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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Book Review: The Alps

Stephen O’Shea’s book, The Alps, is a quirky and charming account of the author’s trips through the namesake mountain range. Labelled as a “human history”, I figured I would give it a read after reading the inside cover to discover mentions of Hannibal Barca, Caporetto, Napoleon, and Adolph Hitler. The promises of military history were certainly there for the taking and considering O’Shea’s goof reviews from the press, it seemed like a good read. The book covers the author’s trip spanning Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Slovenia along arguably the world’s most iconic mountain ranges. Stopping at Mont Blanc, Matterhorn, and other legendary sights, O’Shea’s down-to-earth writing style makes this book one for every historian’s list.

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Praise:

O’Shea is one of those writers who takes you with him. When he goes someplace, you go too. Linguists will certainly enjoy  The Alps for its wide use of language. The varying dialects of the Alps are conveyed beautifully by the author throughout the book. He does point out some very intriguing historical sights such as the Isonzo Front museum in Slovenia or Hitler’s Eagles Nest. His remarks on the collective nouns for groups of bikers (a goulash of Hungarian bikers, a pilsner of Czech bikers, etc.) are something to chuckle about too.

Criticism:

Dutchmen beware. O’Shea is custom to cracking jokes about the Dutch throughout the book as they appear to be the brunt of many jokes made by him or any Swiss or French he encounters. The most disappointing thing for me was the lack of military history in the book. I was enticed by promises of Caporetto, Napoleon’s Italy campaign, and more but was rewarded with maybe two or three pages entirely on each. This was certainly a disappointment; after all, this is a military history blog. The book was placed in the history section of my library, but, it would be much more properly placed in travel. It is more of a travel-history rather than history. He visits places, discusses the history, and describes his experience vividly. It just seems to lack a lot of military history, and focuses more on general history.

For any Hapsburg, language, Sound of Music, mountaineering, or travel enthusiast; this is a spectacular book. For military historians? No. I certainly enjoyed reading Stephen O’Shea and I am by no account saying “do not read his book.” This is just not what somebody interested in the battles of the Isonzo would want to pick up. Luckily for me, I am a Hapsburg and language junkie so this was perfectly fine for me. Notably, O’Shea has also written a book on travelling the battlefields of the Western Front in World War I. I am certainly intrigued and hope for a more military-centred book.

Rating: 3/5

Book Review: Fontenoy 1745

Osprey Publishing’s recent release, Fontenoy 1745, retells the story of the War of Austrian Succession’s most famous battle. An Anglo-Dutch-Hanoverian force commanded by the Duke of Cumberland came face to face with Marechal de Saxe’s French forces in the small Belgian town of Fontenoy, just outside Tournai. Written by Michael McNally and illustrated by Sean O’Brogain, this book opens up a near-forgotten war in Europe’s history.

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Osprey Publishing’s new book: Fontenoy 1745

Praise: Cumberland’s tactical errors are pointed out bluntly, and rightfully so. The book makes its statements of how the Anglo-Dutch forces were uninformed and very strong-willed to their plans. Saxe’s flexibility and use of multiple columns is depicted in a few maps and really shows what a complex network the French general made. There are also reconstructed uniforms in the book of many units of interest such as the Mousquetaires du Roi of the French army. On-site photographs are always great, but McNally manages to capture the correct weather too. His misty pictures clearly show how hard it was for the early-morning attacks troops made. Osprey Publishing always do a good introduction to a topic, and the War of Austrian Succession is covered briefly and provides a solution to any confusion one may have about what the British or the French fighting in Belgium has to do with the Austrian throne.

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British and French Guards clash at Fontenoy

Criticism: The two battle maps in the book felt boxy too me. While 18th century warfare was very rigid in its structure, the maps feel odd and seem to exaggerate the number of troops on the field with huge blocks of infantry. The illustrations could also have been placed better in the book, as you find a picture of the French Irish Brigade about 10 pages after you hear about their attack.

The War of Austrian Succession is mostly overlooked, but it still remains a very important war. Maria Theresa kept her claims to the throne, and it eventually led to the Seven Years’ War. Saxe’s strategies influenced Napoleon Bonaparte later in the early 19th century. Seeing the British defeat as an opportunity, the Jacobite Rebellion sprang up in Scotland. While the Battle of Fontenoy was 3 years before the end of the war, it remains a turning point, and a remarkable French victory over the British, Hanoverians, and Dutch.

Rating: 4/5

Book Review: The Longest Afternoon

The Longest Afternoon by Brendan Simms recollects the story of the 2nd Light Battalion of the King’s German Legion at the Battle of Waterloo. The King’s German Legion was made up of infantry, cavalry, and artillery of German states, and they fought valiantly in many battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Many of the original troops were Hanoverian, as are a large portion of the soldiers described in this book.

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Praise: Simms uses over thirty primary sources for his book, making sure this story is realistic. The chaos in La Haye Sainte is described in furious detail that makes you feel as if you are right there in the battle. Some characters are very appealing and you find yourself attached to some of the German officers. Simms provides some background on the KGL (King’s German Legion), its formation, its battle honours, and its members. I definitely learned some interesting facts about the culture of the KGL and how they were a heavily bilingual unit and how some even Anglicised their names and married English women.

Criticism: The book focuses on the theme of how these riflemen “won” the Battle of Waterloo. My personal opinion does come through, in which I view the arrival of Prussian troops to be the cause of an allied victory. It’s hard to believe how some 400 riflemen saved the entire battle, but he does make a good case. The map provided of La Haye Sainte isn’t very good and is missing a lot of labels that Simms talks about in his book. The book is a meagre 128 pages, and was priced quite high at about $20. If you’re interested in a short book, go right ahead and read this, but beware the price and trust your libraries.

This book is very short, but, if you’re interested in the British army or the Napoleonic Wars, you should definitely give this a read. It contains many primary sources from German troops, which provide an interesting background to the battle. La Haye Sainte is also a very underrated portion of Waterloo, and this book definitely places heavy importance on the location (but perhaps a bit too much).

Rating: 3/5

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