Vanished Kingdoms – Eire

We are in the home stretch in Norman Davies‘ book Vanished Kingdoms. Sadly, the horse seems to be having an asthma attack and we are wheezing and puffing along at a snails pace.  Because this chapter is about Ireland…or England…or something.

Now, I admit to not following the daily news with intensity recently but I don’t recall that either Ireland or England have ‘vanished’.  And no, this isn’t about medieval Ireland that was conquered by the British way back when.  Pity.  It is all modern.

If you want a quick recapitulation of the vagaries of the relationship between the two countries, then read the chapter.  Having grown up in an era where the two sides were routinely in the news for today’s bombing here or shooting there means I am tired of the subject.

The link to the book’s theme seems to be that the loss of a conquered province is a harbinger of doom for the English nation.  Whether this is looked upon with dismay or delight is less clear.  And in either case, why not name the chapter “England”?

Vanished Kingdoms – Rusyn

A short chapter in Norman Davies‘ Vanished Kingdoms.  Not a shock when you find that  this ‘nation’ lasted all of one day.  It was one of the fragments of Czechoslovakia that got swallowed up by Hungary.

He uses most of the chapter not on the history of the nation, but on trying to make intellectuals feel guilty.  He ties it (unconvincingly) to movies on ‘Ruritania‘, and to cultural bias. But since the bulk of this brief chapter is long quotes from the three or four western visitors to the region during the turnover rather than to actual residents, it seems that the pot is calling the kettle black.

Well I’m no intellectual, so I don’t see why this district, not nation, is elevated above the dozens if not hundreds of border districts that get tossed about like poker chips in the history of European power politics.  And Davies doesn’t sell me with a few pages padded out with opinion rather than history.

Vanished Kingdoms – Tsernagora

The next chapter in Norman Davies book on the Balkan state of Montenegro.  The chapter title is a way to be cute, I suppose, because it is only mentioned once in the entire chapter.

The chapter is mostly about the early 20th century, where the country grew as an after-effect of the dismemberment of the European parts of Ottoman Empire in the Balkan Wars.  Then in the aftermath of the World War I, the country was reabsorbed into the state of Yugoslavia – apparently not with universal approval by the Montenegrins.

Losers in a war get their sovereignty squished all the time, and sometimes so do bystanders.  But Montenegro was technically a member of the Allies, so this is a little more unusual.  But it isn’t totally unprecedented, the Franco-Prussian war terms did similarly to the minor German states, although they might have been more enthusiastic about it than Davies reports Montenegro was.

Davies uses Wilson’s “14 Points” to try and tar the Allies with being hypocritical, which is unfair.  At no time did any of the Allied powers aside from Wilson ever care about the 14 Points.  I’m not sure if Davies is naive himself, or thinks the reader is.  The post-WWI redrawing of the maps was the usual high-handed mix of punishment for some, reward for others, and the odd attempt to fix political problems for good or ill.

The creation of Yugoslavia was one of the latter, for all the scorn Davies heaps on it.  The major powers were tired of the wars breaking out in the region and the crises that it had caused.  They didn’t want too many weak states that might tempt a resurgence of Germany or Russia eastward or southeastward.

In the end, it partly worked – there were no wars in the area.  But this didn’t keep the area from falling into the orbit of Germany as WWII grew nearer.

The Path to Victory – Douglas Porch

The Mediterranean Theater in WWII is often viewed as a waste and a distraction for the Allies.  In this book Porch tries to correct this view and boost the importance of the various fronts in the overall war effort.  To me, he partly succeeds in this, but then carries the argument a bit farther than it can be reasonably sustained.

In the early war, of course, the front was the only place that the British could even face the Axis.  But only in Africa could the distance allow them to remain in the field at all, as the debacles of the Greek intervention and the Crete operation showed.  Bouncing the Italians out of Ethiopia and wrestling with the Afrika Korps was about all they could handle.  But it was vital to show the populace and (in this case) America that the British would fight on.

But even in this stage of the war, the overreaching of the strategists caused more problems than just leading to a failed campaign.  The diversion of troops from North Africa to Greece also led to Rommel having an open field to begin his counteroffensive.  So the political benefits were dissipated because of a lack of a clear strategy of what the goals were and what means the British had.

Another of the author’s themes is that the campaigns led to giving the Allies ‘live fire training’  and experience that would vital later on.  This is true to some extent.  But outside the minds of the British generals, the true benefits are a lot less clear.  Certainly the 8th Army didn’t show itself to be hugely more adept even in Tunisia than the other forces that had not fought in the desert, both British and American.  After Kasserine, the Americans learned rapidly.  And by the time of Normandy, the units that had been fighting in the desert were no better than those that had not.

Another point is that the Allies needed something to do in 1943, as the main invasion was not ready at that date, and the Med was made to order for that.  On the other hand, rather than just grab ‘low hanging fruit’ , the campaigns in Italy after Salerno were just a waste of lives and resources that could have probably been used elsewhere to better effect.

At the time, the Americans were worried that the British were trying to avoid a confrontation in France and were shoring up their empire by wanting to concentrate there.  In this, they were probably partially correct.  But the arguing over policy to the last minute meant that the operations they did do were less well planned and supported than they could have been.  Nobody said coalition warfare was easy.

One thing I did find jarring were the sections on peripheral areas inserted into the text that continued to the end of the war.  So around 1941, there is a chapter on Tito and the  partisans that continues to the end of the war.  Then, blink, you are back in 1941 again.  There is another long section on the French that slides back to 1940 and also goes to the wars’ end.  Then we are back to 1944.  It’s even harder to sell the last years of the Italian campaign as important when you dropped it yourself to talk about Charles DeGaulle.

Another matter that Porch brings up that in a way counters his argument is that every town and city that the Allied took over was one that had to be governed and fed by us and not by the Axis.  This puts different light on the value of advancing up Italy, because it added more civilians to the list of those that needed to be supported.

So lets rate the operations:

  • North Africa (pre Rommel) – easy
  • Ethiopia – not important, easy
  • North Africa with Rommel – important to hold Suez, job training?
  • El Alamein – not important because of Torch.
  • Torch – useful to ‘do something’, job training for US
  • Tunisia – capture some Germans, job training
  • Sicily – useful ‘do something’, clear the shipping lanes, air bases
  • Salerno – useful to knock Italy from war
  • Cassino/Anzio – useless
  • Anvil – extra ports for France operations.
  • North Italy – useless

So in the end I remain partly unsold.  I am also not in the ‘total waste’ camp either though.  And the book does give a pretty in-depth look at this part of the war.


Vanished Kingdoms – Roseneau

This chapter in Norman Davies‘ book on isn’t really about any kingdom at all, least of all a vanished one.  The title is a castle in the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, where Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria was born.  The rest is more or less about how relations between the German nobility and English royal family broke down as Germany and England drifted into political antagonism in the twentieth century.

So the main point of the chapter is that the English Royals are a bunch of mean old Germans.  Maybe this is hot stuff to somebody somewhere, but as an American this is no surprise and seems to be besides the point.  In a real historical sense, the English Royals have played a marginal role at best since 1800.  Leave the gushing or trashing of them to the tabloids.

I’m expecting a future chapter of the book to feature Lindsay Lohan and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Oh, and in case you are wondering…like most of the states absorbed in German reunification, bit by bit the old statelets that had made it up became irrelevant first politically and a bit later the old nobility became so socially.

Notable Historical Trials IV – Oscar Wilde

This final chapter in the Folio Society‘s book on historical trials is about Oscar Wilde, the playwright.  Like the Whistler case, I find this one pretty trivial rather than notable. I suppose it has one life lesson to teach the reader.  If you are guilty of X, don’t sue someone for libel for saying you are doing X.

Wilde was having an affair with the son of Lord Queensberry, who objected to this. Wilde made a bad situation worse by exercising his wit on the poor father.  When Lord Queensberry became even more vocal, Wilde decided to sue him.  Of course, he lied to his lawyers, saying there was no truth in the charges.

Wilde thought he was a clever fellow, but instead comes off as a numbskull.  Queensberry’s defense came up with all kinds of evidence that Wilde had repeatedly used a procurer to deliver young lads to his rooms.   His letters to the boy were pretty plain, despite Wilde’s lame attempts to call them ‘art’.  He had paid blackmail money on a previous occasion to avoid exposure. And the distress of the father was damaging as well.  And I imagine the quips Wilde made during questioning went over less well then than they appeared to later writers.  Courts don’t like being treated with contempt.

Wilde lost the case.  Worse yet, the name of prominent government men had come up,  making it impossible to ignore the evidence of crimes exposed in the first trial.  For while the upper strata might wink at this kind of thing if done with discretion, it still was against the law and the voters wanted the laws enforced.  Foolishly again, Wilde tried to outwit the prosecution rather than to take off for Europe as was traditional.  He was convicted and spent a few years in prison.

Notable Historical Trials — Overall

I got this series of books as a toss-in when I was a member of the Folio Society.  I wouldn’t have read these books otherwise.  While the last half of the last volume seems to descend into some pretty trivial cases, the rest are first-rate.  And the write-ups for all the cases are interesting and illuminating.

An example I still remember is Joan of Arc. The description really seemed to deviate from the standard ‘Good French Bad English’ meme to explain how both the prosecutors and Joan were vitally concerned that the ‘voices’ really might be a sending of the devil.

Aetius – Ian Hughes

Flavius Aetius was the third of the major “Generalissimos” that dominated the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD leading to the extinction of the Empire in 476.  The emperors in this period were a succession of children or weak puppets, leaving true power in the hands of a senior official – the magister militum.

Stilicho, a general of Vandal extraction and thus unacceptable as emperor was the first of these warlords.  He was placed in charge by the dying Emperor Theodosius in 395 to watch over his young son, Honorius. This he did, although the stresses of the revolt of Alaric the Goth and the invasion of Gaul by tribes fleeing the onset of the Huns made matters difficult.  The alternative to a general like Stilicho was made plain when court intrigue led to his execution in 408.

Not only was the army leaderless, but a pogrom against the families of Gothic soldiers in the Empire’s service led to these troops deserting to Alaric in a body.  The result was complete impotence that in the end led to the first sack of Rome by the Goths in 410.

The second warlord, Constantius, used the 410-420 period to begin a recovery.  The usupers and brigands in Gaul were suppressed.  The Goths were ‘hired’ to help contain the Vandals in Spain, and given part of Aquitaine as a homeland.  Things appeared to be on the mend, when both Constantius and the Emperor Honorius died in the early 420s.

This led to some confusion, as both the emperor-ship and warlord-ship were up for grabs.  Valentinian, the only blood relative of Honorius, was off in the Eastern Empire.  A general, Castinius, set up an emperor, John.  The easterners did not like this, and prepared for war.

Aetius, who had been living with the Huns as a hostage for years, was sent to them to gather support for John.  He showed up in Italy with the army, but the Eastern Empire had sent their army first and toppled John and his general.  Aetius cut a deal with Galla Placidia, the emperor’s mother and is given command of Gaul.  The Huns are sent home.

It is now 425, and with the Romans busy elsewhere things have started to slip in Gaul and Spain.  The Goths and Franks are advancing in Gaul, and the Vandals are expanding their region of Spain.  Aetius makes progress in Gaul, restoring the situation there and earning further titles and influence.

The Vandals in Spain, perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall, took the respite given as Gaul was pacified to cross from Spain into Africa.  The general there, Boniface, was unable to defeat them.

Africa was a wealthy province that provided grain to feed Rome and taxes to support the Empire.  Now, when a unified front to defeat the Vandals would have been useful, we come to another power struggle.  Boniface, Aetius, and Felix were the three “co-warlords” at this time and were bitter rivals.  The early 430s were to be wasted in settling the matter.  Aetius eliminated Felix, but was defeated by Boniface.  However, Boniface was wounded and soon died, leaving Aetius as sole warlord.

But now with five years of inattention, Gaul and Spain were in trouble again.  The Goths were given land in Africa, and Aetius went back to Gaul to settle it and Spain.  In 439, the Vandals took Carthage and with it the Roman Province of Africa.  This put the West in a severe strait.

The plan, such as it was, was for the East Empire to try to eject the Vandals while Aetius holds the line in Gaul.  The invasion failed, and a new, ominous threat arose – the Huns under Atilla.

English language map.

English language map. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ironically, the Huns had been a bulwark of support for Aetius and the West for years.  Their troops had formed the core of forces used to drive back the other barbarians in Gaul.  But now, Atilla was forming an Empire of his own and extending his influence to the Rhine.  In 451, he invaded Gaul.

Luckily for Rome, Aetius was an accomplished negotiator with the other tribes in the path of the invasion, having made treaties with them all at one time or another.  He managed to raise a combined force and meet Atilla at the battle of the Catalunian Plains, driving them off and saving Gaul from Hunnic domination.

Sadly, this victory made him dispensable to Valentinian, who assassinated him in 454. The emperor was soon killed himself, and the ensuing disruption led to the second sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455.  While the last warlord, Ricimer, made some attempts and recovering the situation, in the end the West was too weak to survive and went to pieces.

This is an excellent view into a period usually glossed over in the last pages of a larger history.

The Drive on Moscow 1941 – Zetterling & Frankson

This book is about Operation Typhoon, the lunge towards Moscow by the German Army Group Center from around October 1 to December 1 of 1941.  In a way, it was like a replay in miniature of the entire Barbarossa – initial smashing success that tapered off at the end due to the German’s inability to overcome the problems of sustaining an offensive against mounting resistance.

The book. while not a long one, does a good job of following the action.  It does pay some attention to the Soviet side of the front, which is often neglected.  But it does more or less accept the conventional view of the campaign that it was a ‘reasonable idea’.   At this point the Germans had been through this several times – the three opening campaigns of Barbarossa (North, Center, South), Uman, Kiev. Each time there was initial success followed by stalemate as the gain was consolidated. In the end a new front was rebuilt and the process needed to be begun again. To expect this campaign to be different lacks sense.

The justification usually goes like this – “well, they have to do something.  And the losses did disrupt the Soviets for a while”.  But if you are discarding the aim of the strategy, how does it make sense to keep the rest intact?

If the purpose of the operation was to kill Russians, then there was little need to advance the front so extensively after pocketing the original line.  What was Moscow really going to mean if they took it?  A surrender?  Not likely, given what they had in mind.  One can’t help but think that the lunge forward was done on instinct more than rational analysis.

Instead, the troops were overextended and at the end of a tenuous supply line when the winter set in, ripe for the counterattack. Spending that last month or so building a winter line seems to be more sensible than having to scuttle back there in midwinter conditions.

Even with a change in plan, the Germans were probably going to lose this war.  The Soviets just had the advantage that these wild lunges deeper into nowhere set them up for a damaging counterblow.  And in the next year they would repeat the error, and the Soviets again would make them pay.

Reading Update – January


Books that are complete awaiting a write-up…

  • Drive on Moscow, 1941 – Operation Typhoon.
  • Path to Victory – Douglas Porch.  A book on the Med Front in WWII.
  • Aetius – Biography of the Roman Generalissimo that defeated Atilla in 451 AD.
  • Notable Trials IV – complete, just have Oscar Wilde to write-up.
  • Craig Kennedy, Scientific Detective by Arthur Reeve.

Currently working on…

  • The Petersburg Campaign, Volume I – Ed Bearss.
  • Brute Force – another WWII analysis book.  Supposedly hard on the Allies, but so far is trashing the German’s war effort too.
  • The Wars against Napoleon – no progress – about two-thirds done.
  • Cats are Not Peas – A quick intro to Cat Genetics. – a little progress, maybe a quarter way in.
  • The War of the Ring – more of the “History of Middle Earth”.  These on the actual Lord of the Rings are a bit more interesting than the others.
  • Vanished Kingdoms – still working. Have a few chapters to write-up.
  • Islands of Destiny – John Prados on the Guadalcanal and later South Pacific campaigns.
  • Complete Works of H. P. Lovecraft – on Kindle

Also found some new Historical Podcasts…

  • The History of England – David Crowther from 400-1300 AD (so far)
  • The History of Byzantium – Robin Pierson ‘contnuing’ the History of Rome podcast from 476 to hopefully 1453 AD.


Notable Historical Trials IV – Parnell and the O’Shea Divorce Case

English: This picture is from the biography 'C...

English: This picture is from the biography ‘Charles Stewart Parnell: His Love Story and Political Life’ that she (Katharine O’Shea) authored (1914) under the name ‘Katharine O’Shea (Mrs Charles Stewart Parnell).’ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Charles Stewart Parnell, the "uncrowned K...

Charles Stewart Parnell, the “uncrowned King of Ireland” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another chapter in the collection of Historical Trials by the Folio Society is down.  This one is about Charles Stuart Parnell, an Irish politician working towards home rule.  Apparently this was not all he was working on, as apparently he was conducting an affair with the wife of Captain O’Shea for a number of years.  By some reports several of the younger children were Parnell’s.

Some reports say that O’Shea knew about this for some time, and got Parnell’s support for an election to Parliament as a consequence.  Also Mrs O’Shea was up for an inheritance that might be lost due to a divorce.  But when the inheritance came in and O’Shea couldn’t get at it, he sued for divorce to encourage Parnell and O’Shea to buy him off.  This fell through and the damaging facts came out in the trial.

William O'Shea (1840-1904)

William O’Shea (1840-1904) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The tales of the clandestine meetings, the times Parnell had to escape out a window made for great newspaper stories but were fatal to his political career.  Everyone knew this kind of thing went on, but on the quiet.  After his death Parnell was rehabilitated as a  virtual saint of Home Rule, which might have been some consolation if he had been alive.

I suppose the lesson is that if you play these cozy games, make sure and pay off the husband enough that he doesn’t blab.