Book Review: Greek Hoplite vs Persian Warrior by Chris McNab.

Author: Chris McNab
Illustrator: Adam Hook
Short code: CBT 31
Publication Date: 9 Mar 2018

The Combat series, when it is done right, is an excellent format for the nuts and bolts of Battle. Instead of grand strategy we see how individuals dealt with it. In the case of the Greek and Persian War I think author, Chris McNab has done it right, the attraction of this title is for me the glimpse it gives on the Persian side of the combat. Much like the Romans we have a schoolboy image of Ancient Greek Warfare. The rundown of the classic Hoplite and his tactics is not hard to grasp, as is the basics of why they successfully defended themselves against the Persians.

Very little credit is usually given to the invaders, they are either hopelessly outmatched or their capabilities are stupidly overestimated so as to inflate the reputation of the Greeks. Here the author does a good job of observing the simplistic nature of the Hoplite system against the more sophisticated Persian model, while at the same time noting that the Persians had no binding system that would train their giant vassal armies into a unified host, and that the Greek reliance in heavy infantry was a factor to their advantage.
What will become clear here is not the superiority of the Hoplite over the Persian, it is the factors in aid of the Hoplite. The peninsula of Greece is a poor place to fight if your army needs room to manoeuvre. The Greeks had no cavalry and little by way of archers, they had one tactic, to get as many heavy infantry into combat as possible at the same time. The Spartans were noted as excellent in war not only because their citizens were trained from birth, but because to everyone else, the art of war consisted of forming up in ranks, eight odd men deep and then walking in a straight line towards the enemy and battering him until he ran away.

Persian troops, drawn from many fighting cultures, preferred the use of masses, cavalry and range firepower to break up an enemy, with key units in reserve, before a final rush. Technically this should have had more flexibility, but not when confined to narrow beaches, or mountain valleys, or when Persian commanders would insist on allowing themselves to be fixed and charged by the enemy. Notable also is much evidence of what the staff colledge would call command and control.

The Greeks had no real answer to cavalry, or massed archers, and the Persians had no answer to heavy infantry. In the end the Greeks made the right tactical decisions and the Persians made the wrong ones. This book highlights these factors in a bright, well written way. It falls down a little in the fact that it strays away from being a combat book, not really discussing ways the opposing forces used their weapons in combat with any depth, and this is a flaw in the Combat series in general where authors take on subjects that would require a great deal of focus on experimental archeology. Nevertheless, both sides’ weapons, training and basic statistics are considered, and three well known battles are given to exemplify what elements made up a battle in this time. Marathon, Thermopylae and Platea.

What emerges from these engagements is what has already been observed, though a few interesting thoughts occurred to me as I read the familiar retellings based mostly on Herodotus. Foremost is the length of some engagements, indicating that Persian infantry could not be cut through in the commonly thought knife through butter manner, but could sustain a prolonged engagement and presumably heavy losses throughout each of the three battles. Second, that Platea offers the most interesting examination of combat due to the nature of the ground suiting both sides, and the Greeks almost coming undone by active Persian use of cavalry and a refusal to engage until an advantage presented itself, had perhaps the Persians been faced with less crack troops on the right, we might have had a fairer appraisal of the two styles of fighting.

But there it is, the book cannot help ending up one sided in the sense that the Greeks always get the better end of the fight. The author warns the reader about this in his analysis and very properly points out that the Greeks adopted widespread light infantry tactics in the wake of the invasions. I had expected to see some discussion about how the Immortals were utilised at  Thermopylae but the focus is generally on the Greeks. It is just possible that because the Greeks told the story, we aren’t getting the other half and never will.

The scarcity of evidence for Persian arms and warfare and Persian voices is crippling to being able to fully appreciate what was going on, for with the Greek sources as our only guide we must understand that any favourable advantage the Persians showed would be played down. And considering how vast and multi-ethnic the Persian forces were this is perhaps not so surprising the difficulty of trying to examine their forces. But this book nonetheless gives a flavour of what was going on and does give the much denigrated enemies of democracy as detailed an overview as space allows.
I’m not sure if Adam Hook was given the best brief for this book, there is something in the scale of the split screen composition that makes it look more like a reenactment than a battle, but the Thermopylae scene is interesting for the inclusion of the famous wall.
Honesty demands I inform readers this is a fairly by the numbers retelling of the major elements of the pre Macedonian Persian Wars, but it nevertheless is of interest as a window onto this conflict.


Book Review: The Crossbow by Mike Loades.

Author: Mike Loades
Illustrator: Peter Dennis
Short code: WPN 61
Publication Date: 9 Mar 2018
Number of Pages: 80

Osprey’s Weapon’s series has some excellent titles, and allows a specific kind of author a valuable chance to investigate the nuts and bolts of military hardware. Mike Loades is a perfect writer for this series due to his practical experience, dedicated research, open mindedness and engaging style. As the author points out at the beginning, the crossbow has a strangely bad reputation, especially in England. Seen as the weapon of villains and foreigners, and scoffed at when compared to the longbow, this weapon is undeserving of the scorn heaped upon it. When your humble reviewing servant opined, one indulgent evening, in a tweet that noted the expertise of crossbow companies as opposed to those of the longbow, he was met by quite a bunctious barrage of indignant replies.
Nevertheless I maintain that professional crossbowmen, or arbalists as those of the fraternity are called, were on the whole better drilled and more professional than their archer counterparts, at least at first. The synchronicity required to orchestrate the continual massed discharge of a lateral firing weapon and it’s accompanying pavises in battle necessitated the expertise of crossbow armed troops, hence they were perfect mercenaries and ‘scientifically minded’ soldiers. They also represent an overlooked factor of warfare in the Middle Ages. All too often people imagine a frenzied melee, but the presence of a machine like a crossbow and the inherent necessity to protect their practitioners shows us the much neglected combined arms nature of 12th and 13th century medieval armies. This seems borne out by the Chinese, who left us the only actual written evidence of the complexity of crossbow tactics, and happily this is covered in Loades’ book, identifying how it could dominate the battlefield in a number of ways.
It was not a super-weapon, as many tend to argue as overcompensation for its bad press, but it checked the boxes of what makes a weapon useful and popular, simplicity, portability, ruggedness and maintainability. Loades delves into the science, construction and attributes of the weapon and explores its role and effectiveness, in China, the Middle East and Western Europe.
Not being an archer myself I couldn’t say wether all the talking points are covered in the examination of what makes a crossbow, but it seems thorough to me. I enjoyed the analysis of its combat use, especially how it could form only a part of a professional soldier’s arsenal of talents. Being able to shoot a crossbow and work with others looked good on ye olde CV.
It is commonly thought that both the church and the nobility shunned crossbows, and while it is partially true the papacy tried to prevent all bowmen from shooting fellow Christians, it’s hardly true that the crossbow was despised by medieval commanders. Much like the later musket, the bow, and especially the crossbow (because it’s construction allowed for a greater amount of technical intricacy and artistic embellishment) was a prized weapon for the nobility to master. It was of course rare to see them employ it on the battlefield, and it was most commonly to be seen as a sporting weapon in the upper echelons of society, however in saying that let us not forget that it was with crossbow in hand that Richard the Lionheart waded ashore to relieve Jaffa, and the bolts of his mercenaries that he beat off Saladin’s horse-archers in the ensuing battle. Loades does not omit the factor of crossbow culture here, when he examines the importance and influence of crossbow societies and guilds which were remarkably egalitarian in their membership requirements.
A wealth of practical and experimental knowledge is brought to this work, from shooting the bow mounted, to the tricky procedure of using it in a turret at targets below you, and by the end the reader should find themselves in the enviable position of those who are inspired to learn more. Peter Dennis does duty for the main illustrations here, delivering an engaging scene of the Battle at Jaffa and some typically exciting siege scenes. There are also as many excellent photographs of the weapons themselves as anyone could wish.
The demise of the crossbow, ironically seems to have been its expense. Though at first the ease with which the weapon could be mastered made it popular, the upkeep of professional companies would prove more damaging to a purse than the trickier and more labour intensive longbow, at least in Britain. Although both stringed weapons superseded by the gun, so long as Mike Loades has anything to say about it, neither will be considered inferior to them.


Book Review: The Eyes of Asia by Rudyard Kipling.

Publication Date: 8 November 2017
ISBN: 9781911271055

Rudyard Kipling was the voice of the British Empire. Not the official voice; the one that spoke from Whitehall. It was that of the everyman and especially the soldier. But he was also something else, a voice that hailed from many miles away. From a place many had only seen in the pages of the Illustrated London News, but most had never seen. Kipling was the authentic British voice of India. Today his work does not always serve as authentically as it once did, the Foreign Secretary was recently chided for recalling the poet’s temple bells during a visit to Myanmar. To many he is now one of the cadre of embarrassing colonial voices that urge apology. Yet to dismiss Kipling would be to dismiss a body of work upon which generations of people have relied on to broaden rather than narrow their minds.

Say what you might about the formidable author or Gunga Din & The Jungle Book, but you cannot escape the fact that he loved India. It was in his blood, and for this reason he was present at the unveiling of the memorial at Neuve Chapelle dedicated to the fallen Indian soldiers and labourers of the First World War who had no known graves. It was for this reason that, after being asked to write something to gain the USA’s help in WW1, (a nation critical of British imperialism) he chose to memorialise in words the gallantry, loyalty and sacrifice of the Indian soldier in four works that are here presented in a wonderful booklet sized publication by Kashi House.

With a facinating introduction by Charles Allen to frame them, these four tales brought the lives of four fictional men into focus. But though they never breathed air, the life that Kipling imbued them with came from a very authentic place. They are composites of countless first hand accounts that passed through the hands of the sensor written during the war to family back in India. Accompanying them is a selection of evocative pictures, from the famous and stately portraits to the photographs of cheering sowars, to the tigerish scene of a Sikh bayonet charge by Caton Woodville.

The Indian army as seen by Kipling was represented by four men of what were commonly known as the ‘martial races’. Two infantrymen, and two cavalrymen. A Rajput officer, a Sikh NCO, a Muslim Pathan sharpshooter and a Punjabi Muslim NCO. The two infantrymen are convalescents & the two cavalrymen are still serving in France. The stories themselves are super. Conveying absolutely the opposite image to the popular picture of British Tommies going over the top and manning the trenches. Excellent in their ability to show turbans at the front in an engaging and interesting way.

It is true, each letter shows us as much how a British person saw the Indian soldier as it does how it was for the actual men. Even one as familiar with his subject as Kipling could not help and lend himself to propaganda. All the men in these stories are devotedly loyal to the King, disdainful of the Germans & usualy in awe of western civilisation, even that seen through the mud and misery of the trenches. There are motherly French peasants and memsahibs, noble paternal officers and multiple allusions to the strangeness and superiority of the British. But there is also duty, and homesickness, and small snatches of the real life experiences these contrived letters were drawn from.

Although patently sentimental to the imperial cause they served, the Eyes of Asia is a remarkable collection of lesser known stories, that serve the same purpose today as they served 100 years ago, to show India as being committed to the fight. These Indian volunteers were indeed there too, and though they are written in Kipling’s story to serve a propogabda purpose, these four men in their own way aided the entry of the USA into the war. Just as their real life inspirations helped keep Britain’s war effort afloat during the dark mid-war years. The Eyes of Asia is an enlightening and eye opening read.



A slice of Warfare during the Crusades.

A very fine first hand account of warfare in what the crusaders called Outremer. Here’s a vivid excerpt showing the reality of hand to hand combat but also the surprisingly competent nature of combat surgery in the Islamic world.

‘There was in my service a man named Numayr al-‘Allaruzi. He was a footman, brave and strong. With a band of men from Shayzar, he set out to al-Ruj to attack the Franks. When still in our territory, they came across a caravan of the Franks hiding in a cavern, and each one began to say to the other, “Who should go in against them?”
“I,” said Numayr. And as he said it, he turned over to his companions his sword and shield, drew his dagger and went in against them. As he entered, one of them came to receive him, but Numayr stabbed him immediately with the dagger, overthrew him and knelt upon him to slay him Behind the Frank stood another one with a sword in his hand and struck Numayr. The latter had on his back a knapsack containing bread, which protected him. Having killed the man under him, Numayr now turned to the man with the sword, intent upon attacking him. The Frank immediately struck him with the sword on the side of his face and cut through his eyebrow, eyelid, cheek, nose and upper lip, making the whole side of his face hang down on his chest. Numayr went out of the cavern to his companions, who bandaged his wound and brought him back during a cold rainy night. He arrived in Shayzar in that condition. There his face was stitched and his cut was treated until he was healed and returned to his former condition, with the exception of his eye which was lost for good.’


See you again for another adventure in Historyland.


Historyland’s Top Five History Books from 2017.

Once more good people, books flooded my reading list last year in such quantities that at times I found myself swimming in them. In total I think I read one, maybe two books that was not related to research or that I had not been asked to review. My undying thanks goes out to all the wonderful author’s and publicists who have given me the opportunity to indulge in what I love to do. So now I present my five favourite history books from 2017, there’s no particular order here but here they are in the order they were posted.

Isabella of Castile. Giles Tremlett.
‘For its blend of grandeur, cruelty, drama and sheer unrepentant passion nothing can match the history of the Spanish Empire. And it all started with a young strawberry blond Castilian girl named Isabella. This wonderfully produced book will engross you to the very finish’.

The Late Lord. Jacqueline Reiter.
‘The Late Lord is a confident, elegantly written biography, rooted in iron clad fact, rarely ever straying from what cannot be substantiated. I think it also brings to the fore the wider strategy Britain adopted to defeat France. Brilliantly highlighting, at the same time, the life of a man who represents a substrata of British statesmen and aristocrats during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. This book does much to retake lost ground, questioning what has been taken for granted, and bringing a much needed spotlight of unbiased scholarship to a fascinating and tragic life.’

Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain. Ian Mortimer.
‘Ian Mortimer’s Books are so brilliant. Not because they bring the past back to life, but because they prove that there was once life in the past … The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain maintains the high standard of the series, with Mortimer’s usual verve and humour. An eye opening tour that thoughtfully opens up, not a world lost, but a world gone by’.

Koh I Noor. William Dalrymple and Anita Anand.
‘A book that shines in its ability to string together thousands of years of history, involving politics, war, personalities and rivalries into a fluid tale. In many ways parting the mists of myth that surround the diamond. A highly readable, exciting and poignant work, that cleverly tells the history of the diamond and at the same time using it as a vehicle to tell the history of India’.

Tartan Turban. John Keay.
‘This … is a story that is worthy of motion picture treatment. Few lives could have been so heroically flawed and so madly eccentric or so deserving of notice, but at the same time it was a life played in a sort of gaudy, inglorious, undertone, because Gardiner never stepped fully into the limelight in his own lifetime. Happily we now have John Keay’s book to bring this fascinating character back into focus’.

Happy reading in 2018 everyone.

Chasing Snowflakes.

The early science of snowflakes.

Snow crystals, these pieces of visible magic, this cloth of dreams, which conjures up images of Christmas, of rosy cheeks, red robins, excitement and raging fires that would make the inside otherwise dreary. Like all magic, it can be somewhat malevolent. In proper quantities and in remote places it mocks humanity’s self assurance, and can try a soul to its limits. No other substance on earth, save perhaps it’s mother; water, is so inhospitable to life and yet so desired. Like all things that bring pleasure and pain, snow has fascinated all that have ever seen it. As a natural phenomenon, scientist and layman can derive something different from it. But most of all it is something that many of us discover as children, and those magical hours it allowed us to fill leave us chasing snowflakes for the rest of our lives. Continue reading “Chasing Snowflakes.”

Book Review: The Northwest Passage Overland. E.C Coleman.

Very witty… sometimes downright absurdly ridiculous… exciting and well described. This… tale… of an earnest and enquiringly Doctor, a lazy but courageous Viscount, and their formidable Canadian guides attempting to map a route to the Canadian goldfields will absorb the long winter nights and infuse them with a spirit of old time adventure. Continue reading “Book Review: The Northwest Passage Overland. E.C Coleman.”