Book Review: Viking Warrior vs Anglo-Saxon Warrior by Gareth Williams

Paperback: 80 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (24 Aug. 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472818326
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Viking-Warrior-Anglo-Saxon-England-865-1066/dp/1472818326

The Viking Age has often been called the time when England was made. These Scandinavian intruders, who were only one in a line of successive invaders since the Celtic Migration and which included the Saxons, succeeded for a short time in replacing the then current owners of the land and left an indelible mark on, not just England but practically every nation in the British Isles.

This was a time period dominated in military terms by the shield-wall, made up of men, for the most part, armoured with hauberks, shields, swords, spears and axes. Because of the legendary exploits of the Vikings as bloodthirsty pagan looters, and the fame of the saga of 1066, this is a very recognisable time in the history of Northern Europe. Bernard Cornwell had added his popular touch to the history of the subject by writing the Last Kingdom series, which deals with the emergence of the Saxon kingdoms, so it’s safe to say this is a subject dear to many people’s hearts.

This is a well constructed overview of some key battles, and a neat survey of weaponry and organisation, accompanied by some fine photographs and action packed original artwork, however it doesn’t quite deliver the “boots on the ground” experience that other titles in the series provide. Also lacking here is the progression seen in other Versus books. We don’t see much in the way of an evolution in fighting styles.

This was always going to be a tough subject. Unlike later medieval eras there is a scarcity of sources that can reconstruct the use of shield, spear, sword, axe and seax. However experimental archeology does allows us to theorise as to their most logical applications, Mike Loades for instance has presented some highly interesting theories on the subject in his series Weapons that Made Britain.

Interestingly what the author is doing is showing us how alike the Vikings and Saxons were in their approach to warfare. How elements of each other’s military ethos and technology was harnessed. Rather than their differences this book observes two remarkably similar tactical doctrines. Instead of the front lines the author covers grand strategy, campaign goals and possible interpretations for the course of the Battle of Ashdown, the Battle of Maldon and the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

As mentioned above a paucity of written works restricts the scope of the book. Whereas in other Versus books it is possible to observe the experiences of “voices from the ranks” the sparse sources to be found for these centuries of warfare makes even the detailed reconstruction of major battles a challenge. More perhaps could have been done to attempt to flesh out the way warfare was conducted and a greater discussion of possible and theoretical tactics could have been mounted. There is for instance three diagrams that illustrate shield-wall tactics. However the relative complexity of the formation isn’t mentioned even though there is a discussion to be had about the old fashioned idea of the walls, which show simplistic arrays of men standing shoulder to shoulder, and the newer interpretations which show a highly organised system of projecting spears and in places, stacked shields that have a distinctly Roman or Greek flavour.

Peter Dennis provides mad melee’s, and an interesting interpretation of the famous incident at Stamford Bridge, in which the famous axe-man, often called a berserker, is killed while delaying the Saxon pursuit, not by a spear between the legs, but by a javelin hurled from the riverbank. His lone figure studies are excellent detailed, and it’s always satisfying to see the Seax dangling within easy reach.

All in all, this is a good overview of early medieval warfare in Northern Europe and its broad dynamics, but presents only a limited view of the ways in which battles were fought in terms of nuts and bolts combat.

Josh.

Book Review: Viking Fire by Justin Hill.

Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Abacus (7 Sept. 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 034912339X

In terms of visuals the Paperback is as one would expect, a good product with an interesting design, but publishers will continue to put faux gilt onto the front cover, on hardbacks that is OK you can avoid rubbing it off with use by removing the dust jacket but with paperbacks this isn’t an option and the result is a much less fancy cover when you get through with it.

Inside, I must say I’m very impressed with Justin Hill’s new novel Viking Fire. Don’t be fooled by the typically HistFic title, this is a strong, literary, retelling of the Harald Hardrada saga. Everyone thinks they know what a Viking is, and because of that, probably the most interesting figure of the 1066 epic is also the most misunderstood. This book presents the story of a man who might not be very familiar to readers who are used to unimaginative and bland descriptions of Hardrada as a opportunistic looter. Continue reading

Book Review: Savannah 1779 by Scott Martin and Bernard F. Harris Jr.

Author: Scott Martin, Bernard F. Harris Jr.
Illustrator: Graham Turner
Short code: CAM 311
Publication Date: 24 Aug 2017
Number of Pages: 96

https://ospreypublishing.com/savannah-1779

This campaign is another one that slips through the cracks. Much like the campaign of Charleston and Camden, and realistically Monmouth it presents a problem to writers of the American Revolution. Why? Because it’s events were soon overshadowed by what followed. The 3 years between 1777 and 1781 are a sort of limbo, which is easier to briefly summarise into the bigger picture than actually examine.

They are important because they were the building blocks that created the opportunities to once more shut down the British war effort. With the demise of the Hudson strategy after Saratoga, and the abandonment of Philadelphia which provided the proving ground of Monmouth courthouse for the Continental Army, the British revisited the idea of a “Southern Strategy”.

It of course transpired that the entire Crown campaign from start to finish polarised around gobbling up juicy colonial capitols and launching fairly fruitless expeditions from them, all of which ended up in utter failure. The exception would be in 1780 when after the capture of Charleston the British decisively defeated an American field Army, which gave gives this campaign, something of a hopeful aspect for the British and could be seen to usher in the crisis of the American War.

Scott Martin and Bernard F. Harris Jr bring to light many names that go unnoticed in the annals of the war. The weight of unfamiliar officers is quite extraordinary, riding alongside better known ones such as Pulaski, but very often a name is just that, and here we get something practical to read about. The poorly covered campaign is doubly important because it introduces the French element to the saga of the Revolution. The French fleet and land forces, under Admiral d’Estaing, fought their first engagements since the end of the 7 Years War with their old enemy, but by the end of the campaign, mounting failures had put strain on the new alliance.

One of the great things about history is often the ironies, such as the famous defender of Fort Moultrie, Sergeant Jasper who raised the Liberty flag over the embrasures in 1776, dying rescuing another flag on the parapet of Savannah’s Springhill Redoubt. Incidents like this and highlights of the African American contribution, ably weaved into a concise narrative is why this is a solid account of a deceptively uninteresting campaign. Though I must pause for thought in typically annoying fashion to ask, when describing a loose palisade of shortened stakes placed vertically into the ditch of a redoubt, is Palisade the right word?

Anyway, that aside, by the end the authors have creditably described how this campaign promised to have a dangerously destabilising effect on the Franco-American alliance. Highlighting a very interesting against the odds scenario which is again a testament to the capability of the British infantry (and their allies) in America. An Interesting campaign, full of fascinating actions, with to the mainstay of the Crown forces being highlanders, Germans and loyalists, which might prove attractive to war-gamers. At the same time it shows the old truth of good British tactics but flawed British strategy giving false hope to planners in New York and London. And a rare example (1775 invasion of Canada being another) of a muddled American strategy which would prove nearly disastrous then on until after the Battle of Camden and the coming of General Greene.

An excellent array of images and maps accompany the work, including some very fine commissioned artwork, the Springhill Fort by Turner is, I think a superb battle scene.
This professionally written, even handed, fair account is all you could want from a Osprey campaign book and a work of military history.

Josh.

 

 

The Week in History episode 6.

Week of 21 August to 27 August 2017.

Monday: The First Shogun. Tuesday: Raising the Standard, Wednesday: A Proclaemation of Rebellion. Thursday: Eruption of Vesuvius. Saturday: Battle of Crecy.  Continue reading

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