Category Archives: Book of the Week

Operation Suicide: The Remarkable Story of the Cockleshell Raid by Robert Lyman

The ‘Cockleshell Heroes‘ raid is one of those operations that we all like to think we know everything about. Royal Marines, canoes, mines, Bordeaux, escaping. On the face of it, its a very daring escapade. But dig beyond the veneer of Hollywood history, and the story is even more fascinating and inspiring than it first appears.

Of course, being a Portsmouth bloke I’ve always been well aware of the Cockleshell Heroes. In fact, an ex-Bootneck down my mum and dads road was actually an extra in the film. Ah yes, the film. If you mention the Cockleshell Heroes, people think of a swarthy Mediterranean looking commander, an elderly second in command, and of brawling in Portsmouth pubs. Whilst the broad premise of the film was reasonably accurate, some of the names, personalities and suchlike were badly altered for whatever reason, and the background to the raid was not dealt with virtually at all.

What I found refreshing about this book is that Lyman has focussed more attention on the build up to the raid – its inspiration and genesis, and Hasler’s driving force behind it – than the actual raid itself. I think this is a smart move. To be honest – and as Lyman himself admits, C.E. Lucas-Phillips book of the 1950′s, written with the collaboration of Major Hasler, pretty much covered the raid itself very well.

The Cockleshell raid was not merely a case of sinking a few ships in occupied Europe. German ships had been attempting to break the Royal Navy’s blockade of Nazi-dominated Europe in an attempt to transport scarce raw materials between Germany and Japan and vice versa. Obviously, cutting off these blockade runners would seriously damage the Axis war effort. The Ministry of Economic Warfare targeted Bordeaux, and Combined Operations – led by Lord Louis Mountbatten – planned a daring raid.

One aspect that is often overlooked is how Hasler and Bill Sparks – the two sole survivors of the raid – made their escape from Bordeaux back to Britain. In terms of escape and evasion, the men were badly let down – they were not given the names of any French Resistance contacts, and only told, in the broadest terms, to head for a certain village. As Airey Neave of MI9 conceded after the raid, it was a terrific achievement for the men to make it home at all – via Ruffec, Lyon, Marseille, Barcelona, Madrid and Gibraltar.

Another mistake was the lack of co-ordination between Government and armed forces departments over raids. On the very morning that the limpet mines exploded, SOE operatives were on their way to the docks to plant bombs onboard the very same ships – both organisations were completely unaware of the others plans. If they had been able to work together, the damage might have been even more crippling on Germany.

I also like the manner in which Lyman has dealt with the very sensitive manner in which the remainder of the raiding party were executed by the Germans. In my experience, there is a wealth of documentation in official archives about war crimes, thanks to post-war investigations, and tragically it means that we can tell a lot about men who were killed in cold blood. Whilst writing about them might not be able to change history, at least their experiences might serve to remind us of why exactly they were fighting.

I enjoyed reading this book very much – it helped me through some very long train delays. And far more importantly, it achives the very difficult objective of shedding new light on a very-well known and intensely studied event in history.

Operation Suicide is published by Quercus Books.

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Filed under Book of the Week, Royal Marines, Uncategorized, World War Two

The Union Jack: The Story of the British Flag by Nick Groom

This is a first for Daly History – a review of a book, by an author who I have actually met before reading the book! To tell the story, and go off on a bit of a tangent, Professor Groom lives in the same village on Dartmoor that my girlfriend originates from.*

I found this a really interesting study. The title is a pleasant surprise in that it is perhaps slightly misleading – it isn’t just a story of the flag itself, but of the union in a broader sense, and indeed, it is a story of national identity and culture, not just of Britain but of its constituent parts too. Groom examines pre-Union Jack symbols such as the three lions, and also phenomenon such as the patriotic song.  Not only is it a history of how the flag evolved – sure, we all know about how the crosses of St George, St Andrew and St Patrick were combined – this book also takes a stuidious look at how the flag has been interpreted as part of national culture. The Union Jack has been used by the mods, and in more recent times by the far right. And of course there are those garish union jack shorts, and Ginger Spices union jack dress of the 90′s. The interesting this is, that the flag itself, in a physical manner, has never attracted the same reverence as the Star Spangled Banner. Try lowering the american flag, in front of an audience of american tourists. If the Union Jack was to be dragged through the dirt none of us would be too offended, yet if Old Glory so much as brushes against the floor, that event has cataclysmic repurcussions!

For me, the most pertinent and salient point made within is that British identity is at a crossroads. Whilst Ireland has partly seceded from the union – leaving behind Ulster – Wales and Scotland have, in recent years, been showing increasing independence. Witness Alex Salmond’s contunual posturing. So where does that leave Britain? who knows. But more tellingly, where does it leave England? For as long as anyone can remember, English identity has become subsumed by that of Britain. Inevitably the dominant partner in the union in many ways, until recent years the identity of the English nation was relatively vacuous. English sports teams sang the British national anthem, and more often than not their fans carried the union jack instead of the cross of st george.

Perhaps that is changing, and since Euro 96 English football fans have recently embraced St George -  I can receall watching England at Euro 2004, in a Lisbon Estadio da Luz carpeted in white and red. English success in Cricket and Rugby has probably also helped matters. But what exactly IS english identity? What is it to be English? It is so true that English identity has not evolved in the same manner as the other British nations. We think of English culture, and we think of morris dancing, or quaint little customs that take place in random villages. England doesn’t have a national dress, or even its own national anthem. And with Scotland and Wales potentially going their own way, perhaps English culture has space to evolve and emerge in the coming years?

I enjoyed reading this book very much. It has received rave reviews since its publication, and one can see why. It sits at an interesting and all-embracing nexus between history, sociology, culture and politics.

*…And Nick is quite some hurdy-gurdy player too.

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The Somme by Gary Sheffield

It’s nice to actually read a book about the Somme that actually makes me feel like I have learnt something. Too many books on the battle indulge in what has become rather cliched poetry. Most of us are well aware that the first day of the Somme was the bloodiest day in the British Army’s history. Most of us are equally as aware that the Somme was ultimately futile.

What Sheffield does so well here is threefold. Firstly, he does not allow the narrative to become embroiled in cliche or hyperbole. The events of 1916 are examined and explained in a clinical, methodical manner. Secondly, he looks beyond the first day of the Battle. So many histories of the Somme look only at 1 July 1916. Yet the battle raged on for almost five months after that before the offensive ceased. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is eminently readable.

Each phase of the offensive is examined in a manner which makes it clear to the reader. 1 July obviously comes in for special attention, and Sheffield looks at the Divisions all along the front, from Gommecourt in the north to the anglo-french boundary in the south, and relates their objectives and their experiences. As the late great Richard Holmes so rightly stresses in his foreword, Martin Middlebrook gave so much to our understanding of the first say of the Somme, but perhaps out attention in the past has been too focussed on this one day, out of a much longer battle.

Sheffield does not allow himself to get too bogged down in considering whether the battle was a waste of lives or not. The general assumption amongst most people is that the Somme was a horrific waste of lives, a by-word for futility. Or was it? As Sheffield reminds us, the French Army had its back to the wall at Verdun, and the Somme was vital in diverting German resources from that battle. Politically, to do nothing was not an option. In addition, the British Army learnt an awful lot on the Somme, that it put into practice in 1917 and 1918. Could Haig, Rawlinson and Gough have done much different on the Somme. Like Sheffield, I suspect not. The strategic thinking and even most of the tactics were sound, but the Army had not developed its technology and expertise – particularly around communications – enough to really take the offensive to the Germans.

I cannot stress enough how much this book has helped – and will help me – in my research into Portsmouth men killed on the Somme. In particular, the 1st Hampshires on the 1st day near Beaumont Hamel, and then the 15th Hampshires (2nd Portsmouth) at Flers in September – incidentally, one of the most succesful days on the Somme.

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Filed under Book of the Week, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

The Waterloo Collection DVD: Victory and Pursuit

This is the final part of a four volume series of DVD’s, looking at the Waterloo Campaign of 1815. I enjoyed the other three DVD’s very much, but for me this was the best of the bunch.

We all know about the last-ditch advance of the Imperial Guard, and of Wellington shouting ‘up guards and at ‘em!’; must of us military nerds will probably already know about Napoleon’s desparate attempts to rally his army, before making a desparate flight back to Paris.

But what is really ingenious about this DVD, is that it really does tell us what 95% will know next to nothing about. For almost 200 hundred years the focus of historians looking at Waterloo has radiated out from that valley south of Mont St Jean. But the whole campaign was fought on a much broader canvas. Of particular interest here is the epic march of the Prussians from Wavre to Waterloo. We are shown around Wavre itself, and told like never before how they managed to evade Grouchy.

We are also given a very good summary of the pursuit of Napoleon after Waterloo, back towards Paris; and how Grouchy attempted to check the Prussian Cavalry. I was also very impressed by the attention given to the aftermath of the battle in terms of the numbers of dead and dying, and the thoughts of the Duke of Wellington regarding the loss of so many of his friends.

It has always been an ambition of mine to go to Waterloo. I haven’t managed it yet, but this is the next best thing. Call me a geek, but I love the shots of re-enactor units massed on the field. What I really thought was invaluable about this DVD in particular was the in-depth look at a Black Watch Highlander’s clothing and equipment, courtesy of a couple of re-enactors. Most of it was completely new to me, and a real eye opener. I had no idea that Highlanders wore Moggins, for example. And I have read about the Trotter knapsack in Sharpe, but never really seen one before. Its things like that that really make for an interesting experience.

One change I would possibly make is the number of presenters. They are all very knowledgeable, but our ‘host’ changes too often for the viewer to build up a rapport. Perhaps it might work better to have perhaps one or two key hosts who address the viewer directly, and then they interview other expert guests? But apart from that rather superficial point, I think this is an excellent DVD. I found it interesting, informative, educational, and very well presented. History DVD’s are definitely here to stay.

Victory and Pursuit is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Book of the Week, Napoleonic War

Tommy by Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes was, in my eyes, unique. As a military man and an academic historian, he actually managed to capture the public’s imagination with his work. I can think of no other academic military historian who has reached out to society at large like Holmes. And surely, that is a fine, fine achievement.

As Holmes himself states in his preface, his initial military history interests involved researching battles and generals. Note his accomplished biographies of Marlborough, Wellington and French. But along the way he developed an interests in the ordinary man at war, and this led to his series of books such as Redcoat, and this book, which I consider to be his greatest achievement.

It does not have the revisionism of a writer such as Corrigan, and historiographically it sits in between narrative and probing challenges of the perceived wisdom. It is emminently readable and makes prolific use of first hand sources. But what I think is the real achievement here, is that Holmes has examined pretty much every aspect of war on the Western Front, and successively passed them all under a historical microscope. He doesn’t fall into the trap of hindsight, but neither does he go for hero worship or a bland recasting of earlier works.

The subjects that Holmes covers are vast, and some are not for the faint of heart – crime, punishment, homosexuality, venereal disease, honours, ranks, officer-men relations, attitudes to the war, food, drink (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), uniforms, lice, mud, weapons, training, and so on. In fact no stone is left unturned; there is no literary no-mans land here.

Holmes’ progression from a soldier, to an academic military historian, to a social military historian, is perhaps the best example possible of how military history itself is evolving. Not only has the field opened up beyond career soldiers alone, but we are more and more interested in the experiences of the common man – the millions of Tommies – rather than the deliberations of a few middle aged men who sat at the top of the tree. Perhaps this is a reflection of a change in modern society overall. As a military historian with both feet firmly in social history, I can only hope that this movement continues.

This book is a military history tour de force, by the late great Professor. It is the kind of book that makes me, as a historian, hope that I could one day write a book 5% as good as this. This is exactly the kind of book to get historians in the right frame of mind for the centenary projects looming in the next couple of years. It’s going to sit on my bookshelf for some time to come.

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, western front, World War One

Surgeon at Arms by Lipmann Kessel

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I tend to devour anything written that pertains to Operation Market Garden. It’s what got me into military history, and even when I’m in a nursing home myself I’ll probably still be reading my Op MG library. The funny thing is, I don’t actually enjoy the general histories – there are so many of them, and to be honest, since Martin Middlebrook none of them have really offered anything new. But there are a wealth of personal and micro histories out there, many of them under-published and little-known.

Captain Alexander Lipmann-Kessel was serving with 16th Parachute Field Ambulance during the Battle, parachuting in on the first day and leading a surgical team at St Elisabeths Hospital in the town until after the surrender. Not only was he a very brave man and a distinguished surgeon, but he was, miraculously, a South African Jew. As such, he had more to lose than most. And as he himself states in the text, he did look stereotypically Jewish. Heaven knows how the germans did not cotton on.

Having previously read Stuart Mawson’s Arnhem Doctor, I was very interested to read another account of battlefield medicine. The privations of running an operating theatre in action, under enemy occupation, using very basic equipment and a minimum of supplies, is very inspiring indeed. For much of the battle Kessel was working alongside Dutch civilian doctors and nurses, and under pressure from the Germans all of the time. Kessel has some interesting observations about the German doctors approach to battlefield medicine. The SS doctors refused to operate on any head or stomach wounds, preferring to administer a lethal injection. Lipmann-Kessel, on the other hand, decided to operate on Brigadier Shan Hackett’s severe stomach wound, with a casual, ‘oh I don’t know, I think I might have a go at this one’.

After the withdrawl across the Rhine, the Germans gradually evacuated the hospital – not before Kessel could have Brigadier Hackett spirited away into hiding, and assist the Dutch underground in giving a ‘funeral’ to a consignment of arms. Transported to a barracks in Apeldoorn, Lipmann-Kessel eventually escaped. Coming into contact with the Dutch underground, he took part in the abortive Pegasus II attempt to get airborne fugivites back across the Rhine. Lipmann-Kessel finally made it to allied lines by canoeing down a Dutch river, evading German patrols along the way. It’s stirring stuff indeed, the stuff of a boys own novel.

Although it doesn’t state so in the book, when Lipmann-Kessel died in the 1980′s, he requested to be buried in Arnhem civilian cemetery, close by to his comrades who were killed in September 1944. Having read his account of those dramatic days, such a gesture seems completely in character with the man.

Surgeon at Arms is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Arnhem, Book of the Week, Uncategorized, World War Two

23 Things they dont tell you about Capitalism by Ha Joon Chang

Ok, so this is a bit of a departure from my usual reading of a military history bent. And equally, I tend to steer clear of politics, not wanting to alienate anyone – or myself for that matter – due merely to party politics. But my brother bought me this book for Christmas as a leftfield wildcard kind of gift, and I have found reading it to be a revelation.

Since the 1980′s, and in particular the conservative economic policies of Reagan and Thatcher, free market economic policy has been an orthodoxy, not quite globally but certainly in the North Atlantic area. The philosophy is that the less you interfere and meddle in the economy, the more everything will turn out better for everyone, and income will trickly down and we will all live happily ever after.

Chang is also quite pertinent in question the manner in which the United States is always, without fail, held up as the poster boy of economic success. I cannot help but think that this is down to the historical legacy of the ‘american dream’, and a pinch of american narrow-mindedness. Whilst the US does have a strong economy, a high proportion of its wealth is distributed at the very top of its earning spectrum, whereas other countries, such as Sweden, might not have so many billionaires, but they have fewer of their citizens living in abject poverty. It all depends on exactly HOW we measure economic prosperity.

Essentially, I think Chang presents a stern critique of free-market capitalism, whilst defending capitalism itself as a broader concept. I can understand where he is coming from. I come from working class roots, and I would have to say I lean firmly to the left when it comes to equality and social justice in society, but at the same time I believe it is important to have an independent, ‘can-do’ spirit. The problem with free-market ideology, as I see it, is that when you remove all rules, the lowest common denominator wins out – ie, in crude terms, shit floats to the top. Hence the rise of the yuppy.

I was also much taken by Chang’s assertion that the Post Industrial Era is a myth. Why? Well, much of the world is still producing, ie, manufacturing. There IS still money to be made from making things, it is just that some countries chose to abandon their manufacturing industries and move towards service based economies. The Post-Industrial tag seems to be an attempt to justify the abandonment of production, if nothing else. Not that service based industries have really worked out very well for Britain anyway.

Another aspect that Chang examines very succinctly is that of the welfare state. Many argue, mostly in the US, that a bloated welfare state not only costs the country money, but encourages the lower classes to be lazy, knowing that they do not have to work too hard to survive. Yet it could be argued – Chang does, and I tend to agree – that having a welfare state means that employees are able to take more risks, knowing that if things do not work out or if their employer goes bust, they will not be on the breadlines. This is the case in most European states, whereas in the US, employees could be excused for playing it safe and protecting their jobs, as losing ones job means losing everything, due to a virtual non-existance of any kind of welfare support. This means effectively that you only get one decent shot at a career, or a business – which is hardly conducive to innovation and risk taking!

Chang’s final point is that whilst we have learnt the lessons of the 2008 crash, the credit crunch, we have yet to reform the financial industries to take into account these lessons. The credit crunch showed that free market ideology leads to irresponsible and dangerous behaviour, but the banks and stock markets have been unaffected since their disastrous actions. Why? well, one suspects that bankers and stockbrokers have enough influence to protect their interests politically, but it also shows the extent to which free market-ism is taken as a given in modern society. Perhaps it is down to the false notion that western capitalism ‘won’ the Cold War over eastern communism, and therfore must surely be superior?

In conclusion, I don’t think we can exclude politics from anything  that we discuss, in terms of history or military affairs. After all, who makes the decisions and shapes the policy? And for that matter, don’t economic forces drive defence procurement?

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Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division at War: Invention, Innovation and Inspiration by Richard Doherty

Richard Doherty is a first class military historian, and I have really enjoyed his previous books, in particular his work on Irish military history. As somebody with Irish ancestry, I find it quite relevant. What I really like about this book, is that it takes something that most people with an interest in military history are aware of, but then shows us, that actually, we weren’t anywhere near as aware of it as we thought we were. Of course, everyone has heard of ‘Hobart’s funnies‘. But what do we actually know about the funnies? About the men who fought in them? Or Hobart himself?

An in-law of Montgomery, Percy Hobart was a pretty interesting character. Commissioned as an Engineer prior to the First World War, in 1923 he transferred to the Royal Tank Regiment, and hence was one of the first pioneers of armoured warfare. Despite this he wasn’t exactly the easiest of people to get on with. As a result, despite forming Britain’s first armoured Division in Egypt (what would later become 7th Armoured), he was retired in 1939 and subsequently became a Corporal in the Home Guard.

Rescued from obscurity by Winston Churchill – ever an advocate of the eccentric innovator – he was brought back into service and formed the 11th Armoured Division. Sadly, Hobart was removed from command before the Division could see service, but that the Division later went on to become one of the finest Division after D-Day under Major General Phillip Roberts, is testament to Hobart’s skill in training and creating espirit-du-corps.

But this time Hobart did not find himself on the career scrapheap. He was given the responsibility of forming a specialist armoured Division, the 79th Armoured. Hobart was given the responsibility of forming the Division to operate specialist armoured fighting vehicles. Although the concept of specialist armour was by no means his invention, appointing Hobart to command such a Division was a stroke of genius – his individuality and innovative streak paying dividends.

The Division never fought together as a single entity, but was distributed amongst the British and Canadian forces in North West Europe as was seen fit to enable them to accomplish their objectives. It is not commonly known, but the Funnies did fight on after D-Day until VE Day, in difficult operations, in particular the crossing of the Rhine. Hobart himself did not lead his Division in the conventional sense, but acted as its advocate and adviser to the High Command, including Montgomery himself.

One thing that this book does illustrate very well, is the big difference between British and American approaches to invention. Especially when we consider that the US Army, for the most part, did not innovate when it came to armoured vehicles. But when it did, it did decisively and quickly – such as the Sergeant who had the idea of welding Rommel’s apaspargus onto the front of tanks, for use as a plough through the difficult Bocage terrain. Britain – and this is a historical trend- tends to spend years developing and evolving such equipment, but when a US General saw the Sergeant’s invention, he ordered it adpoted immediately!

After reading this vivid and detailed account, I understand so much better the role of the funnies on D-Day and beyond. It is a classic tale of British innovation in the face of obstacles, led by an eccentric and irascible leader who found his moment in history, and Richard Doherty has considerably advanced our understanding of it. It is a very British story. That all armies now operate a vast range of specialised armour is testament not only to how important the funnies were, but Hobart’s role in getting them formed and into action.

Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division at War is published by Pen and Sword

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Retreat and Rearguard 1914: The BEF’s actions from Mons to the Marne by Jerry Murland

I have always felt that perhaps the military history of the First World War has focussed far too much on the events of 1916 and 1917 – primarily, Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele. Sure, all three were epic battles with a profound social and military impact, but viewing them without looking at what became before and after is to only see half of the picture. The British Expeditionary Force landed in France in August 1914, and marched up to the Belgian frontier. In defence of Belgian neutrality, the BEF marched into Belgium itself to meet the German Army’s advance.

I have studied something of the retreat from Mons, during my research into the 1st Hampshires and their battle at Le Cateau. But given that I am hoping to write a book or two on the First World War, I was very pleased to see this land on my doormat. I have always been mystified by the portrayal of Mons as a defeat. True, I think it would be hard to paint Mons itself as a victory, but Smith-Dorrien‘s decision to stand at Le Cateau was a masterpiece. Much like Quatre Bras almost a hundred years before, success there gave the rest of the Army time to slip away orderly. And although it is never inspiring for an army to retreat, a General should not be afraid to do so if the strategic situation demands it. French and the BEF had little option but to fall in line with Joffre’s overal strategy, particularly with an unreliable Lanzerac on the BEF’s right flank. The Duke of Wellington retreated many times, but almost always in an orderly fashion, with a plan up his sleeve. True, French might not exactly have had a Waterloo planned, but the retreat forced the German Army to over extend itself and to falter on the Marne. I think history would probably hold out that this was a far wiser strategy than to stand at Mons and be destroyed.

I feel a special mention is in order for the fighting at Etreux on 27 August 1914, where the 2nd Bn Royal Munster Fusiliers were attacked by the Germans at 7am near Chapeau Rouge, before a fighting withdrawal throughout the day, before a dramatic last stand at the Orchard in Etreux. The Battalion was decimated, and four of those killed were from Portsmouth – Lieutenant Challoner Chute (19), Lance Corporal Edward Carroll (29, Milton), and the two brothers Corporal Charles Roberts (23) and Corporal George Roberts (21),  of Meyrick Road in Stamshaw. I am very grateful to Jerry Murland for adding to me knowledge of how these Portsmouth men died.

Murland has made a fantatic contribution to the history of the BEF on the Western Front. Impeccably researched, it is based on a wealth of primary and secondary material. In particular I was very impressed with the maps, which really helped to gain a feel for the battles of August 1914. He has dealt very well not only with giving a full and insightful narrative of the campaign, but has also shed light on often overlooked areas – the relations between French, Haig and Smith-Dorrien, and between French and Joffre and Lanzerac; the myth that the BEF’s marksmanship was so rapid that the Germans thought that every man was armed with a machine gun; and he has also given new prominence to the sterling work of the gunners and sappers during the retreat.

A retreat in contact with the enemy is perhaps the most challenging military maneouvre to pull off – if it works, you have barely survived; if it fails, you have a rout. Not only was it a success for the BEF get itself back to the Marne in the state that it did, but it is also very commendable that Murland has looked at every last little aspect of the campaign in such a forensic yet fulsome manner. As good as John Terraine’s book on Mons is, I found Jerry Murland’s much more insightful.

Retreat and Rearguard 1914 is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, portsmouth heroes, western front, World War One

Merville Battery and the Dives Bridges and Pegasus Bridge and Horsa Bridge by Carl Shilleto

Having received these guides that both relate to the Airborne Brigdgehead in Normandy, and are both by Carl Shilleto, I thought it would make sense to review them together. I have used the Battleground series of Battlefield Guides myself when visiting Arnhem in the past. To my eternal regret, I haven’t actually managed to get to any other battlefields apart from Arnhem, so until the time that somebody gives me a break in becoming a battlefield guide I will have to make do with reading battlefield guide books from the comfort of my own home!

Mind you, in this case it’s not really a case of making do – these are very good books indeed. Exceptionally well illustrated with archive and contemporary photographs, and with a wealth of appendices covering recommended reading, order of battle, glossaries and a handy reference list of grid reference co-ordinates for Satnav use. The maps in particular are a great resource – in particular the colour maps on the back are very useful. Perhaps the only thing that is missing with this series is a larger scale, detailed Holts-style map, but I guess if you want something like that you can go out and buy one yourself, or one of the French Michelin maps. There isn’t a huge amount on tourist information – some basic information such as climate, health, getting there, the perils of battlefield relics are well covered. With the internet, and ever disappearing international borders, it shouldn’t take too much trouble to google up some ferries and hotels.

I’ve done a fair bit of studying of individual soldiers who fought in the airborne bridgehead – namely Portsmouth’s own Sergeant Sid Cornell DCM and the 16 year old Boy Para Private Bobby Johns. Reading this book has helped me understand what happened to both of them in much more context. And I guess that’s what a good battlefield guidebook should do – make you feel like you have been there, without actually being there. I wouldn’t mind betting that out of everyone who buys a battlefield guide, something like 75% might not actually got to the area. And is that such a bad thing?

Both Battleground guides are available from Pen and Sword

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Battleground General Arnhem 1944 by Jon Sutherland and Diane Canwell

Wargaming is something that I have always fancied having a go at. In the main, it has been time and expense that has precluded me having a go. Similarly, I tend to steer clear of wargaming PC games, as I find it all too easy to spend all weekend playing them! Therefore I was very interested to see this book by Sutherland and Canwell which is, in essence, wargaming in a book. And obviously, with my personal interest in the Battle of Arnhem, I was doubly fascinated to have a go at wargaming Arnhem.

The concept is thus. You play in the role of either of the opposing commanders – in this case, either Major General Roy Urquhart or Waffen SS General Wilhelm Bittrich. After reading the opening entry, you are given a series of choices, which usually entail making a tactical decision. Each step entails going on to another decision if you decide on a particular course of action. In essence, it is kind of like a giant flow chart, but only listed in a book. As far as I can tell it is pretty accurate to history, militarily and in terms of the geography and the ‘feel’ of the battle. I’ve walked over the ground at Arnhem a couple of times, as well as reading every book about the battle more than once, so I guess I’m as much an expert about Arnhem as you can get. Of course, it is quite simplistic, compared to say a PC game or a school hall long board wargame, but that’s the beauty of it – you can sit on the train and play it with yourself, or maybe in conjunction with another fellow military history nerd.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, I won! Playing as Urquhart, I stayed at my HQ initially on the first day, but went ahead to switch the Recce Squadron and the rest of 1st Parachute Brigade to the southern route once I hit opposition on the way into the town. As a result the 2nd Battalion made the Bridge, and more of the Brigade than did in reality. Of course, I know that on the evening of the 17th Urquhart got himself trapped in Arnhem, so I prompltly pulled myself back to main HQ. The rest of the 1st Brigade were held up in the town, but on the second day I switched the 4th Brigade (Grandad included!) to the southern route, down through Oosterbeek. Along with the balance of the 1st Brigade, they made it to the Bridge. The 1st Airlanding Brigade remained on the drop zones, where the Poles later landed. With enough men on the northern end of the Bridge, I sat it out – too many Germans on the south, my probing recces found that the opposition there wasn’t worth wasting too many men on. However, once I heard that XXX Corps had taken Nijmegen Bridge and were advancing up the Island, I charged the south bank in an all or nothing coup de main – and took it!

Having read plenty of Arnhem books, I think that plan might well have worked – but of course, that takes a lot of hindsight. But then again, isn’t that what we do, as historians? Take account of hindsight where others could not at the time? When you consider how it must have been trying to make decisions back in September 1944 – when Urquhart et al knew none of this – you can see how success and failure were divided by such a thin line. A very sobering realisation indeed.

Battleground General Arnhem 1944 is published by Pen and Sword

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Birmingham Pals by Terry Carter

In the past year or so there has been a real increase in the number of military history books looking at the First World War. And refreshingly, many of them are focused on the experiences of the average guy caught up in conflict. Among them is Pen and Sword‘s series of books on the Pals Battalions.

In 1914 the British Army was relatively small – virtually an Imperial police force, and a continental role was never really envisioned until only a few years before the war began. As a result, the Army had to expand massively in order to field a sizeable expeditionary force in Flanders. The solution of the Secretart of State for War, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, was to recruit masses of volunteers into a ‘New Army‘, or ‘Kitchener Battalions’. Many of these were centred on large urban areas, including Birmingham.

Birmingham eventually raised three Kitchener Battalions – the 14th, 15th and 16th Battalions of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, Birnimgham’s local country Regiment. Of course, if we try to divorce units from their social history, and indeed their communities in general, they make much less sense in history. As raw recruits, the Battalions spent much time in England training before embarking for France. Like most of the Kitchener Battalions, the Birmingham Pals first action was on the Somme. The fate of the Pals Battalions on the Somme has really struck a chord in British military history, probably due to the grievous losses combined with the fact that it was the first time that Britain had truly fielded a citizen army.

But this isn’t just a narrative, ’1914 to 1918 what happened’. Terry Carter grounds his work with a chapter on the social and economic context of Birmingham’s history, and the events of August 1914 which saw mass volunteering amid a wave of euphoria. It is impeccably well researched, and generously illustrated. It contains a roll of honour of all members of the three Battalions who fell, and a list of gallantry medals – a real bonus for anyone wishing to look up their ancestors. Overall it is very well handled, and at no point does the text stray into the oft-heard stereotypes about the Pals, and instead wisely focuses on sources and events.

I found this a very interesting read indeed. Not only will it interest Brummies, but also those of us from further afield who are interested in this kind of research, with the 100th anniversary looming in 2014. Terry Carter has definitely put down a marker here, and I hope I can do half as good a job when it comes to paying tribute to Portsmouth’s own pals.

Birmingham Pals is published by Pen and Sword

 

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Walking the Somme by Paul Reed

Regular readers will probably need no introduction to Paul Reed. A prolific military historian, he is also a battlefield guide and a regular expert on the TV screens when it comes to military history. One of those people who makes you wonder, how do they fit it all in?!

Hopefully one day I will get myself to the Somme, and when I do this book will be in my rucksack. But until then a read of this is not a bad substitute. I wonder how many people, like me, own plenty of battlefield guides but have never been anywhere near the places? I find that because they are written in a manner aiming to interpret the lie of the land, and bring the battle to life, battlefield guidebooks come across like that even if you’re reading them in the comfort of your own home. And surely that is the whole intention of writing history? It’s something that Paul Reed does very well here. My understanding of the Battle of the Somme has been vastly improved thanks to this book. In particular, I have a much stronger grasp on what happened to the Portsmouth Pals- the 14th and 15th Hampshires – at Flers and Guillemont respectively. And considering I’m quite new to studying the Great War, but looking to publish a book on it myself in the non too distant future, thats a very useful thing.

The battlefield of the Somme is ‘broken up’ into a series walks, logical in scope and and sensible in duration. The book is amply illustrated, with photographs, archive maps and sketch maps – which somehow are very evocative of the great war, a nice touch. I also like how it concentrates far more on the common soldier than it does on the Generals, which is not always the case with First World War books! Sensibly, Paul has concentrated on the battlefields themselves, without swamping the reader with ancilliary information. Most of us have the internet at hand nowadays, and tourist information for Albert should be at our fingertips with a quick google search. Hence theres no need to overload the book with hotels, trains and toilets, when there is far more interesting stuff to think about.

This book was actually first published almost twenty years ago. And I have to say, considering the changes in technology and the shifts in military history since then, it has ‘aged’ remarkably well. I guess its comparable to, say, writing a battlefield guide now, say, for an iphone app, who knows what innovations might take place between now and twenty years time? So to pass the test of time is no small achievement.

Walking the Somme is published by Pen and Sword

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Under the Devil’s Eye: The British Military Experience in Macedonia 1915-1918 by Alan Wakefield and Simon Moody

During my research into Portsmouth’s Great War casualties, I have come across a number who are buried in Greece. I must confess that although I knew that the British Army had fought in ‘Salonika‘ during the First World War, I had very little awareness of what had actually happened in that campaign. As the Introduction explains, when this book was first published in 2004 it was the first book on Salonika to reach a British market in 39 years! Little wonder that the campaign has been ignored by history, overshadowed by both the Western Front on the one hand, and Gallipoli on the other.

The Balkans has always been a notoriously sensitive region throughout European history, with the melting pot of Yugoslavia, and numerous ethnic and religious tensions in the area. Into this dangerous context, the British Army landed in 1915. Ostensibly their presence was protect Greece against Bulgarian agression, yet many in the Greek establishment were decidedly anti-British and pro-German. The real intention was to divert Bulgarian resources away from a possible attack on Franco-Serbian forces elsewhere in the Balkans. The campaign took place in the Greek province of Macedonia (not to be confused with the modern state of Macedonia, which is nearby but part of the former Yugoslavia), and British forces depended on the port of Salonika for their lines of communications. Thus it was into a very delicate and awkward theatre that British soldiers entered in 1915.

Viewed from the foresight of British military overconfidence, and underestimation of the enemy, the campaign was a disappointment military. British forces failed to make much headway, even when the Bulgarians were on the point of collapse. In the end, the Armistice in September 1918 came completely out of the blue. Personally, I would argue that to have fought a tricky campaign with a lack of resources, lack of priority, and against a formidable enemy, climate and disease, not to mention a neutral host country, was no mean feat at all.

Many British troops at Salonika had embarked from Gallipoli, and there were many similarities between the two campaigns. Both were borne out of a desire to avoid mass casualties by fighting on the western front, and to attempt to ‘knock away the props’ by defeating Germany‘s allies. Little did the ‘easterners’ understand that Germany was propping up her allies. Similar arguments would be heard twenty five years later when Churchill exhoted the allies to exploit Europe’s ‘soft underbelly’, irritating american suspicions in the process. But the similarities do not end there. Troops fighting in the Eastern Mediteranean fought against the enemies of the heat, disease, and an foe that turned out to be much more formidable than had been expected.

This is a very useful book indeed. It sheds new light on a vastly under-studied campaign, and it certainly expanded my Great War horizons. It is incredibly well researched, and makes plentiful use of primary sources – both official documents and eyewitness accounts. It is not just a political narrative, but gives ample attention to the rank and file soldier, and wider contexts.

Under the Devils Eye is published by Pen and Sword

 

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Playing the Game: the British junior officer on the Western Front 1914-1918 by Christopher Moore-Bick

Much has been written about British senior officers in the Great War – the so called ‘Donkeys’. With popular cultural references such as ‘Oh what a lovely war’ and ‘Blackadder goes forth‘, it became an orthodoxy for many years that the British General Staff between 1914 and 1918 were Victorian and incompetent. In recent times, there have been a number of reactions to this. Firstly, attempts have been made to ‘rehabilitate the donkeys’, with varying success. And in a more refreshing manner, much effort has been put into uncovering the experiences of the rank and file on the Western Front, particularly poignant with the passing of the Harry Patch generation.

But somewhere in between those two appraches, we are missing something – an understanding of the lives of the junior officers of the British Army, those who commanded platoons and companies, whether regular, territorial or volunteer. And that void presents us with an opportunity. Not only to understand the middle level of the British Army in 1914-18, but also to take a closer look at the society that created them. And that’s what Christopher Moore-Bick has done very ably here.

In many respects the Great War heralded the end of the Victorian/Edwardian society in Britain. The title of the book is indicative of this – to young officers, everything was akin to a game, played on the public school playing fields. Baden-Powell encouraged his Boy Scouts to ‘play up, play up, and play the game!’. Portsmouth’s supporters, around the same time, encouraged their team to ‘Play up’. It could well be argued that the loss of so many young, educated men harmed British society irrevocably – how many future generals and politicians perished in Flanders fields?

It would not be enough to simply confine a look at the BEF‘s junior officers to their activities during the war and on the front line, and this book does not disappoint. Moore-Bick takes a broad view, examining Education and Upbringing, Training, the psychology of fear, responsibility and personal development working relationships with seniors and juniors, class factors, social activities and leisure pursuits, morale, bravery, identity and the relationship between war, dying and the public school ethos. No historical stone is left unturned.

A glance at the endnotes and bibliography gives an impression of just how hard the author must have worked on this project. Prolific use has been made of primary sources, in particular testimonies of junior officers. Great use has been made of a wide range of secondary published sources also. It is always impressive to see the reading that has gone into an authors approach and conclusions.

The only reservation I have about this book, is the manner in which Winchester College is mentioned profusely throughout. It transpires, reading the authors biography, that he is an ex-pupil of Winchester College. I’m sure that old-school tie is inspirational to people who didn’t go to the local state school, but it is slightly over-present here. I guess in a way that is an example of the class loyalties shown by junior officers during the Great War – the only school that existed was the one that you went to, and the only and by far the best Regiment in the British Army was the one that you joined. Tribal loyalties did breed healthy competition.

This book is a godsend to those researching the social history of the British Army in the First World War. For a first book it is a very credible effort, and I can only marvel at the time and effort that it must have taken to research. I’m going to find it invaluable during my research in the months and years to come.

Playing the Game: The British Junior Infantry Officer on the Western Front 1914-1918 is published by Helion

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, social history, Uncategorized, western front, World War One