Notable Historical Trials IV – Louis Riel

This chapter in the Folio Society‘s collection of Historical Trials moves to Canada.  As settlers moved into the Northwest, they came into contact with Indian tribes and a group of mixed race hunters.  Louis Riel, an unbalanced man who claimed to have a divine mission to lead the natives against the government, took the lead against the government.

The insurgents fought a few skirmishes and were defeated once the government brought its force to bear.  Riel and some of the Indian leaders were hanged.

English: Louis Riel, after a carte de visite f...

English: Louis Riel, after a carte de visite from 1884. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The main impact was political – Riel’s claims that the government was unrepresentative and not acting in the interest of the original residents of the Northwest was more or less true.  The fact that Riel was not allowed to have a Catholic juror in the trial because a rallying point for the French-Canadians in Quebec.

Not much of this helped the original residents of the Northwest – the settlers continued to arrive and the old ways were not able to survive for long.


Barbarossa Derailed Volume 2 – David M. Glantz

Glantz‘ latest huge tome about the Eastern Front in World War II continues the battle of Smolensk in late summer 1941, through the Soviet counteroffensives and the final decision to divert major tank forces south to the flanks of Army Group Center, where they would participate in the great Kiev encirclement.

Much of the text are the actual situation reports of the Soviet commanders, and the daily situation maps of the Germans.  There is a lot of detail here, which is invaluable but can make reading it bog down at times.

The first volume followed the initial German offensive from the border encirclements to the lunge to the Smolensk region.  The Germans couldn’t quite close it out and bogged down into a static front.  In this volume the front remains static, and is put under increasing pressure by furious Soviet attacks.  While these gained little ground, they did  serve to deplete Army Group Center.

There has always been a controversy about how the Germans should have attacked toward Moscow at this point rather than to Kiev.  This book shows that an offensive at this point would have run right into the large counterattacking forces.  Ironically by waiting, these reserves were worn out and the Germans bypassed many of them by attacking from a more southerly direction.  Also, the long flank of Army Group Center would have needed much flank protection, and the Germans were already feeling the pinch of not enough men to do the job.  Another issue is that the lateral move allowed the railroad conversion teams to catch up to the front.  Another forward lunge would have made the already tight supply situation even worse.

The strain of continuing campaigning was starting to tell on the Germans, and while the Soviets were far behind in tactical skill they were still able to fight hard, at an enormous cost in lives and equipment.  It was a cost they were able to sustain for long enough to win out in the end.

The Treason of Isengard – J.R.R. Tolkien

This is the second part of the History of the Lord of the Rings, and the 7th volume in the  History of Middle Earth.  Tolkien’s son is going through the original drafts and reconstructing some of the thought processes and phases in the development of the story.

What is interesting here is how some parts of the take pop up in one step, and others change over and over.  There are many alterations in the scene where the fellowship breaks up…Boromir doesn’t die in some, they are on different sides of the river at times, Merry and Pippin do not get kidnapped.

On the other hand, the scene at Cirith Ungol where the orcs grab Frodo is almost complete, long before the narrative gets there.  The pass even moves location from the Black Gate to Minas Morgul.

The book stops at the point where Gandalf reaches Rohan, more or less in the middle of the Two Towers.

Pretty interesting stuff.

Vanished Kingdoms – Sabaudia

Sabaudia is the next chapter in Norman Davies‘ Vanished Kingdoms.  Sabaudia, like Burgundia, is another area on the ‘seam’ between France and the central European regions of Germany and Italy.  Later it became known as ‘Savoy’.

As a mountain region, it was safer against the growth of France than its neighbors, but could not expand in that direction.  Across the Alps, however, with time it took control of the plains region of Piedmont. Playing both sides for gain in the wars of the wars of the period was a major means of growth.

One treasured gain was the Kingdom of Sicily, which promoted the Prince of Savoy to the big time as an actual King.  Holding the region was tougher, so in the next peace treaty Savoy swapped Sicily for Sardinia and kept the King part.  It was in this form that in the 19th century Sardinia became the focus of Italian unification, which was achieved in the

Kingdom of Sardinia map

Kingdom of Sardinia map (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

mid-century.  Ironically, one thing that was traded away on the road to being King of Italy was the district of Savoy itself, which was dealt to France along with Nice in the process.

The heyday of the King of Italy did not last long – after defeat in World War II the kingship was scrapped entirely.  The family had played one side in a war against the other one too many times.

The Collapse of the Third Republic – William Shirer

Subtitled ‘An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940′, this book is one of the classics of WWII history.  It is well written and researched, and the author himself was close to being on the scene, as he was a correspondent in Berlin during the build up and early part of the war.

The book winds back to the Franco-Prussian war to show the fault lines in the country between various factions, many of whom did not really support the idea of republican government and wanted a monarchy or a dictatorship.  The state was undermined by periodic huge scandals and new governments had to be formed and reformed more or less annually.

They pulled themselves together to fight WWI and win, but in the interwar period things began to all apart.  France wanted to act as a major power in Europe, imposing penalties on Germany and acting to limit them after that, but since France knew that her own strength was low, she needed other countries to back her up.  When they did not, she felt compelled to give in, thus emboldening the extreme elements in Europe.

By the time of the war, it really looks like France was almost doomed to lose.  The army had so little confidence that it preferred to hide behind the Maginot line even when it knew the Germans were all off in Poland, and was so afraid of bombing afterward that it did nothing to upset the German plans or deployments.

The campaign itself was a debacle, partly because of the impact of the German ‘Sickle Cut Plan and Armor’, but mostly because the unreadiness of the government and high command seemed to be replicated all the way down the line.  Yes, the new armor tactics were a shock, but that doesn’t explain why about half of the rail moves of reserve armor divisions went so badly that the unit never was able to reform afterward. Or why the high command never really gave any orders for good or bad during that month.

After that disaster, and the fall of Paris, there is a small closing act where the same feckless government officials meet in Bordeaux to decide whether to fight on with their ally or destroy the Republic and turn the rump of France into a Fascist state.  We all know what they decided to do then.

By 1940 it was too late to save the situation, as the Germans probably could have won eventually even without the Panzers.  At least then you could be said to have gone down fighting.  France in 1940 never really got coordinated enough to say that it fought as a nation – while individual units had their moments, the high command and government never seemed to leave the starting block.

Notable Historical Trials IV – Whistler vs. Ruskin

Another chapter in the final book in the Folio Society‘s book on historical trials.  It looks like the hugely meaningful ones are pretty much done, as there’s a murder, a divorce, and a libel case coming up.  Perhaps I will be surprised, though.

This trial is a simple one.  James McNeill Whistler was a popular painter, and a jerk.  John Ruskin was an influential art critic, and a jerk as well.   When Ruskin panned Whistler’s paintings in the jerkiest way possible, Whistler decided to go for broke in the jerk sweepstakes by filing suit against Ruskin for libel.

The blow-by-blow of the trial didn’t interest me.  Talk of what pictures ‘mean’ by the artists bores me.  The defense trying to make something of how long it took to dash off the paintings bores me even more.  It does tend to show a bitter edge that tends to support Whistler’s contention of malice over pure critique.

Instead of being laughed out of court, the farce had to proceed.  Eventually, Ruskin was found guilty, but damages were set at 1 farthing.

Neither man had an easy life after this trial, and it is hard to find any sympathy for that.

The Return of the Shadow – J. R. R. Tolkien

This is volume VI in the “History of the Lord of the Rings“, compiled by Tolkien‘s son Christopher.  This book, and the next three, are about the writing of the trilogy itself.

It is pretty interesting because the development of the story is so un-uniform.  Parts spring up very early in nearly their final form, while others are entirely absent.  When he started writing, the party in Hobbiton that starts matters is all there, but much of the rest of the world is blank – Gondor, Mordor, Isengard…all missing.   In fact, for much of the book “Strider” is a hobbit!  Of course, his name was ‘Trotter’ then.

It also was probably a good thing when Frodo got his name…Bingo Bolger-Baggins might not have worked very well.

Pretty quickly, though, the tone seems to shift away from a strict second book like the Hobbit – one geared towards children – with the introduction of the Black Riders.  They reached final form very quickly, although the number of them was pretty flexible.

This volume takes the story up to the MInes of Moria.  Even at this point, what would happen on the other side of the mountains was a blank slate.

Interesting stuff, and I went through it a lot quicker than the other books in this series.  I’m already into the next one.

Reading Update – December


Picking up the pace a bit better…

  • The Collapse of the Third Republic – William Shirer‘s book on the fall of France, 1940.  complete, needs a write up
  • Path to Victory – Douglas Porch.  A book on the Med Front in WWII.  Some good information about the early days, even if he seems to skip about a lot.
  • Aetius – Biography of the Roman Generalissimo that defeated Atilla in 451 AD.
  • The Petersburg Campaign, Volume I – Ed Bearss.
  • The Wars against Napoleon – no progress – about two-thirds done.
  • Cats are Not Peas – A quick intro to Cat Genetics. – no progress, maybe a quarter way in.
  • The Treason of Isengard – more of the “History of Middle Earth”.  These ones on the actual Lord of the Rings are a bit more interesting than the others.  Also have The Return of the Shadow to write up.
  • Vanished Kingdoms – On Sabaudia.
  • Barbarossa Derailed II –  Glantz’ study of the 1941 Russian War.  Have plowed through a few more chapters.
  • Notable Trials IV – on the Riel Trial.  Not a lot left in the collection.
  • Craig Kennedy, Scientific Detective by Arthur Reeve.  Still interesting.
  • Complete Works of H. P. Lovecraft – on Kindle
  • Am still listening to historical podcasts. I need to do a writeup about the good ones.

Vanished Kingdoms – Borussia

So where exactly is “Borussia”. In this chapter of Norman Davies‘ Vanished Kingdoms, he visits a little isolated fragment of Russia on the Baltic Coast centered on the city of Kaliningrad.

A thousand or so years ago, this was one of the last pagan areas in Europe, something that didn’t sit well with the neighbors.  Finally the order of the Teutonic Knights were given a free hand there in exchange for converting the heathen.  They had just been ejected from the Holy Land by the Arabs and were looking for a new place to rule.  This seemed ideal.  And how hard could a primitive tribe called the Prussai be?

Well, not easy, but eventually they made it work.  The area began to center around the city of Konigsberg.  Having given the area away, the nearby Poles began to regret the generosity, not merely because the Knights were bad neighbors and raided their lands. They also lay across the route to the coast, with only a narrow corridor at the mouth of the Vistula resting between this new district of Prussia and Brandenburg to the west.  Matters became worse when the two joined into one ‘dual state’ in 1308.  From then on it was a tussle for centuries as to which would come out on top – Poland or Brandenburg-Prussia.

By the 1700s, the answer was Prussia.  The state partitioned Poland with Austria and Russia, and began to extend into more of central Germany.  Prussia began to be identified more with Berlin than Konigsberg.  After World War I, when Poland was granted the Polish Corridor to give access to the Baltic, the district was called “East Prussia” as if it were an add-on instead of the center.   With the defeat in World War II even this was divided between the neighbor states and the vanishment was complete.