Unquestionably one of the ultimate books on the Punic Wars, Mastering the West is a mix of deep scholarship and clear, engaging prose full of fascinating possibilities. Continue reading
“John Keay tracks down his mysterious, Quixotic quarry with masterful scholarship, wonderous detail & true insight” Continue reading
“A very useful, very readable work. Fresh, believable and wise.” Continue reading
Paperback: 80 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (24 Aug. 2017)
The Viking Age has often been called the time when England was made. These Scandinavian intruders, who were only one in a line of successive invaders since the Celtic Migration and which included the Saxons, succeeded for a short time in replacing the then current owners of the land and left an indelible mark on, not just England but practically every nation in the British Isles.
This was a time period dominated in military terms by the shield-wall, made up of men, for the most part, armoured with hauberks, shields, swords, spears and axes. Because of the legendary exploits of the Vikings as bloodthirsty pagan looters, and the fame of the saga of 1066, this is a very recognisable time in the history of Northern Europe. Bernard Cornwell had added his popular touch to the history of the subject by writing the Last Kingdom series, which deals with the emergence of the Saxon kingdoms, so it’s safe to say this is a subject dear to many people’s hearts.
This is a well constructed overview of some key battles, and a neat survey of weaponry and organisation, accompanied by some fine photographs and action packed original artwork, however it doesn’t quite deliver the “boots on the ground” experience that other titles in the series provide. Also lacking here is the progression seen in other Versus books. We don’t see much in the way of an evolution in fighting styles.
This was always going to be a tough subject. Unlike later medieval eras there is a scarcity of sources that can reconstruct the use of shield, spear, sword, axe and seax. However experimental archeology does allows us to theorise as to their most logical applications, Mike Loades for instance has presented some highly interesting theories on the subject in his series Weapons that Made Britain.
Interestingly what the author is doing is showing us how alike the Vikings and Saxons were in their approach to warfare. How elements of each other’s military ethos and technology was harnessed. Rather than their differences this book observes two remarkably similar tactical doctrines. Instead of the front lines the author covers grand strategy, campaign goals and possible interpretations for the course of the Battle of Ashdown, the Battle of Maldon and the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
As mentioned above a paucity of written works restricts the scope of the book. Whereas in other Versus books it is possible to observe the experiences of “voices from the ranks” the sparse sources to be found for these centuries of warfare makes even the detailed reconstruction of major battles a challenge. More perhaps could have been done to attempt to flesh out the way warfare was conducted and a greater discussion of possible and theoretical tactics could have been mounted. There is for instance three diagrams that illustrate shield-wall tactics. However the relative complexity of the formation isn’t mentioned even though there is a discussion to be had about the old fashioned idea of the walls, which show simplistic arrays of men standing shoulder to shoulder, and the newer interpretations which show a highly organised system of projecting spears and in places, stacked shields that have a distinctly Roman or Greek flavour.
Peter Dennis provides mad melee’s, and an interesting interpretation of the famous incident at Stamford Bridge, in which the famous axe-man, often called a berserker, is killed while delaying the Saxon pursuit, not by a spear between the legs, but by a javelin hurled from the riverbank. His lone figure studies are excellent detailed, and it’s always satisfying to see the Seax dangling within easy reach.
All in all, this is a good overview of early medieval warfare in Northern Europe and its broad dynamics, but presents only a limited view of the ways in which battles were fought in terms of nuts and bolts combat.
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Abacus (7 Sept. 2017)
In terms of visuals the Paperback is as one would expect, a good product with an interesting design, but publishers will continue to put faux gilt onto the front cover, on hardbacks that is OK you can avoid rubbing it off with use by removing the dust jacket but with paperbacks this isn’t an option and the result is a much less fancy cover when you get through with it.
Inside, I must say I’m very impressed with Justin Hill’s new novel Viking Fire. Don’t be fooled by the typically HistFic title, this is a strong, literary, retelling of the Harald Hardrada saga. Everyone thinks they know what a Viking is, and because of that, probably the most interesting figure of the 1066 epic is also the most misunderstood. This book presents the story of a man who might not be very familiar to readers who are used to unimaginative and bland descriptions of Hardrada as a opportunistic looter. Continue reading
Author: Scott Martin, Bernard F. Harris Jr.
Illustrator: Graham Turner
Short code: CAM 311
Publication Date: 24 Aug 2017
Number of Pages: 96
This campaign is another one that slips through the cracks. Much like the campaign of Charleston and Camden, and realistically Monmouth it presents a problem to writers of the American Revolution. Why? Because it’s events were soon overshadowed by what followed. The 3 years between 1777 and 1781 are a sort of limbo, which is easier to briefly summarise into the bigger picture than actually examine.
They are important because they were the building blocks that created the opportunities to once more shut down the British war effort. With the demise of the Hudson strategy after Saratoga, and the abandonment of Philadelphia which provided the proving ground of Monmouth courthouse for the Continental Army, the British revisited the idea of a “Southern Strategy”.
It of course transpired that the entire Crown campaign from start to finish polarised around gobbling up juicy colonial capitols and launching fairly fruitless expeditions from them, all of which ended up in utter failure. The exception would be in 1780 when after the capture of Charleston the British decisively defeated an American field Army, which gave gives this campaign, something of a hopeful aspect for the British and could be seen to usher in the crisis of the American War.
Scott Martin and Bernard F. Harris Jr bring to light many names that go unnoticed in the annals of the war. The weight of unfamiliar officers is quite extraordinary, riding alongside better known ones such as Pulaski, but very often a name is just that, and here we get something practical to read about. The poorly covered campaign is doubly important because it introduces the French element to the saga of the Revolution. The French fleet and land forces, under Admiral d’Estaing, fought their first engagements since the end of the 7 Years War with their old enemy, but by the end of the campaign, mounting failures had put strain on the new alliance.
One of the great things about history is often the ironies, such as the famous defender of Fort Moultrie, Sergeant Jasper who raised the Liberty flag over the embrasures in 1776, dying rescuing another flag on the parapet of Savannah’s Springhill Redoubt. Incidents like this and highlights of the African American contribution, ably weaved into a concise narrative is why this is a solid account of a deceptively uninteresting campaign. Though I must pause for thought in typically annoying fashion to ask, when describing a loose palisade of shortened stakes placed vertically into the ditch of a redoubt, is Palisade the right word?
Anyway, that aside, by the end the authors have creditably described how this campaign promised to have a dangerously destabilising effect on the Franco-American alliance. Highlighting a very interesting against the odds scenario which is again a testament to the capability of the British infantry (and their allies) in America. An Interesting campaign, full of fascinating actions, with to the mainstay of the Crown forces being highlanders, Germans and loyalists, which might prove attractive to war-gamers. At the same time it shows the old truth of good British tactics but flawed British strategy giving false hope to planners in New York and London. And a rare example (1775 invasion of Canada being another) of a muddled American strategy which would prove nearly disastrous then on until after the Battle of Camden and the coming of General Greene.
An excellent array of images and maps accompany the work, including some very fine commissioned artwork, the Springhill Fort by Turner is, I think a superb battle scene.
This professionally written, even handed, fair account is all you could want from a Osprey campaign book and a work of military history.
Illustrator: Seán Ó’Brógáin
Short code: CAM 307
Publication Date: 18 May 2017
Number of Pages: 96
Some years ago a French mayor suggested changing the Gare du Nord to Fontenoy in a tit for tat response to Waterloo being the EU terminus. Most, even in France would probably frown and say “Fonte-What?” Chances are if you read Osprey Books you won’t be one of those people, and those who appreciate 18th century history will certainly not be ignorant of the most important battle of the War of the Austrian Succession.
Nevertheless public consciousness of what is perhaps the most conclusive French victory over British arms is not good. It is quite possible some know a general outline of the fight, but it really deserves a closer look. There is a sort of terrible grandeur to the simplicity of the fight. The dramatic theatricality that all stand up fights have. Also to commend it to the student of military history and strategy is the brilliance of the French commander’s generalship and his own heroic personality.
Fontenoy was the peak of Marshal de Saxe’s career. The campaign demonstrated his excellent strategic planning, and expert understanding of his enemy. Meanwhile the allies under the Duke of Cumberland showed themselves as dull and gullible puppets that played willingly into the hands of the French. The battle itself is almost like a European Gettysburg, in which one force believing too much in its own superiority flings itself against a determined foe and pays the price.
This, above even the stunning performance of the British infantry, is Saxe’s hour. And when we read the crisis of the fight it is hard not to cheer out-loud when the Marshal’s foresight pays off and he wins the field. Michael McNally should be praised for a crisp and stirring narrative through this title, demonstrating an excellent grasp of both sides strengths and weaknesses. Though the battle should probably be honestly described as a bit of a slogging match, the campaign itself was one that must stand alongside some of the finest feats of arms in terms of Saxe’s use of deception and foresight that forced his enemy to play to his tune.
Personally I had heard of Fontenoy as a boy when I was told that it was the first battle in which the Black Watch (then the 43rd highlanders) were engaged. From an allied point of view there was little to rejoice in, and it highlights the questionable reliability of allowing princes the supreme command of troops. The Duke of Cumberland perhaps might have made a decent tactical, brigade commander, but was lost in the big picture. Hence when it came to the limited field at Culloden the next year he was able to triumph, but Fontenoy shows us that he was a flawed commander when pitted against a soldier who knew his business.
The maps are very helpful in this book, and the full colour spreads are colourful and exciting. The best is the charge of the Irish brigade, and illustrates what the artist is best at, that being up close and personal scenes of combat. In my opinion he is not so suited to more sprawling scenes, the first 2 pager of the French position at Fontenoy quickly loses me, partly due to the impossibility of the flag in the foreground being spread out as if strings were attached to its corners, while all the other flags are hanging limp from their poles. The charge of the French Cavalry I like, at first I was a little sceptical of the composition in that the French are awfully close to the enemy for a cavalry charge. However look closely and you will see the pistol bearing cavaliers turning their mounts, whose reins and forelegs are rigid as they stall before the steady British line.
Fontenoy was a defining battle. One that should rank amongst the toughest fought of the 18th century, McNally has done the tale justice in this fine book.