Book Review: Major Tom’s War by Vee Walker.

Hardback, 448 pages, 234 x 156 mm
20 b&w photographs and 1 map
Publication Date: 21 September 2018
ISBN: 9781911271147
https://www.kashihouse.com/books/major-toms-war1

Kashi House publishes excellent books, I’ve not seen one yet that hasn’t been up to a very high standard, and what I believe to be their first fictional offering maintains this tradition. Major Tom’s War is a well crafted drama about a British officer serving with the Indian cavalry, a nurse on the home front and a French civilian during the First World War. It is a book about loss, love and life lived at a time when such things were both at their most immediate and their most cheap.

Sometimes understanding comes inaudibly. Removed by culture, time and place it is a challenge to move past sympathy and respect for the soldiers of the Indian army to some kind of understanding of what it must have been like. The difference between India and Flanders is difficult to quantify, but they must have missed the sun, the warmth, the colour and the vibrancy of their homeland as they pulled their feet out of the sucking mud of the trenches, ducking the bullets of the German enemy. Feeling to frozen rain on their faces, and pulling their clothes tighter around them in a vain struggle to defeat the damp and cold, countless miles from a loved one’s face. Death for the cause represented by many patriotic biscuit tins bearing the enigmatic face of the King-Emperor must have seemed all the more terrible to contemplate.

Author, Vee Walker, an experienced museum’s and heritage consultant from the UK, has managed to put her finger on the heart of their struggle, through the story of, ‘Major Tom’. Although the entire book is not about the Indian army, a great deal of it is set against the life of an officer serving in a regiment of ‘Empire’ troops.

In a pivotal passage we find Tom, who from the beginning is grieving for a lost love, whose demise has haunted him all the more for the part he played in it, and embracing the war in hopes of the blessed relief of a meaningful death, commanding a detail of Indian Cavalry ordered to bury the neglected corpses of some French Infantry.

Beside him is the superb study of Rissaldar Harnam Singh, expertly painted as one of the many vertebrae that form the backbone of the army. The bodies have been left to the elements for some time and burying them is a trial for everyone. As another collection of flesh and bones is consigned to the ground, Harnam Singh, turbaned, bearded and proud looks at his Sahib Officer, Tom Westmacott. A thin, bookish and bespectacled officer, who strays from human contact but who talks lovingly in Hindi to his horses.

Quietly horrified by the sight of the graves, Singh asks, Tom to promise him one thing. A clean flame so that he might live again, and never to throw him as a decaying corpse into a filthy hole. It is a request eminently suited, not only to the human condition of two men from two very different cultural and religious backgrounds, and not just a powerful moment for these two characters, but it speaks of the understanding that exists between military men in times of war, and of a subordinate to an officer. Embodying the relationship between men in uniform, of those, like the Centurion in the New Testament, who has men under his authority that do what he says without argument and in return it is the responsibility of those officers to act in their best interests.

A clean flame. How many fresh-faced boys, whose beards had yet to thicken, let alone the stoic veterans, from Punjab, Maharashtra, Carnatica and countless others contemplated the horror of being tipped into the cold, brown darkness, never to feel the warmth of rebirth given by that clean flame. And how many could count on a sympathetic officer to see that it would be done.

At the point in the book when this happens, neither Tom or Harnam have engaged the enemy, but death and injury has nonetheless become part of their lives and Harnam’s request comes with the suggestion of the inevitable, not the possible.

Vee Walker has crafted a narrative that begins with Broken lives, drawn together by the war, over from over great distances and much of the story is focused on how these lives are rebuilt or endured, investigating themes such as redemption, purpose and healing, populated by real people. The two central characters are extremely well fleshed out, and they slowly grow to be ones you can care about, though neither are perfect. Both are unfair to each other at first.
One is unreasonable in their expectations of the other, while said other is overly judgmental and suspicious, maybe afraid. This detached interplay, at first undertaken through letters, allows the reader to form an opinion about the characters and brings them into sharper focus. Even the character, who seems to be cast as the villain, whose principle purpose in being part of this story is to thwart and annoy, Tom, is now and then more than just a cypher of evil.

I found the writing style to be compulsive and intriguing in the way each sentence, almost, queues up the next so the reader gets easily hooked in the story, drawing you along. Three plot-lines slowly converge on each other, and I was kept guessing throughout as to where they would all meet.

However foreknowledge of some of the inspiration behind the book does rob the reader of a certain suspense. In totality the author wishes the reader to become interested in the why rather than the how, divulging certain information from the start but revealing the whole picture piece by piece.
I won’t give away anything here, but I will say that a good alternate title for the book would have been ‘what happened to Mary?’

As a plot, Major Tom’s War is personal for the author, and this is instantly apparent, but those not wishing spoilers would do well to avoid the interesting selection of photographs at the end, and perhaps not pay too much attention to the jacket blurb. This is not to say the book lacks tension, this is brought to us in spectacular fashion through the character of Gaston Derome, Mayor of Bavay, who, just as the characters from Tom’s Regiment draw attention to the commonwealth effort, can look at the war from the perspective of an occupied French town.

I know I said the book is about love and war etc, but in fact, Major Tom’s War is about something much simpler. It is a book about people, plain, ordinary people who find themselves allowed the role of heroes. This story isn’t about heroism exactly, I wouldn’t call any of the main characters except perhaps Gaston and Harnam Singh classically heroic, nor is the surprisingly complex “villain” truly beyond empathy, (though his is a right piece of work). As such it is an excellent novel of war, and indeed of life.

Josh.

Book Review: Legion Versus Phalanx by Myke Cole.

Nerd isn’t the name one would generally associate with Myke Cole & from the picture on the back flap of Legion versus Phalanx, as a stranger you’d certainly think twice about calling any name he didn’t OK to his face. However, Cole is a self-confessed nerd and he has roared. In fact he has roared many times, but this is his first history book and for those of us who have encountered him on Twitter, his bark is worse than his bite, (unless you are a Spartan fanboy of course). Continue reading “Book Review: Legion Versus Phalanx by Myke Cole.”

Book Review: King of all Balloons by Mark J. Davies.

ISBN: 9781445682860
Paperback
336 pages
30 Images.
https://www.amberley-books.com/king-of-all-balloons-9781445682860.html

I once followed an air balloon. It wasn’t hard to keep up with, and indeed I even got so close that I could read the name “Virgin” written on the red sign on the basket. It wasn’t hard at all, because it was driving along a curving A-road in England, quite secured to the ground, and I was in a car behind it. 

As it drove along, I wondered if Richard Branson would ever use it to trick some small village into thinking aliens had landed or something. Balloons are fantastic things, quite out of the everyday they were once the the technological innovention of the century. Capable to some minds of doing anything. In modern times we ponder on the power of technology, of spy satellites and rockets and super weapons. In the past it was once pondered, half in jest perhaps, that Napoleon might send an armada of air balloons to invade Britain. The men (and women) who flew in them were not so far removed in their contemporaries eyes from how we view today’s astronauts.

They were called Aeronauts, contemporaries called them Ærostratists, most people called them insane. At a time when the speed of a ship and the speed of a horse were the fastest modes of transport around, a device as precarious as a basket connected to a balloon could propel a body vertically at speeds of 84mph. 

Today a hot air ballon is a quaint thing to do on a more than adventurous holiday, or if you are wildly romantic, a place to propose to your girlfriend. Either way though it’s still considered a bit bonkers, but in the late 18th century it’s not overreaching to say that the first balloonists were essentially the first astronauts.

Apart from the upper atmosphere, there isn’t a physical barrier or wall between sky and space. Anyone interested in spaceflight therefore should be interested in Davies’ biography of one of the pioneers of flight. It’s quite apt indeed that this method of aeronautics should come into its own at around the same time as the first rockets were being adopted by the army. 

Put the two endeavours of ballooning and rocketry together and you have the two elements necessary to open the way to Space. This is why stories like that of James Sadler resonate in the “Satellite Age”, not least because we get to see what an 18th century mind considered as space age technology.

Davies’ life of Sadler, the pioneering British Aeronaut, is a deeply researched biography that explores not only his glamorous and dangerous ascents, but his work in the field of arms manufacture, and his personal life, bringing this neglected man, who will easily become one of the most unusual people you’ll probably read about for a while, back into the spotlight and like all good biographies it puts a spotlight on the times in which he lived as well.

For those wishing to read something different, or those interested in flight and the wider history of the exploration of the upper atmosphere, you couldn’t do much better than picking this book up and learning about the King of all Balloons.

Josh.

Book Review: Campaldino 1289 by Kelly DeVries and Niccolò Capponi

  • Author: Kelly DeVries, Niccolò Capponi
  • Illustrator: Graham Turner
  • Short code: CAM 324
  • Publication Date: 26 Jul 2018
  • Number of Pages: 96

https://ospreypublishing.com/campaldino-1289

A classic, yet original Osprey publication on a familiar but important subject, with large spread 3D and 2D maps, decent quality photographic images though startlingly, a few that are rather low in resolution, full colour artwork by medieval master Graham Turner and commentary to go along with them all. Additionally, it should be noted that Osprey now adds as standard, Index and Further reading sections, as well as the familiar chronology and ORBAT etc, in all their books.

Usually battles are remembered best because of the commanders who directed them, Campaldino is famous because the then unknown Dante Alighieri fought in it with the Florentine Militia Cavalry.

This book is subtitled, the battle that made Dante, and argues for the importance of the battle in the poet’s legendary ‘divine comedy’. For Dante’s version of hell might well in reality be based on the the infernal scenes he saw in June of 1289.

If indeed the battle did inform much of the comedy, and the authors give persuasive argument that it did, then Campaldino rightfully deserves a place amongst the great clashes of history, for the work it inspired is widely considered one of masterpieces of western literature.

Having survived the ghastly press, it isn’t so hard to believe that Dante’s mind might later have wandered to the thousands of lifeless corpses he had seen, and to where all the souls that used to inhabit them went.

Therefore if Campaldino has any right to immortality it is because of its effect on literature. But from a military and political perspective it is no less significant. Heralding as it did the rise of Florence and the cause of the Pope against the Holy Roman Empire. A deeply significant moment then for Italy, the states of which would find themselves facing much the same political enemy as late as 1800.

As a battle it is a remarkable piece of medieval brutality, gloved in the velvet of chivalry. Few other battles can have been started by the charge of a mere 12 men after all. While the dynamics of the action are interesting, as with most medieval fights the tactics are fairly straightforward. Nevertheless the organisation and operations of the armies are fascinating.

Also of note is how different Italy was from the rest of Europe when it came to war. Democracy and feudalism walked hand in hand, from the election of leaders to the vote on battle plans. To the unusual troop types and the various convoluted war aims and rivalries, which are more familiar to general medieval warfare.

The author’s are clearly at home with their subject, which is an excellent study for the campaign series and its great to see these medieval Italian battles being written about and placed in their rightful place amongst the great clashes of history.

What is especially exciting about it is that the Military history of Italy doesn’t exist in an accessible way beyond the fall of Rome. It’s either in Italian or no one writing in English wants to write about it. Medieval Italian warfare is specifically obscure and exists, in English, only because some people like the idea of the Condottieri. If Osprey are going to produce more titles on the Guelph and Ghibelline Wars, or the Sicilian Vespers, dare we hope for the Wars of the Giudicatti? Then this is an excellent start.

For the most part however, the argument is that battle’s significance is once more in the aid of western civilisation than any short term politics. One might even go so far as to agree, after reading this book, that as went Campaldino, so went Florence, so Dante and Dade we say it, so went the renaissance?

Josh,

Book Review: The Etruscans

  • Author: Raffaele D’Amato, Andrea Salimbeti
  • Illustrator: Giuseppe Rava
  • Short code: ELI 223
  • Publication Date: 20 Sep 2018

As most people who can remember their early history lessons will know; at some point in its early history, Rome was dominated by a people known as the Etruscans. And that there was something about a chap named Horatio and a bridge.

Because of this they rank high amongst Rome’s Italian foes as equal to the Samnites, and for Rome to flourish they had to be dealt with, and the struggle to destroy their influence contributed greatly to the founding legend of the city.

In terms of art they left a remarkable legacy, also in archeology, allowing a tentative and at times complete reconstruction of their appearance, their grave goods are as stunning as any unearthed in Italy. 

As a legacy, as well, they left their mark on Rome, just as in practically every other  acquisition they made the Romans made the Etruscans a part of their identity. And a very visible one at that, some of the most ostentatious parts of their triumphal ceremonies trace back to some Etruscan germ.

Two periods of Etruscan military development are considered in this book. The Villanovian period, which covers the earliest archeological evidence to the Classical Period where written works can be added to the artefacts, up to the fall of the Etruscan confederacy at the hands of their once servile neighbours. 

Each section is given over to an overview of the period and a much larger examination of practically every type of weapon and armour that can be associated with the Etruscans, broken into subsections. This is an Elite book, and perhaps should have been a Warrior title, but it goes a long way to forming a picture in the mind of the reader of what an Etruscan warrior looked like. There is a good deal of supposition about tactics and organisation, filling in gaps where no direct evidence exists. 

Raphael D’Amato has worked a great deal with Giuseppe Rava in the past, perhaps the best artist currently working with Osprey to illustrate a book about such legendary and epic warriors. His Etruscans ripple with flesh and muscle, bulging veins and sinews spread across trunular arms like tree branches. Skin glows behind battle reddened faces, and Lars Porsenna has perhaps never looked so Imperial as here, standing behind his superbly rendered chariot. Rava’s gleaming weapons and quite stunning hammered, bronze shields are marvellous recreations. Then at the end, to reinforce D’Amato’s and other scholar’s argument that the Roman army was much less uniform and much more culturally integrated than has been supposed, we have Etruscans marching for the Roman Republic.

A very interesting and comprehensive introduction to the arms and armour of the Etruscans.

Josh.

Book Review: Roman Legionary vs Carthaginian Warrior by David Campbell.

  • Author: David Campbell
  • Illustrator: Adam Hook
  • Short code: CBT 35
  • Publication Date: 23 Aug 2018
  • Number of Pages: 80

https://ospreypublishing.com/roman-legionary-vs-carthaginian-warrior

This book isn’t really about the dynamics and techniques of combat in the second Punic war. Although the brief for all Combat books should be a searching examination and analysis of what all those scholarly military phrases like ‘driven back’, ‘charged’, ‘withdrew in good order’ meant for the often faceless and voiceless ordinary soldier in any particular conflict, it actually makes the mistake that a few Combat authors are making in using it as a vehicle to retell the story of the given war, and examine the larger scale tactics of both sides.

This is done with energy and reason by author, David Campbell, however the possibility to really attempt to get under the skin of the battles and soldiering of the Punic Wars is missed. Instead the book focuses on the successes of the generals, Hannibal and Scipio, at Trasimene, Cannae and Ilipa. 

Images supplied by Adam Hook give one reconstruction of a Roman Hastatus, and an Iberian Warrior, post Trasimene, which will speak to something I noted below, an exciting battle piece between a phalanx and a legionary Hastati Line and a slightly detached melee between opposing light infantry forces. Maps and commentary accompany each battle section, very helpful in the case of the less studied battle of Ilipa.

Although a breakdown of the opposing forces allows a view of the organisation behind each army, most of the Carthaginian observations are based on Hannibal’s personal preferences or educated guesses, which were not a standard model of operating and is essentially uninspired in terms of the Roman side. Whereas the recent campaign book on the Battle of Zama did attempt to introduce new theories to th subject of the Republican fighting system.

That being said the book cuts excellently to the heart of what Hannibal was able to do well, that being to arrange everything before the battle began and essentially give as few orders as possible, while further noting the strength of the Carthaginian army lay in its diversity and allowing each ethnic group to fight the way it fought best.

This title was always going to be difficult, because it is very difficult to identify what a ‘Carthaginian Warrior’ is. Si Sheppard in his book of that title sensibly decided to focus of the Liby-Phoenician infantry, and treat the mercenaries as separate. But here it is never precisely identified what is meant on the cover  by, Carthaginian Warrior. Nor is there much of a discussion about the much debated Carthaginian phalanx. It is even stated that Carthage was oligarchic in its society, which seems to speak to the habit of families managing to hold onto important state offices by inheritance. Nevertheless it is a fairly narrow distinction to attribute to the western Mediterranean’s second greatest republic.

Because there is no particular focus on any specific class or type of soldier in either the battles or the opposing forces, we have a fairly straightforward account of one of the best known battles in military history, Cannae, a pleasing account of its little brother, Trasimene which really should have ended the war, and a very enjoyable account of the almost invisible battle of Ilipa, which despite by rather disappointed tone here rescues the title from the clutches of well travelled road. This is in the end a good book, but it doesn’t quite do what it says on the tin.

Josh

Book Review: Trapdoor Springfield by John Langeller.

  • Author: John Langellier
  • Illustrator: Steve Noon, Alan Gilliland
  • Short code: WPN 62
  • Publication Date: 28 Jun 2018
  • Number of Pages: 80

https://ospreypublishing.com/the-trapdoor-springfield

This was a weapon of great longevity, if Winchester’s and Colt’s won the West, then the Springfield policed it. It is no coincidence that in the movies, it is always the Springfield armed cavalry that rides in at the end to save the day. 

As usual with the weapon series, the various incarnations of the subject weapon is gone over, including the development of the technology and basic stats. The most important type of trapdoor was what was knows as the Allin, but trapdoor technology was a versatile thing, the significant thing about the trapdoor Springfield is that it’s popularity with the army stemmed as much from practicalities as its effectiveness. 

With so many surplus weapons left over from the civil war, a way had to be found to make use of them. By applying trapdoor breechloading technology to many percussion Springfield’s, a new weapon, musket and carbine, was invented and became the staple weapon of the US army for the rest of the 19th century.

It changed and improved of course, with the 1873 pattern and different experiments that got tried out through the decades leading up to the replacement of the trapdoors with magazine rifles and carbines at the end of the century. And all of this is quite thoroughly covered.

Within this book we are given a run down of, Red Cloud’s war, focusing on the Fetterman ‘massacre’ and the Wagon Box fight. The Great Sioux War, giving interesting insight on Little Bighorn. Specifically that historians have in the past been quick to blame the tools rather than the men. The author here indicating that there is reason to believe that the cavalry might have been rather poor shots. The Red river, Nez Perce, Bannock, Ute and Apache Wars are also included, not to forget the infamous Ghost Dance ‘War’. 

The survey of the wars in which the weapons were used ends with the Spanish American and Philippine Wars. These sections don’t focus terribly on how the weapon was used or its effectiveness in the actions listed, except for Little Bighorn, but do give an idea of how widespread and how long it was used for by the US Army.

When turning to the various ways the weapon was experimented with we find various ingenious and odd things. For instance when it comes to details of Bayonets, the curious trowel bayonet is perhaps one of the more interesting. As improved range and accuracy seemed to indicate the end of hand to hand combat, yet military thinkers were loath to ditch the symbolically powerful bayonet, and so with the rise of entrenched warfare, what better way to resolve the problem than to stick a trowel on the end of the rifle?

An examination of army marksmanship the author once more argues that the weapons were not faulty, the users were. The reason hostile tribes were hard to hit wasn’t only that they were expert at concealment and horsemanship, it was the fact the army didn’t pay enough attention to good shooting practice. The Little Bighorn accusation of poor tools is directly challenged again, as the oft reported fault of jamming could happen at any battle.

Examining how this weapon originated from the need to utilise surplus, became surplus and ended up as a staple prop in Hollywood westerns, is a pleasing arc for the book.

And so we come to the artwork. Cutaways and photographs of many weapons help explain the text, especially interesting are the period photos, and the image of an American Indian trapdoor rifle. Steve Noon has managed to bring a cinematic presence to his scenes. The Wagon Box fight is full of movement and detail, deeply layered as always. The Little Bighorn painting is masterly in its psychological look at the army skirmish line under Reno hurrying forwards and opening fire on the tribes. 

 

See you again for another adventure in historyland,

Josh