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.

 

 

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.