Book Review: Valentine Baker’s Heroic Stand and Tashkessen 1877. Frank Jastrzembski.

Imprint: Pen & Sword Military
Pages: 202
ISBN: 9781473866805
Published: 12th June 2017

https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Valentine-Bakers-Heroic-Stand-At-Tashkessen-1877-Hardback/p/13481

In 1880 there were probably two popular military hero’s in Britain, Chinese Gordon and Valentine Baker, both would die associated with the epithet “Pasha” after their names, and both would die in North Africa. Continue reading

Book Review: Nashville 1864 by Mark Lardas.

Author: Mark Lardas
Illustrator: Adam Hook
Short code: CAM 314
Publication Date: 19 Oct 2017

https://ospreypublishing.com/nashville-1864

This is an efficient, fairly standard appraisal of a neglected part of a famous conflict, replete with the mechanics of campaigning, sprinkled with battles rather than being dominated by them. There are interesting photographs throughout. Maps and extensive orders of battle, the main ORBAT section taking up 6 pages. The main battles are covered, as are the main raids. Highlighting a vast selection of unsung hero’s. Most notably the northern officers, who are for the most part all neglected today. All accompanied by some mesmerising original artwork from Adam Hook.

The American Civil War is a fertile ground for examining campaigns proper, instead of just the way battles were fought. It can be said that Battles are small campaigns and campaigns are large battles, in that a campaign is an extended engagement of which general actions form only the terminus or a punctuation. Indeed some campaigns flow effortlessly into field battles without much interruption.

The American civil war is also instructive to the military student in the use of cavalry in the post Napoleonic 19th century. Indeed it shows how indispensable cavalry could be in a wider realm. Here, though they were rarely effective on the field, commanders would rest their plans sometimes entirely on having strong cavalry forces to scout, screen and raid. This is dramatically put on show in this campaign.

John Bell Hood’s attempt on Nashville in 1864 was the last gasp of the Army of the Tennessee, and some think the last gasp of the Confederacy. It saw a bewildering series of engagements and manoeuvres as the battered western army of the South slowly wore itself out to the point that when Union commander George Thomas attacked the Confederates were in no fit state to resist.

The importance of this campaign lies in the “what if”. The author suggests this could have been a game changer for the confederacy if they’d won. Personally I don’t see allot of room for that eventuality in the way it turned out, as General Hood proved unable to move fast enough or with enough success or secrecy to secure his early objectives. Allatoona Pass being a notable example. Nevertheless if for a moment we imagine that Hood did everything right and his opponents did everything wrong, it still wouldn’t have changed the outcome, not alone. However if a victory at Nashville created the opportunity for forces in the east to land a decisive blow, forcing Grant and Sherman out of the south then Lincoln would probably not have survived politically and the war would likely have ended on a matter of terms. You see how many “what if’s” such a scenario requires.

The narrative here isn’t terribly polished, with allot of unnecessary repetition in terms of names and places. It’s also a little light on the use of contemporary quotes, unlike other Osprey titles nowadays, which a replete with short excerpts, this one, although highlighting a particularly interesting source only really uses quotes in a few places.

Adam Hook is a long time Osprey illustrator, his exciting, neat style is well suited to colourful uniforms and panoramas. I always appreciated his work in the books about warfare in America. Of special note are his paintings in the Saratoga campaign book. Recently he’s been illustrating allot of Tactical books, he’s very good at doing birds eye view, mini figure battles. You get to see this here in the painting of the Battle of Franklin, which works a little like an extra map. My favourite, and the illustration that really mesmerised me was the painting of J.B. Forrest retreating from Johnsonville. Painting scenes in the dark is notoriously hard, but Hook has pulled it off brilliantly, capturing a proper moment as union supplies burn like a wild fire over the horizon. That lividly burning cloud, lit by the fires below, helps tell the story.

In sum this is a very efficient and enlightening read, that shines in its effective coverage of a campaign, and the mechanics of campaigning rather than a discussion of a series of battles, with some super illustrations.

Josh.

Book Review: Shrewsbury 1403 by Dickon Whitewood.

Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (30 Nov. 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472826809
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Shrewsbury-1403-Struggle-Fragile-Campaign/dp/1472826809

First of all I’m going to direct your attention to the author’s name. Dickon (of) Whitewood, could there be a better name for a medievalist? Dickon itself being a medieval nickname for Richard. Add to that the peerless skills of expert artist Graham Turner and I was already pleased with this campaign book before I read a word. Because they are short and highly illustrated, Osprey Books don’t need to be particularly well written to be good, they need only to convey concise, detailed information. But this conventionally formatted Osprey title has a distinctive feel for the time, inserting excellent quotes from contemporary sources, and retelling the history of the campaign through it’s primary sources in a logical and fresh way.

“Never” writes the author quoting the perhaps over-exuberant Dieuclares Chronicle “in the whole world was such a great host thought to have been destroyed in battle in the space of two hours”. Although comparatively neglected and unfamiliar as a pivotal battle nowadays in the 15th century this engagement was remembered as the greatest threat to royal power until the Wars of the Roses. Which of course means that this campaign represents the consolidation of the House of Lancaster on the throne, which indeed created the arena in which those later dynastic Wars were played out. Had things gone differently for the Royal side at Shrewsbury, the Wars for control of the throne later in the century might have included an entirely different cast

Certainly in terms of military and political significance this battle served as a potent punctuation mark in the history of medieval England. It altered the balance of power amongst the aristocracy of the realm and it solidified the massed use of long-bowmen, already proven in combat in Wales and Scotland, as a battle altering formula.
Pitting the powerful Percy family (an original family of King-Makers), allied with their arch foes the Douglas’, and attempting to join forces with the Welsh, agains King Henry IV, whom the Percy’s feared was attempting to undermine them. A sudden march south saw the Rebels gather large numbers to their banner, but an audacious royal advance caught them at Shrewsbury before they could unite their forces fully. What followed was a model of many 15th century battles to come. A dependence on bowmen and dismounted knights and a focus on capturing or killing the enemy leader would be a key part of both side’s strategy.
The battle was large, costly but comparatively short. Both commanders and their high ranking supporters were in the thick of the fighting, here Prince Henry (Future Henry V) was wounded by an arrow, requiring dangerous major surgery to remove the shaft and barb from his face, and here Hotspur died. In the marvellously rich language of medieval England the battle began with: “The notes of furie, the sounds of slaughter, the harmonie of hell: trumpettes, fifes, drumms, musicke sutable to the mirth at hand.” was there ever a more superb or poetic description of he beginning of a battle?

The fairly unassuming position it now holds in terms of general consciousness isn’t borne out by its medieval legacy, which was sufficient enough to be given room in one of Shakespeare’s, (albeit lesser known) plays. Notable for some dry wit on the part of the Earl of Douglas who when told tricky King Henry had many men wearing his coat of arms, replies that he will just have to slaughter the entire royal wardrobe then. Indeed it was a deadly day, the author quotes Walsingham in yet more pithy prose. “The place for arrows was not in the ground… for men fell on the King’s side as fast as leaves fall in autumn after the hoar frost.”
The power of the bow en masse was demonstrated with great effectiveness at this battle, but interestingly although it seems Hotspur’s Cheshire archers did inflict more damage than the King’s it was the Percy’s that surrendered the field.

All of the colour plates in this book are excellent, the one of the Earl of Douglas is perhaps akin to the one painted in the campaign book about Poitiers but Turner has interpreted the subject matter into three original and excellently detailed compositions. This book sheds light not only onto an important moment in the history of medieval Britain but also on the military background of Henry V. It will be a welcome addition to any medieval military shelf.

Josh.

Book Review: Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell.

When a writer chooses as their lead protagonist an actor and his main theme the theatre, possibilities abound. At first looking at Bernard Cornwell’s new novel “Fools and Mortals” you might dissapointedly think, oh, the creator of Sharpe has finally succumbed to the Tudor period eh? And oh look! He’s writing about Shakespeare, how original. Perhaps it was only a matter of time. But don’t be fooled, as we mortals often are, this is a story of layer and depth. Continue reading