Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm – Robert M. Citino

The Evolution of Operational Warfare

This book completes the set started by The Quest for Decisive Victory, tracin operational warfare during the 20th Century.  Like the first, it hits the major wars but adds in some new examples that may perhaps be less well known – like the Indo-Pakistan War in 1971.

It also showcases the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s as an example of operational failure.  Interestingly Vietnam gets mixed reviews.  The set-piece battles show that the US could still match up in conventional battle, but the rest of the war shows deficiencies in the strategic goals and tactical methods in play.  In a way it was similar to the Germans in the USSR in World War II – the operational wins couldn’t save the situation that the lack of planning put the troops into.  In the case of Vietnam winning the guerrilla war would have taken more intensive use forces on the ground and thus more losses and likely even extending the conflict beyond the borders of South Vietnam.  This was something that the country wasn’t willing to do.

There’s even a quick overview of the war that never happened – a Soviet offensive in Germany in the 70s or 80s.  Missing that one was a good thing for both sides.

Together, the two books make a great survey of the conflicts of the century and where things went right or wrong and why.

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The Petersburg Campaign Volume I – Edwin Bearss

The Eastern Front Battles, June-August 1864

When you have a big pile of Civil War books like I do, you start to notice that some subjects are less favored than others.  For every three or four Gettysburg books, there may be only one or two on some lesser battles in the West.  But in the normally favored Virginia region, with Robert E. Lee, there is a huge gap in the historiography from June 1864 to March 1865.  Then things pick up for the final campaign to Appomattox.

Why is this?  Well you might think that nothing happened, or the battles were unbalanced.  But there are plenty of books on Fredericksburg and the Mud March, which didn’t even result in a battle.  I even have a book on the Mine Run campaign in 1863, which didn’t even result in any battle at all.

So why the neglect?  Partisans of both sides have much to want to avoid discussing.  For the Northerner, the campaign is disappointing because despite gaining the whip hand at the start during the crossing of the James and being able to keep the pressure on by attempting to cut the railroads several times, the tactical engagements were disastrously costly.  This is because the Army of the Potomac, always a hard-luck outfit, had been so worn down by the Overland campaign that both officers and men were doing very poorly indeed.

Normally, this would be a recipe for Rebel joy, but the fact that Lee came within an ace of losing the war on the first movement and remained pinned to the lines for the duration leaves a bad taste in the mouth for them as well.  So both sides just skip the period and move on.

By the next spring, Grant had reshaped the character of the Army of the Potomac and James into the kind of army that he had used in the west to defeat the Confederates.  And in the first movement of the spring, the CSA finally was not able to crush the flanking force, but instead were crushed themselves and both Petersburg and Richmond fell.  And the army was skilled enough to keep up the pursuit, inflicting other defeats until Lee was trapped and had to surrender.

The Initial Strike

The book itself is a compilation of Bearss’ notes over his career with some additional chapters and comments added by Bryce A. Suderow.  This makes the text a bit more episodic than a standard history, but only detracts a little from the book.

It begins with the first days after the crossing of the James, where Grant totally fooled Lee and as a result ‘should’ have wrapped up the war then and there.  At one point the bulk of the Army of the Potomac, some 90000 men was facing a scratch force under Beauregard, some 10-15000.  But the previous month of savage fighting had made the  officers and men too cautious, and the delays meant that only a small bit of trenches would be taken per day.  Eventually, Lee managed to wake up and redeploy enough troops south to secure the city.

Keeping up the Pressure

The pattern then was for Grant to try and move forces left to cut the rail lines and roads from the South that supported the city and the Rebel army.  The pattern was that the initial force would establish a position, get punished by a counterforce, and then retire somewhat and entrench a permanent position further back.  So each time, the Union forces were closer to the key rail lines and roads.

An exception to this rule was the Battle of the Crater.  Again, the results were of a nice opportunity wasted by bad leadership.  Even the southern partisans don’t really enjoy discussing being blown up by explosives and then the subsequent shooting down of the USCT troops.

The END Situation

Despite the losses, by September Grant had been able to cut all the rail lines but one.  A second rail line was usable to close to the city and then wagons could be used around the Union positions.

 

Stilicho – Ian Hughes

Flavius Stilicho was the general-in-chief and leader of the Western Roman Empire from the death of Emperor Theodosus in 395 AD to his own death in 408.  He was regent for the child-emperor Honorius.

In addition to commanding the army, Flavius St...

In addition to commanding the army, Flavius Stilicho served as regent for the child emperor Honorius and was the de facto leader of the Western Roman Empire when Radagaisus invaded. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The book is especially welcome since there is such little information available on the period.  The author has collected and sifted through the evidence to provide a coherent storyline for you.

Stilicho was a half-Vandal, but married into the family of the emperor Theodosius.  This made him ideal as a regent, since his ancestry made him unacceptable as emperor himself.  He also had great loyalty to the family, so he could be trusted not to topple the child emperors that Theodosius left behind in both East and West after his untimely death in 395.

Rome was still recovering from the disaster of the battle of Adrianople in 378 and a series of civil wars afterward.  The Goths, now under the ‘king’ Alaric were a major player in the region, having been settled in the Balkans but still being an independent power.

Struggle for Position

This period was a difficult one for Rome.  The arrival of the Huns behind the frontier was driving barbarian tribes forward into Roman lands to escape them.  Rome’s forces were not strong, and this weakness was magnified by the two courts in East and West to work together.

This might have been inevitable once the second capital was founded, but the dire effects of division really began to take hold in this period.  With two child-emperors, the handlers in each capital began to look to their own interest instead of the empire as a whole.  This trend was magnified when Stilicho claimed that Theodosius named him regent over both children rather than just Honorius.  This was naturally a threat to the current handlers of Arcadius in the East that they continually tried to beat back.

With East and West conflicted over the Balkans, Alaric and the Goths became both a bone of contention and a force that each needed to keep their lands in the Balkans secure.  But using Alaric led to friction, as both Empires had a lot of hatred of the Goths  saved up since Adrianople.  Using the Goths was necessary, but unpopular.  For a regent with an insecure position, clever balancing was a requirement.  Silicho went from fighting to using to fighting the Goths several times over the years.

Sadly, events would give the West no time to recover fully.  Major invasions by Radagaisus and a revolt in Africa kept his attention focused mostly on the Balkans and Italy.  So when a major force of barbarians broke into Gaul in 407 there was little he could do.  Forces in Britain revolted and set up a rival Emperor, joining with these barbarians to threaten and occupy most of Gaul.

Endgame

While not always quickly effective, Stilicho had been trying keep things afloat, but his need to mollify the Goths so he could move into Gaul was the end for him.   After allowing a payment to Alaric to keep the peace, his popularity was worse than ever.  When the Eastern Emperor died, Stilicho decided to try and go to Constantinople to influence the court of the new emperor.  It was a fatal mistake, as either Honorius was made suspicious by the court or was too afraid of the courtier Olympius to contest the removal of Stilicho.

Stilicho himself did not fight his arrest or even his execution, too loyal to try and fight another civil war with his nephew.  With his death, anti-Gothic feeling exploded in the cities of Italy and the families of the Gothic troops in Roman service revolted. The angry troops joined Alaric, and now the Goths were the major force in the region.

The next few years were a standoff, with Alaric moving on Rome for a siege to try and force concessions from the government in Ravenna.  Safe behind the walls, Honorius was not eager to deal with Alaric, and the hard-line might have worked out, but one day in 410 a gate in Rome was opened and the Goths sacked Rome.

Stilicho was no genius, or saint, but it is rare that the value of a leader is shown so clearly by the collapse of a system after his removal.  After Stilicho, Rome had to depend almost entirely on barbarian troops to restore its borders.  Multiple districts were ceded to tribes, cutting into the tax base, making the empire weaker.  And the Vandal tribes that could not be dealt with in Gaul or Spain in subsequent years eventually took North Africa away from the Empire for good, even sacking Rome again in  455 AD.  Not so coincidentally, the second sack was an immediate effect of the murder of another effective general-in-chief, Aetius by the last emperor of the Theodosian line.

A very good book!

Patton and Rommel – Dennis Showalter

Men of War in the Twentieth Century

I picked this book up for a couple of odd reasons.  Neither was wanting to read yet another biography of George Patton and/or Erwin Rommel.  That being said, this is a good biography of the pair of them.

My first reason was that I had seen that Robert Citino, whose books I have been reading recently, really talks up Showalter‘s work and I don’t think I have ever read his stuff.  The second reason was that it reminded me of an old computer game about the Normandy Breakout (it might have been called Patton vs Rommel) where each turn a little cut picture of an angry Rommel or Patton yelled at you for doing too many frontal attacks!

The book has good balance between the early years of both Generals and WWII, something that is often left out of shorter biographies.  It gives good context.  Showalter is respectful of his subjects without being worshipful, a pitfalls that biographies often fall into.

I think I will be looking out for other books by Showalter in the future.