other dynamic but suffering from its own set of flaws. Wawro makes it clear that while the Prussians enjoyed several advantages the outcome was far from ordained, with the flaws of French leadership being a decisive factor in its defeat.

Wawro's book illustrates the depth of France's humiliation in their defeat. In doing so, he helps to underscore the long-term significance of the war, as France would emerge from it determined to undo its loss. Though this may not have made the conflict that took place four decades later inevitable, the seeds for it were clearly sown in 1870-1. To understand why is just one reason why this book is necessary reading for every student of modern European history, as well as anyone seeking an accessible overview of this pivotal clash of powers

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review 2018-04-30 05:46
A Spanish-centric take on the Peninsular War
The Peninsular War: A New History - Charles J. Esdaile

Napoleon Bonaparte's decision in 1808 to occupy Spain typically is ranked second only to his invasion to Russia in terms of the disastrous mistakes made by the French emperor. What began as a swift military operation soon degenerated into an "ulcer" that tied down thousands of troops, slowly bleeding France's strength. For this reason, the Peninsular War has never wanted for attention, especially among British historians who have long chronicled the campaigns waged by Arthur Wellesley in his ascent to glory as the Duke of Wellington.

 

Yet for all of the attention the war has received Charles Esdaile is able to offer something different from most English-language accounts of the war, which is a Spanish-centric focus. This allows him to highlight a number of important points lacking from previous accounts, not the least of which is the importance of the war to the history of Spain itself. This self-evident point is detailed superbly in his book, which shows how the French occupation played into Spanish politics. Dominated by the royal favorite Manuel Godoy, Spain agreed in 1807 to support France invasion of Portugal. Godoy's unpopularity with both the Spanish public and the heir, the future Ferdinand VII, did little to warm the Spanish political nation to their involvement. The political crisis created by the Mutiny of Aranjuez gave Napoleon the opportunity to intervene by exploiting the request to arbitrate the succession crisis between Ferdinand and his father Charles IV by installing his own brother Joseph as king.

 

Esdaile is sympathetic to el rey intruso, presenting Joseph as a man with good intentions thrust by his younger brother onto a throne he did not desire. These intentions were often thwarted by Spain's limited resources (which Napoleon expected to finance the occupation) and by the war. Esdaile does not minimize the brutality of the conflict, detailing the outrages and atrocities committed on all sides. He is particularly judgmental about the sometimes romanticized guerrilleros, viewing them as having a negligible military impact and describing how they were often viewed as the greater evil by many Spaniards. Esdaile is no less critical of the activities of the Spanish junta and their armies, though he gives them due credit for their performance in several battles.

 

Nonetheless Esdaile argues that for all of the efforts of the junta and the Anglo-Portuguese army to resist the French occupation, the French were enjoying considerable success in establishing control over Spain prior to 1812. In this respect, the key event in Spain's liberation was not a military campaign in the peninsula or a domestic political development but Napoleon's decision to invade Russia, which resulted in the withdrawal of French units necessary for maintaining control. Facing a weakened opponent, the Spanish-Anglo-Portuguese forces were able to unravel French control, driving French forces out fo most of Spain by 1814 and setting Spain down a path of political turmoil that would last for over a century.

 

Esdaile's arguments may challenge the assumptions of some of his readers about the war, but his arguments are difficult to deny. Based on an impressive range of Spanish, English, and French sources, they offer a valuable multi-dimensional account of a complicated and often vicious conflict. While his prose is often blunt, his combined analysis of military operations and Spanish politics make his book necessary reading for anyone interested in the Peninsular War or the history of modern Spain. Though it will hardly be the final word on the subject it will long be one that people will need to consult to understand this event and its lasting repercussions for all involved.

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review 2018-04-13 16:59
Romania and the First World War
The Romanian Battlefront in World War I (Modern War Studies) - Glenn E. Torrey

While there is no shortage of books covering the various battles and campaigns of the Western Front, other areas of the war have long gone unaddressed by English-language historians. One of those areas is the Romanian front, where a country surrounded on nearly all sides by members of the Central Powers nevertheless joined the conflict in 1916 and suffered mightily as a result. One of the few scholars outside of Romania to have studied this period is Glenn Torrey, and this book represents the culmination of his work. The fruit of a lifetime of archival labors, it provides to English language readers for the first time an accessible history of the Romanian war effort and its impact on the broader conflict.

 

Beginning his book with Romania’s decision to join the war in 1916, Torrey describes ambitions unmatched by preparation, as the Romanian leadership courted war with their desire to annex Transylvania yet did little to ready the Romanian army for the conflict. Though they initially enjoyed the advantage of surprise, the Romanians were soon reeling under the successive counter-offensives launched by the Central Powers. With French assistance the Romanians were able to rebuild their devastated army, but the collapse of the Russian war effort over the course of 1917 left the Romanians facing insurmountable odds and with little other choice but to surrender. Having promised to demobilize their army, the Romanians dragged it out as news of the failure of the Ludendorff Offensive gave them new hope. As Torrey makes clear, however, their reentry into the war in its last days proved less important to their subsequent success at the Paris Peace Conference than their efforts to stabilize the Balkans once the Central Powers had surrendered.

 

Overall, Torrey’s book provides readers with a superb history of this unjustly-overlooked front of the war. Its main flaw is in Torrey’s habit of overstating the importance of events in the area to the overall events of the war. This is a minor complaint, though, when assessed against the magnitude of the author’s achievement. What he had provided is a history of Romania’s war that will serve as the go-to study for decades to come for anyone interested in the topic.

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review 2018-04-13 03:24
Precursor to "the Blitz"
The Sky on Fire: The First Battle of Britain, 1917-1918 - Raymond H. Fredette,Tom D. Crouch

Today the Battle of Britain has become an indelible part of the British historical identity, one with which nearly every Briton is familiar on some level. In the process, however, the air battles between the British and the Germans often obscure the fact that the air campaign was hardly unprecedented even in British history. For during the last two years of the war, the German Luftstreitkräfte launched a bombing campaign of London and the Home Counties, one which Raymond Fredette argues was a forerunner for the more famous sequel nearly a quarter of a century later.

 

To demonstrate this, Fredette charts both the development of the German’s air campaign and the British response to it. As he describes it, the German campaign was a product of evolving technology, namely the improvement in German aircraft design. With British air defense forces increasingly successful in their efforts to shoot down the zeppelins used in Germany’s initial bombing campaign, the Germans turned to large biplane bombers as a means to strike their enemy across the channel. Though the flights were generally small and the damage they inflicted had a negligible impact on Britain militarily, they elicited a response out of all proportion to their effect. Numerous guns and fighters were diverted from other missions to provide for the defense of London, which proved a considerable challenge as the bombers proved to be much more difficult targets to locate (let alone shoot down) than the ponderous zeppelins. Yet it was the weather and the turn of the larger war against the Germans that doomed the campaign, as by the summer of 1918 the bombers were diverted to support the doomed offensive on the Western Front, having nevertheless established a precedent that would be followed by others.

 

Though Fredette draws primarily from contemporary news reports and other published accounts for his information, he uses this information to good effect. As a career air force officer he infuses his narrative with a professional’s understanding of the challenges the pilots and their superiors faced in both mounting and responding to the bombing campaign. Written with a sense of the dramatic, his book provides an engaging narrative of the “first battle of Britain,” one that makes a good case for its underappreciated significance to the history of strategic air warfare.

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