Book Review: Passchendaele

Nick Lloyd released his new book just before the centennial of the Battle of Passchendale (also known as 3rd Ypres). Passchendaele is synonymous with mud and death as British and Dominion troops clashed with Germans over a small ridge and a few wooded plots of land. Names like Polygon Wood. Poperinge, Langemark, and Menin Road became etched in history as some of the bloodiest spots of the entire war. The churned up countryside of Flanders became home to the bodies of 670,000 soldiers and millions of horses. This gruesome battle would put the new British “bite and hold” tactics against the might on the Hindenburg Line.

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Praise:

The book opens with the failure of the Nivelle Offensive by the French in the spring of 1917 and then gives a small description of the Battle for Messines Ridge. These two battles help one understand the background for the Battle of Passchendaele and illustrates the new tactical revolutions the British command underwent. Every chapter opens with a quote about the battle and uncovers some of the feelings of general and private alike. One harrowing quote that opens a chapter is an excerpt from a soldier’s letter to his parents: “Our dead were lying in heaps. It was the worst slaughter I had ever seen.” Another quote in the book was by Hermann von Kuhl, the Chief of Staff to Crown Prince Rupprecht. Kuhl said that “no division could last more than a fortnight in this Hell.” Passchendaele is full of primary sources from both the British and the German forces. Lloyd, a professor at Kings College London, has great access to the collections of the Imperial War Museum and the British National Archives. He also traveled to Germany to collect sources at the Bundesarchiv and the Bayerisches Hauptstaatarchiv. He also has sources from the Australians and Canadians, who played a major role in the latter stages of the battle. The book has about two Victoria Cross citations per chapter during the battle showing the incredible heroism in the face of danger. Lance Corporal Walter Peeler and Sergeant Lewis McGee both captured German machine gun bunkers by themselves under fire at Poelcappe and Zonnebecke.  There are plenty of other amazing stories of soldiers such as them in the battle. Lloyd’s maps are very good too, indicating the objectives which troops were ordered to take. The photographs are very good and one which was very striking was Polygon Wood during the battle, completely leveled by the scars of artillery. The book really shows the internal struggles between the English command. The conflict between Haig and his subordinates caused many problems, as did the fights between the Army generals also, notably Henry Plumer and Sir Hugh Gough. Lloyd’s writing shows how horrible the battle was for a common soldier, shuffling closer to death in a wet, muddy hole. I have used Lloyd’s other books in historical essays and the amount of detail you can gather from his books is astonishing. This book continues that trend. A perfect blend of historical sources, bravery, high command, and gripping battle descriptions make this one of the standout history books of the year. The book also ends quite abruptly without any description of future events, which bothered me a little.

Criticism:

There is not much that I have a problem with in the book. I initially had some problems recognizing when the Battle of Passchendaele officially started. You could easily read a good deal into the book thinking you were still at the Battle of Messines Ridge. Another point which sometimes bothered me was the cutbacks to the Italian Front. The Battle of Capporetto was happening during the Battle of Passchendaele, so Lloyd mentions the fighting in Italy every few chapters. It doesn’t make much of a difference with or without it. Capporetto simply reveals a little more of the character of David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of Britain at the time.

Passchendaele is a great book to fill in a gap on the Western Front history section. A book like this really needed to be published to tell how much this battle influenced British tactics and damaged the mind of the common soldier. The book also reveals how much of a stalemate the war was in late 1917. Many people simply label the German troops as poor at this point, simply due to the knowledge of the Entente victory in 1918. This is not true. German forces showed incredible resistance and strength during the battle, taking back the ridge within two weeks. Nick Lloyd is a great author and this book makes it to the top of the tree for the holidays this year.

Rating:

4.5 / 5

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Wargame Miniatures: Swiss Infantry 1914-18

Switzerland has always been a nation synonymous with neutrality, but they almost found themselves at war in 1914 with Germany and France at their borders. The Swiss were worried the French would try to use Switzerland as a shortcut to Germany, but the Germans attacked Belgium and France before any skirmishes erupted. These figures are great for doing any early war “what if?” scenarios.

Swiss Infantry

The Rif War: Prelude to Spain’s Civil War

Morocco’s horrible political dealings had ended poorly and European nations prayed on the weakened country. In 1912, Spain and France agreed on the creation of a Spanish colony in northern Morocco along the Rif Valley on the Mediterranean. With Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War, they were eager to create a new colony. The Rif was occupied by a large, fiercely independent Berber population.

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Berber guerillas in the Rif Mountains

Spanish troops attempted to pacify the Berbers, but Abd El-Krim, a member of the Beni Urriaguel, decided to unite the Berbers against the Spanish. Establishing the Rif Republic in 1920, El-Krim banded together guerillas to resist the Spanish troops in the area. The Berber tribesmen were not numerous at all, but were great at skirmishing against their enemies. They had traditionally repelled Arab invasions of their home in the Rif Mountains. The Spanish would be one of their toughest challenges yet. General Manuel Fernandez Silvestre commanded the Spanish troops at the front, but quick attacks by El-Krim forced him to abandon his position at Anwal on July 22, 1921. The Spaniards were hit quickly and were not prepared whatsoever, suffering staggering casualties. Silvestre was killed along with some 10,000 Spaniards and Spain was smashed back to the coast.

Things stayed the same until 1924 when the Spanish government snapped into action. Miguel Primo de Rivera recalled Spanish troops to form a defensive line at Tetuan and came under major scrutiny. Abd El-Krim and his Muslim Berber army took control of the land the Spanish evacuated and established a law code, built roads, and created trade agreements. He turned towards the French colony in Morocco and decided to unite his Republic with the other Berbers. Attacking Fes, the Berbers caused heavy French casualties in a quick ambush. The French made the decision to ally with the Spanish in order to combat the Berber threats to their colonies. Philippe Petain took control of the French in Morocco and in a collaboration with the Spanish, the French marched 20,000 troops to deal with the threat. Spain landed 18,000 soldiers at Alhucemas Bay in September 1925 and the two sides joined to fight the 10,000 Berbers. Abd El-Krim’s guerillas couldn’t withstand such force and began to be pushed back from the coast. The Spanish captured Ajdir on October 2 and dealt a huge blow to the Riffians.

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Spanish Foreign Legionnaires defending Alhucemas

By March the next year, El-Krim had been so badly defeated that he asked for peace talks with the Europeans. The Spanish refused and continued to hammer Berber troops out of their lands. El-Krim was captured by the French in April and he was forced to unconditionally surrender. He and his family were sent to Reunion in exile and Morocco was reclaimed by Spain and France. The Rif War sparked thoughts of independence in the area and would later spring to life after World War Two. This also marked the beginning of the Spanish problems. Soon, the Spanish Civil War would tear the country in two and serve as the training ground for the European nations before World War Two.

The Ross Rifle: Canada’s Nightmare

Canada became involved in the First World War thanks to Great Britain. Canada, being a dominion of the British Empire, was entitled to join in any war that Britain was in. The Dominion of Canada joined the war effort in August 1914 and the CEF (Canadian Expeditionary Force) soon arrived in Europe in spring of 1915.

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The Ross Rifle’s Firing System

Along with the Canadian troops came one of history’s most infamous weapons: the Ross Mark III Rifle. The Ross originated in 1902 after Canada’s government chose to create its own weapon instead of the British Lee Enfield, which would have cost the nation much more to produce. Charles Ross, a legendary Scottish hunter, Baronet, veteran of the Boer Wars, and businessman; was tasked with the creation of the firearm. Canada’s Mounted Police, the legendary ‘Mounties’, were given the first rifles to see how they would operate in the field. The weapon immediately received negative reviews. In 1913, the Mark III arrived on the scene to equip the Canadian troops heading off to Europe.

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Canadian Recruitment Poster

The Ross had a straight-pull bolt action system which was a strange choice for a firing system. Most rifles of the period were regular bolt action, including the Lee Enfield. The Ross was extremely cumbersome to handle in the trenches. It was long, heavy, and its bayonet commonly fell off while firing. The weapon also became clogged easily in the Flanders mud and rendered the bolt action useless. If a minor jam occurred, it was common for the problem to worsen as a forceful kick to the bolt would damage the firing system. The bolt also could malfunction and slam into the face of the user if put back together improperly. Along with that, British ammunition would not fit in the Ross and made things horrible if ammunition was mixed up. The Ross was notorious among Canadian troops. An officer said that “It is nothing short of murder to send men out against the enemy with such a weapon.” The jamming was a massive problem in the trenches, causing Canadian troops problems at the front. Many Canadian troops quickly threw their Ross rifles away in favour of Enfields or perhaps a Mauser. Strangely, the Ross preformed superbly in the hands of snipers and marksmen, using them to great effect.

The Ross was officially replaced in 1916 with the SMLE along with the infamous leader of Canada’s war effort- Sam Hughes. The rifle was actually found to be successful once a British weapons manufacturer got his hands on it and fixed the few problems in the mechanism which drove Canadians insane at the front. By then, the Ross’ reputation was so tainted that it was too late, and the rifle went down in history as one of the most infamous and notorious weapons of all time.

10 Facts about the Meiji Restoration

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1. The emperor Meiji abolished the feudal system of Japan in 1871

2. Meiji wrote some 100,000 poems during his life

3. The Meiji period lasted only 44 years

4. Tokyo was made the capital of Japan under Meiji. Prior to his rule, it was Kyoto

5. The Imperial Japanese Army was founded in 1871 and was directly controlled by the emperor as stated in the Meiji Constitution

6. Saigo Takamori led the Satsuma Rebellion in the 1870s against the Meiji Emperor, but he had once held command in the Imperial Guard

7. The Japanese railway system was 18 miles in 1872 and was 7,100 miles by 1914

8. The restoration influenced kokutai, a sense of nationalism and unity in Japan

9. Samurai still were second overall in social hierarchy, though most people believe they entirely disappeared. Their influence in government suffered before the class itself

10. The Japanese merchant fleet in 1904 was over 4 times larger than it was 10 years prior

Book Review: African Kaiser

African Kaiser by Robert Gaudi focuses on the little-known theatre of the First World War- East Africa. A semi-biography of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and semi-recollection of the East African campaigns, this book gives a lot of information in all 422 of it pages. The book contains maps of Africa circa 1914 and some photos related to von Lettow and the German Schutztruppe. The book covers a lengthy period of German colonialism in Africa, mentioning their backgrounds and the initial unwillingness to participate in imperialism. Von Lettow, “the Lion of Africa”, is one of the Great War’s most fascinating generals, and Gaudi makes sure that his readers are fully aware.

Praise: This book provides a large amount of information that I did not know, and was certainly interested in. Gaudi uses a very smooth writing style which is interesting to read and presents facts in a good way. The book discusses Germany’s background of colonization and Otto von Bismarck’s reluctance to do so. There is information on the Herero Rebellion in German Southwest Africa, the Meji-Meji Rebellion, the Schutztruppe, the diseases troops faced while on campaign in Africa, and much more. Gaudi also uses many Swahili words throughout the book to convey the language of the askari. The extensive bibliography indicates a good use of primary sources as well. African Kaiser is full of adventure into the heart of East Africa, portrayals of vicious bush fighting, and, of course, Oberleutnant Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. Interestingly, Gaudi provides a perspective in which one finds it hard to take sides. Neither side is portrayed in such a way that is superior in morals to the other, and that is uncommon in history books. There is almost a familiar connection with British officer Richard Meinertzhagen, as his diaries are used to give a British perspective. The South African units led by Jan Smuts are also covered well.

Criticism:

African Kaiser begins in an extremely strange way, set of the Estonian coast. A large portion of this book seemed to be aimless and unrelated really to the main point of the book. It was only till pg.110 that one sees the first glimpses of German East Africa. There seems to be a lot of talking about pointless things such as the Boxer Rebellion or how certain worms and ailments affect the human body. While I can understand Gaudi for putting these in the book, I am not sure such a large amount of time needed to be spent on it. Yes, von Lettow served in China, and yes the strange beginning ties in with the rest of the book once you read the full chapter (at a stretch), but it felt sometimes as though there was a large amount of “time wasting” and delaying the point that this is a biography of von Lettow and East Africa.

I certainly enjoyed reading African Kaiser, but there were flaws that made it stray from the point. A large focus of this book was the slow process of German colonization, and tying it with von Lettow at any opportune moment. I was skeptical of the book, but when Gaudi began talking about the First World War, the book redeemed most of my doubts. The book is well written and draws readers in, and it is an interesting topic to write about.

Rating: 4/5

Ireland and the Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936 to 1939, and involved many foreign units fighting for the control Spain and her colonies. The Republicans, supported indirectly by the Soviet Union and Mexico, fought to preserve Republican Spain and contained many Catalans and Basques. The Nationalists, led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco, rebelled against the Second Spanish Republic in order to form a fascist government and was supported predominately by Italy and Germany.

Irish troops had served among the Spanish since the 16th century in the 80 Years’ War. Later, the legendary “Flight of the Wild Geese”, the diaspora of Irish Jacobites to France in 1691, brought more Irishmen to Spain. The “Wild Geese” became a name for all Irish troops serving in foreign forces. The Irish who traveled to Spain formed a few regiments in the Spanish Army: the Hibernian Regiment, the Ulster Regiment, and the Irish Regiment. These were disbanded in 1818 at the request of the British.

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Members of the Irish Brigade

By 1936, some 700 Irish Catholics travelled to Spain in order to help Franco’s forces. Ireland and Spain’s similar Catholic heritage joined the two nations together in an indirect bond, as did the “Wild Geese.” Ireland officially did not help the Nationalists, but Eoin O’Duffy, a former member of Irish Parliament and leader of the Irish National Corporate Party, led Irishmen to Spain in order to stop the rise of Communism. O’Duffy allegedly received some 7,000 applications but was only able to bring a small number with him to Spain. The Irish trained in Caceres and were formed as the 15th Battalion of the Spanish Foreign Legion.

The Nationalist Irish were deployed in the Battle of Jarama in February 1937. They were stationed long with British and Balkan volunteers along the San Martin-Morata Road, and soon defended against Republican troops. Heavy fighting ensued, but their involvement delayed the advance of the rest of Franco’s troops. A counter-attack by Republican troops pushed back the Nationalists and eventually ended the battle.

Generalissimo Franco felt he had no need for more foreign troops, as well as having political pressure against his use of foreigners, so the ‘Irish Brigade’ of the Nationalist Army was not used again, nor were any more volunteers drawn from Ireland.

O’Duffy later returned to Ireland after Franco granted his leave, but he and his troops were not received well. O’Duffy held no political power and would never do so again, and the Irish government began removing files of the ‘Irish Brigade’ in the 1940’s.

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Eoin O’Duffy

As well as fighting for the Nationalists, there were some Irishmen who took up arms for the Spanish Republic. The ‘International Brigades’ that supported the Republic began being formed in 1936, and the Communist Party of Ireland organised a movement in the country.

Frank Ryan, a former member of the Irish Republican Army, traveled to Spain with 80 men in 1936 and his socialist Irishmen became known as the ‘Connolly Column.’ They later gained more support for their cause, and the ‘Connolly Column’ fought at Jarama, Brunete, Belchite, Teruel, Gandesa, and the Ebro.

Ryan was captured during the Battle of the Ebro in 1937, and he was later sentenced to hard labour. He died in 1940. The rest of the Irish returned home in 1938, for political reasons, and they were not given any recognition, similar to O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade.

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Frank Ryan

In the 1930’s, the Spanish Civil War was viewed as a war between the Church and Communism. The Irish loyalty to their Catholic beliefs illustrated the willingness of some 700 to serve on the Nationalist side. The Communist support was much more subdued. The war, realistically, was a war between Franco’s fascism and the preservation of a Spanish Republic.

Much of the Irish press in the 1930’s portrayed Franco’s forces as fighting for Catholicism and that the Republican forces were brutally murdering clergymen. In reality, there were plenty of Catholics on either side of the war. After Franco’s victory, some 6,000 members of the clergy were killed in Spain, causing outrage in the Catholic world.

Francoist Spain was dissolved in 1975 after Franco’s death, forming the modern Kingdom of Spain, and their colonies were later granted independence.