Book Review: Eagles Over the Alps by Christopher Duffy

Pages : 304 | Images : 72 b/w illustrations & photos, 34 b/w maps | Date of Publication : 14th June 2022 | Size : 345mm x 170mm | ISBN : 9781913336134 | Helion Book Code : HEL1239 |

Originally published in 1999, Christopher Duffy’s Eagles over the Alps has remained the ultimate work on the 1799 Austro-Russian campaign in Italy, and thankfully it has now been republished by Helion after many years on the second hand market. Duffy, one of the foremost experts on 18th century warfare and author of numerous books on little known campaigns, identified this popular but little studied theatre of the War of the Second Coalition as a critical focus of study.

With Napoleon in Egypt, and Switzerland in revolt, Russia and Austria saw an opportunity to regain what had been lost during the first Italian campaign. The Tsar dispatched the legendary and eccentric generalissimo Suvorov to lead the allied troops. The alliance was not a smooth one, and later rifts between the Austrians and Russians have unfairly skewed the reality of these early alliances into national caricatures.

Duffy does excellently in showing that with a strong enough leader, or perhaps personality is the better word, much could be achieved if he was given enough leeway. That being said, despite Suvorov being front and centre in this work, it was more than Russian leadership and military might that counted here, as Duffy highlights the very necessary work of the Austrian Chiefs of staff who made the wishes of their Russian commander possible as indeed did their much maligned troops.

The Austro-Russians swept across northern Italy in the spring, driving back the French in confusion, talented French generals like Moreau found themselves outmatched by a reinvigorated coalition army which matched the dash and elan of the Republican armies of the last war. Only the victory of Masséna at Zurich saved the French position in Italy from utter collapse, and forced Suvorov to retreat back across the alps in one of the most famous, but little known episodes of the great French Wars. 

It is classic Duffy, who tackles the subject with clarity and aplomb, his character study of Suvorov is majestically written, and his summary of the opposing armies allows readers to understand the dynamics of the battles without loss of focus to the narrative. Key points arise in terms of the Russians, who Napoleonic readers will know of from their later campaigns, for this was the campaign that began the long process of getting the army ready for the trials of 1812.

I cannot tell you how many times I have wished for this book to be reprinted, or how happy I am that it has finally been done.

Importantly the book addresses many common conceptions that still exist today. It was common in books on the Napoleonic Wars from around 30-40 years ago, to use Suvorov as a sort of outdated relic that the Russian army of 1805 had to shake off in order to defeat Napoleon in 1812. Much was made of his famous dependence on the bayonet, his aggressiveness and supposed simplicity. This was very much the way Napoleon thought of Suvorov, but it is only the surface of a much more brilliant general, thus it is no surprise that many people characterise him as a mad, eccentric who was only successful against the Ottomans. But despite what Napoleon liked to think, not all allied leaders were either, incompetent, old, mad or all three, nor was the emperor’s genius totally original.

Suvorov was certainly from a different age than that of Napoleon, but he was undoubtedly of the Napoleonic stamp, and in reading this I am given to thinking that perhaps Napoleon was much more a product of the best of the 18th century than something freshly sprung from the soil of innovation. What Napoleon and many people who never fought Suvorov missed, was his strategic acumen and speed of movement, which had the emperor ever faced him would certainly have been an unwelcome surprise. This book, when it was written was undoubtedly meant to redress much of the thinking regarding Suvorov, and as little more has been written since then, it remains so.

Readers used to hearing of the tactical brilliance and modern practices of the French army, will be surprised to see how Suvorov adapted his forces to meet them. At the same time, it will become increasingly obvious how the allies were still prone to weakening themselves with infighting. As a case in point, most senior Austrians and certainly the Austrian government saw this operation as a way to regain lost possessions and shore up Austrian Italy, while Suvorov saw it as a literal crusade against the atheist French and had dreams of storming through Italy in into France itself.

Crucially, the importance of these operations lies in that they form the background to what Napoleon sought to address when he fought the near disastrous, but ultimately decisive, Marengo campaign the next year, which should provide more food for thought regarding, perhaps, how lucky Napoleon was that Suvorov died in early 1800 and did not face him that day when he reestablished himself as a force in Europe. It is therefore a good companion to the work done by Terry Crowdy on Marengo.

The book is illustrated with a selection of photographs taken by the author, which were present in the original publication, as were the engravings of Generals, and some of Duffy’s classic maps which readers familiar with his work will recognise the style from the good old days. The new production by Helion is true to the original with an elegant and refined cover with two figure studies executed by Patrice Courcelle. I cannot tell you how many times I have wished for this book to be reprinted, or how happy I am that it has finally been done.

Book Review: An account of the Military Campaign of the Year 1812 : Edited and translated with additional notes and commentary by Jimmy Chen

  • Format Paperback | 102 pages
  • Dimensions 152 x 229 x 6mm | 159g
  • Publication date 25 Dec 2018
  • Publisher Independently Published
  • Language English
  • Illustrations note Illustrations, black and white
  • ISBN10 1983002119
  • ISBN13 9781983002113

Maligned as the cautious, wily, German General in War and Peace, forgotten as just another Fabian General who should’ve been behind a desk in St Petersburg who feared to oppose Napoleon, by historians, Field Marshal Mikhail Bogdanovich Barclay de Tolly was one of Russia’s foremost soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars, but due to these perceptions and a multitude of factors people are quick to discount him. 

” … never has a commander-in-chief of any army found himself in such an unfavourable position as I did” noted Barclay de Tolly, remembering the warm days of mid summer in 1812 as the 1st and 2nd Western Armies at marched to combine at Smolensk.

Barclay de Tolly was not a coward, nor was he, in the early months of the campaign disinterested in opportunities to strike at Napoleon’s monstrous array as it trudged towards the heart of the Russian empire, but he knew what later would become clear to the allied planners who formulated the Trachenberg plan; that glamorous maneuvers were not the only way to win wars. In his own words to the Tsar he plainly argued that during these first months of marching and fighting, in war the state was the army and as went one so would follow the other.

“would not a fanciful attempt at glory by handing the fate of the Empire to the powers of blind fate amount to a betrayal of the fatherland? Were such dreams of glorious maneuvers necessary at that time, when the aim of the war was to destroy the enemy, the enslaver of Europe?”

In his account Barclay made no secret of his opinion that he had followed the logical course to keep the army moving unless certain victory was at hand, and attributed the chaos of Borodino to General Bennigsen , who redistributed the staff officers of the army after the amalgamation under Kutuzov and thus ‘The commanding generals themselves were left with no staff officers who could report to them’ and was “sufficient to undermine the direction of the army as established by the new procedures, and amounted to the nullification of the commander-in-chief’s power.” 

Though only a few names are mentioned, Barclay is very careful not to mention his issues with Grand Duke Constantine for instance, and took great care to state his case concisely. The procedures Barclay spoke of were of course his own reforms as minister of war, that in great part had prepared the Russian army for the complicated and dangerous maneuvers they had undertaken so far, reminding us that his main object in writing this account was to present a record of his services.

Wether or not, as Barclay noted ‘the commanders-in-chief of the two armies were made completely redundant,’ in the leadup to Borodino therefore reflects a bias or reality, the ruinous performance of the Russian staff at the battle is plain to see, helping us to see Barclay’s point of view, and as such readers will benefit from some foreknowledge of the campaign.

The style is terse and factual, though not onerously laboured with military minutia or theory, laced throughout is instead a forceful appeal to see things as Barclay saw them. In these pages his exhaustion through physical and mental fatigue, the veritable slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and the strain of opposing Napoleon are plainly laid out.

This is not to say that the account is dry entirely, a novelist or man of letters Barclay de Tolly may not have been, but he did pick out some excellent moments of interaction that form colourful vignettes especially the council of Fili, and his summations come through with the greatest force, for in the end history did bear him out, because as it proved, neither Smolensk, Moscow nor even the very soil occupied by Napoleon’s horde constituted Russia in 1812, and so long as the army survived so too would the country.

The book is rounded out by a short biographical introduction and an index of names for those figures highlighted in the text as well as notes and a commentary section. This edition has one picture of Barclay, and at this time no maps. 

Such as being the case this summary of the operations of the 1st western army (and to some degree the second) translated into English for the first time, giving insight into the political infighting in Russian headquarters alongside an outline of Barclay’s intentions, is a vital aid to research, and will help improve our understanding of this pivotal event in the Napoleonic Wars.

Book Review: Sex & Sexuality in Stuart Britain by Andrea Zuvich.

“a highly informative picture, both raw and wry, of human relationships in 17th century Britain”

Date Published :September 2020
Publisher :Pen and Sword
Illustration :50 black and white illustrations Binding : Paperback
ISBN : 9781526753076 Dimensions : 9.25 X 6 inches
Pages : 232

I’m going to preface this review by observing that, along with violence and to some extent political intrigue, the goings on behind bedroom doors, and beneath the privacy of a bedcover, is a prime reason historical fiction remains popular.

Visual and print entertainment thrives on arousing the passions of it’s audience with ever more gratuitous and graphic depictions of violence and sex. Going where those languid portraits of silk and satin swathed beauties and formal victorious-general battle scenes merely hinted at …

I don’t think I really need to name names here but … ahem, I’m looking at Versailles. (For the 17th century anyway) …

So, given the immense amount of books detailing the reality of historical violence, which I may say I myself have contributed to, it is only right that scholars and authors should also make factual reality available for the romantic side of popular interest. 

Gentle Reader; so Andrea Zuvich begins her book,  following in the tradition of 17th century epistles to the reader. The author has a calm, comforting tone, wry and amusing in the right places, but firm where needed, she holds the reader’s hand, not in a patronizing way, but in the way a friend does for another.

Stringent on period niceties, the author bravely opens herself to all manner of criticism for refusing to pander to modern values and determinedly strives to allow the reader to understand her subject in the way it was understood at the time.

Promising to tread carefully on her reader’s ears and sensibilities, the book, though softly couched, squares its shoulders and carries the burden of its intimate subject without blinking. It is far from pornographic, nor is it by any means elicit, and to those who are titilated (to use a favoured phrase from the pages) rather than amused, an icy bucket of water awaits you in the section regarding diseases. Bringing to mind the story of how a pubescent Nicholas II was brought to view to a syphilis ward to ensure the youth remained relatively chaste. The second half of the book, leaves the general subject behind in favour of explorsironsninto the love lives of the Stuart monarchy 

Fear not either that just because the title is bold it is necessarily a gleeful rampage through smut and scandal. The book covers with encyclopedic thoroughness all manner of things from premarital affairs, to marriage customs and legalities, medical considerations, contraception, romantic and political factors, gender roles, divorce, and a host more practical and unusual topics that make the Stuart’s seem at once familiar and at the same time distant. I appreciated that in the chapter on same sex relationships the author cautions her readers and makes clear that perception of homosexuality and actual homosexuality are not the same thing. 

The book is based in large part on a great many contemporary works that are either outright erotic in nature, (the primary purpose being to arouse), scientific, or sort of self help, alongside with the more preachy pamphlets and sermons admonishing uncleanliness in a less godless time. These not only speak to glamorous liaisons and powerful marriages in the Stuart Court, but to everyday people attempting to negotiate life and love. The result is a highly informative picture, both raw and wry of human relationships in 17th century Britain.

Book Review: The story of China by Michael Wood.

The Story of China was a book I was not looking for but in a way I had been waiting for it since at least 2014. In late 2020 I found myself remembering that Michael Wood had not only made an appearance on twitter but that he had written a book on China. The subject of Chinese history is not a small one. From my own brief divergences into the subject of Qing military affairs, for which I read Lovell’s book on the Opium War in 2014, and my reading of Jung Chang’s biography of Empress Dowager Cixi in 2016, I was aware of the daunting scale of the ground I would have to cover in order to better my understanding of one of the world’s great civilisations.

Everything that is united will fall apart and everything that is fallen apart will come back together again. So it has always been.

When during the brief breath between UK lockdowns in the autumn of 2020 I saw the golden eyes of the sinuous, wild haired jade dragon, coiling up through the gilt clouds that frame the title, in a bookshop window I realised that if I was ever to step towards a better understanding of how to interact with Chinese history, Michael Wood would be the author I would trust to guide me.

My confidence in Wood stems from when, again, many years ago, I had reached out and pulled from a bookshelf in Waterstones Inverness a reprint of Wood’s Conquistadors. I then consumed as many of his documentaries as I could, including the documentary on China, which I watched for inspiration after I had been persuaded to review Frank Dikotter’s book on the Cultural Revolution. For all this I felt reassured in purchasing it, not only for the rare beauty and quality of the production of the hardback, but because Wood knows how to write grand history of great complexity with great accessibility. 

Having finally found the time between pressing projects to finish it, I can happily say, my faith has been rewarded. The Story of China is the history of a civilisation from a grassroots perspective. In this book we look at Chinese history from a different perspective, not that of a philosophical or intellectual one, but a demographic, sociological one.

Wood focuses not so much on the story of China as a nation but as a civilisation. Thus you will often find yourself not in the courts of emperors but in Han peasant farms, Qin magistrate courts and Tang watchtowers. Indeed only once we reach the age of the Great Qing, (and dare we say it the 20th century ‘dynasties’), can it be said that the Story of China lends more weight to the Emperors themselves as much as his subjects, and even then the occupants of the dragon throne, for all their glamour, are only ever the framework to Wood’s main argument. That the story of the Chinese civilisation can be interacted with through the people who experienced it. And I think he is right.

The wars, laws, social, economic and political movements are revealed through the experiences of the people who were effected by them. With considerable skill, Wood ensures that the vast array of ever changing characters who appear in this book, who have shaped and coloured Chinese history, even those who play only the most fleeting part in it, appear so that they can echo the great themes of the civilisation right down to the end. 

A slave who could turn his hand to five trades, soldiers on lonely outposts asking friends to give them news and procure them clothes and shoes, female poets, travel writers, revolutionaries and a true life police procedural murder mystery with the Qin Empire’s version of Hercule Poirot. All have something to say about the historical edifice of China, and in doing so allow the reader to place a more human face upon it. These of course drift along in a narrative, with the famous and legendary, that shifts between geography, culture, biography and story with seamless ease.

In terms of dynasties, Wood primarily examines their political and cultural aspects, one or two emperors of the crop from each is covered, which is simple enough with the Qin, but more difficult with longer lived ones and the Qin, Han and Tang empires feature prominently in the first third of the book.

Events here are both critical and incidental to the people who lived through them, as they left glimpses of what it was like to be a part of the rise and fall of dynasties but it is their experiences that are presented in the most detail. As such more time is given over to mini biographies of people most westerners will have never heard of, but who could be said to be as influential in their own sphere as Samuel Pepys or Jane Austen.

As a result, Wood is just as likely to shun the gilded halls and soft furnishings of palaces, the battlefields, siege works and councils of war, to examine the rude thatch and homespun of the villages nearby, because what is decreed at the top will eventually reach the roots, and it is indeed at a grassroots level, as much as a higher one, that Wood wants us to experience the story China.

As he narrates each dynasty, Wood brings us to the world of the village and the family. Central to the heart of Chinese History is the family histories, lovingly curated and preserved through many calamities and still treasured by many today. With each upheaval and political change comes the ‘View from the Village,’ which is a peak into what was going on outside the imperial court, and the provincial governments. I found myself eagerly anticipating each coming view as the chapters wore on.

Wood has given the reader a thorough introduction to the great themes and debates of Chinese civilisation.

Within this framework, individual lives are used to carry the story forwards, and Wood places special emphasis on the arts as a focal point of culture. Rather than court intrigue or decisive battles, Wood seeks different propulsion for his story. Celebrating economic, scientific, military and architectural achievements are commonplace in most histories of empires and nations, but the Story of China is very much a work that is built around literature and poetry and the people who created it. As a result equal time is given to high and low characters; the famous and the obscure travel together and men share the limelight with women in a equitable light that does not pander.

By the end, though I am admittedly unread in the great expanse of Chinese historiography, it seems that Wood has given the reader a thorough introduction to the great themes and debates of Chinese civilisation. Most of all the continuing balancing act of Confucian moral government and centralised despotism set against the tableau of one of the richest literary and material cultures in the world. More than anything I believe this book wonderfully shows how successive dynasties have tried to espouse the Mandate of Heaven, in whatever form would keep them in power, and how that influenced the people over whom the mandate gave power.

I admit that I might need to ask forgiveness for my delight in finding the portion of the book devoted to the ‘modern dynasties’ from 1911 to 2019, somewhat more concise than the sections of the great imperial dynasties. Or perhaps my bias for those more distant things allowed me to drift more quickly over the upheavals that followed to fall of the Qing: The Civil War, the struggle against the Japan and the progress of Communism.

But therein as I closed the book, I found myself considering the collective eras of Mao, Deng and Ji, (the former two, still within the reach of living memory for people living under the latter) against those of the Tang, Song, and Ming and thinking how new this China, or perhaps I should say, this image of China, we have all come to accept, respect and fear, really is. As I write this the words of the Ming writer Luo Guanzhong, written in the first chapter of his Romance of the Three Kingdoms drifted softly through my mind: ‘Everything that is united will fall apart and everything that is fallen apart will come back together again. So it has always been.’

Thanks for reading. Josh.

Book Review: Warrior Saints by Amandeep Singh Madra & Parmjit Singh.

On the first day of June 1606 the mutilated body of a Punjabi wise man was swept downstream from Lahore. He had been drowned in the River Ravi after being cruelly tortured for his faith on the orders of the Mughal Emperor Jehangir. The current buffeted the lifeless corpse, carrying it southwest towards the lower branch of the Sutlej and maybe from there onwards to where the waters of the Five Rivers meet at the all defining Indus. 

His name was Arjan, the fifth Guru of the Sikhs, the builder of the Harimandir Singh (Golden Temple) and their first martyr in their struggle against the Mughals. ‘Sit fully armed,’ Arjan advised his son and heir regarding his throne, shortly before he died. He enjoining him to lead his people in the ways of the previous  Gurus in all respects, except for that now the Sikhs must in addition to seeking spiritual truth, keep their weapons close. 

His son, Hargobind listened well and from his reign was seeded the strong Sikh virtues of spirituality and the warrior arts, forming the first community defence force known as the Akalis, or the Immortals. For as Guru Hargobind demonstrated with the miri and piri swords at his ascension ceremony, he would fight worldly enemies with one hand and spiritual ones with the other. ‘The destroyer of the enemies’ ranks, the brave, heroic Guru, is also a lover of mankind,’ the savant, Bhai Gurdas wrote, for ‘To protect an orchard hedge it with thorny trees.’

And like the prickly plants of Gurdas’ metaphor, the Sikhs became a thorn in the side of the Mughal empire. Stamp as they might even the mighty Aurangzeb could not wipe them out without being impaled by their points. Indeed much as Jehangir had stoked the fires of Sikh resistance by murdering Guru Arjan, the pressure exerted by Aurangzeb when he treacherously murdered the 9th Sikh Guru, and sent his head to his young son, won him a perilous enemy.

The young and dynamic Guru Gobind Das codified the warrior-protector tradition, forming the Khalsa army, where as the authors of Warrior Saints explain ‘even someone born into the lowliest caste could, through the force of their arms and the justice of their cause, become reborn as kashatriya or defender of the people.’

So powerful was this motivation, that the Sikhs soon began to eclipse the Rajputs as the most feared warriors in northern India, the tales of their epic victories becoming legendary throughout Hindustan.

The dual role of pitiless warrior and benign saint was exemplified during the actions of one warrior called Kanhaiya, who offended the elite Akalis by offering water to both Sikh and Mughal wounded, explaining later to the Guru ‘I saw neither Mughals nor Sikhs there. I saw only the Guru’s face in everyone.’

From these beginnings in the 17th century, the Sikh Khalsa Empire was born. Becoming, as time wore on, the last independent state in India to challenge the British East India Company’s supremacy, due to the unifying genius of the great Maharajah, Ranjit Singh, whose death in 1839 would leave the kingdom in such confusion that it would eventually fall prey to the European conquerors.

This book is a joy to read; every page brings something interesting to the eye and enlightening to the mind. The care and passion of the authors in crafting this volume is clear to see and has been infused into every page, bringing four centuries of Sikh Military history to life in a deeply impactful way.

Warrior Saints is the visual history of the core values of the Sikh Warrior Saint Tradition. Presenting a legacy of art and culture for the descendants and adherents of the Gurus today as well as a record for students of history and art alike. Through rare paintings and photographs from a rich variety of sources the authors have collected, in this first volume of the new edition, a stunningly accessible chronicle of the rich legacy of the Sikh Kingdom.


Book Review: Allahu Akbar by Manimugdha Sharma

Imprint:Bloomsbury India
Dimensions:234 x 153 mm 
RRP:₹ 599.00
 RRP: £34.99

The rulers of India are no less beguiling today than they were when, as Manimugdha Sharma says, the emperor Akbar was in vogue amongst Dutch republicans trying to create a new state. 

Quite apart from the famed luxury of their courts and the exoticism that so easily transfers to the minds of distant foreigners from dimly imagined mental pictures; the leaders of South Asia often represent something special in the history of the world. The image of enlightened rule.

If we knew them better and compared them with our own past rulers, who would in their right minds not say that Ashoka ranked greater than any handful of English monarchs, not only for his conquests and his rejection of war itself but for his laws? Which are far more in tune with the classical ideal that Western Europeans have tried to harbour and rebuild since the fall of the western Roman Empire, than much of what replaced it.

Who, likewise, could arguably say with any credibility that Akbar the Great could not stand alongside any of the greatest contemporary kings and queens of Europe and not seem a little taller for his enlightened ideals of inclusion and, what Sharma calls the ‘physical and moral courage’ that makes great men beloved.

Though undoubtedly an inspiration to many in the past, since its independence India has rightly been a talisman to those who hold the promise of democracy near and dear to their hearts.

Rightly might citizens of the world’s largest republic revere the history of their march to liberty as a proud emblem to cherish. Therefore it is hardly surprising that the author feels a deep concern as he observes the course his nation is taking, and it should be no less concerning to the world either. 

‘we are a medieval people,’ he writes at the end, ‘creating conditions in the country akin to those that prevailed in Akbar’s lifetime, always using past hurt to justify present hate, and therefore needing a medieval monarch to show us the way.’

As he told me over a long and interesting Skype call, it is never good when the rule of a 16th century emperor seems necessary or preferable than a democratically elected official, but if one were to wish for such an autocrat you would want Akbar. When I finished reading this book, I could not help but agree with this assessment. 

On further contemplation I realised it is as important for the British to understand the Great Mughal as it is for the Indians.

In the British drive to establish themselves as rulers of India the legacy of the Mughals was a principle tool. Sharma points us to the importance of this element of baton passing by highlighting the importance of tiger hunts in Mughal court society.

In establishing himself as the perfect incarnation of universal kingship, the young emperor entertained his court with lavish hunts. The British would copy these and thus lend themselves to an image of shadow puppetry that is today a cypher for British rule in India.

It might be said that the British used Akbar and his dynasty as something as a template on which they could more easily assimilate themselves into the role as India’s overlords, they even took up some of his crusades, such as trying to abolish sati.

Nevertheless as the author told me, the idea of intolerance between Hindus and Muslims in India was encouraged to some degree by the British, who fostered the idea of the Mughals being foreign tyrants replaced by the enlighten rule of the Europeans.

Akbar by contrast strove to separate religion from society’s primary consciousness, and remove it as a source of division. Today it is this legacy of the British that is still causing the trouble and the lessons of Akbar are hard to learn from as a result.

There aren’t many writers that can make the past more present than Manimugdha Sharma can. The author has a hawk eyed knack of seeing across history, finding the similarities to the present and threading them together in a comprehensible narrative.

In saying that, one could say that this isn’t so much a biography of Akbar, but an investigation of the echo chamber of history. Sharma looks at the world and hears the echoes of distant resonance.

Allahu Akbar is a graceful read, with each paragraph revealing some detail of interest. Softly humorous and finely detailed, with sometimes wry, always sharp observations on the interplay of historical and modern issues.

One discovers in reading about the life of an extraordinary monarch that India’s politics have not changed very much. Sharma observes that candidates still attempt to vilify and deify through visual media, in the Mughal courts this was done through art and literature, whereas today it is done with much less subtlety and often exaggerated incompetence by keyboard warriors.

The results are nevertheless the same and the motives little removed from when Akbar was alive; to make governments and leaders seem untainted and untarnished as opposed to their opponents.

As a controversial figure in modern India, Akbar suffers from the stigma of being a Muslim emperor in a country with a Hindu majority and his indelible place in his country’s history, especially the interpretation of it, seems at times tenuous. 

Akbar’s early reign was a dark time, filled with brutal battles, political murders and betrayals. Akbar, sought to establish himself as a king in both name and practice, and he projected this aura very effectively, not only once he regained his throne but as he was doing so, and the author does not shy away from his subject’s more unvarnished or inglorious exploits.

Fascinating elements are to be found at practically every turn, from the typical accounts of intrigue and conflict to personal things as well. Quite apart from the flowing prose of his chroniclers and his fine accomplishments, Akbar, can be seen as a coarse man, a soldier and a sportsman as much as diplomat or a courier. His language was the language of military camps and peasants and he wore coarse clothing and enjoyed it. 

He mixed this with the piety of his father, which was devout, but not extremist, and he showed regret at the death of his enemies and when he could not show mercy as a beneficent, almost paternal, overlord.

Above all the great strength of the emperor was his attempt to create a unified and inclusive state that sought to draw the best out of the religions and philosophies of the world.

He was as some have said, a man of reason before the age of reason, and the people who have the will to effect change and not only that but apply such ideals are worthy of notice.

This is why Akbar is important, not only to India, but to the world, which is increasingly becoming a more insular place and in desperate need of uniting figures to admire. 

Despite her poor understanding of who Akbar really was it is telling that when Elizabeth I, herself a persecutor of catholics like many of her dynasty, wrote to Akbar that it was his humanity that had spread even to her distant shore. Note she did not speak of the conquests and might of this descendent of Timur and Genghis Khan, but his humanity. 

If that proves anything it proves that even in times of uncertainty, we don’t have to fear the foreign and the other.


Book Review: No Earthly Pole by Ernest Coleman.

  • Published: 15 Sept 2020.
  • Format: Hardback.
  • 342 Pages.
  • 50 images.
  • ISBN: 9781398102118

Absorbing, humorous and written with a soft, almost confidential, way, the story of a Navy Officer’s quest to increase the knowledge about the fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew is essential lockdown reading.

Right now all of us are in need of strong voices, that talk confidently of mental and physical fortitude, which guide us in how we can achieve our goals. Ernest Coleman’s book which details his four remarkable expeditions to uncover the truth behind some of the Franklin expedition’s biggest myths can help us get into that necessary expeditionary mindset and at the same time brigs and authentic light to this historical maritime disaster.

In tackling much debated explanations such as death by lead poisoning and cannibalism, Coleman is frank and straightforward rather than scholarly in his approach. This imbues the reader with a confidence in his common sense and capability (and rigorous testing of the written evidence) to present and interpret his findings.

Half travelogue, half history, half exploration log, No Earthly Pole is replete with its own sense of adventure and struggle. Before the book is half over Coleman half kills himself clinging on to a ATV trailer and becomes his own worst enemy during an isolated march across King William Island, where he ended up existing on hot chocolate and fisherman’s friends for ten days while he awaited rescue. 

Getting followed by a film crew intent on making him sing at every possibility was another singular achievement. But that aside, there is also the endless cycle of expedition, followed by lecture tours, followed by fundraising, which is the tempo of this book. It is a realistic facet of all such memoirs of expeditions; that those who undertake them are necessarily locked into this pattern in order to forward their projects, the latter two being often more challenging than the actual expedition.

Not every expedition was a blinding success, and none could be considered outright failures, but most importantly, none were finished up without benefit. And that is an important queue for us to follow. The truth of all expeditions of a historical and archaeological nature is that very often a great deal of work goes into saying, ‘well, we know it’s not here at least.’

But Coleman’s hardships are borne with a true spirit of enterprise, for as Shackleton said, a man must shift his objectives, as soon as the last one disappears. It is how we move on. Yet sometimes peril and isolation can seem overwhelming. In one particularly striking moment, which can be used to exemplify the highs, lows, dangers and humour of this book, the author, alone and exhausted heard his own voice lulling him to lie down and drift into restful oblivion.

He fought this siren song off by debating the merits of, what was at the time a hot button issue for the Church of England; the acceptance of female ministers. Through rigorous debate he kept himself from harm, and his demons were put to flight, but he ended up deciding that he was against co-educational bible college curriculums. When, afterwards, he told a churchman of his inner struggle and how he overcame it, Coleman was told that to the mind of his correspondent, God seemed to have accepted that change was the best way, to which Coleman replied; ‘and who do you think I was talking to?’


Seven questions with Aztec Empire’s Paul Guinan.

Malinche was no traitor! Moctezuma was a cynic! The Spanish couldn’t have won alone! These are just three of the storylines that you’ll encounter in the epic graphic novel, Aztec Empire.

Historyland fired off seven questions to one of the creative team, Paul Guinan, and this is what they fired back. Highlighting some of the process that goes into visual storytelling and the key elements of this larger than life adventure.

Q1: Out of such a huge story that is mostly written down, what goes into choosing the best most narratively communicable scenes, the scenes that transform words into pictures?

Many of the cues are provided by dramatic moments that were recorded as history by both sides—those are obviously key scenes. For some other scenes that aren’t as well documented, I have to extrapolate more, based on researching each culture and consulting multiple sources. I also look for ways to show scenes and historical facts from a different perspective than other visual narratives have done. For example, our story opens in Tenochtitlan with the Aztec military leaders, which is a visually splendid scene, instead of starting with the Spanish perspective. 

On a more humanistic level, even though the Mesoamerican and Spanish cultures are so different, the people we’re depicting share some aspects of a universal human experience. There are emotional dynamics that we can still relate to 500 years later. Those can be key character moments that help bring the story alive.

Q2: Currently you have 5 episodes on the website, what do you think the end extent of the series will be?

It is planned as a 50-episode story, each episode being 10 pages—so around 500 pages, plus endnotes. It’s an epic story! We’re posting it free online to get the story out there and build an audience. Eventually it’ll be published in print. And there will absolutely be a Spanish edition!

Q3: In terms of scholarship the story can be interpreted in a few ways, obviously you are going with an relatively original and up to date interpretation to tell the story. Can you give us an example of how your interpretation will differ from one of the better known parts of the story?

Recent research and scholarship has changed our whole understanding of this story. As just a few examples: In our series, Moctezuma does not think Cortes is a prophesized return of the divine Quetzalcoatl, and the Aztecs don’t think the Spaniards are gods. Malinche (aka Marina), who was Cortes’ main translator, does not “betray her people.” The Spanish didn’t win out because of superior technology, but because of local alliances. There’s a lot of mythology to be deconstructed.

Q4: In researching these characters, was there anything about them that surprised you or that you realised you had taken for granted?

Yes, I found characters who have been completely ignored by history. Hugh Thomas wrote the “gold standard” book on this historical event in the 1990s, Conquest, and yet he doesn’t mention Moctezuma’s Council of Four. One of the Council was married to Moctezuma’s daughter! Thomas’ tome is extensive and authoritative, but it still took the prevailing Spanish-centric perspective. He gives detailed information about Cortes’ captains, but nothing about Moctezuma’s closest advisory group. In Aztec Empire, by contrast, we meet them in the very first scene.

Q5: Have you encountered any negativity so far resulting from long held stereotypes of ‘Noble Savages’ and ‘Black Legends?’

As you might expect, there have been a couple of hot takes about this series on social media, from people who didn’t understand the level of research that’s going into this project. Negativity has been blessedly rare, though. Anyone who takes a close look at the work, including my bibliography and extensive illustrated endnotes, will see I’m trying to be as fair-minded and inclusive as possible.

Q6: Is this novel being illustrated digitally or traditionally? And how did you decide which medium to use. 

I draw tiny “thumbnail” sketches of each page to structure the plot, done with a good old-fashioned #2 pencil on plain paper. I then do layouts, also in pencil, which I turn over to my co-artist David Hahn. He does most of his penciling traditionally, but does some of the architectural drawing using digital tools. He inks most of the pages physically or “on the boards.” After that, art corrections, lettering, and coloring are done digitally. We enjoy old-school techniques, but we use digital tools for expediency. 

Q7: If you could choose a moment of your novel to see in the flesh which would it be. Actually, I’ll be kind and ask for your top three moments to see in the flesh and we’ll wrap up the questioning. 

The three most significant events in this story have an epic tableau involving thousands of people, any of which I’d pay to see in person:

1- The first meeting of Moctezuma and Cortés in the kaleidoscopic city of Tenochtitlan. A massive procession on each side, all resplendent in their finest outfits. Tens of thousands of spectators surrounded the spectacle, most in decorative boats, since the Aztec capital was an island city.

2- The Spaniards’ frantic escape from Tenochtitlan, known by the Spanish as the “Sad Night” and by the locals as the “Night of Victory.” When the Aztecs finally rose up against the invaders, Cortés and his men tried to flee with as much gold as they could carry. Around a thousand Spaniards fought their way out of the city in the rainy night, under constant attack. Many of them were killed, and nearly all the gold was lost. 

3- The Battle of Otumba: The final chance for the Aztecs to defeat the Spaniards. Tens of thousands participated in this battle, which turned the tide for the Spaniards. After this success, they were free to lay siege to the Aztec capital. The end had begun.

Aztec Empire’s first five episodes is now available to read over at: Read the full review here:

See you next time for another Adventure in Historyland, Josh.

Book Review: Aztec Empire by by Paul Guinan and illustrated by David Hahn.

History and illustration go hand in hand, they are indispensable to each other. Among the ancient kingdoms of Central America, the tradition of visual storytelling was strong. The murals and carvings, annotated by speech markings and writing, form some of the most important aspects of Mesoamerican archeology and muralist art is central to Mexican culture to this day. This offers a pleasingly symbiotic dynamic to the decision to tell this epic Mexican saga in a graphic way.

Aztec Empire is a graphic novel of grand proportions. Unlike other treatments of the Conquest of Mexico it does not create a fictitious character. Instead the creators have chosen the difficult task of popularising the actual story. 

Actually, Mayan, ‘Incan’ and ‘Aztec’ subject’s have always been popular amongst cartoonists due to the beguiling blend of real and lost history, allowing artists and storytellers to create worlds and cultures and that few people have imagined but also draw on historical and archaeological evidence. None however have told the story like Aztec Empire.

In itself the Conquest of Mexico serves as a perfect vehicle for storytelling. Especially since it has been refined and simplified down to a well oiled narrative package, full of drama, romance and legend over the last 500 years.

Apart from following the fortunes of a wide cast of characters, whose lives are to be found in records rather than the imagination; (spread over three years of some of the most important complicated political and military events in the 16th century,) a clear, exciting & nuanced story has to be delivered.

The difficultly lies in the attachment people have to the accepted story, (those legends I mentioned earlier,) and the empty spaces, and unexplained events that are to be found in the records that even rigorous scholarship fails to agree on.

The popular conception of the Conquest of Mexico is one of greedy and bloodthirsty Spaniards emerging from the murk of the old world, bursting onto the glittering wonders of the new world to conquer the tragic but ‘barbaric’ Aztecs who thought they were gods, until their civilisation was destroyed and Spanish rule established.

Aztec Empire attempts to tell the story that has been extracted from these levels of myth, propaganda, hearsay and folklore over the last hundred years. Utilising a commendable level of scholarly discipline, the creators are ever eager to tell the tale of their journey and share sources. This version challenges long held beliefs and prejudices. In so doing the creators are bringing a new face to this epic tale that has not been popularly seen before. 

Episode one moves quickly in order to get the reader into the story. As such a great deal of cultural ‘backstory’ is referenced and it has the feel of a prologue. Indeed I get the sense that this term might be used for the bulk of the episodes now available.

Though some might be disspointed that interesting characters like the Spanish castaways and their lives amidst the Mayan people of the Yucatan had to be quickly summed up, we must recall what this story is actually about. In that sense the buildup handles the speed well, and the scenes have been equally well chosen, delivering texture, easily believable history, and good exciting atmosphere.

Nothing enthrals like a battle, and the early fight against the Mayans of Tabasco in episodes 2 and 3 offers the creators an excellent opportunity to flex their storytelling muscles. The action is handled well, the images and text communicate easily to the imagination. This is helped by the impressive detail the team has gone to, in selecting heroic, absurd, significant and brutal scenes to portray, drawing the reader in and demonstrating that when the series locks a specific episode to a central theme it delivers.

There is no doubt that the series begins on a fairly tough note. A battle followed by the repercussions for the women of the defeated side. Because despite the winning artistic style this is essentially a pretty grim story.

From what has been hitherto released you have a grand chunk given over to a gritty battle and another episode which at its end involves a HBO style exploitation scene.

Then there is a smooth transitional episode which eases you into the patreon pay wall. The free portion ends on 21 June 1519 with Cortez sailing up to the island of San Juan de Ulua and Mexica emissaries preparing to investigate the appearance of the foreigners. More than enough of a buildup to wet the appetite for the rest of the story.

Unquestionably Aztec Empire is a rigorously researched project, undertaken by talented artists and writers, who care deeply about the subject. It has a strong and compelling sense of story, time, and character. Much more than that cannot be said at this stage, the work is ongoing and the progress can be followed on the website. What is obvious from the episodes that have so far been posted is that this graphic novel is packed with promise. If it continues at this level, Aztec Empire is sure to become a classic.

Read the first five episodes here for free:

With thanks to David Bowles for pointing out some glaring grammatical errors.


Book Review: Japanese Armies 1868-1877 by Gabriele Esposito.

  • Author: Gabriele Esposito
  • Illustrator: Giuseppe Rava
  • Short code: MAA 530
  • Publication Date: 19 Mar 2020

Gabriele Esposito takes a brief look into the armies of the Boshin War and Satsuma Rebellion in Osprey’s latest Men-at-Arms title.

The author is nothing if not flexible in his subjects, Esposito has covered topics as varied as roman legions, South American proto-Armies and now he has moved to japan.

The necessary overview of the years following the Perry expedition is fairly by the numbers and too simplistic regarding a massively complicated political situation to be terribly diverting.

That being said, except for making the faux pas of acknowledging bushido on a number of occasions as the ancient martial code of Japan before Inazo Nitobe invented the concept, he is only guilty only of being a tad derivative.

Nevertheless we must remember that the book is small and strictly military and the subject is ten times more vast, especially to an author who is inexperienced in the field of late Edo period Japanese history.

That is probably the main letdown of this book; it tries to cover the armies of two wars. This is often possible with MaA titles but with this one it’s difficult.

For instance, it is quite possible to do a small Osprey book about the Boer Wars (as has been done) because by and large it’s easy to keep track of the basic organisation and look of the armies.

But the Boshin war alone you are dealing with at least five main military groups (not counting the armies of lesser domains and ronin groups) with attendant ‘regular/disciplined corps,’ old fashioned feudal militias, rebels, and police units, artillery, some cavalry and naval forces.

All of whom differed from the other in some way or another in size, organisation, equipment and uniform, if they wore one. By the time of the Satsuma Rebellion, a measure of simplification had entered the picture, but not enough to simplify the matter.

As a result this title probably should have been made into two titles, Japanese Armies of the 19th century (1) The Boshin War, etc.

The sections dealing with the armies are interesting for the brief but often useful surveys of various armies, as all MaA’s are, while at the same time being slightly irritating because of the necessary brevity.

Usually one would go to the bibliography to see if these gaps could be filled in yourself. Here we can see that the author has offered a ‘select’ list.

The list, select as it is, can be observed as numbering quite enough material to write this entire book from, and speaking from experience I must cautiously ponder if the author has suggested all the pertinent and necessary books one needs to understand the socio-political-military events at hand.

It does nevertheless include a handful of works that are necessary to study early modern Japanese armies, and which due to their scarcity command crippling prices for hobbyists and non-scholarly writers is another attraction of this book, being an affordable reference to people looking for a window into the military side of these wars.

Men-at-Arms titles have traditionally been focused on brief surveys of the conflicts at hand, followed by hefty plate commentary. In the early days half of the book could be taken up by the description of the artwork. Today about 4 pages at the end comprise this element.

This book tries to balance two fairly broad and lengthier sections of background history and then further tries to summarise the organisation of some of the main factions. In former times larger books, from the Warrior and Elite series’ would be the ones that focused on organisation, leaving Men-at-Arms to focus on uniforms and weapons of a specific war.

In terms of the plates there is little to be complained about, Giuseppe Rava has painted some highly skilful pictures, filled with his usual eye for moment, atmosphere and action, with a good splash of his trademark weapon towards the viewer dynamism. 

Interestingly at least 90% of the images reproduced here come from ‘public domain/Wikipedia.’ These easily viewable pictures are of course fascinating, but they are equally intriguing because I wasn’t aware that publishers like Osprey encouraged authors to utilise Wikipedia as an image source.

The commentary fills in a few of the gaps left in the main text, but I don’t doubt that many will raise eyebrows at the picture of a Rebel Satsuma samurai in full armour when despite some paintings at the time, armour had more or less become uncommon on the battlefield.

Not only that but I suspect that the subject is wearing a form of 12th century Ō-yoroi harness, common during the Gempei War, at a time when the armour of the Sengoko Jidai (the last period in which battle armour was widely worn for combat) would have been considered heirlooms.

Another thought that crossed my mind was that although the commentary tells us a little information about the forces of Aidzu, there is no representation of them, nor of Tosa. It also could have been a missed opportunity to depict officers of Tosa and Chōsū wearing the distinctive Shaguma headdress rather than giving it to a member of the Shinsengumi only.

This period was a formative time for the Japanese army. It was indeed it’s birth, a look at the roster of general officers from the Boshin War to the First World War will reveal a great number of them with connections to the southern clans who’s modernised armies formed the bedrock of the imperial faction. 

As a reference book, this will be a handy and engaging one to have, but with the knowledge that it is necessarily limited in it’s level of detail and may not have a great deal to offer for a reader that is already well versed in the early military history of Japan.