Book Review: The Battle of Gettysburg 1863 (1) by Timothy J. Orr

  • Author: Timothy Orr
  • Illustrator: Steve Noon
  • Short code: CAM 374
  • Publication Date: 17 Mar 2022

The beginning of Osprey’s new offering on the most famous battle fought on American soil is a crisp, from the shoulder affair and tells the story straight.

Author, Timothy Orr is obviously aware of his audience and as such gives the reader the facts and knowledge they need to understand the first day of the battle rather than how things worked during the war as a whole. 

Mr. Orr is unconcerned with pushing a particular thesis here, nor are any of his sentiments particularly judgemental. Instead the brief but detailed narrative is immediate and restricted to what happened, without a great deal of high level analysis, but with a sprinkling of first hand accounts which allow the chaotic and brutal hours of 1 July 1863 to play out with a human face.

This book sets out to give readers an accessible beginning point to understanding the utter carnage of Gettysburg. Reading through the book I was struck by the appalling casualty figures being cited, seemingly every unit suffering massive casualties with far too many recording a loss of half its strength.

As the author notes, the first days fighting,  which saw a battle of encounter expand out of Robert E Lee’s control into a four mile running fight from ridge to ridge until the confederates had driven the Union forces back beyond Gettysburg, was apocalyptic in terms of losses, and knowing that the fighting would continue for another 2 days, we can easily see how truly ghastly the cost of Lee’s invasion of the north would become.

Noting the stubborn struggle which neither side was really prepared for, Orr shows the reader that warfare had indeed changed. Where once a battle such as this might have been won convincingly by a gifted tactician like Lee, in fact, despite the confederate victory on the first day, their losses were almost as bad as those of their enemy, much as it had been at Chancellorsville. 

Orr gives us also a clear idea that Lee was in this fight as much to seek the decisive and elusive battle he wanted, as he was to ensure his army stayed together and wasn’t parcelled out from Richmond to the Mississippi. Neither senior commander will exercise much control over the battle at this stage. And why Lee thought he could win a napoleonic war winner after Chancellorsville, or why he chose to fight on into the next day is left an open question.

The book is amply illustrated with photographs of interesting uniforms and portraits of participants, many of whose stories will be unfamiliar but form the heart of this book. Detailed maps of a high quality support the text and I cannot praise the original artwork of Steve Noon highly enough. It is not easy to find original ways to portray this battle but Noon has done a splendid job. Definitely a book to seek out if you want an detailed introduction to the battle that doesn’t get too bogged down in theory and critique.

Book Review: Roman Legionary vs Carthaginian Warrior by David Campbell.

  • Author: David Campbell
  • Illustrator: Adam Hook
  • Short code: CBT 35
  • Publication Date: 23 Aug 2018
  • Number of Pages: 80

This book isn’t really about the dynamics and techniques of combat in the second Punic war. Although the brief for all Combat books should be a searching examination and analysis of what all those scholarly military phrases like ‘driven back’, ‘charged’, ‘withdrew in good order’ meant for the often faceless and voiceless ordinary soldier in any particular conflict, it actually makes the mistake that a few Combat authors are making in using it as a vehicle to retell the story of the given war, and examine the larger scale tactics of both sides.

This is done with energy and reason by author, David Campbell, however the possibility to really attempt to get under the skin of the battles and soldiering of the Punic Wars is missed. Instead the book focuses on the successes of the generals, Hannibal and Scipio, at Trasimene, Cannae and Ilipa. 

Images supplied by Adam Hook give one reconstruction of a Roman Hastatus, and an Iberian Warrior, post Trasimene, which will speak to something I noted below, an exciting battle piece between a phalanx and a legionary Hastati Line and a slightly detached melee between opposing light infantry forces. Maps and commentary accompany each battle section, very helpful in the case of the less studied battle of Ilipa.

Although a breakdown of the opposing forces allows a view of the organisation behind each army, most of the Carthaginian observations are based on Hannibal’s personal preferences or educated guesses, which were not a standard model of operating and is essentially uninspired in terms of the Roman side. Whereas the recent campaign book on the Battle of Zama did attempt to introduce new theories to th subject of the Republican fighting system.

That being said the book cuts excellently to the heart of what Hannibal was able to do well, that being to arrange everything before the battle began and essentially give as few orders as possible, while further noting the strength of the Carthaginian army lay in its diversity and allowing each ethnic group to fight the way it fought best.

This title was always going to be difficult, because it is very difficult to identify what a ‘Carthaginian Warrior’ is. Si Sheppard in his book of that title sensibly decided to focus of the Liby-Phoenician infantry, and treat the mercenaries as separate. But here it is never precisely identified what is meant on the cover  by, Carthaginian Warrior. Nor is there much of a discussion about the much debated Carthaginian phalanx. It is even stated that Carthage was oligarchic in its society, which seems to speak to the habit of families managing to hold onto important state offices by inheritance. Nevertheless it is a fairly narrow distinction to attribute to the western Mediterranean’s second greatest republic.

Because there is no particular focus on any specific class or type of soldier in either the battles or the opposing forces, we have a fairly straightforward account of one of the best known battles in military history, Cannae, a pleasing account of its little brother, Trasimene which really should have ended the war, and a very enjoyable account of the almost invisible battle of Ilipa, which despite by rather disappointed tone here rescues the title from the clutches of well travelled road. This is in the end a good book, but it doesn’t quite do what it says on the tin.


Book Review: Shrewsbury 1403 by Dickon Whitewood.

Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (30 Nov. 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472826809

First of all I’m going to direct your attention to the author’s name. Dickon (of) Whitewood, could there be a better name for a medievalist? Dickon itself being a medieval nickname for Richard. Add to that the peerless skills of expert artist Graham Turner and I was already pleased with this campaign book before I read a word. Because they are short and highly illustrated, Osprey Books don’t need to be particularly well written to be good, they need only to convey concise, detailed information. But this conventionally formatted Osprey title has a distinctive feel for the time, inserting excellent quotes from contemporary sources, and retelling the history of the campaign through it’s primary sources in a logical and fresh way.

“Never” writes the author quoting the perhaps over-exuberant Dieuclares Chronicle “in the whole world was such a great host thought to have been destroyed in battle in the space of two hours”. Although comparatively neglected and unfamiliar as a pivotal battle nowadays in the 15th century this engagement was remembered as the greatest threat to royal power until the Wars of the Roses. Which of course means that this campaign represents the consolidation of the House of Lancaster on the throne, which indeed created the arena in which those later dynastic Wars were played out. Had things gone differently for the Royal side at Shrewsbury, the Wars for control of the throne later in the century might have included an entirely different cast

Certainly in terms of military and political significance this battle served as a potent punctuation mark in the history of medieval England. It altered the balance of power amongst the aristocracy of the realm and it solidified the massed use of long-bowmen, already proven in combat in Wales and Scotland, as a battle altering formula.
Pitting the powerful Percy family (an original family of King-Makers), allied with their arch foes the Douglas’, and attempting to join forces with the Welsh, agains King Henry IV, whom the Percy’s feared was attempting to undermine them. A sudden march south saw the Rebels gather large numbers to their banner, but an audacious royal advance caught them at Shrewsbury before they could unite their forces fully. What followed was a model of many 15th century battles to come. A dependence on bowmen and dismounted knights and a focus on capturing or killing the enemy leader would be a key part of both side’s strategy.
The battle was large, costly but comparatively short. Both commanders and their high ranking supporters were in the thick of the fighting, here Prince Henry (Future Henry V) was wounded by an arrow, requiring dangerous major surgery to remove the shaft and barb from his face, and here Hotspur died. In the marvellously rich language of medieval England the battle began with: “The notes of furie, the sounds of slaughter, the harmonie of hell: trumpettes, fifes, drumms, musicke sutable to the mirth at hand.” was there ever a more superb or poetic description of he beginning of a battle?

The fairly unassuming position it now holds in terms of general consciousness isn’t borne out by its medieval legacy, which was sufficient enough to be given room in one of Shakespeare’s, (albeit lesser known) plays. Notable for some dry wit on the part of the Earl of Douglas who when told tricky King Henry had many men wearing his coat of arms, replies that he will just have to slaughter the entire royal wardrobe then. Indeed it was a deadly day, the author quotes Walsingham in yet more pithy prose. “The place for arrows was not in the ground… for men fell on the King’s side as fast as leaves fall in autumn after the hoar frost.”
The power of the bow en masse was demonstrated with great effectiveness at this battle, but interestingly although it seems Hotspur’s Cheshire archers did inflict more damage than the King’s it was the Percy’s that surrendered the field.

All of the colour plates in this book are excellent, the one of the Earl of Douglas is perhaps akin to the one painted in the campaign book about Poitiers but Turner has interpreted the subject matter into three original and excellently detailed compositions. This book sheds light not only onto an important moment in the history of medieval Britain but also on the military background of Henry V. It will be a welcome addition to any medieval military shelf.


Book Review: Boer Guerrilla vs British Mounted Soldier by Ian Knight.

Paperback: 80 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (27 July 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472818296

Conan Doyle wrote that no enemy of Britain had done her so much damage as the Boer’s with their ancient theology and their very modern rifles. This book gets to the heart of that statement.

This is a capsule of tactical thought. Proving that this Osprey series retains its core strength of highlighting fighting experience from ground level and how actual combat can drive change in doctrine.

The Boer Wars are fertile ground for this discussion, and Ian Knight is as usual a capable guide to South African military history. It will I think rest rather neatly alongside his previous title about the Zulu war, and the other combat about the fighting in east Africa between Askari forces in ww1 as a very useful and accessible study of colonial warfare in Africa.

One of the main selling points of any Osprey book is by detailed maps, unit breakdowns and examinations of weapons and tactics in a very specific area, and this book delivers on all points. Can one ever tire of seeing photos of flinty looking Boer’s and comparing them to the at first neat but increasingly capable looking British forces?

The pages are replete with fascinating images, in addition to Johnny Shumate’s full page spreads, and the added bonus of one of Woodville’s paintings deployed as a double page layout.

Knight utilises some key eyewitness sources to bring realism to bush warfare in the Boer War. All in all the British come off the worst, even with their attempts to match Boer mobility and firepower with their own mounted infantry tactics.

It seems almost like if the Boers had been able to match British industry and supply they would probably have won the second war. Not that winning the first one wasn’t a brilliant feat on its own. But although efforts were made to make the Victorian army more “irregular” it was not really troops in the open that turned the tide.

It was economics, it was constriction, and ultimately the power of a rich industrial nation versus a poor agrarian one. In the end Boer Commandants could raid as far into British territory as they liked, and it still wouldn’t change the writing on the wall.

It’s not even as if the army kept any of the lessons learned in South Africa past the actual fighting. By WW1 very little remained of the keys of dispersal, concealment and manoeuvre that had been present during the Boer War.

Though many would cite the excellent marksmanship of the BEF in 1914, learned so the enemy supposed, in many colonial campaigns it was lucky they did not encounter a Boer Commando who, though mythologised as crack shots, were indeed experts at practical marksmanship when opposed to a European foe, demonstrated here in the final action and Elands Neck.

Of note is the fact that the war in east Africa only swung in favour of the allies when some ex Boer commandants took over in the theatre. A sharp, highly enjoyable addition to the series by Ian Knight.


Book Review: The Vikings.

Authors René Chartrande, Keith Durham, Ian Heath and Mark Harrison are the names behind this nifty little glimpse into the world of the Vikings. It’s a small, well illustrated compilation of other Osprey’s dealing with the Vikings, condensing the varying subjects to some good bottom lines while, much like the recent Samurai offering, creating a nice if not coffee table sized addition to a library, a definite one for a side table.

Really the common conception of the Vikings, especially to the British, shows how long a memory a culture can have. They are still seen as ravaging bloodthirsty pirates, and whenever the revisionist interpretation of “They were also farmers” people tend to roll their eyes. Which is totally understandable, before the rise of Normandy the Vikings were the most fearsome and professional warriors in Europe.

The Warriors of the Scandinavian kingdoms were adventurers, explores, soldiers and colonisers. Norse influence spread out, East and west, as far as North America and Turkey. The nation of Russia owes its origins to Viking mercenaries, Iceland and Greenland as well, traces of this lineage is to be seen throughout the England, Ireland and Scotland. The Scandinavians colonised barren Atlantic islands, traveled as mercenaries to Moscow and Constantinople, tried to settle in North America and created kingdoms in Britain, some even becoming kings of England.

Because of this reputation the Vikings are a legacy that the British view with mingled admiration and revulsion. Like all the successful invaders of the island, the sting of what they achieved has not been removed nearly 950 years after the “Viking age” ended. They are a dangerous, pagan throwback to a wilder time, wilder than even the Saxons, the Vikings showed the world how unsafe they were. Not even William the Conquerer could defeat them, he like most bought them off,

This book gives a good overview of why these warriors made such an impact on history. Detailing all aspects of their legendary, saga like record so that one is again left in a sort of awe at what they achieved and how little credit, as conqourers, cultural exporters, explorers what have you, they are given.