Book Review: Fontenoy 1745 by Michael McNally.

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.


Book Review: Lawson lies still in the Thames by Gill Blanchard.

Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 May 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1445661233

Gill Blanchard charts the life of an interesting 17th century figure, who’s career spanned the civil wars, the commonwealth and the Restoration. To gain a greater understanding of any period in history, biographies like this are invaluable. You will gain a greater insight to 17th century England by studying its people, as uounwill the politics and wars, because it was men like Lawson who took part in them.

Lawson, a perennially cash strapped, unshakeably pious, die hard Republican, of obscure origins emerged from the merchant service when he ran coal up and down the country, to play a somewhat obscure part in the civil war and on to become a rear admiral of the commonwealth and fought against the Dutch in the 1650s.

His life is an up and down voyage over a troubled sea. Where his values were constantly put to the test by friend and foe alike. He hurts most fully upon the stage during the restoration crisis that preceded the return of the monarchy. When the commonwealth was split over what was to be done after Cromwell’s totalitarianism had thrown the new republic on the rocks. Lawson who had already spent time in the tower after being implicated in a plot to kill the Lord protector, had faced down the army in a land and sea standoff which effectively ended when Monck took control, but it is probably even less appreciated that Lawson then played a vital part in the restoration of King Charles II.

Blanchard has painted an excellent portrait of a fascinating figure. A man who could stand as an excellent conduit to the great events and movements of this turbulent period. It’s unlikely for instance that a general reader will care to give their time to a study of non conformism in the 17th century, but through works like this the issue is brought to the surface, as is the curiously haphazard nature of 17th century English naval affairs, where soldiers became admirals, sorry “General’s at Sea”, and colliers could end up commanding fleets and the fates of nations.

In a way it is an ironic life. A republican who opposed monarchy, yet helped bring it back & then was mortally wounded fighting under the royal standard he had fought to pull down in the civil wars.

His death, as it happened, from a wound incurred by the shattering of his kneecap at the Battle of Lowestoft is actually a prime example of why surgeons would usually amputate any joint wound, and his demise was a direct consequence of efforts to remove bone fragments and the ball.

A comparison with Nelson is perhaps warranted. Indeed Lawson is somewhat singular amongst the more famous admirals of his day, in that he actually knew how to sail, and was a seaman, unlike General Monck or his sometime adversary Prince Rupert. Lawson was of the breed of Drake and Raleigh, and for his day he was a new kind of admiral, a man who new his business, and who came from obscure origins. He was the sort of man that the modern navy would be built upon.

Lawson Lies Still in the Thames is a splendid book with which to delve deeper into this topsy turvy era.


Book Review: Napoleon in America by Shannon Selin.

Paperback: 312 pages
Publisher: Dry Wall Publishing (7 Jan. 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0992127505

What if Napoleon had escaped after Waterloo? Some people ask me.
“He’d have gone to America” I say. It’s an easy question to answer because the motives of the emperor at that time were still clear and his power of choice was still his own. Most people do not ask, what if Napoleon had escaped from St Helena. Continue reading “Book Review: Napoleon in America by Shannon Selin.”

Book Review: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain by Ian Mortimer.


Hardcover: 464 pages
Publisher: Bodley Head (6 April 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1847923046

Appearance and handling.

Visually there’s allot to like about this book. In hardback it has a nice quirky cover. Quality pages and lots of study aids in the back. 2 eight page colour image sections are rich in detail, and although there is some of the dreaded embossed gold lettering on the cover at least it is high up on the jacket. Top tip, if you want to avoid oils from your fingers rubbing this off, take the dust jacket off (which is admittedly somewhat fragile) before you read it.

The Review.

Somewhere in the Bodleian Library in 1687 a Chinese academic works studiously away, cataloging documents. He can converse in Latin and in his spare time is assisting his sponsor, Friar Philippe Couplet, in the preparation of the works of Confucius. After meeting the King he is also painted by Lely and his portrait now forms part of the Royal Collection. Shen Fuzong, popularly known as the Christian convert, was no itinerate who stumbled off a ship and into a painter’s studio with nothing but a rosary and a dream, he was a scholar and he is not only the first Chinese person to be painted but also the first recorded of his countrymen to visit Britain and meet a head of state.

When we consider the popular Euro-American conception that China is as different to most western countries as night and day, and therefore almost like visiting a different world, you might agree that the past would be equally hard to navigate. The experience of a modern person swimming through some cosmic portal and landing in Restoration Britain would perhaps not be so far removed from the experience of a Chinese Mandarin in the same century doing going by ship. The world is alien to you, people don’t even speak the same (version of the) language, and without a good guide you’re likely to end up tired, frightened, hungry and miserable trying to find a place to spend the night. Enter Professor Mortimer.

That knowing looking cove in the wide brimmed felt hat on the back cover is the man in question. Trust an less well versed time traveller, when he tells you; Mortimer’s the man to ask about time travel, not just where to go and what to see, but how to get around, how much to spend on souvenirs and the like, and how to stay out of trouble. Top tip, be careful about the link-boys, but I’ll let the Proff fill you in about them.

Taking as a premise the idea that the concept of time travel is possible unlocks many doors. Passageways of the imagination. Many people think that imagination and history don’t mix except in historical fiction, a conception that is just a stones-throw away from saying that history never happened as a reality and that it’s just words on a page. But to deploy an favourite observation of mine, drawn from the author of this book, yesterday is literally the past. It’s as much history as something that happened thousands of years ago. Relatively speaking the only difference between an event that took place last week, and one that happened in antiquity is that we can theoretically still ask someone about the experience they had last week.

Strip imagination away from the history, or accept that the words on the page speak about something untouchable and arbitrary is to deny the concept of continuation. That is why 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. This is one of the great lessons of the Time Traveller series, but there’s more. The past is a foreign country, we’ve been through that, but it is a foreign country within the limits of our own physical universe. We indeed are always living in the past from a physical point of view, we’ve been drinking the same recycled water and looking up at the same sun and moon for centuries.

What this means, as is demonstrated in the book, is that though the past is always foreign, it is also human. Well might the modern intellectual scoff at the cruelty and barbarism, the racist mindsets, the bigotry and the narrow mindedness of the past. We are far more enlightened now, the contemporary reader might say, but everything, even the most unpalatable facets of human thought was modern once. Who indeed is to say we will not be judged by generations to come for something we consider quite normal? For we most certainly will be the objects of their curiosity. What will make us relatable is our humanity. Flashes of similarity, love, grief, pain, happiness and compassion are evident everywhere in this book. It is what inspires them that is strange.

How queer, we might think, that the common 17th century islander has no appreciation of the beauty of unsterilised nature, as we stare at the same view through the screens of our digital age devices. Tools we will proudly declare we could not live without, and are driven to distraction when they run out of battery or fail us.

Some people nowadays say that China is as different from the west as night is to day. But step back a moment and you realise that the fabric separating the two is as thin as a sheet of tracing paper. It’s the same with 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.


Book Review: Arthur and the Kings of Britain By Miles Russell

ISBN: 9781445662749
Format: Hardback.
Length 336 Pages including full colour image section..
Published: 15 March 2017, Amberly.

Arthur and the Kings of Britain is principally about breaking a code. In the 12th Century a scholar named Geoffrey of Monmouth penned a book called Historia Regnum Brittaniae, the History of the Kings of Britain heretofore referred to as HRB. A mammoth compilation of names and events purporting to chronicle the rulers of the land all the way back to their Trojan roots.

Today they the HRB is sneered at by many writers and scholars who argue that it is just an impressive work of medieval propaganda designed to please Geoffrey’s Norman overlords. But perhaps it is merely that these learned folk have not broken the code. Hidden within the foreshadowing, bias and propaganda there are elements of ancient histories dating back to the 1st Century BC.

Miles Russell sets out to find out once and for all if the HRB, and other similar histories are indeed the load of hokum they are cracked up to be. He does not defend the HRB as a work of history. Instead he argues that it is full of hints and allusions that can help flesh out this obscure time in British history. In so doing might be the first expert to attempt to present a formulaic method of using what many consider as unreliable primary sources.

The first two chapters read like a masterclass in historical detective work. Using a sort of reverse filtration system, Russell shows the reader that by viewing the HRB in the spotlight of preceding chronicles and histories the truth behind the legend begins to gleam. By using earlier books like infra red lenses or the keys to a cypher, we can see what accords, and the unreliable padding gets stripped back to reveal something approaching plausible.

This is the methodology of the book, starting with Caesar and Nennius to name two, the HRB undergoes a rigorous reevaluation, convincingly showing that there is more to the work than meets the eye. It’s not therefore light reading, it is just as much historiography as it is history, and some of the theories put forward are supported by paper thin evidence. Yet it is thought provoking in even it’s most daring assertions.

An investigation of the list of Kings is essentially the aim, using the method of comparing previous chronicles, retellings and histories to find similarities and then compositing that with archeological evidence, especially names inscribed on coins. This allowes the author to surmise that Geoffrey of Monmouth, while skewing and garbling almost everything he touched, probably didn’t just get his information out of thin air.

In that sense it is a revealing glimpse into the medieval mindset as it is fascinating to read about the historical possibilities of HRB’s King list. Geoffrey of Monmouth for instance might well have appropriated the 1066 story, and projected it backwards onto a less significant but similar event. Something calculated to appeal to his Norman masters, and make sense to a 12th century mind. More queer, (apart from the whole Trojan thing) is the confident assertion of medieval writers that Rome did not conquer Britain.

The Romans had a simplified view of nations. The Britons therefore seem quite clear cut. Indeed it’s enlightening to read the possible relationship between the still independent Britons and the Romans between the great invasion of AD 43, not least how the empire changed the fabric of “British” life. Yet when the Saxons come things get complicated and it’s not because the Romans are now considered the good guys, (unless your a Pict), because although the Britons lived in what is now England, lowland Scotland & Wales, it was the invading Saxons who took the name English, and branded their indigenous Romano-British arch enemies “foreigners” or Welsh.

Medieval muddling, back projecting and massaging of facts into neat narratives are things not calculated to inspire much confidence, and to use any of the sources this book investigates without the aid of others, to break the code, would be a great mistake. Russell’s achievement here is to have convincingly argued that no source should be ignored because it appears flawed. Indeed much about the the HRB retold here makes plausible and well reasoned sense.

Now in such a work, it’s very hard to present an invincible narrative. I suspect critics of Geoffrey will have been quick to condemn assertions, and scoff, perhaps heartily at some of the interpretations. I myself always raise an eyebrow when I read about the Njnth Legion being wiped out by Boudicca, such as is briefly mentioned here, but no matter which parts one might disagree with, debates about how to read ancient documents are never ending, and Arthur and the Kings of Britain offers a new argument.

Interesting theories are posed. Saxon kings might have been in fact appropriated British warlords. To demonstrate what the author is asking us to consider, take the case of Aelle. Russell suggests that this King might actually be a reflection of a long lost part of the story of Ambrosius, which was adopted by the Saxons & changed for political ends. In this way the Author searches the ancient writings for coincidence & similarity, he finds surprising similarity in many stories leading him to postulate wether indeed they are one and the same.

And so to Arthur, who headlines the book but as is usually the case forms only a part of it. It seems uncharitable to refer to such a title as a lure, but we should remember that academics use Arthur as shorthand for the final decades of the Romano British kingdom. What of this mystery man? Well by know, having read how the writers of the various histories composited so much into well hammered narratives, it should come as no surprise that Russell Arrives at the decision that Arthur was a man of many parts but little reality, in so far as being an actual man. Rather he decides the man known as Arthur was in fact many men, representing almost a codified history in miniature of some of Britain’s greatest heroes

In his conclusion Russell highlights three facts, derived from this close study of these hitherto derided histories. First that they contain elements of demonstrable fact, second that Arthur cannot have existed, and third, the HRB contains aspects that are historically verifiable, all summing up to say that these should be regarded as respectable source material. And while some may not agree with everything here, this is a undeniably true assertion. With so little out there about the early history of Britain, can we afford to just throw away accounts that don’t fit modern academic standards?

In the end, though we might scoff at new movies and books that fantasies and twist history into different shapes, one does have to at some point shrug and point out, people have been hiding away ancient history in legends for a very long time, and this book proves it.


Book Review: Warriors and Kings by Martin Wall.

ISBN: 9781445658438

Format: Hardback.
Length: 304 pages.
First Published: Amberley, 15 Feb 2017 .

Anyone who is planning on going to see the new King Arthur movie is going to need to stock up on some serious pseudo Historical sunblock. Or treat the burns with some realistic reading post exposure to the washed out and grey epic’s highly stylised version of the King Arthur Legend. So when you leave the cinema, groping for some kind of reference, I have a few suggestions. The first is this history of Celtic Britain. Continue reading “Book Review: Warriors and Kings by Martin Wall.”

Book Review: Breaker Morant The Final Roundup by Joe West & Roger Roper.


ISBN: 9781445659657

Format: Hardback.
Length: 400 Pages.
Published: Amberley 15 Dec 2016.

The execution of Harry “Breaker” Morant and two other officers of the Bushveldt Carbineers is one of those controversy riddled debates that rumbles onwards wether or not the subject is in the public eye. Honestly I am unable to comment as to wether the evidence presented in this latest contribution alters the scale one way or the other. For this reviewer is one of those mentioned in the introduction; a newcomer to the subject, therefore in reading this I was at least blessed with an open mind. Continue reading “Book Review: Breaker Morant The Final Roundup by Joe West & Roger Roper.”

Book Review: Operation Big Colin Brown.


Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 April 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 144565184X

Science, bombs & intrigue? Sounds like a party to me. Written with the feel of an intellectual thriller Colin Brown tells the story of the race to stop Hitler’s A bomb during WW2.
It starts at the very beginning, with the Discovery of nuclear fission, here even those to whom Physics is a foreign language will recognise some of the names, if only from knowledge accrued from the Big Bang Theory. The military applications of splitting the atom became apparent very soon after the discovery of sub atomic power as a series of scientists started adding up the theoretical power of the discovery, with ever growing results. The idea of a super bomb became a reality for both sides almost from the get go, even before the true capabilities of such a weapon were properly understood. The science that preceded the declaration of war was then focused on by the European intelligence communities, who then began a race to gather supplies of heavy water. As they rushed to secure the birthing fluid of the atom bomb, the conventional shooting war broke out, and due to the circumstances of the fall of France etc, Brown is able to weave into his main narrative sub stories worthy of their own books. The image of the Earl of Suffolk, bearded and tattooed handing out champaign on his commandeered ship, hobbling around with his secretaries, determined to get France’s store of heavy water to British soil, and his stash of diamonds will stay with me for a long time.
Some of the story will be familiar, such as when it comes to the race to slow down or stop the enemy. After securing heavy water and all that could be salvaged in terms of mind power, for scientists were as valuable as technology, the two sides then did their best to discover and destroy what the other was doing. For the allies this culminated most dramatically with the destruction of the German Heavy Water plant at Telemark in Norway. The famous SOE operation will be familiar to many, but the importance undiminished for the retelling.
Most critical to this book is the kidnapping of German scientists and throwing them into a country house that served as a giant listening device, which the British used to learn their secrets. We see the listeners like flies on a wall recording every word the Germans said, and then passed them on to the operators of the Manhattan project. The information they unwittingly gave would prove vital to beating the Germans to the bomb.

Because everyone knows about Hiroshima and it’s legacy, it’s good to know that we can track back to the nuts and bolts of the Atomic race, something to plug the gaps as it where. And this book offers an interesting and not often observed part of that race. This book is also an exciting and engaging read that will not fail to appeal to people in search of real life cloak and dagger. The element of real science allows readers to peek a little into the practical world of 20th century physics. Given the ingredients it would have been easy for the author to trip and stumble, presenting stories that are ready made, much like cooking ready meals can all too often end up just a sad mess on a plate, but Brown has handled it well.
A steady pace is maintained, and an intellectual, gripping tone reminiscent of the thriller genre risked from the pages. From what I can detect this is not a controversial book, it is instead trading to tell a story, wether died in the wool enthusiasts and experts will be pleased with the depth of the text I cannot say, but from my point of view it was a very satisfying read.