The Room of Turquoise and Stone: Highlights of Room 27, British Museum.

One of the best rooms in the British Museum, London, is what I like to call the Room of Turquoise and Stone. A capsule of pre-Columbian Mexican History. Here are some of it’s highlights.

Guardians of the East Stairs.

Cast of Stela H from The Great Plaza, Copan, Honduras. Cast made by Lorenzo Giuntini 1881-1894, copied from an original dating from 730 AD. Author’s Photograph, British Museum. Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.

One of the many mid century fusions of diplomat, explorer and writer was a man by the name of John Lloyd Stephens was among the first to write detailed English descriptions of the Mayan sites during the 1840’s and his companion in adventure, a British artist and architect named Frederick Catherwood was the first to visually record them on paper:

‘It is thirteen feet in height, four feet in front, and three deep, sculpted on all four of its sides from the base to the top, and oe of the richest and most elaborate specimens in the whole extent of the ruins. Originally it was painted, the marks of red colour being still distinctly visible.’

John Lloyd Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. v I.. 1841.
Stela H in situ at Copan, 1844, by Frederick Catherwood.

Despite his detailed descriptions, which inspired later explorations of the sites, Stephens admitted that it was annoyingly difficult to find out any verifiable history regarding them.

The question, who built them?, never by any accident crossed their minds. The great name of Montezuma, which had gone beyond them to the Indians of Honduras, had never reached their ears, and to all our questions we received the same dull answer which first met us at Copan, “Que sabe?”‘

John Lloyd Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. v I. 1843.

Que Sabe would remain the question until modern scholars cracked the Mayan writing system but the lure of ‘lost’ cities proved irresistible and in the decades that followed.

Years later the explorer, and archaeological pioneer, Alfred Maudesley became known in the scientific world because of a five volume treatise called Biologia Cantrali-Americana. Published in 1902 it described many of the most important Mayan ruins, such as Chichen Itza and represents the fruit of his life’s work.

When Stephens and Catherwood made their explorations they relied on detailed drawings and written descriptions but, Maudesley could rely on the use of camera technology to document his findings.

He also made detailed casts of the extraordinary sculptures he surveyed, made by expert plaster modeler, Lorenzo Giuntini. These were carefully packed and crated to be shipped off to museums in Europe and North America.

Two of Giuntini’s grey plaster Stelae from Copan confront you at the foot of the British Museum’s East Stairs. Their labyrinthine intricacy is offset by the simple intensity of the noble faces of the rulers, staring down at visitors with solemn imperturbability from either side of a wide doorway, barred to all except staff.

Cast of Stela A from the Great Plaza, Copan, Honduras, Cast made by Lorenzo Giuntini 1881-1894, copied from an original dating from 730 AD. Author’s Photograph, British Museum. Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.

Room 27: The Mayans.

As far as the galleries of the British Museum go, room 27, housing the Mexican exhibits and accessed by a right turn at the bottom of the stairs, (they themselves being decorated with Mayan stelae) is an intimate space.

Geometric ceiling, illuminating the wall displays in room 27. British Museum. Author’s Photograph. Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.

It’s dark, illuminated by the spotlights that reveal the objects on display. The selection showcases the sophistication of the early civilisations of Mexico, ending with fabulous mosaic items from the Mexica empire.

Yaxchilan lintel 35, c. 500 AD Maya, Late Classic period, Yaxchilán, Mexico, limestone. Author’s Photo. British Museum Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.

But first we return to the Maya. The writings of the Mayan civilisation have taken 150 years to read. It is only recently that scholars have been able to decipher the tantalisingly neat pictograms blocked into plaques and wall paintings.

A great aid scholars used in breaking the Maya code was the painfully rare codex’s, a tracing of the ‘Dresden codex’ which document’s the remarkable astronomical sophistication of this civilization.

Codex; tracings of Codex Dresden, also known as Codex Dresdensis, a preconquest pictorial manuscript; ritual-calendrical. Lowland Maya region. Author’s Photo. British Museum. Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.

Works of art as well as vital historical documents, the linguistic legacy of the Mayan civilization stands as one of it’s greatest achievements and is as equally inspiring and complex as the most graceful European calligraphy or Egyptian equivalents.

Jade Plaque of a Maya King, c. 600-800 AD., Maya, Classic period, jadeite, 14 x 14 cm, Teotihuacan, Mexico. British Museum. Author’s Photograph. Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.

Not even the Mexica (anachronistically known as the Aztec) people, who came to rule central Mexico, knew who the builders of Teotihuacan were. The name means simply, ‘place of the gods.’

Sitting in the company of multiple ceramics and precious objects this fragment of a Nebaj style jade plaque must have been made for a very important individual. It draws the eye at once, as if the speech sign emanating from the Lord’s mouth was calling to you directly.

Detail. Yaxchilán lintel 16 (commissioned by Bird Jaguar IV for Structure 21), after 752 AD, Maya, Late Classic period, limestone, 76.2 x 75.7 cm, Mexico. British Museum. Author’s Photograph. Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.

Along the far wall, under the geometric ceiling, which gives the impression of a portico, late Classic Mayan door lintels from a royal structure in Yaxichilan, Chiapas, hang for visitors to observe.

Rated without exaggeration as amongst the finest works of high Mayan art, it is hard not to be moved by the power exuding from the succeeding cut stone images. Among the most understandable is Bird Jaguar IV dominating a prisoner, holding him in thrall as much by his ferocious stare as his spear.

In another lintel (not pictured) Shield Jaguar the Great looks on as his wife, Lady K’ab’al Xook, threads a thorned rope through the tip of her tongue in a bloodletting ceremony. Try thinking about doing that without flinching.

Although it must be admitted that the British Museum’s Mexican Collection is tiny beside that of Egypt and accumulated by private means and by early archeologists rather than soldiers and tourists, the methods by which some of the items were gathered leaves something to be desired.

Addressing the Royal Geographic Society in 1883, Maudesley displayed one of the lintels now hanging in room 27 and described how he came by it:

’The other difference [to Tikal] is an important one, namely the employment of stone instead of wood for lintels. Many of the these lintels are carved on under the surface and I have succeeded in bringing to England one of the best preserved of these carved stones. I took it from a half-ruined house, where it had fallen from its place, but was luckily resting with the carved side against the wall, and had thus been protected from the weather. The stone, when I first saw it, weighed about half a ton, but by keeping the men constantly at work on it with the point of a pickaxe and some chisels which I had luckily brought with me, at the end of the week we had chipped it down to half it’s original thickness and cut off the two ends. Afterwards … we cut it down to it’s present size with hand-saws.’

Explorations in Guatemala, and Examination of the Newly-Discovered Indian Ruins of Quiriguá, Tikal, and the Usumacinta
A. P. Maudslay. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography
Vol. 5, No. 4 (Apr., 1883), pp. 185-204 (26 pages) JSTOR.

Though all of the cities that formed the classic Mayan civilisation ceased to be a meaningful political entities by the time of the 15th century, a great Nahuatl speaking power grew in their stead in the valley of Mexico.

Room 27: The Mexica.

Mosaic mask representing Xiuhtecuhtli, Mixtec, Aztec, Mexico. 1400-1521. Author’s Photograph. British Museum. Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.
Mosaic mask representing Xiuhtecuhtli, Mixtec, Aztec, Mexico. 1400-1521. Author’s Photograph. British Museum. Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.

The heart of the British Museum’s Mexica Collection are the Turquoise Mosaics. A selection of nine intriguing and sometimes disturbing works of religious, royal and historical significance, there being only 25 Mexican mosaics in Europe.

Famously the Mexica placed great importance on ceremonial masks. This one, with its studded turquoise face, and frozen grimace stares out from a darkened glass case.

It depicts the ancient fire god Xiuhtecuhtli, and probably something out of your more vivid nightmares. This particular mask might even have played a part in some of the great moments of Mexica history as high quality masks like this would most certainly have been worn by the Tlatoani on the occasion of his investiture.

Shield or disc, with mosaic design depicting the principal divisions of the Aztec universe. 1400-1521. Author’s Photo, British Museum. Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.

Safely locked behind glass under watery lights that play softly on their subjects, the turquoise fractals gleam with otherworldly beauty, and in some cases, quiet menace.

Not far away, the tarnished design on a shield-like object, never meant for war but for ceremony, suggests the four quadrants of the Mexica world in almost unimaginable detail.

Beside the disc is a finely made atlatl, or spear thrower, a small device a hunter or warrior could use to project his weapon great distances towards his target. Such weapons were commonly included in religious and royal iconography and this one appears to be uncommonly well made.

Atlatl, spear-thrower, Aztec. 1400-1521. Author’s Photograph. British Museum. Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.

Highly significant but at the same time quite reluctant to offer any definitive clue as to it’s significance, the painstakingly inlaid double headed serpent represents the pride of the nine Mexica Mosaics in the British Museum.

The skill and craftsmanship involved in making and detailing this object is breathtaking to think about and due to it’s uniqueness it might be considered one of the most important pieces in the museum’s entire collection.

See you again for another Adventure in Historyland. Josh.

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

  • Author: Gabriele Esposito
  • Illustrator: Giuseppe Rava
  • Short code: MAA 530
  • Publication Date: 19 Mar 2020
  • https://ospreypublishing.com/japanese-armies-1868-1877

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.

Book Review: Fort William Henry by Ian Castle.

  • Author: Ian Castle
  • Illustrator: Graham Turner
  • Short code: CAM 260
  • Publication Date: 20 Nov 2013
  • Number of Pages: 96
  • https://ospreypublishing.com/fort-william-henry-1755-57

Ian Castle sets out to show how the Fennimore Cooper version of the siege of Fort William Henry strayed from the truth and has altered how we perceive the siege today.

He is much more prone to examining excesses of wilderness warfare as massacres, and is more anglocentric, unlike Chartrande who tries to find a balance and is much more cautious about what the Anglo American’s called a massacre.

At the end of 1755 Fort Beauséjour, in the east, had fallen to Moncton, but Braddock was dead on the Monongahela and the acting British commander in chief had stalled at Oswego.

Johnson had held on at Lake George, building Fort William Henry as a bulwark. Castle describes this often overlooked campaign well and presents the French commander, Dieskau, as unlucky rather than inept.

As usual the European dependence on their native allies becomes very obvious, and certainly the French felt they could not fight without them. Once more the French brought a massive array of tribes with them, some quite unknown to the British, so well respected were the French at this point of the war.

British by comparison had no true tribal support after Lake George when even the Mohawks, who took heavy casualties there, shied away from support and Rangers had to be resorted to for scouting and raiding.

With both sides eyeing up the vital Lake George corridor as a means to strike into each other’s territory, the French landed the first blow, destroying Oswego and placing the British squarely on the defensive.

The resultant descent by the Marquis de Montcalm on Fort William Henry became the most celebrated and infamous event in the French and Indian War.

A six day siege ended with the surrender of the fort and the negligent abandonment of the British prisoners to the anger of Montcalm’s irritated warriors.

In this most controversial moment of the campaign, the author shows us that this was hardly the massacre of lore, even though for a brief period on the last day a sudden explosion of violence broke out and could not be immediately stopped resulting in the murder of many helpless soldiers and civilians.

Full spread artwork is offered by Graham Turner, who creates three especially good pieces. The French line at Lake George and the image of the massacre are particularly good.

The book is detailed and effectively brings the subject to the reader in an accessible way. Although too focused on explaining the rights, wrongs and massacres of the event and reliant on mostly English sources, the author brings a heartening dose of sober observation to a still fraught subject.

Explaining as he does the operation which brought Montcalm ever higher in the estimation of later historians and once more proved the superiority of the French and Canadian, Allied military synthesis.

Josh.

How to Make the Royal Game of Ur. Video.

The Royal Game of Ur, also known as the Game of 20 Squares has been found in the tombs of Pharaoh’s and Kings. It was scratched into the walls of palaces so guards could pass the time, and you can play it too.

Thanks to the work of Professor Irving Finkel the rules of he game were discovered and translated, making it the oldest game in the world with an accompanying set of rules known to refer to it.

There are lots of versions for sale online, but allot are quite expensive. So I made my own. I visited the British museum, did some research, and then created a portable version of the game that double’s as a useful tote bag.

I hope you enjoy the video, please support the channel if you can. And I’ll see you next time for another Adventure in Historyland.

Josh,

Reveal: My Book About the Maratha War.

One of the reasons Historyland has had much less article content and has fallen dramatically back onto book reviews is because I’ve had no time to research or write blog content.

For the last year I’ve been occupied in a the completion of fond and long held dream; writing my own book. Last week I finally revealed the proposed cover art. There is still work to be done to get it ready for you but I’m very pleased with it.

‘Bullocks, Grain and Good Madeira,’ will be published by Helion and Co during the second half of 2020 , at the moment it is tentatively slated for November.

In the early part of the 19th century British Army’s in India operated on three main resources, Bullocks, Grain and large quantities of alcohol, often Madeira for Staff. The book tells the story of the 2nd Maratha War and the campaign against the Jat kingdom of Bharatpur.

Driven by first hand accounts, the book will present the Maratha army as it was, not a walkover but a formidably organised and equipped foe, equal but no longer as effective to the Native infantry of the East India Company.

A great motive for starting was the common perception that the armies opposing the EIC were poor things in comparison to European armies. In writing the book, I discovered great swathes of information, regarding the war in it’s entirety and it’s aftermath, that have not been made widely available.

A host of personal stories came to light as well, some familiar and others less so, but all offering the opportunity to see this conflict as an example of Indian warfare at it’s toughest.

As it stands of this moment, BGGM (AKA Project Begum as I codename it) will be available by the end of 2020. It will be illustrated by the wonderful brush of Christa Hook, an artist whose work I have loved since I first saw it in the Osprey Campaign book about Corunna.

I hope you like the cover, and I hope you’ll buy the book when it comes out. There will be more on this in the future, plus perhaps some content on how I went about writing it.

See you soon for another Adventure in Historyland, Josh.

Book Review: Montcalm’s Crushing Blow by René Chartrand.

British plans to break New France in 1755 by seizing the Ohio, securing Lake George and capturing Cape Breton Island ended unevenly.

The total defeat of General Braddock’s Ohio column was offset by the success of militia forces on the eastern seaboard in Acadia, while a stalemate along the Hudson valley balanced the scale.

To French minds delay meant defeat for the Anglo-Americans and so they could take heart from the start of the war. Their job was now to hang on to Canada until French forces in Europe could defeat the allied coalition.

Believing that attack was the best defence French planners in Canada began preparing strikes against the British frontier.

René Chartrand shines a spotlight on a neglected precourser to Montcalm’s capture of Fort William Henry in 1757, which allowed French forces to shift towards Crown Point and Ticonderoga.

The basis of which, for a moment, seemed to look set to create the platform upon which the French could climb to victory. 

The target was Oswego, a strong but isolated British fort on Lake Ontario and a ripe target for the sort of large scale raid the French excelled at, only this time the French field commander, the Marquis de Montcalm, would do it on a much larger scale. 

As the war became official an early influx of money and troops had come in from France, enhancing the military capacity of Canada. This allowed the French to bolster their defences and as a result, mount large scale operations into enemy territory.

In 1756 Montcalm took 3,000 men and artillery down the St Lawrence and across Lake Ontario to begin the process of pushing back the British Frontier.

Chartrand uses this campaign as an example of the largest and most dramatic instance of the Franco/Indian/Canadian raiding system.

A synthesis at its most extreme of the wilderness petit guerre mixed with European conventional scientific warfare. 

Within the confines of this book, which is a Raid title and so is constrained by space and theme the campaign and the clash of personality between Governor Vaudreuill and the Marquis de Montcalm is explained, as is the situation after the fall of Oswego.

Despite an initially gallant defence by the British, this proved an entirely successful operation and a convincing victory was gained.

This book with typical concise but remarkably detailed analysis widens the appreciation of how French strategy took a sudden and more offensive turn, trying to create a buffer zone within enemy territory that could be defended until victory was gained in Europe and delayed the final British Invasion of Canada by two years.

Josh.

Book Review: Monongahela 1755 by René Chartrand.

In terms of subject chronology this Campaign Book, produced by the MilHist fans at Osprey Publishing back in 2004, begins René Chartrand’s examination of wilderness warfare as practiced by the European powers in the French and Indian War. 

Chartrand, one of the most scholarly and readable Osprey authors, has written a flock of books on this subject, establishing both a sequential series within a series and his firm belief that the Franco Canadians were the masters of warfare in America as it should be fought, all based on archival sources.

The book is insightful and at the same time sticks to an established narrative that is easy to follow, the author is the master of giving a relatable account spiced with the right sources at the right time to briefly support his thesis. 

Chartrand sets the scene with a sharp eyed appraisal of two European powers that dominated eastern North America, who for the last century and a quarter had been involved in official and unofficial political violence with each other, mostly over the resources of the land in question and often because of political events in Europe.

By 1755 an increasingly large and expanding Anglo American population was pressing across the Allegheny’s in search of new opportunities. The Ohio valley was important to France as the quickest conduit to Louisiana territory. Anglo American interference would threaten communications between north and south and even jeapordise native allies.

Chartrand believes the great strength of French colonial administration was its attitude to indigenous tribes. Although by the time of the ‘seven years war’ their mastery of native diplomacy was being challenged, the French (at higher levels) treated the tribes as allies and went to great pains to maintain friendly relations with them. 

The French entertained the greatest network of native alliances and dialogues of any of the European powers. The reason was largely because this allowed their trappers free access to the fur trade which was the life blood of the French overseas empire. 

The tribes, save the bulk of the Iroquois who had a long running feud with Onontio (the French Governor General,) for their part preferred the French system because unlike the agrarian minded Anglo American’s the Franco Canadians did not eat up land like a wildfire. They claimed land like all the other foreigners but didn’t occupy it in the same way.

As an extreme example of both this policy and the importance of the Ohio, Chartrand tells of when the Miami village at Pickawillany, feeling growing British influence in the area raised a Union Jack in 1759, and a Franco Canadian raiding party destroyed it that summer to show the allied tribes that they need not fear British expansion.

Few will be surprised to read how events led to conflict in the Ohio during the late 1740’s, as the French made expeditions to claim the area and then placed quickly constructed forts at key river forks and portages. These became the focus of outrage for the larger and more belligerent States along the eastern seaboard. 

With New England, New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania all determined to gain traction west of the Allegheny barrier. The rejection of a notice of eviction to the French in the Ohio was enough for Virginia Governor Dinwiddie to attempt to seize the Forks of the Ohio where the French had built Fort Duquesne.

In all his books Chartrand offers a Francophile standpoint without excluding the English sources. This is why this series of books is so valuable in a field so saturated with English viewpoints, the very name of the conflict, ‘the French and indian war’ is very telling if you choose to look into it.

The book separates the campaign into two sections, George Washington’s engagement at Fort Necessity and the action on the banks of the Monongahela. The book demonstrates just how dominant the French/Canadian/Indian mode of warfare was by this stage.

The engagement at Fort Necessity is seen as nothing short of disastrous for Washington. Almost nothing redeemable can be said about it. The French and Indians surrounded the pitiful fort, subdued the garrison with musketry and got the enemy to agree to capitulate, aknowedging French sovereignty over the Ohio and responsibility for Washington’s reprehensible ambush of a French emissary, which started the shooting war.

The main fight on 9 July 1755 was a typical wilderness ambush and battle in all respects, only on a larger scale than usual, it’s start seemed to show a lack of pre-planning but the response to an initial check saved the day, although the French didn’t have the men (many of their allies had gone home) to pursue, the battle cost the British some 800-1,000 men, their guns and allot of equipment.

Accompanied by good maps, interesting photographs and lively colour plates Chartrand illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the French synthesis of European and Indigenous modes of warfare which allowed them to stave off defeat time and time again. Readers will find it interesting to note just how dependent the French and Canadians (and indeed the British) were on their allies.

Monongahela also introduces a reader to many fascinating figures, both well known and obscure. The commanders in the French Ohio should read as a list of who’s who of frontier officer’s but few are well, if at all, known today. Most interesting is Charles Michel Langlade who Chartrand suggests was a driving force behind the victory. War chiefs like Pontiac might even have been present in the 1755 fight.

This book is a highly interesting and useful survey of early British strategy in the French and Indian War, giving an authentic and sensible appraisal of the forces engaged.

Josh.

Historyland’s Top 5 History Books of 2019.

This year has been busy which has made the top five of 2019 a fairly easy selection. The cream of the review crop this time represent some of the best history books I’ve read.

They span a range of subjects as varied as the people of Japan to the origins of western civilisation. Their authors represent many styles and disciplines, but all have succeeded in writing history that leaps off the page and allows the reader to engage with it.

Therefore, in no particular order we have:

‘unhurried … never boring, always lucid, with some of the most fluid prose imaginable and the most serene voice I’ve encountered, Japan Story is not just a good read, it is a revelation’

‘Revolutionary in every sense.’

‘The Anarchy is worthy of it’s author’s ambition as a brilliantly realised and enjoyably written history which looks out at it’s subject with an eye to both the past and the future.’

‘I cannot praise the ingenuity and hard work that went into this book enough. I’m not just crafting pleasing blurbs here when I say it is perfect for serious scholar and newcomer alike.’ 

‘I predicted soon after the launch that if Gurkha Odyssey was even half as well written as General Duffell’s eloquent and sincerely delivered talk, then it would be a brilliant book and I am delighted to assure you that I feel 100% justified in that prediction.’

Please join me in 2020 for more adventures in Historyland. Josh.

Book Review: Raiders from New France by René Chartrand.

  • Illustrator: Adam Hook
  • Short code: ELI 229
  • Publication Date: 28 Nov 2019
  • Number of Pages: 64

https://ospreypublishing.com/raiders-from-new-france

In this book Chartrand is allowed to flex his muscles on his pet subject, the hybrid tactical strategic form that allowed the French to maintain their dominance over the rich backwoods fur trade from the late 17th century to the mid 18th. 

Readers of Chartrand’s books will not be surprised to read of how the French governors hit on this stratagem, learning it as a result of fighting the Iroquois and then turning it on the American colonies. Though never formalised into a rigid doctrine these tactics were universally understood and maintained as a sort of living tradition, kept sharp because at its heart, it was practiced constantly by those engaged in the fur trade and the First Nation allies that they learned from.

Chartrand has written many books for Osprey, all rooted in archival research, and almost all have, with various levels of intensity, promoted the thesis of a conscious Franco-Canadian adoption of wilderness warfare to deflect large scale invasions and to control large swathes of largely uninhabited territory.

This book is the first that I have noticed by the author which is solely about this subject, rather than an example of it. He strives to explain the why and how of it by charting the evolution of the strategy from the raids on the Hudson Bay in the 17th century to the more well known raids and campaigns of the 18th.

At the same time, the illustrations, provided by fellow veteran Osprey contributor, Adam Hook, working in a format that suits his talents, give an idea of the look and equipment of the raiders mentioned in the text and the results are interesting to see.

Starting with the pioneers of the system and the first official raids in 1686 and 87 the book covers ‘King William’s War,’ the administration of Frontenac and the raids and counter raids between New France, the Iroquois and ‘New England’ that made up that conflict in the 1690s. Moving along to Queen Anne’s War which swiftly flared up in 1702, unwanted and barely a year after ‘peace,’ the famous raid on Deerfield is covered, alongside Haverhill and an interesting overview of the Fox Wars of 1712-1737. 

This great preponderance of early subjects is refreshing, being as so few of these subjects are widely covered. About four pages are given to the more well known events of the 1740’s and 50’s that he author has covered at length in other titles. The last ten or so pages cover the men, equipment and methods utilised during this very long period, which nevertheless saw little radical variation in either manpower, material or doctrine after the widespread adoption of long range raiding as a defensive strategy.

Raiders from New France offers a very interesting survey of the origins of New France’s territorial expansion and defence. 

Josh.

Book Review: Gurkha Odyssey by Sir Peter Duffell.

“I predicted soon after the launch that if Gurkha Odyssey was even half as well written as General Duffell’s eloquent and sincerely delivered talk, then it would be a brilliant book and I am delighted to assure you that I feel 100% justified in that prediction. ”

  • By Sir Peter Duffell
  • Imprint: Pen & Sword Military 
  • Pages: 290
  • Illustrations: Black and white illustrations plus 8 page colour plate section
  • ISBN: 9781526730572
  • Published: 16th October 2019
  • https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Gurkha-Odyssey-Hardback/p/16715

The Scarlet Thread of Lali.

A profusion of lali, the distinctive red piping that adorns the full dress uniform of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, and one of their antecedent regiments, was evident in the large and well appointed crowd that attended the book launch of Lieutenant General Sir Peter Duffell’s Gurkha Odyssey at the National Army Museum this November.  

A glance at the black and red dicing which ivied the neckties of many amongst that small sea of dark jackets, some proudly rifle green, listening intently to the author talk in the clean, antiseptic, surroundings of the strip lit Foyle Centre conference room on the lower ground floor, could leave a viewer with no doubts that the principle pre amalgamation regiment represented in the audience was the 2nd King Edward VII’s Own Goorkha Rifles (The Sirmoor Rifles.)

This scarlet thread of regimental tradition snakes back all the way to the siege of Delhi in 1857 and is picked up on the spine of General Duffell’s book, where the Sirmoor badge is prominently displayed, the prince of Wales’ feathers surrounded by a moat of lali. A significant device, bound to evoke 200 years of regimental achievements to all those present who, wether they were Sirmoors or not, at one time or another, wore or wear the emblem of the Brigade of Gurkhas. The crossed kukri’s shone brightly on many a lapel that night.

Rightly so the Royal Gurkha Rifles still take the histories and traditions of the regiment’s that came before them very seriously, indeed they always have, for since the earliest times of service in the EIC’s Bengal Army, the Gurkhas and especially the Sirmoors have striven to maintain their separate and singular identity apart from ‘the ruck,’ as Peter Duffell explains in Gurkha Odyssey.

Since the defence cuts in 2004-2006, when as Brigadier Allan Mallinson put it, ‘Regiments whose names the Duke of Wellington would have seen each day in the “morning states” during the long years of the Peninsular War and Waterloo’ dissapeared from the army’s order of battle, the regimental traditions, once central to the high standards of the British Army have come under threat. With once distinguished Regiments being reduced to Battalions in larger, unfamiliar, and as yet impersonal district and national, ‘super Regiments’ which for many swallowed the individual character of the units assigned to them.

Therefore just as the simple flash of red piping on a green uniform can conjure to those who learned the ‘Sirmoor system’ the narrative of Gurkha Odyssey is bound up with the threads of a proud regimental legacy of service, duty and sacrifice. It is a celebration of the virtues of the Gurkha soldier as well as a personal journey.

The Odyssey.

Duffell’s long association with the Gurkhas, his Odyssey, began when national service brought him into the ranks of the 60th Rifles. Here he started a learning process, quite distinct from basic training and other initiations necessary for national servicemen and volunteers. The Rifle Brigade’s cherished traditions are based on their motto ‘quick and bold,’ which refers to a soldier’s mind as well as his physical ability and it is no coincidence that both the 60th Rifles and the Sirmoor Rifles shared a great many ideals. Wishing to continue in a military career, Duffell, then a junior officer was advised to apply to join the 2nd Goorkhas, a ‘sister’ unit of the 60th, with an association going back to when the Gurkhas were a ‘Local Battalion’ proving themselves in action alongside the 60th at Delhi Ridge in 1857.

Learning the ‘Sirmoor system’ was chief among the responsibilities for all newly arriving officers and men at Slim Barracks, Singapore during the mid-20th century. For British officers, much depended, and still does, on how a new arrival is able to adapt to the special requirements of Gurkha service, demanded by their founder, General Frederick Young, which even a casual glance at memoirs from officers, and indeed the rare accounts of Riflemen, who have served in the Gurkhas, will tell you have not changed since the inception of the Goorkha Local Battalions in 1815 by Frederick Young. 

A key theme in General Duffell’s book is the importance and steadying influence of tradition and history, in not only a regiment, but in it’s members. He does this by beginning the book with his own introduction to military life and his new regiment, which he joined on its highest and holiest day, Delhi Day. This allows the author to interrupt his own remembrances of service and introduce the notable moments of regimental history, and indeed wider Gurkha Brigade history, which also has it’s influence, before returning to the events he witnessed himself, which now form part of their lali edged legacy. A particularly striking moment stood out to me as I read through the chapter dedicated to the Afghan Wars and came to a subheading labelled ‘The Fourth Afghan War’ which summarised some of the recent service of the regiment. It’s attendant start date was clear but a question mark stood beside it. This conflict, which occurred and is indeed still occurring during my own lifetime has it’s own place in the story, but is as yet an unfinished unfinished chapter. 

Fittingly the section relating to the Gurkhas in those much forgotten post war conflicts in Malaya and Borneo during the last century, where the author saw active service alongside many veterans of the war with Japan, takes centre stage as the book progresses. Then as now in the ‘4th Afghan War’ operations were carried out in remote and difficult-to-access regions against a numerous and dogged enemy, where the employment of heavily armed patrols and a great dependence on Helicopters pervaded. The tough and amiable qualities of the Gurkha soldier are never better showcased than in such unconventional campaigns where the local population need befriended and the insurgent enemy suppressed. 

No book about the Gurkhas ever fails to observe the humour and stoicism of the Nepalese Riflemen and the author’s adroit turn of phrase and polished imagery brings these qualities, and many individual vignettes, to life in softly humorous style. At the launch itself many of the anecdotes contained in the book, such as the Wodehousian manner of a rifleman as he alerted his officer to the presumptuous appearance of the enemy, drew appreciative laugher from the audience. The General’s extensive travels and his great familiarity with the language and character of Nepal allows him to describe with ease and confidence, themes and places far removed from Catterick and Shorncliffe.

This book shows us how vital the Gurkhas have been to the success of the British Army and to the defence of the realm in peace and war, not least the positive impact the existence of Gurkha Regiments has on Nepal and the good investment the loyal and long serving Nepalis represent for Britain. It offers examples of the distinctive role this corps has played in the past and that which is continues to play today and into the future. 

A word must be retained for the visual matter included in the volume, with delicate sketch portraits of Gurkha servicemen adorning most of the chapter headings and not a few watercolour scenes in the well illustrated plate sections executed in a controlled yet free, atmospheric style by Ken Howard OBE RA. 

In finishing the book, I reflected on the sure but humble way in which the author gave his talk and how the tone of his writing seemed to match his personality. Since that night I have discovered that many of the soldiers I occasionally converse with over social media had served at one time or another under his command in Hong Kong and each, even those from other regiments, remember him fondly. 

Where would we be without the Gurkhas?

On the night of the launch the obvious affection reserved for him was impossible to ignore as an extensive line of well wishers formed to have books signed. The manner in which he interacted with them and comrades alike was moving to see. A kind word and a handshake came with each signature, and I overheard a dignified Nepalese serviceman, his rank obscure in his civilian clothes, but his regimental affiliation obvious, observe to a retired gentleman of the Gurkha Logistics Corps, how proud he was of Sir Peter and how pleased he was at he turnout, even if he had expected more senior Gurkha officers to have attended. Trust me when I say, it would have been difficult to fit many more people in. 

Peter Duffell ends his odyssey on a hopeful note, observing that though in small ways the Gurkha soldier has changed since the 1960’s, the changes are only positive for the new recruits passing through to Catterick from Pokhara. His views on the future of the regiment he helped to shape when the future of the Brigade was in jeopardy are no less encouraging.

The new challenges the Royal Gurkha Rifles must face in a changing, increasingly nationalised, world will further shape the regiment and it was announced this year that for the first time girls will undertake the formidable selection course alongside the thousands of boys eager to prove themselves, meanwhile the 70 year old agreement ensuring the ever reliable pool of recruits comes under reappraisal. As ever vigilance will be required to see the RGR through, but I have no doubt that they will ever succeed to rise to the challenge.

I predicted soon after the launch that if Gurkha Odyssey was even half as well written as General Duffell’s eloquent and sincerely delivered talk, then it would be a brilliant book and I am delighted to assure you that I feel 100% justified in that prediction. 

Josh.