Death of the Wehrmacht – Robert M. Citino

I recently picked this book up on the German strategy in WWII and read through it pretty quickly.  It cut ahead in line, so to speak.  It is about the year 1942, where the situation passed from Germany seeming to be on the brink of victory to the long retreat to the end of the war.

The author has an explanation that goes beyond the post war excuses that it was all Hitler’s fault or that it was any particular decision in itself, it was just that the German ‘way of war’ was unsuited to the demands of the situation.  When faced with a shortcoming, the response was not to pull back, but to get in deeper.  This was a view shared by Hitler and the Generals.  Their divergences were on details, not essentials.

Citino brings it all back to Prussia and Frederick the Great, who grew Prussia to a major power by swiping provinces quickly with a good army, then getting out of the war quickly.  This way, the weak nation would not be prostrated by a long war’s demands in men and production.  This can serve you well if you can knock out the other side quickly, but in WWII Germany could never do this with first Britain, then Russia, and finally the United States.   When the first strike failed, the Generals’ answer was a second, and a third.  Eventually the opponents learned enough to parry the blow and the rout was on.  In Africa, Rommel basically trained the Western Allies in armored combat for two years for no strategic benefit to the Axis.  In Russia, each offensive killed a lot of Russians but gave the Germans more ground to protect and defend with the same or fewer men.   Eventually, something would give.

This fits in well with the new histories of the East Front I have (or are in the process of  reading) that show that even after the first months this operation was in trouble.  Citino is taking this theme to the next year, where again apparent success is also revealing a pattern of muddled objectives and plans, and aims that don’t seem to make a lot of sense.  If you wanted to fight in a major city, you hardly need to drive all the way to Stalingrad when Leningrad is only 10 miles from your front line.

I’ve noticed this before over the years from both World Wars – the Germans are touted as great planners and strategists, but in reality, they are bad ones.  The army can fight well tactically and operationally better than almost anyone, but the high command and worse yet the political leaders don’t seem to be addicted to gambles and operations that are thrown together at the last moment.  And there is no sign of a coherent grand strategy anywhere to be found.

The Art of War – Sun Tzu

I picked up this book a while back on Kindle – I think it was a free edition – a while back.  This edition had a pretty good translation, and his comments about the translation, the organization of the book, and about the other annotators added something.

To those who haven’t read it, the book is a collection of short statements by Sun Tzu.  Over time, some later writers have added their own comment about many of the statements.  These vary in quality from those that add a lot to the comment, those that are interesting but not too related, and those that don’t seem to add much or make sense at all.

Anyone who has read a blog comment stream is familiar with this!   It is amusing to see it over centuries in an ancient book.

If you are interested in strategy, the book is well worth reading, if not the revelation it has recently been touted as in business schools.  Its collection of short quips makes it easy to pick up and put down, as there isn’t a narrative thread to be lost.  And you can’t beat ‘free’.

Notable Historical Trials IV – President Andrew Johnson

This chapter in the Folio Society‘s collection of historical trials was pretty interesting. It is about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson after the Civil War.

This trial isn’t usually mentioned in histories of the war, and often glossed over when it is mentioned with the usual veneer of ‘Radicals’ acting extremely.

Johnson got into trouble initially due to his veto of the Reconstruction acts.  The issue of how to reintegrate the Southern states and assure that the Negro citizens kept their rights was a tough one, despite intellectuals afterwards asserting otherwise.  With the political class more or less all involved in the rebellion, and with the ex-slaves not being ready to take their place, the alternatives were to rule with the military until the whites acquiesced, or doom the blacks to generations of ‘neo-slavery’.  While in the end, this is what happened anyway, Congress should not be dismissed for making an effort.

So when Johnson began relieving the military governors, and the Secretary of War in defiance of the Tenure of Office Act, which held that appointed persons must serve a full term, Congress was angry.  Johnson had already vetoed several Reconstruction bills that were overridden. and here he was trying to do the same through the back door.

Johnson’s dismissal of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War that organized the victory in the Civil War, was designed to precipitate a crisis.  Remember, Stanton was overseeing an occupation of a dozen states at the time.  These states had been at war with the country just before that.  Congress had a very real interest in having someone competent and incorruptible overseeing this.  Stanton was many unpleasant things besides competent and incorruptible, but he had what was needed in the post.

The trial came down to a few Senators in the middle.  The Democrats would vote no for political reasons, many Republicans would vote yes for the same.  The middle found their verdict came down to the charge of violating the Tenure of Office Act in firing Stanton.  Ironically, it did not apply to Stanton, who had been confirmed under Lincoln in 1862.  Enough Senators found for Johnson that the impeachment failed.

Afterwards, things cooled down on both sides.  Johnson nominated men that Congress could accept in the posts, and Reconstruction went on.  It would finally end as a political deal with the Democrats in the disputed Hayes-Tilden election in 1876.  The troops were pulled out, and the white majority was free to enact Jim Crow legislation to eliminate the rights of the blacks living there.

The Sword of Rome – Jeremiah McCall

This book is a biography of Marcus Claudius Marcellus.

Deutsch: Porträt eines augusteischen Prinzen, ...

Deutsch: Porträt eines augusteischen Prinzen, möglicherweise Marcus Claudius Marcellus, Neffe und Schwiegersohn des Augustus. In den Kapitolinischen Museen in Rom. vgl. den Abguss (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who?  Exactly.  Pen and Sword Books seems to be putting out books about different historical periods and actors than the usual Caesar/Cicero/Scipio group.  I find these interesting as we are not going over the same tired ground again.

Marcellus was the first in his family to reach true prominence, a situation that would persist until the very end of the Republic.  In the years of the Punic Wars he grew to be one of the effective generals facing Hannibal.  In the end he was elected consul 5 times, a record that was only surpassed later by Gaius Marius.  He was continually in the field for about a decade, mostly against Hannibal, during the bulk of the Second Punic War.  Given the frequency that Hannibal killed Roman generals, this is no mean feat,  And in the end, Hannibal did get him, in an ambush.

He first came into prominence for his action at the battle of Clastidium.  Here he, as the general in chief, managed to kill the opposing Gallic general Virdumarus with his own hand and strip him of his armor and weapons.

This feat, called the spolia opimawas only done two other times in Roman History, and those were in the mythical past.  Marcellus was apparently quite the self promoter, resurrecting this old legend back to the present day.  The populace loved this kind of thing, and his political opponents did not.  We have a hint of this by the interesting fact that Polybius, a historian attached to a rival house, leaves this entire incident out!

This is a part of the book I found very interesting.  A part of historiography of the late republic is how the “Senate” – more accurately a faction in the senate – was a bloc and their opponents – the Gracchi, Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, Clodius – were uniquely dangerous and evil monsters to oppose them.  Back in the good old days, this never happened!

Well this is the good old days, and factionalism and self promotion seem to be here all the same!  With Hannibal at the gates, Marcellus’ opponents tried to deny him a triumph for the capture of Syracuse, put him on trial, and shunt him off to minor theatres repeatedly.  It seems the golden age had some tarnish on it.

Marcellus had an interesting response.  When denied a triumph, and granted an ovation, a lesser, nearly forgotten celebration, he pulled out an even older tradition and celebrated a triumph ‘on the Alban Mount’ outside of Rome.  Then he celebrated the ovation, and the novelty of the new celebration actually made it more popular than the relatively common triumph.  And the loot that he spread around helped too!

Marcellus was an effective general even against Hannibal.  He kept him hemmed in the boot of Italy, won some skirmishes and kept him busy while towns like Capua and Tarentum were captured, and got caught napping a time or two.  The last time was the worst (for him at least).  Hannibal noticed a hilltop that made a good observation area and set and ambush there.  Marcellus went there with his commanders, and was killed at the age of 60.

The Marcelli remained players in Rome.  In fact, the consuls that forced a confrontation with Julius Caesar in 50 and 49 BC were Marcelli, and hardliners compared to the more well known earlier opponents like Cato, Cicero, and Bibulus.  There were factions even among those who opposed him!  Augustus decided to co-opt the family by marrying his daughter Julia to a Marcelli and making him his heir.

Vanished Kingdoms – Byzantion

This chapter in Norman Davies‘ book on states that have vanished from the European scene is an amazingly ironic one, I presume unintentionally.  The thesis of the chapter is that the Byzantine Empire gets a short shrift from Historians.  Davies demonstrates this by giving it short shrift in his book.

The state, that lasted from the 300s AD to 1453 AD, gets about 20 pages.  Tolosa, a state that was crushed by the Franks after living a hundred years or so, gets about the same.

But at least Tolosa gets to be discussed.  Byzantium’s chapter is about how historians refuse to give it credit for its accomplishments – as a historian doesn’t discuss them again.  He rails at Gibbon for dismissing the dynasties in a long chapter – as he works past them without any mention at all.  And he is disdainful of Enlightenment historians and their anti-Christian bias, while in the next sentence writing off Theodosius I as a “Ceasaro-papist”.

Not that I know what the hell that means, but since at the time there was no powerful Pope in Rome, and Bishop Ambrose of Milan famously made Theodosius do public penance for wrongdoing, this seems to be the pot calling the kettle black to me.

Then while decrying the absence of knowledge of later Byzantine history as he skips over it, he does have time to describe who got jobs recently in university teaching about it, and the chats they had with the hired workmen about it.

Byzantium may be the greatest of the Vanished Kingdoms as he writes.  It is certainly absent from this chapter.


Vanished Kingdoms – Litva

So where is Litva?  This chapter in Norman Davies‘ book on states that did not survive in European History was interesting just because it comes from a part of the continent that is not often written about – the Baltic and inland area.

In the ninth century AD the expansion of the Scandinavians was extending out in all directions.  To the north, south and west they were called the Vikings and no place on a coast or river was safe.  To the east, the Varangian spread into and through the Baltic and across current-day Russia down to the Black Sea and Constantinople.

Map of Lithuania Proper

Map of Lithuania Proper (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The critical part of these crossings were portaging places, where the trade routes (or invading routes) crossed from rivers leading to the Baltic to those that flowed to the Black Sea.  The Varangian built forts in these places which grew into states with time.  one built on the Niemen river was named Litva, after the Slavic tribe in the area.

In the next centuries these statelets fought and grew and split up.  Kiev became a major power.  Litva jointed with Polatsk to cover numerous routes.  In the 12th Century the Baltic coast area was attacked by the German Teutonic Knights, and the eastern states were conquered by the Mongols.  The states in-between linked up in defense under a King, forming the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Lithuanian state in the 13-15th centuries

Lithuanian state in the 13-15th centuries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the Mongol threat waned, Lithuania expanded into the void, taking Kiev and the Ukraine and even reaching the Black Sea at Odessa.  They soon lost that strip of coastland to the Ottomans, but gained even more land by unification with Poland in the 1500s.   Lithuania owned a huge wedge of land, basically everything between Germany and the  modern cities of  St. Petersburg and Rostov.

But this was the beginning of the end.  Russia to the east, Austria to the South, and Prussia to the West began slicing up the large but weak state, which could do little in response.  In the late 1700s, the third and last “Partition of Poland” put and end to the Grand Duchy and the Kingdom of Poland.

"A map of the Kingdom of Poland and the G...

“A map of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania including Samogitia and Curland divided according to their dismemberments with the Kingdom of Prussia” from 1799. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Poland has been resurrected a few times since, the coastal region saw freedom in the 1920s, but it was not until the breakup of the USSR that the core region of Litva became independent again as Belarus.

Kiev 1941 – David Stahel

This is the second book in Stahel’s series on WWII in Russia.  In the first book, Sahel showed that even in the first few months of the operation, there were signs that the task was too tough for them,  Even in August 1941, the advance on the flanks was stalling, and the center was under serious attack.  The three army groups (North, Center, and South) could no longer advance at the same time – forces from one army group needed to be transferred to the others to allow them to advance.

There was also dissension in the High Command.  After the war it became fashion to blame everything on Hitler.  In this case, though, Hitler was probably correct.  The stalling of South before Kiev required fixing, and a lunge forward to Moscow through powerful Russian troops with an open southern flank for hundreds of miles was out of the question. Also, the supply situation needed time to work – the rail lines needed conversion to German gauge to allow them to be delivered closer to the front.

But even so, the Kev operation was no picnic.  The armored forces under Guderian had to attack south a considerable distance to even threaten the southern front, much less pocket it.  This advance would expose another long flank to the Russian Bryansk front to attack.  And every day increased the exhaustion of the troops and equipment.  The force was spread so thin that the forces near Kiev had time enough to retire or turn on Guderian.

Enter Stalin.  He refused to allow any retirement and eventually the Germans broke out and cut off 600,000 troops.  It was a major disaster.

Ironically, though, the victory changed little in the overall situation.  The Germans had more ground to cover, their men and equipment were even more worn, and they still could not advance on all fronts.  North was stalled before Leningrad, Center, stripped of its armor to support the others was near Smolensk, and South was at least up to the same line as Center.

The decision was then made to make a try for Moscow, Operation Typhoon.  While the Russian armies opposite Center had worn themselves down during the last few months, the total lack of rest of most armored formations made Typhoon another gamble.

Vanished Kingdoms – Aragon

This is latest chapter in Norman Davies‘ Vanished Kingdoms, about forgotten states in Europe.  Aragon is at least somewhat more familiar from the Christopher Columbus tale.  Its origins go back for centuries before that.

When the Moslems conquered Spain and drove on into France, most if not all of the original political rules were tossed aside.  Turned back at the battle of Tours, the Moslem tide receded and was pushed back.  By the time of Charlemagne in 800 AD, they had been pushed over the Pyrenees   Under lesser rulers this could not be sustained, and soon the mountain region gained its independence from both states and several tiny mountain states formed in this contested region.

With time Moslem power continued to wane and these border states expanded south.  Aragon did as well, and then unified with the County of Barcelona to reach the coast.  It basically covered current Catalonia, plus a smidgen of France north of the mountains.

Squeezed out of facing the Moslems, expansion began overseas. First the Balearic Islands were taken, then Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, Southern Italy and parts of Greece were taken into this naval empire.  But by the 1450s, attention began to shift to Spanish unification and then to the New World, and the island empire began to fall away.  This got even worse as the Hapsburgs took over Spain and most of Europe and in the reaction other nations began to detach these parts, and Aragon descended into just another province in Spain.  Even when resentment led to revolts, it was called Catalan rather than Aragonese.

The War of the Jewels – J.R.R. Tolkien

I’ve been picking up the odd volume of “The History of Middle Earth“, which is a release of parts of the drafts and other papers from Tolkien published after his death.  I  wasn’t keen enough to get them new, but these days with a 5 dollar bookstore nearby and Amazon used books ready to send them for a very low cost, why not pick them up?

This book covers the latter half of the Silmarillion, which is the Tolkien book that most don’t like as much.  I did, since I am a history buff, and the big picture overview didn’t put me off like it might for some.  Also, it sure gives a different picture of the elves – not the wan, fading figures from Lord of the Rings, but the kind of folk that would tell their gods to shove it, walk to a new continent, betray each other, and then go and attack another god and his minions for a centuries just to get three jewels back.

In the main, I found this book interesting.  There are some new aspects revealed in it, but in a patchy way.  It isn’t a replacement for the Silmarillion, but a supplement.  I have another couple stored up to put in the queue next – one of the War of the Ring books.

Vanished Kingdoms – Burgundia

This was an interesting chapter, because this kingdom is a pretty plastic concept that has moved around over the centuries in the ‘seam’ between France and Germany, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. When these areas were strong, they were absorbed, but in other periods some pretty significant districts and kingdoms appeared.

In the end Norman Davies comes up with fifteen distinct “Burgundy”s:

  1. The First Burgundian Kingdom in Gaul (410-436).  Destroyed by Attila the Hun at Aetius‘ bidding which has been preserved in Germanic Nibelung saga.
  2. The Second Burgundian Kingdom (451-534).  Set up by Aetius after defeating Attila in Gaul.  A player in the fall of the West, conquered by the Franks.
  3. Frankish Burgundy (590-734)
  4. The French Duchy of Burgundy (843-1384)
  5. The Kingdom of Lower Burgundy (879-933)
  6. The Kingdom of Upper Burgundy (888-933)
  7. The united Kingdom of the Two Burgundies (933-1032)
  8. The County-Palatinate of Burgundy (1000-1678)
  9. The Imperial Kingdom of Burgundy (1032-?)
  10. The Imperial Duchy of Lesser Burgundy (1127-1218)
  11. The Imperial Landgravate of Burgundy (1127+)
  12. The united “States of Burgundy” (1384-1477)
  13. The French Province of Burgundy – Bourgogne (1477-1791)
  14. The Imperial Burgundian Circle (1548-1795)
  15. The French Region of Bourgogne (1982-present)

Some of these were major historical players.  In the Hundred Years War, the Duchy and County were unified and joined the English, nearly breaking France entirely.  When Joan of Arc brought a French resurgence, the moment was gone.

While the political fortunes of these states waxed and finally waned, it is interesting how for fifteen hundred years the concept of “Burgundy” has risen again when given the chance.