Book Review: Armies of the Italian Wars of Unification 1848-1870 (1) by Gabriele Esposito.

Paperback: 48 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (24 Aug. 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472819497

Gabriele Esposito might well be considered Osprey’s Grand Master of the Men at Arms series. His books cover a range of subjects in this series are as varied as uniforms and equipment of Roman infantry, to 19th century revolutionary armies in Southern Europe and South America.

Italian history in Britain is dominated only by a couple of things. The Renaissance is the biggest presence on shelves, and then surveys of cities and now and then an art book, and within all that you tend to find mostly books about Medici’s and Borgia’s, Venice, Florence, the Popes and Rome.

Personally I’ve never understood why the Risorgimento is so ignored in English. It’s just as confusing as the tangled story of 15th and 16th century Italy. It’s got just about as much colour, and yet mostly we have only heard about Garibaldi in Britain  and nowadays I doubt many would know what he did beyond getting a biscuit named after him, least of all how the modern state of Italy came into being.

I’m not writing this because this book tells that story, I’m writing it because books on this subject are thin on the ground and military histories of the Wars of Unification are even harder to find. So already I was looking forward to this book and I am happy to report that within the confines of its scope it is a very successful one.

Although many claim that after 1815 there was a great period of peace in Europe, this is far from the truth, with Wars of revolution and succession sparking in Spain, Italy and even an abortive attempt to oust the Tsar in the 1820’s. It was a time of revolutions that turned Europe on its head and by and large created the 20th century European continent.

This book offers and detailed overview of organisation (for the standing forces from battalion up to brigade level) and equipment and a decent coverage of uniforms, which given the varied subject at hand, that being of the Army of the Kingdom of Sardinia (Piedmont) and Naples (Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) in a conflict that stretched over the better part of 20 years, is impressive, but that’s where the talented brush of Rava takes over in a bright and vivid series of plates that display his mastery of atmosphere and characterisation, as well as his eye for historical detail.

There are excellent studies of the famous Bersaglieri and Carabinieri, I love the painting of the Neapolitan troops sitting in the shade, drinking coffee out of little China cups. The photos inside include rare studio portraits of soldiers and well as period illustrations, a neat little book on a very interesting subject.

Josh.

Book Review: Whispers across the Atlantick by

Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (27 July 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472827953

One of the big questions about the American Revolution is; how did the British lose when they won most of the battles? Richard Holmes pondered this briefly in one of his introductions, but came to no determination. But the truth is that the entire accepted story of the American War of Independence has yet to be rescued from the realm of myth and legend. And the trail to answering how the British lost the United States leads us to consider the Generals and politicians responsible.

General Howe is one of the most interesting. He remains a great anomaly in the record. Despite being the General to come closest to defeating Washington, and arguably never being defeated in a major engagement, he can be cited more than even Burgoyne, Clinton and Cornwallis as perhaps the man who lost the British Colonies in America.

This is the first book I have seen that sets out to examine his record in America. Utilising highly original sources, connected to the enquiry of 1778, David Smith takes Howe’s own words in his defence and excavates the truth from them. What is revealed is a story of a commander who should have been the man to defeat the American Rebels, but who through a number of personal flaws and a ridiculous expectation of a government giving orders from 3,000 miles away, essentially made it possible for the Republic of the United States to survive its most critical years.

This is a scrupulously fair book in my opinion. It defends Howe were he should be defended (the Battle of Long Island) and criticises were there is cause (His endless diffidence, his curious laxity and his cliquey approach to command). Using famous and rare excerpts from British and Hessian Officers we also get a fresh glimpse at the engagements of 1775-77.

What I found interesting in reading this book was the relative qualifications of the commander’s, on both sides. Here we have a war, prosecuted from London by a failed and disgraced soldier (Lord Germain), who evinced an unrealistic and blinkered expectation of reducing America to its pre 1750 state, in which nothing short of total victory without any concessions was acceptable. You have a field commander who is supposed to bring this about who is firstly a Whig, and secondly who has never commanded anything more than a battalion in action, seconded by a similarly quailed, though more robust second in command, thirded by a seperate commander in Canada, leaving us to conclude that in a shocking twist, the shamed Gentleman General Burgoyne, derided as more playwright than soldier, was probably the most experienced field commander in North America after Gage and Carleton. We need not examine that as of 1775, George Washington had commanded nothing larger than a battalion either, and got himself royally beaten doing so to boot.

With all of this illustrated, the adroit observations continue to tumble. The utter collapse of any cohesive strategy, the realisation that as more time went by, the Rebels, even with numerous tactical defeats could expect to ask for more and more concessions at a treaty table. Indeed even had Britain crushed the rebellion in 1776, the only year they (with hindsight) realistically came close to doing so, it is likely that it would not have eneded the American question, for the box once opened cannot easily be shut… at least notwithout breaking the box.

Whispers Across the Atlantick is an excellent book, the title of which nicely sums up the folly of Britain’s attempt to control the war from London. Among other things it’s also interesting to read of the political consequences for Howe and other commanders, being as each chapter begins with an excerpt from Howe’s defence before a court of enquiry. David Smith has written an excellent and refreshingly unbaiased account of Sir William Howe’s service in America, and its consequences, which adds a layer of depth to this enigmatic general that you rarely see in histories of the war.

Josh.

 

Book Review: The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn by Robert P. Watson.

Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Da Capo Press (31 Aug. 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 030682552X

Prisoners are a product of every war. What happens to them can become enshrined in legend, such as in the case of the 2nd World War. Or they can fade into silence and memory as has happened here. As the author states at the beginning, there is no movie about the American Prisoners of War who were held in New York Harbour. These men, thus denied the modern world’s highest mark of respect have no real legacy today amongst the legends of the War of Independence, but their struggle was an important one. They won no battles but they put themselves to the hazard for what they believed in. And many died for it. Continue reading

Book Review: Koh I Noor by Anita Anand and William Dalrymple.

Published: 15-06-2017
Format: Hardback
Edition: 1st
Extent: 352
ISBN: 9781408888841
Imprint: Bloomsbury Publishing
Illustrations: 2 x 8pp colour insert

https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/koh-i-noor-9781408888841/

Diamonds are forever and so are the stories attached to them. This is a book about a diamond, and the lengths people went to in order to possess it. In the end it is a story about possessiveness, belonging and ownership.
It is a human story, a chunk of rock, no matter how great in value cannot speak for itself. It’s character is very much formed by its owners, and the fact that these people wished to own it says something about them in turn.
As the centuries pass, and the diamond takes on yet more handed down significance, afforded by generations of ownership and individual lives, it has grown a life of its own, a life perhaps as faceted as its etched surface that envelopes the lives of those that would posses it. They must understand what it says about them to want it. After so much time, Koh I Noor has a voice and it comes from centuries of history.

The premise of this book, (well presented and richly illustrated) is to tell the real story of the world’s most infamous diamond. This as opposed to the potted history’s collected by the British after they gained possession of it after the 2nd Sikh War. This it succeeds in marvellously. The two authors go back into Indian Legend to explain the significance of such stones as the Koh I Noor, and then follow it right down to the present day controversy of who should possess it.

William Dalrymple tackles the immense job of tracking the stone from early Legends and down through it’s hectic early life as a Mughal, then Persian then Afghan and then Sikh trophy. This section takes up part 1 of the story and ends with the death of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Dalrymple does a stellar job of reducing down whole centuries into chapters, but inevitably perhaps more elbow room is required and the narrative ebbs and flows.

Anand takes up the baton of the story in part 2 which traces the path of the diamond from the hands of the dead Ranjit Singh 1st Sikh War to its loss to the British, its travel to Britain and recutting, and then to the modern day. This part of the book is maybe a touch better written but perhaps not as academically pleasing. The narrative flows easily and is vivid as it is informative. The diamond, and attendant movements and politics play a background role to the people who own it, the lives of its principle Indian owners are investigated thoroughly, (so much so that I must admit to forgetting at times what the book was about.)

Distance is lost somewhat in the second half of the book, but that’s because we suddenly go into closeup. First of all there is so much more documentation available for Anand to draw on, which helps her build her narrative up. However I could not help but feel a certain unease when it came to the passages about the battles of the Sikh Wars. Now I will just say that the battles and politics surrounding the diamond are central to this story and need to be included to understand why it is important.

Nevertheless I wondered if it was necessary to at all times mention the (undeniable) prowess of the Sikh Army and then observe that whenever they were defeated by the British it was only ever down to either treachery or (apparently) better British weapons. I always flinch slightly whenever I come across patterns like this.

I tried to decide wether or not this mattered to anyone else but myself, wether or not I was being too pedantic, too critical or unfair. Yet I could not escape from the resolution that the authors had chosen to include this information, and associated titbits, and therefore having done so perhaps would have done well to have attempted to reach a balance of perspectives. For instance I could have picked at a few minor things to do with the Duke of Wellington but I decided that if readers wanted to read about the Duke in full they’d read another book, but the fighting is directly associated with the story of the diamond whereas Wellington is incidental.

This I think brings us back to the way the book tends to delve into the biographies of the main owners, and sometimes strays from actually discussing the subject at hand. Then when it does return to topic, using the Koh I Noor as a sort of connector to carry the story onwards, it is discussed in such a way, especially in the latter half of the book, as to suggest that everybody concerned had no other motive for doing anything than to gain possession of the diamond.

Sometimes this quirk can be seen in TV documentaries where a specific thesis is being presented, and where a single, secret, hitherto forgotten pivot becomes the reson-d’être of the entire story. I found therefore checks and balances to my enjoyment of the book, but on the whole I liked it, and it was a fascinating trip down a path less travelled, a joy to read. Then again nothing is perfect to everyone.

A book that shines in its ability to string together thousands of years of history, involving politics, war, personalities and rivalries into a fluid tale. In many ways parting the mists of myth that surround the diamond. A highly readable, exciting and poignant work, that cleverly tells the history of the diamond and at the same time using it as a vehicle to tell the history of India

It is a book that admittedly carries with it a few unanswered questions. In the end when the subject of ownership is raised we are left in the air. All we know is that some in India want it back, and some in Britain would see the act of giving it back as tantamount to admitting to a greater national guilt, perpetrated by earlier generations but nevertheless festering under the surface.

The book indirectly asks us to beg the question we return to the question, what does that say about those who want it back, and those who want to keep it? This stone that is now so heavy with the weight of history. There is no longer in either country an Empire for it to represent. Why defend what is no longer in existence? Why use Koh I Noor as a dagger of blame?

For all the controversy about ownership, right and wrong one of the most potent legends about the Mountain of Light is that it brings ill fortune to those who posses it. Koh I Noor is the original cursed stone. For centuries it has been fought over, and aptly, one owner was instantly identified as a conquerer for it can only be possessed by those who have vanquished another.

After reading this book I am tempted to say that yes, the stone must be cursed. When it became malevolent is impossible to say, but perhaps the curse isn’t what the stone does to people in terms of spells or incantations. But like all great treasures the curse lies in what people do to each other in order to possess it.

Josh.

Book Review: Boer Guerrilla vs British Mounted Soldier by Ian Knight.

Paperback: 80 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (27 July 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472818296

Conan Doyle wrote that no enemy of Britain had done her so much damage as the Boer’s with their ancient theology and their very modern rifles. This book gets to the heart of that statement.

This is a capsule of tactical thought. Proving that this Osprey series retains its core strength of highlighting fighting experience from ground level and how actual combat can drive change in doctrine.

The Boer Wars are fertile ground for this discussion, and Ian Knight is as usual a capable guide to South African military history. It will I think rest rather neatly alongside his previous title about the Zulu war, and the other combat about the fighting in east Africa between Askari forces in ww1 as a very useful and accessible study of colonial warfare in Africa.

One of the main selling points of any Osprey book is by detailed maps, unit breakdowns and examinations of weapons and tactics in a very specific area, and this book delivers on all points. Can one ever tire of seeing photos of flinty looking Boer’s and comparing them to the at first neat but increasingly capable looking British forces?

The pages are replete with fascinating images, in addition to Johnny Shumate’s full page spreads, and the added bonus of one of Woodville’s paintings deployed as a double page layout.

Knight utilises some key eyewitness sources to bring realism to bush warfare in the Boer War. All in all the British come off the worst, even with their attempts to match Boer mobility and firepower with their own mounted infantry tactics.

It seems almost like if the Boers had been able to match British industry and supply they would probably have won the second war. Not that winning the first one wasn’t a brilliant feat on its own. But although efforts were made to make the Victorian army more “irregular” it was not really troops in the open that turned the tide.

It was economics, it was constriction, and ultimately the power of a rich industrial nation versus a poor agrarian one. In the end Boer Commandants could raid as far into British territory as they liked, and it still wouldn’t change the writing on the wall.

It’s not even as if the army kept any of the lessons learned in South Africa past the actual fighting. By WW1 very little remained of the keys of dispersal, concealment and manoeuvre that had been present during the Boer War.

Though many would cite the excellent marksmanship of the BEF in 1914, learned so the enemy supposed, in many colonial campaigns it was lucky they did not encounter a Boer Commando who, though mythologised as crack shots, were indeed experts at practical marksmanship when opposed to a European foe, demonstrated here in the final action and Elands Neck.

Of note is the fact that the war in east Africa only swung in favour of the allies when some ex Boer commandants took over in the theatre. A sharp, highly enjoyable addition to the series by Ian Knight.

Josh.

Book Review: The Art of Giuseppe Rava.

Hardcover: 173 pages
Publisher: Winged Hussar Publishing (6 Jun. 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 099709463X  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Art-Giuseppe-Rava/dp/099709463X

I do love military art. Part of the reason I am writing a history blog at all is because of the drama I saw in paintings. I have mentioned before that military painting is not as popular as it once was. Nevertheless it is not to be underestimated. Recently there has been an exhibition at the National Army Museum London of the work of battlefield artists. Commemorating combat and conflict in paint remains the most poignant homage to soldiering in my opinion.

No one since the Late Angus McBride has made gouache paint sing such an atmospheric song. Each painting is a story, one that can be read, something is always happening, even when people are not shooting or killing each other. The light and shade, and the effect it creates in Rava’s pieces evoke so strongly an element of the story that one might be able to in places hear what cannot be heard and smell what cannot be smelled.

Much like McBride, Rava’s strength lies in depictions of cold steel and forgotten civilisations, which he imbues with an immediacy and hot blooded warmth that would make one believe he had just seen the image he has created. The best military illustrators and artists can see a moving scene unfold and freeze it at the most dramatic or poignant moment. In this book, time and time again you will be able to see those moments where time has suddenly be stopped and recreated.

The book a neat, clean looking production, light and easy to put on a shelf. There is a very generous and thoughtful introduction by author Gabriele Esposito, who has collaborated with Rava on several publications. I appreciated very much his comment about how military history without the art is a sad thing.

Format wise there is almost 200 paintings. About half are familiar to me from Rava’s work for Italeri and Hät miniatures. I adored that artwork as a kid, I was inspired by it, I copied it. I loved how scarred his shields were and I marvelled at his powers of perspective when rendering soldiers charging towards the viewer. His bravery with composition made me want to emulate those luging spears and rushing warriors with my pencils. They brought the action to life.

There is no explanatory text accompanying the plates. Only titles. To be extremely picky I think there should have been some sort of supporting explanations beside the art. In most of the other military art books I have, this is the way the paintings are presented, but although I prefer the relationship between word and visual, the lack of text doesn’t detract from the excellence of the illustrations.

The paintings are separated by era, starting with antiquity and going down into the mid 20th century. The selection highlights Rava’s versatility over a vast range of subject matter, from the ancient Egyptians to the world wars. Standout amongst the selection I feel are: The elevation of a Byzantine emperor; a model of quiet dignity and imperial grandeur. The battles of Ravenna and Ivry are favourites of mine, as are some of the Greco Persian subjects, I think the alternate view of the flag raising at Iwo Jima is good for its fresh perspective, also the novelty of the charge of the Italian Cavalry in 1917, plus I do rather like the painting of Wellington’s Staff in 1815.

A must for fans of historical art and illustration, especially those enthusiasts who love a good action packed battle scene.

Josh.

Book Review: Unsolved! By Craig P. Bauer.

 

Hardcover | 2017 | $35.00 | £27.95 | ISBN: 9780691167671
624 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 222 halftones. 8 line illus. 17 tables. http://press.princeton.edu/titles/10949.html

Where do I start? This is a headspinning book, filled with secrets that have yet to be revealed. It’s like reading one long cliffhanger with the sure knowledge the sequel that reveals what happens is going to be a long time coming.

First off we get a crash course on how to decipher codes, and indeed in doing so we learn how to create them. We are even given a cipher to break, the author suggesting that we may want to stop reading and have a go “attacking” a problem or two. Then we are into the thick of a mind bending puzzle about the efforts to crack the mysterious writing held in a medieval manuscript.

Along the way we get to know the nuts and bolts, jargon and some of the methods used by cryptographers, my favourite nugget is the oh so apt short hand for basic encoded messages or Monoalphabetic substitution cipher MASC. See? Easy memory hook because it’s just like Mask, it masks the intention!

Now after thoroughly grasping that, I proceeded onwards and got completely turned around when the maths came in. I continued in a mixture of comprehension and incomprehension until we got to the Ancient Ciphers where at least I knew which way was up.

With amazing thoroughness, wit and easy communication the author immerses the reader in the world of Cryptanalysis Remember these are unsolved problems, and so each chapter is highly tantalising as a series of brilliant minds each take a turn at tackling ciphers which in the end remain as enigmatic as their creators originally intended. They truly must rank as some of the best in history, just because they have resisted the efforts of centuries of scientific thought to the present day.

Although all the subjects tackled were equally fascinating in some way or another, I did identify most with the ancient ciphers. It was also very pleasing to see Adrienne Mayor’s Research play a part when it came to “nonsense” words, which I recalled being impressed with in her excellent book on Warrior Women. It is also an excellent surprise to see the Vikings mentioned here. No I wasn’t aware of medieval Norse codes, nor that Caesar used ciphers, or that the Greeks had coded signal systems, but I did know that the Vikings had strong links to the Eastern Roman Empire, which is probably why their ciphers so closely approximate Greek ones.

Did I understand everything I read? No. I’m not mathematical. Did I ever feel lost? Strangely no. The author is good at conveying complex ideas, which when they are not series of equations come across very clearly. There is an almost conversational tone to the book in the way Bauer playfully interacts with the reader, in a way it’s almost like he’s offering all the codebreakers out there the chance to collaborate, or at least take part in the debate.

Do not mistake me, this is a serious look at the facts and methods here. Authored by an expert in cryptanalysis who was a lecturer for the NSA. In short it might well be more than you bargained for, but if this book has taught me anything it is not to take anything at face value. Speaking as a mathematically challenged member of the reading public I nevertheless asset by the 3rd chapter, I was able to detect the presence of a cypher in the images shown of carved stones without looking at the text for explanation. No I didn’t try to crack it, I kept reading! But that proves that Unsolved has the power to educate.

Some of the ciphers here are obviously fresh meat for conspiracy theorists. Indeed some of the code breakers mentioned are highly unscientific in their theories. Yet it’s far from just a jumble of uninspiring theory, as it rarely takes a stance to suppose anything that is not in evidence. Indeed I might go so far as to say that this is a very inspiring book, and will likely engage an active mind more closely than you might think.
I must admit that when I picked up this volume, with its slightly mystic cover design, and immodest weight I at first thought that I wouldn’t like it but if a good mystery is your cup of tea then this is likely to be the most original and absorbing book you will read this year.

Josh.