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

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?


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.


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

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.


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

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,


Book Review: Sultans by Jem Duducu.

ISBN 9781445668604
Format Hardback
pages 328 pages
Publication Date 15 Jan 2018

Surveying the lives of Kings as a method of teaching history must be one of the best ways of covering large tracts of time. Certainly when writing of great empires one of the most accessible ways of recording and retelling their rise and fall is to look upon the heads that wear the crown. Jem Duducu’s new book ambitiously sets out to survey a 600 year span and tries to allot equal time to each era.

The Ottoman Empire is always portrayed in Europe as the enemy. However as this book will reveal that wasn’t always the case. Challenging the preconception inflexible idea that Christian kingdoms could not sit at ease beside Islamic ones. Duducu asserts that this giant polity should have left a bigger footprint, or at least a more visible one. Certainly there is one but we in Europe and America don’t get to see it except through the eyes of suspicion.

The rise and fall of the greatest of the Islamic kingdoms is one that will be instructive for many today. Whether you read this book for the colourful characters, the dramatic action, ironic parallels or for the pure love of history this tale of power, faith, conquest, politics and empire building cannot fail to provoke thought.

The Ottoman Sultans were men who reigned by the power of a sword. A Qurannic irony indeed. They were also men of learning and accomplishment with their own dreams and visions. The roll of Ottoman sultans should indeed be no less important to a student of history than the roll of English Kings and Queens. But above all we perceive the Ottoman Empire as a particularly military animal and interestingly from a military point of view Ottoman history is shown as being defined by its sieges. Constantinople, Vienna, Rhodes & Malta all track down to the First World War.

Benchmarks are therefore quite easy to come by in this epic tale. Quite apart from sensibly adhering to the linear succession of rulers, a feast of significance is happily devoured by the author in his quest to bring the Sultans to the fore. Because it is not just about rulers but about people. Great or insignificant any man who became sultan of this empire shaped the world we live in.

It is a paradox that such a well known Empire should be at the same time so mysterious. Few could point to its origins, fewer to why it took so long to fall when there are apparently dozens of instances where the empire crumbled. Sultans sheds light on these mysteries and on a gallery of leaders as well as many key points of history that often get overlooked such as the Battle of Ankara.

Lively flow is maintained well and details that are interesting but distracting are picked out by the use of text boxes which highlight less swashbuckling aspects of this vast story. A modest but interesting selection of images give some visual references to the gigantic cast and the cover is attractive and eye-catching.

If you like your history epic but with a light touch, Sultans is the book for you.


Book Review: Napoleon, Spirit of the Age by Michael Broers.

ISBN 9780571301522
Format Hardback

Published 01/03/2018
Length 560 pages

(sign up to the Faber and Faber website to receive a discount)

There is a marked correlation between the clothes that Bonaparte the general wore & those worn by Napoleon the emperor. Even when he was first consul he wore the laurel edged uniform of a general in the republic, much like the one he wore when he stormed the bridge at Arcole. The distinctive olive grey coat & cocked hat over the undress uniform of the chasseurs a cheval de la Garde Imperiale came about around the time of Austerlitz.
That is to say before 1805 there was no Napoleon. Without Ulm & Austerlitz there could not have been a Napoleon. Without these events, Europe would have remembered a heroic revolutionary general who quietened the bloodlust of the revolution. A young soldier on a bridge with a flag, not an emperor on a horse with a hat. Continue reading “Book Review: Napoleon, Spirit of the Age by Michael Broers.”

Book Review. Tenochtitlan 1519-1521 by Si Sheppard.

Author: Si Sheppard
Illustrator: Peter Dennis
Short code: CAM 321
Publication Date: 31 May 2018
Number of Pages: 96

I’ve been waiting ages for a campaign book on the conquest of Mexico.
Si Sheppard sets out to do two things. First narrate a concise account of a three year drama and second to emphasise the contribution of the Spanish allied tribes, this is also convincingly done. Happily Sheppard does not speak of Aztecs, but of the Mexica and as far as he can he uses more indigenous spellings, such as the Mexica honorific, Malintzin as opposed to the more popular Spanish Malinche.

A great controversy of the conquest is, ‘what was Moctezuma thinking!’ Was he indeed afraid that he was facing a divinity, or was he merely hopeless? Or is there another answer? This is not to book to investigate this, nevertheless it is at the heart of the campaign. Some feel that Moctezuma has been the victim of post conquest press, painting him as ineffectual.

Sheppard, briefly flirts with the old idea that Moctezuma II could not at first rule out that there was something divine about the newcomers and acted indecisively. But the author observes later in the introduction that any suspicions the tlatoani had about the divinity of the strangers would have been dispelled after the massacre at Cholula, and demonstrates, though does not state, that Moctezuma was focused entirely on turning the invaders back and kept his options open until he met the Spanish. Sheppard avoids coming to a conclusion about Moctezuma in his assessment of the opposing commanders. He does lend himself somewhat to the idea that once Cortes got to Tenochtitlan he became indecisive and lays a great deal of blame for the Mexica disaster at Moctezuma’s feet.

The issue with upholding the righteous cause of the triple alliance is that they become victims. And while it is undoubtedly right that the conquest be criticised, the Mexica became victims because they lost, not because they could not challenge the Spanish. The author attempts to arrive at a parity of ruthlessness and cruelty between Cortes and Moctezuma, and does not indulge in championing either the conquerors or the downtrodden, which would be a mistake in such a book, nonetheless he cannot avoid offering his sympathy to the Mexicans and his relative condemnation of the cruelty of the Spanish. Being primarily a military work, Cortes is given great credit for his leadership and skill as a commander and indeed as diplomat, as is Cuatemoc, who emerges as the most effective Mexica leader. All in all very little of the dark side of anyone’s personality surfaces in this book except in deed. In such a small book, I think, this is a fair enough discussion of the subject.

Full and rightful credit for the success of the Spanish conquest is given to the commanders of the Tlaxcalan alliance, without whom, Cortes must certainly have failed and the people of Central America might have achieved a measure of self-determination away from Spanish interference. To some extent, Sheppard goes so far as to suggest the calamity was therefore not just a plague from Spain, but in a way a calamity of Mexico’s own making and as much as possible sketches an impartial picture of one empire battling against another, sympathising in sum with the defeated no more than he would with any nation. There are merits to this, as it removes the usual discussion about right and wrong, but sails dangerously close to ignoring the fact that unlike other conquests around the world, this one all but obliterated the culture of the government it overthrew.

The theme of two rapacious empires locked in a death struggle continues through the opposing forces section. Great stress is placed on the minority of the Spaniards, estimating that only “one half of one percent” of the army besieging Tenochtitlan in 1521 was from Spain. Supporting the idea that the conquest was driven by Spain but not won by it. Instead the Spaniards with their small herd of horses, and small arsenal of guns which they could not shoot at the battle of Otumba due to a crippling lack of supplies, were dwarfed by the Quadrupal Tlaxcalan Alliance, and allied kingdoms all of whom shouldered the main burden of casualties and fighting.

Sheppard hardly goes so far as to suggest the Spaniards in their steel armour could not outfight a Mexica warrior man to man, all of that is gone into quite thoroughly, but the author convincingly shows that they were quite aware that any campaign fought without native support was doomed. Rejecting the common idea that the Spanish vanquished the Mexica by dint of their technology, hard bitten prowess and fatalistic ideology. Indeed it is shown that the Spanish leaders were so aware of their dependence on their allies that they were at pains to cover up their contribution, which does both a disservice to the allied kingdoms and the Mexica themselves.

Sheppard has also found no indication that the allied tribes felt in any way conquered by the Spanish, (until after the conquest) and that they acted as allies and Cortes treated them as such. So instead of supermen, superior in every way to the enemies they fought, save for their greed, many proofs are presented to show that the greatest Spanish contribution was impetuous and the incidental introduction of pathogens into Mexico. The danger here is that the approach of marginalising the Spanish is to suggest that they are not as culpable in the subsequent colonisation of Mexico. So while it provides a more mature version of how the conquest occurred, some of its assertions will be problematic.

The Mexica, usually described as brave but outmatched are given a much more formidable aspect in this book. A fighting force that waged war differently but were quite acquainted with the idea of annihilating an enemy in the name of divine glory and the betterment of their leader’s power. The Mexica alliance are represented as using wars, flower wars, and economic sanctions on neighbours to wear them down. Tlaxcala was in this position when the Spanish came. They are also shown as disciplined and highly organised fighters, for whom warfare was both the most natural and the easiest way to achieve social mobility. Once more an attempt has been made here to reorient common conceptions about the two sides.

The book appraises the fighting with a cool impartiality, following the written accounts and always placing a great importance on the Spanish allies. The Mexica posited as at a disadvantage due to a lack of experienced officers. Highlighting the massacre of many of their leaders by Alverado as key in the subsequent lack of command and control.
The Battle of Otumba is not covered in any detail. A half page description of one of Peter Dennis’ paintings suffices to give the broad outline of his epic clash. Interestingly it gives a cynical verdict about this Spanish victory. Arguing that the Mexica had to withdraw after their system of communication was ruptured allowing the Spanish to escape, logically labelling what is often called a great Spanish victory as an inconclusive and desperate delaying action. This ties into the author’s theory that the Mexica were under-officered after the massacre at the festival of Texcoco.

Once more the Tlaxcalan alliance and the part played by he other states around the valley of Mexico is at the fore. Not as forced or unwilling vassals but full allies with a stake in the political future of the country, who dictate terms to Cortes, while other nations declare their neutrality and await the outcome. The Great siege of Tenochtitlan is portrayed as a relentless grinding nightmare of win and loss for both sides. Here actual Spanish fighting prowess is better highlited than in any other place in the campaign, but it was only allowed to be displayed because of massive native effort that accompanied it as, one by one, Cortes separated the Triple Aliance from its vassals and allies.

Having done his best to strip back legend and sentimentality from his narrative, we are not shown monstrous conquerors or naive victims but two sides equally mature in their development and goals. And in that sense this is a very mature account that tries to focus mainly on the military course of events. In his closing comments, Sheppard argues that the record of Mesoamerican civilisation suggests that Tenochtitlan would have eventually suffered the fate of Teotihuacan, and that even if Christians of a later less belligerent century arrived in Mexico their diseases would have done the work of conquest wether they liked it or not. This follows the trend of the book, which teeters very close at times to ignoring that this conflict did not lead merely to the change of governments but the evaporation of a civilisation.

Three exciting colour plates form the bedrock of the illustrations. Peter Dennis has created images that show the core events of the fighting. All of which interestingly highlight the Spanish rather than their allies. Otumba sees the Spanish cavalry in action, the fighting in Tenochtitlan has the Spaniards storming the peak of a temple and the final siege shows the vital contribution of the Spanish ships. All of which are full of the artist’s usual verve and energy.

At the heart of Sheppard’s narrative is the argument that the Spanish contributed a limited amount of technology and engineering knowledge, core political unification of intent, and most decisivly, pandemic levels of pathogens to the struggle, the old enemies of Tenochtitlan did the rest. And it is in this that an underapprecisted tragedy is revealed. Not the destruction of a city that even it’s destroyers believed to be a marvel, but the betrayal of the allies, who although involved for their own interests, nonetheless became some of the first in America to learn the hard way about how little the eastern newcomers cared about promises.