Book Review: Escapades in Bizzarcheology by Adrian Burrows.


Length: 168 pages
Publisher: Williams & Whiting
ISBN: 9781911266280

Hemingway, (or was it Chandler?) used to wrestle with his opening sentence and would not continue until he got it perfect. Given their respective brevity I can therefore imagine that Adrian Burrows must have toiled long and hard with his opener. Man that’s an introduction! It’s long and perfectly describes what I tend to do when I wander thoughtfully through a bookshop. My eyes scan, scorching each shelf with a critical glare, my head turns methodically, often with a birdlike twitch as I go. If he hasn’t captured my personal bibliophilic quirks, then he has certainly got what I do when I open a book. The item in question has a sort of fantasy, steam punk, adventure feel to the cover, it’s small and is littered with accompanying images.

The question remains however, does this book live up to the grand promises the introduction… not least the vow of the Bizzarchaeologist! As a fellow adventurer/escapadist in the past, and someone with a similarly glued together title, Adventures in Historyland, (FYI we both independently thought words like Adventures and Escapades was a really cool words to begin a title,) I began with high hopes.

Now, in the beginning Burrows lays out some pretty high falluting vows, essentially boiling down to the fact that he tries to make history fun. Well Historyland has some rules about this: Most importantly, all fun history must also be good, (IE accurate) and actually be funny (IE with believable similes and parallels, preferably not relating to modern day equivalents) otherwise it is nauseating. Secondly all history that wishes to be regarded as fun, must include at least a few if not all of the following, Ninjas (and or samurai) Pirates, Knights, cowboys and Gladiators or some kind of hybrid Transformer made up of them all.

The book takes a light hearted tour of a magical warehouse, endowed with the properties of time travel. It’s witty, sharp and in some places a little goofy. As one would expect from a book about random and bizarre history, it begins with Ninjas. But there is a doorstep that is dangerously placed to trip the author up. Can he deliver the real ninja experience, which he writes is elusive, in such a small chapter? Probably not. Yet does it bust some myths? For some people, most probably! The most impressive one being that Ninjas would only wear black when they needed to. I’ll tell you what else is surprising, the interruption between this chapter and the next as Burrows’ alter ego Max Virtus butts in to tell us about how Ancient Egyptian’s and his mother would embalm a corpse. That was a weird sentence to write.

Leaving the Ninja dojo, we are taken to the Ludas, no it’s not a version of the game Ludo, the Roman gladiator school. This section is vaguely familiar to me, for a really top secret reason (Spoiler alert! It’s because it’s based on a guest blog the captain wrote for Historyland). And yet again Burrows begins by telling us this is a world full of misnomers that he will answer in a really short time. Mind the step Captain? But yet again we are saved from the fake, the glib and the trite by the author’s affecting charm and humour, and his choice of facts to highlight. Even though he did wander into a dark and dangerous place called parallel-land by likening Gladiators to big brother contestants! Grr.

We then move on with another sudden departure explaining the British system of electing Prime Ministers and follow through with the author’s top 3 worst Roman Emperor’s. (One wonder’s if there is something subliminal about this sequence). This ends up in a brief examination of how Rome got to the top, and attributing Rome’s successful conquest to their road network. Now this is big statement! And I partially agree, but I’d say that Conquest was dependent on firstly the will of the emperor or senate (depending if you’re in the republic or not), then the ability of the army and then the roads, in my opinion allowed the empire to endure, rather than conquer.

Amid the avalanche of puns you will find some delightful quirky objects to admire, this is especially true of the section called the Zoo, which deals with crazy animal facts. How Ancient Egypt’s love of cats brought the country under Persian control. Really happened. How Emus won a war against the Australian army. Yep that too! And the old favourite, beloved of the Internet. Excuse me while I adopt my Pigs in Space epic voice “Pigs vs war Elephants!”

The Last of the big sections is weapons, which highlights such things as a top 4 most awesome swords gallery. Top 4 most awesome guns gallery, and… you get the idea. Some fun and very true remarks follow about how not to fight a duel, and in fact if I was to go on about all the random, cool and downright loony stuff in this book, some of which I feel in no way qualified to comment on, I’d end up writing one myself. Let’s leave it then with the Pirates before we sum up. Pirates are one of the big elements of fun history… though the weird thing is that even though in reality they were a bunch of dirtbags, we kinda like them. Here we get the facts about setting your beard on fire, (which I must sadly inform readers, Blackbeard only appeared to do). And the more conventional myth busts about pirates not burying treasure and jolly Rogers being extensions of buccaneer personality, rather than the national pirate flag. After a thoughtful retrospective about things always looking greener next door which really puts the whole “2016 worst year ever” fad into the shameful corner it deserves, (applause to the author), we get more pirate stuff. Making fun of Johnny Depp, then saying pirates wore earrings to improve eyesight (I’d heard it was to prevent drowning, but maybe accessorising like this served a duel purpose?), and a bunch of stuff about peg legs and eye patches etc.

So what’s the verdict? Well although there weren’t any sections on cowboys or knights. Some criteria was met, after all we did get pirates, ninjas and Gladiators and though some of those parallels were worth a cringe, and I would like a recount on a few assertions, this is a fun book. We can all overdo the serious aspect of history. Everyone wants their subject to be the one that matters most, all too often we forget how fun it can be just to forget the significance and enjoy the madness, or the story for what it is. And for this I salute the author, and the mysterious and fearless captain Virtus… who is nonetheless scared of Emus.


Book Review: Iron Dawn by Richard Snow.

Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Amberley 2016
Language: English

The crew of the USS Cumberland had never seen anything like the Merrimack. They had heard of it, but they didn’t really associate it with a ship. Up until now they had been using words like Floating battery and on the 8th of March 1862 when Merrimack slowly steamed into Hampton Roads, looking for all the world like a floating barn roof with a single chimney, Cumberland’s Quartermaster could find no word other than “That thing” to describe it. The nickname “The big thing” would stick.
Inside the ungainly, clunking, metallic monster, the Confederate crews waited silently by their guns, while in the louder parts of the ship the engineers strained their ears against the noise of their own machinery, blind in what many considered an iron coffin. Officers watched tensely as the “old time Frigate” with her skyscraping masts and high sides, still considered the cutting edge of maritime technology, crept into their sights.
The battle when it came was brutal. Merrimack’s smaller but heavier battery tore through the old wooden walls as if they were paper, slaughtering the gun crews. While the broadsides of the conventional warships bounced off her armoured sides like India rubber. Hampered by the confines of the anchorage and the lack of wind, the giant old frigate was at the mercy of this godless, chugging, creation of modern war. Called everything from an infernal crocodile to a rhino, the Merrimack crawled slowly towards its target, blowing more holes in her her with every passing minute, then rammed her, and sent her to the bottom.

This was the beginning of the battle of Hampton Roads, which could have come right out of 20,000 leagues under the sea. Merrimack might as well have been Nautilus, with its iron hull and deadly ram, for the amount of terror she inspired, if only she could have submerged. But it didn’t matter what she couldn’t do, because what had just happened in this vital stretch of water, had made real the fears of all the politicians in Washington. Since the fall of Norfolk, they had shivered at the thought that the south had built a “floating battery” or else an iron ship, that single handedly could engage and sink multiple conventional ships twice her size. The implications of such a ship, let loose in a busy harbour or yard, would be like a 19th century pearl harbour, with the ironclad running amok amongst an entire fleet and sinking most of it. It just didn’t bear thinking about, especially when the north depended on the navy to keep the south locked down under blockade. But the question was, could such a ship really be capable of such an action?

The answer was yes, but no one knew that until the sinking of the Cumberland, and it was a scary enough thought to ensure the north got building one as well. So on the second day of the battle, when Merrimack came steaming for the grounded USS Minnesota and a sinister, crocodilian form slid out from behind the bulk of helpless timber-ship, most confederates suspected it was “Ericson’s iron battery”.
Sinister by name sinister by nature the Monitor, with its black decks almost awash and it’s revolving turret scanning for a target like a cyclops eye had one mission that day. After the news of the disaster of 8 March, she had been sent steaming down across the open ocean and though very nearly not making it into the calmer waters of the roads, she now fearlessly interposed herself between the two bigger ships, determined to save the Minnesota, and possibly the union.

Richard Snow has written a book worthy of a screenplay, the details are simply amazing. If this book was made (properly) into a war movie, it would garner the director and producer unending praise from the historical community. This book is about people and personalities, it’s about politics and agendas, it’s about science and engineering, it’s about war and how it was changing. In short it’s everything a work of narrative history should be.
A clear, straightforward account of the battle of Hampton Roads, excitingly told, but with the added padding of almost everything that occurred to bring the first fully ironclad steamers into battle, and what happened afterwards. The history is helped by the fact that it all occurred with almost novelistic timing, or at least it appears that way due to Snow’s expert writing. The confederates build a potentially war winning ship by converting the hulk of a burnt out captured Union vessel, based on armoured floating batteries and ironclad steam/sail ships already in service in Europe. The union gets wind of it and also gets building. One is beleaguered by supplies, the other with red tape, but the race is on and both reach the finish line together, having almost taken on lives of their own. Then one goes on a wrecking spree amongst Union ships, prompting the US to send their new equivalent to stop it. Showing up the next day, a legendary duel of machines occurs.

All of this is told with the precision, accuracy and verve of the best storytellers. The tension and fear in the opening of the battle of Hampton Roads is palpable, and inspires such crisp imagery that it’s darn near compulsive reading. First hand accounts put the reader right into the ship’s themselves, and practical and technical details abound in ways that promote the flow of the narrative rather than slow it down.
There are some rather grand statements made, but none that are not merited, because although these ships were in fact greatly limited in terms of speed and blue water effectiveness, indeed their duel highlighted everything that was wrong with them as well as what was right. However the potential was staggering nonetheless. It appears here as if, certainly for the north, it was as much a giant real time practical test as it was an effort to check the Confederate menace.

The legacy of the duel at Hampton Roads is both the most well known naval action American Civil War but also, the applications of armoured steam warships, which as one of the many interesting image sections show, was not taken lightly by the Union. The age of Ironclads and Dreadnaught’s had arrived with the gleam of an Iron Dawn. And this book shows how it happened.


Book Review: The Half Shilling Curate by Sarah Reay.


Hardcover: 200 pages
Publisher: Helion & Company Ltd (15 Oct. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 191109646X

This is a well produced book, with photographic grade paper and an attractive frontispiece. One might call it small but mighty.

Perhaps more so than many veterans, the thousands of Army Chaplains that served in WW1 didn’t want to draw attention to the part they played in the war effort. That is why it’s so important for people to take an interest in their story. Sarah Reay is a direct descendant of the man in this book, and she has spent four years researching his story. Filling in the blanks and tying up the loose ends to present a personal account of War and Faith. And of a man who aspired to the full measure of devotion that many gave.

To begin with let’s fill in a little background. The army chaplaincy as a department began during the Napoleonic wars, and from that time to the present have provided Chaplains, commonly known as padres, to the forces whether at home or on active service.
By WW1 the department was a well established part of the army, and like all the other branches, mobilised at the declaration of war. Although given the status and rank of officers, Chaplains were not properly soldiers in that did not bear arms, and back then at least, didn’t need to have undertaken formal military training, yet they were a vital part of the war effort. Padres did however have to show themselves, strong of mind and body, able to march and live rough, while not giving in to the soldierly vices that their flock were prone too.

Being officers and at the same time men of God set Padres apart, much like surgeons, whose skill set gave them different roles not traditionally associated with soldiering proper. Essentially, the Padres were there firstly to hold Divine Service on Sunday’s, see to the general spiritual wellbeing of the men, and bury them when they died. Essentially they didn’t have to muck in or indeed necessarily venture closer to no man’s land than the reserve trenches. Therefore when Wesleyan Methodist Chaplain Herbert Butler Cowl kept shouldering multiple rifles and equipment on 68 Brigade’s march to the front, he was immediately set apart from what many men saw as a typically aloof padre.

Cowl, one of the first Wesleyans in the ACD, found it easy to get along with people, and was determined to make himself useful outside of his duties as a padre and gain the respect of the men. He had a ready ear to hear troubles, wide, honest features that lent well to sermons, a confident voice in the pulpit and the mess and an athletic frame, weathered through a healthy love of the outdoors, which was often seen in the most advanced trenches. He volunteered to do his bit, and thankfully for posterity kept in regular contact with his family during his time in Flanders, which has allowed the present author to compile, edit and share his story during this centenary half decade. These missives are usually light, Herbert was hard man to keep down, and one gets the impression he was trying to keep the misery of war from home fires. He wrote lyrically and had a gift for setting a scene.

One would be tempted to call him unlucky, except that so many officers and men shared similar fates, his time at the front could almost be called typical. For outside of his calling, Herbert’s experience was not unlike many other ordinary men thrown into war. Setting out with high hopes, soon he was unable to stop admitting that the life of a soldier was grim. Sharing the vicissitudes that soldiers have experienced in trench warfare since before the Crimean war, Herbert soon started asking for practical things, and there it is an amusing thought to think he might have been squelching through the trenches in a pair of fishing waders had not fate intervened.

As he sat in a house, to the rear of the line, salivating over a tin of bully beef, the Germans began dropping a bombardment onto the British reserve sector. This was a common gunners tactic to disrupt supplies, they would often vary their discharges to catch convoys en route, therefore it was usually quiet in the rear. The bombardment landed right on top of Cowl’s billet. Herbert’s own recollections of being hit tug at your nerves. As he ran for the street, German Shells pummelled the house and road. With walls collapsing and shrapnel flying something hit him without his realising it. Suddenly he was falling yet he was unsure why until he heard people calling out that he’d been hit and that he was probably a goner.

The all too vivid recollection that a thumb sized piece of metal had pierced his jaw just below his ear and lodged roughly behind his tongue, is chilling. Yet amongst the horror, word spread to the line that Padre Cowl had been hit. As he was stretchered into an ambulance, Herbert looked out from his bandages to see the worried faces of many ordinary soldiers who had come to wish him luck. A lump formed when I read how upset they were when they realised that their brave young Padre could not speak to reassure them as he had done so many times before, and was driven away.

Miraculously Herbert survived his ghastly wound, and was shipped back to England. However, touching back on that unlucky streak of fate, he was carried aboard the Hospital ship Anglia. On the voyage home she struck a mine and went down within the hour. The ship was by all accounts a place of terror. Herbert saw a member of Queen Alexandra’s Nurses’ semi decapitated before his eyes, then the ship listed and water started to flood the compartments. Through his superb powers of relation, an image is conveyed not of his own courage, but that of the other nurses. “Fighting men to the deck!” Was the cry, Herbert remembered, and their selflessness is borne out by nurse Alice Meldrum, QAIMNS Reserve (whose story must be read elsewhere,) recalled:

“My first act was to fix a lifebelt on myself, feeling that I was then in a better position to help others. All sisters and orderlies did likewise, and the patients who were able to do so, were ordered to put on the lifebelts which every patient had under his pillow; the walking cases were ordered on deck. We immediately set about removing splints, for the obvious reason that if a patient with his legs in splints got into the sea, his body would go under while the splints would rise to the surface.”

Herbert however seemed to have been part of a much larger, master plan. For as Anglia sank, although wounded himself for the second time, he swam to the rescue of many floundering wounded, survived himself and was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery.
His story didn’t stop with the cessation of hostilities, for he would experience the home front during the next war as well, but his services as a frontline Padre were never again called upon.

The story of the Half Shilling Curate is one that opens both door and window to the vital role played by Chaplains in keeping up morale during WW1. It is also a tribute to a good and courageous individual. It is utterly original, splendidly edited and well annotated, we see the man and the mission, the attitude of that generation to privation and injury, and the cost, which might have broken a soul that did not have Herbert Cowl’s faith.

It is a story of many interesting turns, all told with Herbert’s personal writings as a guide, and illustrated by many excellent period photographs. Yet perhaps I will remember it best for the simplicity of an early war scene, behind the lines. A doctor and Chaplain, sitting in the twilight of a French evening, smoking and exchanging ideas and thoughts, while the searchlights played on the horizon and the angry voice of war spoke in the distance, heralding what was to come.


Book Review: Wellington’s Dearest Georgy by Alice Marie Crossland


Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: Uniform Press (16 Sept. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0993242480

As some will know, the Duke of Wellington had many women in his life. Books have been written about them and last year amidst all the Waterloo200 fuss, the only documentary to focus on the Duke was actually about his married life. Continue reading “Book Review: Wellington’s Dearest Georgy by Alice Marie Crossland”

Book Review: Cowpens by Ed and Catherine Gilbert.


Series: Campaign (Book 283)
Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (September 20, 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472807464

I had high hopes for this book, but right off the bat I was a tad confused by the subtitle of this book. The phrase “Turning point of the American Revolution” has been used to describe so many battles that it has become so worn out as to become see through. Quite how Cowpens, a battle fought by two forces independent of the main armies, can be more of a turning point than Guilford Courthouse, or Saratoga is not adequately explained. Though we could suppose that given the outcome every American victory from 1776 onwards can claim to be the turning point. The claim at the end is that “History was made and the fate of a nation decided”, is not something I’ve associated with this fairly small battle which had more of an impact on the reputation of the British commander than the overall campaign.

The initial statements suggest the story of a battle undeservedly ignored, a story in which it is necessary to understand many preceding and parallel factors not all of which are germane to the battle itself.

A brief introduction to the aftermath of the siege of a Charleston highlights a worrying tendency to demonise Tarleton and the British legion and indeed paint the British side in a prejudicial light. It is not so much that Tarleton deserves lauding, but a more even handed approach would be a better harbinger. It is patently reckless to state that the legion “slaughtered most of those who surrendered, mutilating the wounded” and leave it at that. The curious terminology is reinforced with the mention of Gates’ being “brutally defeated” at Camden. Further on it is categorically stated that Waxhaws was out and out atrocity, utterly failing to explain the niceties of the action adequately, and that to do so would only be the work of apologists. The denigration continues when the British legion dragoons which were loyalist troops are described as not distinguishing themselves against enemies who fought back.

Unfortunatley the opening statement of the Opposing commanders section highlights a gross misunderstanding of the British army in America. Falling back on the tried and true cliche of blue blooded officers who were promoted through connections and cash (the latter part is fair enough) or their willingness to sacrifice their brutalised rankers, who fought only through fear of corporal punishment, (deeply unfair). These said dandies were also apparently out of their depth with non linear tactics. While the Americans are down home self taught Paladins. In recent years there has been a dramatic rethinking of the traditional image of stolid Redcoat vs wily patriot and its disappointing not to see it reflected here, not least to see such an uneven partiality displayed in the dissemination of a military event. The problem with all of these assertions is Tarleton himself who doesn’t come off extremely well (which is par for the course and fair enough), but whose career more or less throws all those assumptions about officers out the window.

Opposing forces are dealt with in the same curious and disappointing fashion. The Americans get a fairly decent writeup, based principally on the author’s research on the southern militia, but when turning to the British there is a distinct weakness in appraisal and conclusions. True open order tactics and light companies are mentioned but the odd mention of Grenadier companies as “Heavy Shock Infantry” wearing “helmets” is highly suspect. There is another use of the old cliche of the British being overconfident when facing militia, firing a few times and going in with the bayonet. Completely ignoring the fact that it was firm tactical doctrine to advance, take enemy volleys at distance, close to point blank range, blaze away and then charge. The battle was a small one, with just over 1,000 men on each side, allowing for the authors to examine individual battalions and junior officers, a chunk of which is taken up with informing the reader how brutal the British were to prisoners and how they forced some men to join their side (once more unfair). The Americans again get specifics and the British get tired generalisations. Not only that but I am baffled by the assertion that the 71st Highlanders as a regiment (rather than a battalion) were all but destroyed thereafter and curiously did not use facings as a result of the battle. A confusion in the writing may account for the fact that the 2nd battalion continued to serve under Cornwallis until the end of the war, and that the loss of facing colour should more probably be attributed to the natural wastage of war in the south which saw great strain put on uniformity.

The element of caricature is heightened during the retelling of the campaign where stock phrases are used to liven things up. “Hard riding Tarleton,” and “Greene the master of planning”. Not a single British officer goes without taint of atrocity to civilians, no British unit escapes being labelled as the blunt instrument used in such matters. Every American reprisal against the British and Tories is always nobly described as against troops. The authors seem to have borrowed their caracterisation from the Disney TV show swamp fox.

The battle itself is well handled with some excellent use of contemporary accounts. Although no opportunity is lost to illustrate the supposed invincibility and cruelty of the British. The authors are wise to pay only superficial attention to Tarleton’s memoir. The battle was in another author’s words a “Devil of a whipping”, the British receiving a total thrashing, principally because of poor leadership and cool headed american officers like W. Washington, Morgan and Howard.

Graham Turner handles the artwork with his usual skill and earthiness. It’s obviously been hard not to be inspired by Troiani’s painting of the action. The artist’s brief must have made interesting reading for the gripping scene of the Yankee counterattack. The artist has used Frasers Highlander’s but has opted for an identical viewpoint and general composition as Troiani. Yet has added a distant glimpse of the Continental Dragoons charging on the flank of Morgan’s 3rd line of Maryland and Delaware regulars, now making their decisive advance that would wreck Tarleton’s strike force. The artist has also inserted militiamen with the regulars.

All in all I cannot report anything but disappointment in this book, except in the description of the battle itself and the artwork. Not so much in the sense that the British should be lauded greater than the Americans, nor that Tarleton should be necessarily vaunted greater than Morgan or anyone else, but that as a military history and not a local guidebook, the authors had a responsibility to present an even accoint. As an example there is patent absurdity of twice pointing out Tarleton’s links to the slave trade and not once mentioning that this was common on all sides. This should have rendered the fact moot and irrelevant signalling its elimination from a purely military based book.



Book Review: Samurai by Stephen Turnbull.


Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (25 Aug. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472813723

As the author lays out in the introduction, this is a romp through Samurai History. From their origins to the Meiji restoration. Put better it’s a richly illustrated romp. It’s a showy number with a ferocious but colourful samurai on the cover and a book I would happily lay out on a coffee table. It’s small, so maybe a side table would be more appropriate but this seems to form a part of a new general hardback series by osprey, focusing on other famous warriors in history.
Turnbull can probably write a book like this in his sleep. It’s full of swashbuckling tales of samurai, Daymios, castles and battles.
It captures the flavour of the authentic samurai, while at the same time losing nothing of the colour and entertainment one associates with feudal Japan. Interspersed into the main text are interesting focus points that discuss, sword making, legends, and different points of interest. Best of all this book is superbly illustrated with contemporary Japanese woodcut and paintings. Wonderful photographs of Japanese castles and a selection of Angus McBride artwork drawn from already published titles in Osprey’s samurai catalogue. The samurai were always eager to be first into the fight, and the book speeds on into the fray, hitting all the high points such as the Gempei Wars and the invasion of Korea, of course general samurai book is complete without a chunk on the Sengoku jidai. All the attendant figures are present and correct, Taira’s, Minamoto’s, Hidéyoshi’s and Tokogowa’s not least Takamori and the drama of the Satsuma rebellion.
This is a book for fans and enthusiasts alike. I’d be so bold as to hazard that anyone who enjoys samurai history would like it in their library. It’s light reading, and doesn’t lag at all. It would serve just as well as an introduction to the subject as it would an addition to a history lover’s shelf.
All the main points of a samurai life are covered, and in pleasing symmetry all tend to interlace into one picture. A familiar one but no less detailed. As such it is an excellent quick reference, for those times when you want to find out the difference between different types of armour. Or whether one would use a yari or a naginata in a given situation, perhaps you might just want to get a quick background to the 47 Ronin or find the answer to the nagging question, whether it is appropriate to commit suicide if your boss dies?


Book Review: Zama by Mir Bahmanyar.


Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (22 Sept. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472814215

The Battle of Zama is nowhere near as famous as the battle of Cannae. Nevertheless it is one of the most important battles in African and Mediterranean military history. It was fought on a large scale, and saw the end of the second Punic war. Which had seen Hannibal gain military ascendancy over Rome, and yet overall achieve nothing but a sting of spectacular victories without political reward. Very soon the Roman refusal to offer battle to Hannibal meant that their own skilled general’s such as Scipio were able to trounce the Carthaginians in Spain and turn the tide.

First off the author give the origins of the campaign. Unusually this includes an overview of the first Punic War and the Mercenary Revolt that saw Carthage lose its possessions in Sardinia which is interesting reading, and indeed the mercenary revolt was a key motivator in the struggle. Moving on, the beginnings and course of the 2nd Punic War are discussed up to the Invasion of Africa by Scipio and then the opposing commanders are described. This briefly touches on Hannibal’s mysterious ethnicity and wisely, given the lack of evidence, resolves on keeping an open mind and not simply ruling out a Phoenician/African mix in the great commander.

Concepts about the operational capability of the Roman army have matured over the last ten years. Nevertheless we shouldn’t let the horse bolt either. Bahmanyar puts forward a fresh and convincing example of Punic era manipular tactics, supported by two or three modern scholars. The crux is the distance required by a Roman soldier to fight in. Polybius put this as a circumference of three feet in either direction. Bahmanyar however thinks that this is only a benchmark and that once committed to a fight, Roman units deployed with 3ft intervals, would extend into an open order with up to 9 feet between soldiers and engage the enemy.
I’m going to keep an open mind about this, as the scheme has some attractions to it, but yet I feel we should remain cautious as Polybius is quite clear that he thought 3ft gaps sufficient for a “loose” formation. Given the superiority the Romans usually enjoyed over Celtic peoples who required great space with which to swing their swords, anything wider would have played to “barbarian” strengths.
The author argues that this method would allow for a freedom of movement not available in closer order. Creating the space necessary for the rotation of fighting lines that the manipular army employed. In reading I was somewhat persuaded, but given the lack of actual contemporary sources referencing this wider formation, at lest to my knowledge, I’d prefer to see this as being part of the tactical tool kit open to a Roman commander when faced with broken or hilly terrain.
Another fresh perspective on the manipular system is the observation on the famous non continuous battle lines employed by the legions. It is I think once more a theoretical (because no ancient source is cited) supposition that the “posterior” century of the maniple (there are two centuries, prior and posterior, traditionally described as forming one behind the other) would cover the intervals in the line which would normally allow the maniple to manoeuvre. Again, it’s an interesting theory, backed up by some scholars, however, because it has been traditionally established that the reserve or succeeding legionary lines formed up to cover these spaces, the idea of decreasing unit depth would at first glance seem unnecessary, once more I’d hazard to suggest that we take this as an option rather than a “factory setting”. Polybius is on record as writing that the Roman army was so successful because of its flexibility, from a single man right up to the largest unit.
Essentially we can find some fresh insights on Roman flexibility here, even if it is not perhaps as definitive as the author hopes it might be.

Bahmanyar then investigates the polyglot nature of the Carthaginian forces. Which runs as one would expect. It’s always interesting to read through opposing forces in the Punic wars, this time I was struck at how much better armed a Celtic noble would be than his average Roman counterpart, at the very least these great warriors would be accountred to a level on par with the wealthiest member of the triarii. On the whole this account credits a greater level of effectiveness than other authors attribute to Hannibal’s mercenaries.

All of this is used to visualise the battle of Zama. Before that happens there is a fairly in depth discussion of numbers, frontages and deployments; a theme that keeps cropping up during the narrative of the battle, as is common in reconstructions of ancient battles much of the author’s theories regarding the course of the action are based on deductions on a mathematical basis. The action therefore is described with logic and detail, according to assertions in tactics and deployment already made. Hannibal’s strategy is hinted at, and the possibility of a grand plan based on a favourable moment is flirted with. It would seem that Hannibal’s rather less than dazzling performance at Zama can be put down to his deciding that his army was not up to scratch. In the end the infantry fought each other to a standstill in a simplistic slogging match. Which says much for what Hannibal might have achieved for Scipio opted for a less measured straight up face to face fight. However despite both sides jealously guarding their reserves, the Carthaginian’s trademark cunning is nowhere to be seen, and though he did come close Scipio handled his army better in the end. The day was saved for Rome, and a Pyrrhic victory for Hannibal ruined, by the intervention of Scipio’s Numidian allies and the superhuman stolidity of his first line infantry.

The artwork, here provided by Peter Dennis, is full on and action packed. Putting the viewer in the middle of the action and in one scene over their heads. There are some excellent tactical and organisational diagrams covering the Roman army. And the 3D maps as usual offer a simplistic alternative to the main text, as well as giving a mental image as to the course of the battle.

Given the new theories arising, that argue that the battle was made up, new scholarship defending its factual basis is very necessary.


Book Review: The Gempei War by Stephen Turnbull.


Paperback: 96 pages

Publisher: Osprey Publishing (28 July 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472813847

A ritual war, brutal and yet played by the rules in an ancient, secluded land. A power struggle between two families for the control of the ruler. Internecine strife within one of the factions for ultimate power. Cunning politicians, giant warrior monks and mighty warriors who can cut arrows in two, swim rivers under fire, and who die at their own hand rather than surrender. The ultimate personal goal is to be first into battle, to kill a worthy opponent and to die with honour. Buddhist Warrior Monks standing on the ribs of a demolished bridge. Horsemen riding across frozen plains. Frantic, primal duels amidst great battles on land and sea, where victory lies in cunning, and sure, why not throw in a herd of oxen with flaming torches tied to their horns?

Sounds like a mashup of the latest bestselling fantasy novel doesn’t it? Well who needs fantasy when you can just read about the Gempei war?

In Western terms the War was comparable properly to the power struggle of the Wars of the Roses with two principal families and their allies splitting and drawing in the larger population via their overlords in a fight for control. In cultural and political terms it had as great an affect on Japan as the Great Civil Wars of the 17th century in Britain. Fought on a scale that was roughly comparable to the American Civil war in the 19th.

Stephen Turnbull is a name synonymous amongst history students and enthusiasts alike with the age of the Samurai. Many of the “Samurai” books published by Osprey have been written by him and in the Gempei War he brings his formidable expertise to arguably the most critical period of pre Edo Japanese history. By the simple process that without the Gempei War the Tokogowa would have not been fighting to attain but to create the Shogunate.

The idea of the Shogun is fairly well understood, thanks to James Clavell’s novel and the Creative Assembly video game. What is more obscure is how the position was created. The Gempei War, the great civil war caused by the rivalry between the Minamoto and the Taira families over the control of the Emperor, was as Turnbull points out the root to which all later Japanese history traces. Whether it is the Shogun, or the code of Bushido, so much cultural significance is derived from this four year period from 1180 to 1184.

Stripping things back and basing his narrative around two primary sources, Turnbull hopes to present the most authoritative work in English on the Gempei War. This is a big statement to be found within the limited confines of an Osprey book. Nevertheless I was impressed by it. First of all setting the scene with the rise of the Taira, and then showing how Taira Kiyomori unwittingly began isolating himself and causing resentment, then sparking the whole thing by passing over the Imperial heir once too many times, prompting said heir to cast around for allies and finding a willing bow in the aged Minamoto Yarimosa, whose suicide at the first battle of Uji, inspired his young exiled kinsman Minamoto Yotitomo to rally the clan and make a bid to destroy the Taira.

Along the way Yotitomo proved himself to be a leader adept at utilising the talents of those nearest him, and then eliminating them when they had served their purpose or grew too powerful. By the end of the Gempei War, while the nobility of the Taira, and the young emperor rotted beneath the waters of the Shimonoseki straits, Yoritomo was the sole voice of law in the land and the Shogunate was born that would be the focus of Japanese power and ambition for the next 500 years until 1600 when one family would come to dominate the position until 1867 when the Emperor was restored to power.

Turnbull’s impressive array of carefully chosen images surround the three detailed two page spreads by Giuseppe Rava, which highlight the individualistic nature of the fighting, but in my opinion lack something that can be seen in other Samurai reconstructions, yet Osprey undoubtedly chose the right man for the job. I think the best is the death of Kizo Yoshinaka at Awazu, which superbly illustrates the role of the Samurai of this period as a horse archer. However it has been pointed out to me that in the scene depicting the battle of Ichinotani, there are some anachronisms in weaponry and haircuts. As usual with a campaign book we get 3D maps. The one showing the battle of Kurikara is very detailed and so is the one of Dannoura, that goes so far as to show the tides of the Shimonoseki Strait.

In this era the Samurai were men of the horse and the bow, and this created a very different dynamic to Japanese warfare, yet the events and stories of the Gempei War would be handed down to later generations of Samurai and indeed soldiers, as the epitome of how to behave in battle. No event until 1600 would have such profound effects on Japan and this book does a creditable job of showing us why.


Book Review: Milvian Bridge by Ross Cowan.


Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (28 July 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472813812

The Battle of Milvian Bridge is one of the unsung turning points of world history. A known but unknown moment, but a truly decisive encounter, at the very gates of Rome. It’s political and cultural ramifications were not so much the ripples of a stone dropped into a still pond but the beginnings of a tidal wave.
Look at a map of the Roman Empire in the 1st Century AD and then compare it to a map representing it in the early 4th century and you will notice allot has changed. Not so much in extent, although that is a given, but in organisation. For a start it is now split in two, and each one of those large provinces are now sectioned into districts.
The empire was now ruled by two emperors (Augusti) and their deputies, or successors (Caesars). The hallowed names of the last two men to truly change the course of world history, now being used as titles. In many ways the Romans were now living in a changing world, full of changing values, yet full of reminders of their ancient past, now legacies and traditions rather than actual modes of life.
Christianity was on the rise across the empire. This dangerous eastern religion was suppressed and persecuted throughout the provinces. Few could have thought at the turn of the century that in just over a decade the belief of a persecuted minority would have become the state religion of the most powerful empire in the western world. Indeed it is one of the great ironies of the battle that pagan soldiers emblazoned a mark that usually singled people out for persecution on their shields in the hope of gaining divine intervention.

God rewarded their blind devotion, or at least that of their leader who duly did the decent thing and was properly grateful. Another irony being the adoption of an originally pacifist ideology to win a battle. This basically let the door open for later warriors to wage war in the name of God at will. After all old Roman deities had no qualms about being used as excuses to kill, steal and destroy, to the Romans it just seemed natural. Of course after the rise of Constantine the spread of Roman Christianity was like the insertion of a food colouring to dough. It was mixed indelibly into society and adapted as needed. The tale of how a divinely inspired emperor saw the sign of God in a vision and took up the holy symbol on the shields of his as yet still pagan legionaries went into legend. But apart from that little nugget, what else do we know? Well, that’s the problem.

The Battle of Milvian Bridge is one of those vague ancient battles. One of the ones that is described in a sentence or two by contemporary writers. None of Constantine’s General’s (Duce) are known by name, few of his opponent, Maxentian’s are either. The course of the battle is a simple straightforward affair, the two sides meet and one runs away, yet the sources disagree on the choreography and are vague when it comes to the nitty gritty. It’s not a subject an analytical and dedicated historian will take up lightly. All well an good to insert it into a wider biography of Constantine or a history of the late Roman Empire, but in fact I would say that there are very few ancient battles that can be written about with any certainty in a stand alone study. Milvian Bridge is not one of them.

That is of course why Osprey Campaign is a perfect format to discuss this battle. Because the length is just under 100 pages author, Ross Cowan is given the ability to boil down military analysis, discussion, narrative and some background politics without needing to worry about bogging down a conventional biography or history. Even so it is notable that in the detailed “Opposing Armies” section, there is little discussion of arms and equipment of the opposing sides and instead leaves that to accompanying images and colour plates. The organisation of the much more convoluted later Roman armies are the main concern.

Title Artist Sean O’brogan must be quite at home with the Roman army by now. With almost 7 titles including this one, that I can think of dealing with subjects from the early, republican and late army. No one except Graham Turner is painting armour with such realism. His full colour plates are true to his style, and I should think the picture of the infantry clash most difficult given the geometrical challenge of perspective caused by the flying javelins and darts being thrown by Constantine’s legionaries. The influence of Angus McBride is I think evident in his Praetorians, and I very much liked his depiction of clibernii. Perhaps the troops could have been given some varied helmets and equipment, maybe that’s too picky, but I’m beginning to prefer my Romans a little more individualistic nowadays, especially the later ones. The scene of the rout over the Tiber is very good, an overview instead of a closeup is original. I noted only one riderless horse though, and although there are shields strewn around, dropped my men obviously dumping their kit in order to swim, there is a lack of other armour on the ground.

There is no lack of gaping holes in the contemporary narrative for an author to insert in some speculation into, and Cowan is forced to assume and suppose certain patterns where the sources are silent, especially when describing Constantine’s approach to Rome. These often frustrating sources are gone into with some detail. Nine separate ancient accounts of the battle and a discussion about the archeology of the likely battlefield are discussed in order to build up a firm footing for the author’s tentative, and he stresses that it is tentative, reconstruction of the action.
On the whole I am in favour of his assertions on this matter, he makes good logical sense and puts some flesh and bones onto the action.

When it comes to the campaign, Cowan ably illustrates the opposing strategies, from the confident, popular, downright dynamic Constantine, who fought in the front of his cavalry like Alexander had. And the cautious, inexperienced Maxentian who relied on a hitherto tried and true strategy of avoiding a pitched battle. Yet at the last moment he threw all that common sense out the window and ended up a waterlogged corpse, one of the last great pagan sacrifices to Rome, on the right bank of the Tiber alongside thousands of his men as a result.