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.


Pirates were bad, Grow up!

Do as you were told and you would be left alone. This is the freedom the Jolly Roger stood for. But do we really want to look piracy in the face?

I very rarely tell people to do this, and just for the record I’m a fan of Disney, at least the parks and animation. And on the whole blockbusters, phoney accents and silly outfits are allot of fun. But I try to never lose sight of what piracy actually represents. So I’m really writing this post about the concepts we chose to be repulsed by, rather than what got changed in a theme park ride.
Continue reading “Pirates were bad, Grow up!”

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.

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.