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.


Book Review: The Art of Giuseppe Rava.

Hardcover: 173 pages
Publisher: Winged Hussar Publishing (6 Jun. 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 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.


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.

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.


Book Review: Fontenoy 1745 by Michael McNally.

Illustrator: Seán Ó’Brógáin
Short code: CAM 307
Publication Date: 18 May 2017
Number of Pages: 96

Some years ago a French mayor suggested changing the Gare du Nord to Fontenoy in a tit for tat response to Waterloo being the EU terminus. Most, even in France would probably frown and say “Fonte-What?” Chances are if you read Osprey Books you won’t be one of those people, and those who appreciate 18th century history will certainly not be ignorant of the most important battle of the War of the Austrian Succession.

Nevertheless public consciousness of what is perhaps the most conclusive French victory over British arms is not good. It is quite possible some know a general outline of the fight, but it really deserves a closer look. There is a sort of terrible grandeur to the simplicity of the fight. The dramatic theatricality that all stand up fights have. Also to commend it to the student of military history and strategy is the brilliance of the French commander’s generalship and his own heroic personality.

Fontenoy was the peak of Marshal de Saxe’s career. The campaign demonstrated his excellent strategic planning, and expert understanding of his enemy. Meanwhile the allies under the Duke of Cumberland showed themselves as dull and gullible puppets that played willingly into the hands of the French. The battle itself is almost like a European Gettysburg, in which one force believing too much in its own superiority flings itself against a determined foe and pays the price.

This, above even the stunning performance of the British infantry, is Saxe’s hour. And when we read the crisis of the fight it is hard not to cheer out-loud when the Marshal’s foresight pays off and he wins the field. Michael McNally should be praised for a crisp and stirring narrative through this title, demonstrating an excellent grasp of both sides strengths and weaknesses. Though the battle should probably be honestly described as a bit of a slogging match, the campaign itself was one that must stand alongside some of the finest feats of arms in terms of Saxe’s use of deception and foresight that forced his enemy to play to his tune.

Personally I had heard of Fontenoy as a boy when I was told that it was the first battle in which the Black Watch (then the 43rd highlanders) were engaged. From an allied point of view there was little to rejoice in, and it highlights the questionable reliability of allowing princes the supreme command of troops. The Duke of Cumberland perhaps might have made a decent tactical, brigade commander, but was lost in the big picture. Hence when it came to the limited field at Culloden the next year he was able to triumph, but Fontenoy shows us that he was a flawed commander when pitted against a soldier who knew his business.

The maps are very helpful in this book, and the full colour spreads are colourful and exciting. The best is the charge of the Irish brigade, and illustrates what the artist is best at, that being up close and personal scenes of combat. In my opinion he is not so suited to more sprawling scenes, the first 2 pager of the French position at Fontenoy quickly loses me, partly due to the impossibility of the flag in the foreground being spread out as if strings were attached to its corners, while all the other flags are hanging limp from their poles. The charge of the French Cavalry I like, at first I was a little sceptical of the composition in that the French are awfully close to the enemy for a cavalry charge. However look closely and you will see the pistol bearing cavaliers turning their mounts, whose reins and forelegs are rigid as they stall before the steady British line.

Fontenoy was a defining battle. One that should rank amongst the toughest fought of the 18th century, McNally has done the tale justice in this fine book.


Book Review: Pirates Truth and Tale by Helen Hollick.

Hardcover: 328 pages
Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 Feb. 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1445652153

Pirates are some of the most mythologised people in history, and perhaps we should be worried about that. In some alternative philosophy they might be considered the ultimate condemnation of the capitalist system. Profiteers out for self enrichment, constantly chasing enough treasure to retire on, and taking it from anyone they can dominate. And they have been enmeshed into popular culture for it.

They were made to be childhood hero’s, romantic figures of fiction who represent a perverse form of freedom to many. Those people who use the skull and crossbones as a sort of banner of their rebellious spirit and independence perhaps might not think piracy a desirable profession if they knew the reality.

A short life. A hard life. A cruel life. A life made up largley of boredom, punctuated by fear, it was also a mostly squalid existence, deeply unsanitary in most aspects and opposed to most standards of moral decency. Pirates were in a sense anarchists who were a living misery to those they enoucntered.

Over the last 20 years quite a few books have come out claiming to tell the real story. If you read them all you’ll probably begin to get the picture. Honestly I was quite surprised to find a new book, and I was curious what it’s angle was. In turns out that this is part History part historiography. Appearing sort of like a load of grapeshot, a scatter gun effect of information that offers the reader a selection of truth and tales.

I like this book. It’s a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously. If we are to be brutally honest a book not very different from other exposes about Pirates, and no disrespect to the author but David Cordingly’s “Beneath the Black flag” will give you a better idea of the reality of life with the Pirates in a single volume. Yet this book is not just running back over the same tired revelations about the famous Buccaneers. Indeed there are quite a few pirates you’ll not have heard of in here. This is a book that is about the popular perception of pirates.

The book is separated into many short sections, and in a way could be considered an authentic pirate lifestyle handbook. It covers famous and not so famous pirates, aspects of the culture, and all the usual things but it also includes lists of sea shanties, terminology, books, movies and everything you’ll need to impress your firends on talk like a pirate day.

Helen Hollick, a historical fiction writer from the UK has branched out into pirates after most famously to my mind writing about Saxons and 1066. She brings her colourful turn of phrase and writer’s verve to every chapter. And she credits Pirates of the Caribbean for lighting the spark. Indeed Jack Sparrow crops up so many times, with a wink and a nudge he might have a case for getting royalties.

All joking aside, this book covers some very interesting little known facets of pirate life, and will prove an amusing and perhaps useful read. The goal of which is to entertain as well as educate.


Book Review: Lawson lies still in the Thames by Gill Blanchard.

Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 May 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1445661233

Gill Blanchard charts the life of an interesting 17th century figure, who’s career spanned the civil wars, the commonwealth and the Restoration. To gain a greater understanding of any period in history, biographies like this are invaluable. You will gain a greater insight to 17th century England by studying its people, as uounwill the politics and wars, because it was men like Lawson who took part in them.

Lawson, a perennially cash strapped, unshakeably pious, die hard Republican, of obscure origins emerged from the merchant service when he ran coal up and down the country, to play a somewhat obscure part in the civil war and on to become a rear admiral of the commonwealth and fought against the Dutch in the 1650s.

His life is an up and down voyage over a troubled sea. Where his values were constantly put to the test by friend and foe alike. He hurts most fully upon the stage during the restoration crisis that preceded the return of the monarchy. When the commonwealth was split over what was to be done after Cromwell’s totalitarianism had thrown the new republic on the rocks. Lawson who had already spent time in the tower after being implicated in a plot to kill the Lord protector, had faced down the army in a land and sea standoff which effectively ended when Monck took control, but it is probably even less appreciated that Lawson then played a vital part in the restoration of King Charles II.

Blanchard has painted an excellent portrait of a fascinating figure. A man who could stand as an excellent conduit to the great events and movements of this turbulent period. It’s unlikely for instance that a general reader will care to give their time to a study of non conformism in the 17th century, but through works like this the issue is brought to the surface, as is the curiously haphazard nature of 17th century English naval affairs, where soldiers became admirals, sorry “General’s at Sea”, and colliers could end up commanding fleets and the fates of nations.

In a way it is an ironic life. A republican who opposed monarchy, yet helped bring it back & then was mortally wounded fighting under the royal standard he had fought to pull down in the civil wars.

His death, as it happened, from a wound incurred by the shattering of his kneecap at the Battle of Lowestoft is actually a prime example of why surgeons would usually amputate any joint wound, and his demise was a direct consequence of efforts to remove bone fragments and the ball.

A comparison with Nelson is perhaps warranted. Indeed Lawson is somewhat singular amongst the more famous admirals of his day, in that he actually knew how to sail, and was a seaman, unlike General Monck or his sometime adversary Prince Rupert. Lawson was of the breed of Drake and Raleigh, and for his day he was a new kind of admiral, a man who new his business, and who came from obscure origins. He was the sort of man that the modern navy would be built upon.

Lawson Lies Still in the Thames is a splendid book with which to delve deeper into this topsy turvy era.