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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh.

Book Review: Trapdoor Springfield by John Langeller.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

See you again for another adventure in historyland,

Josh

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

https://ospreypublishing.com/the-crossbow

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.

Josh.

Book Review: Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell.

When a writer chooses as their lead protagonist an actor and his main theme the theatre, possibilities abound. At first looking at Bernard Cornwell’s new novel “Fools and Mortals” you might dissapointedly think, oh, the creator of Sharpe has finally succumbed to the Tudor period eh? And oh look! He’s writing about Shakespeare, how original. Perhaps it was only a matter of time. But don’t be fooled, as we mortals often are, this is a story of layer and depth. Continue reading