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.

Image result for passchendaele nick lloyd

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

Advertisements

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

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.

Image result for the alps stephen o'shea

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

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.

Image result for ross rifle mark iii
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.

Image result for canadian recruitment posters world war 1
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.

Historical Field Trip: The Veneto

Italy’s history dates back to the times of the Etruscans and Romans, and one of the nation’s most memorable cities is Venice. The winding canals, seafood, and magnificent churches make it a massive tourist destination. While Venice and the surrounding region, the Veneto, are big tourist stops, many breeze over their complex history and the few interesting landmarks and monuments off the beaten path.

Venice:

Venice was a very complicated republic in its early history. Run by the doge, Venice controlled lands from Italy to Croatia and even parts of Greece. Both Byzantine and Classical influences spread throughout the city for its many magnificent buildings.

1. Doge’s Palace

The Doge, or Duke, of Venice controlled the Republic. You can tour the apartments of the Doge and also look at the judiciary chambers of the republic. The prison is connected to the palace as is the armoury, which contains many weapons from the 14th century as well as some artifacts from the Battle of Lepanto.

2. Revolution

Venice’s uprising took place in European rebellion’s favourite year- 1848. A monument to the battles remains in the backstreets of Venice in the San Marco area at Corte Tagliapietra. The monument is to the “heroic resistance” of Austrian rule at the time and a plaque has been put up next to a statue of the Venetian Lion. The plaque is lined with Austrian cannonballs fired at the Venetians. Daniele Manin led a revolt in order to create a new Venetian Republic, but it ended in disaster for the Italians

.

Austrian cannonballs used in the 1848 uprising
The Venetian Lion atop the monument

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Northern Veneto:

The Northern Veneto was the sight of many battles of the First World War between Italy and Austria-Hungary. Though many overlook the Italian Front, it is one of the most intriguing topics of the war.

3. Travel to the town of Asiago in the Italian mountains to see the Asiago War Memorial. The Italian Front cost both nations massive casualties, and some 50,000 remains are housed in the memorial. The arched monument is quite large and opened in the 1930s. Also in Asiago is a selection of trenches preserved on Monte Zebio. The trenches are both Austrian and Italian, and are exceptionally well preserved.

Image result for monte zebio trenches
Trenches on Monte Zebio

4. The Strada delle 52 Gallerie is a section of 52 roads through the Italian Alps which were built by the Italian army during WWI. These allowed the transfer of supplies, food, troops, and munitions to the front with less danger of enemy rifle fire or artillery. There are some scenic hikes and you can drive through some of the tunnels.

Verona:

Remembered primarily as the city of Romeo and Juliet, Verona is one of the more interesting cities of Italy that doesn’t get much attention. While they don’t have many historical sights, apart from sights of the Shakespeare play, there are still a few interesting spots.

5. On Via dietro Anfiteatro, a plaque sits on the wall of some Italian soldiers. These are members of the Pasubio Division, one of the Italian army units stationed in Verona. They fought in Africa, Russia, Yugoslavia, and in Italy from their years of service from 1866 to 1943.

Pasubio Division

6. The equestrian statue of King Vittorio Emmanuele II sits by the Roman amphitheater in Verona. The unifying king of Italy, Emmanuele is immortalized in Italian history and his image appears all over the country.

Uniforms of the Ages: Hungarians in Austrian Service

The heavily multicultural Austrian Empire divided its army into two main nationalities: Germans and Hungarians. While the majority of these units were not actually of those nations, the Hungarian troops were some of the more elaborately dressed.

Throughout Austria’s history, the Hungarians have retained the same core elements of their uniform, changing only when the uniform style did. The first appearance of specific “Hungarian” troops was around the reign of Maria Theresa and the War of Austrian Succession. There were Hungarian troops prior to this war, but the special uniforms were not adopted until then. Hungary had only been part of the Habsburg Empire since 1541. A large partition had separated it from Bohemia and placed it under the influence of Austria.

Gyulay Regiment  in the 7 Years War

The most notable part of the Hungarian uniform was the gold braiding on the front of the pants in a knotted style. This “Hungarian knot” was a braided lace design that was notably used by Confederate officers in the US Civil War. For the Hungarians, this pattern was on both pant legs in a golden lace. Unlike “German” troops, the pants of these soldiers were a light blue while Germans wore white or gray.

Image result for confederate officer uniforms
Confederate General Braxton Bragg with a Hungarian knot

The uniforms changed over time with style of warfare. Tricorne hats and long coats were soon replaced by helmets and higher pants during the Napoleonic Wars. The helmets were extremely cumbersome, and provided little protection to a soldier when he wore them. In 1809, Austrian troops swapped their helmets for the shako, which was used by almost all of the major world powers at that time. The Hungarian pattern, however, remained on the uniform. By the Napoleonic Wars, the trousers of Hungarian troops had been added to as well; a black and gold stripe ran down the side of the pants. 

Image result for austrian army hungarian regiments
Hungarian Grenadiers

Post-Napoleon, Hungarian troops played an even larger role in the Austrian Army. The ratio of German units to Hungarian units was almost even as the population increased. By the next reforms, Hungarian troops wore the new shorter shako and their coats were given gold lace around the facings. These uniforms would carry them through the Italian Wars of Independence and the Austro-Prussian War.

The Hungarians achieved a dual monarchy in 1867, establishing the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Uniforms remained the same until 1908 when a new, modern uniform was introduced. The hechtgrau (pike-gray) uniform was more subtle than the white and light blue the Hungarians previously wore, but their knotted pattern still stayed on their pants. By 1918, the Empire fell after their defeat in the First World War, and the Hungarian uniform disappeared with it.

Hungary used a drab coloured uniform after the fall of the Dual Monarchy, and discontinued any of the previous gold lace on their pants or coats. By the Second World War, the old uniform style was completely gone, and just as the Austrian Empire changed with age, the Royal Hungarian Army changed too.

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