Blundering to Glory – Owen Connelly

Napoleon’s Military Campaigns

After the book by the Napoleonic apologists last time, I thought a glimpse of the other side would be warranted.  In the end it was a bit disappointing not because the author proved his case or did not prove it, but never really seemed to bring it up.  So the title is a bit of false advertising.

The only ‘revisionist’ discussion I remember is some early mention about him not being an innovator in Military Science and by not having a bullet-proof perfect plan at the start of a campaign.  I guess I never saw either of those as an issue or even something that historians contend.  Being able to adjust to inevitable surprises and win out is the mark of a great general, not a poor one.

But even these themes are dropped almost entirely in favor of a standard recounting of the rest of his career.  While this is fine, it isn’t what the title seemed to promise, nor does it really examine either his strategy or his opponents’ strategies in any substantial way.  As a short roundup of the era, it is fine, but the confrontational title isn’t lived up to.

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Now for the Contest – William H. Roberts

Coastal and Oceanic Naval Operations in the Civil War

This book is part of, and may well be the last of, a series called “Great Campaigns of the Civil War”.  Each book takes a major slice of the war and treats it as a whole, at a higher level than usual studies – tying in political and strategic elements instead of tactical ones.  The books are short, a few hundred pages, but they still have a lot of information in them.  Thinking it over, the only major campaign not covered is Gettysburg and the autumn 1863 Virginia campaign.  Others could be the Transmississippi and the March through the Carolinas, I suppose. I don’t think the Peninsula and Seven Days are covered either, come to think of it.  Maybe there’s more life in the series than I thought.

It is a very good series, especially if you don’t want to dive into a few 500 page books to cover the same period, as each covers several battles

This volume is about the blockade and the Confederate raiding and blockade running efforts.  There is the usual discussion of the few battles, but more of the emphasis is on the Union production of ironclads and the Confederate efforts to have raiders and blockade busting ships built in Europe.  Similarly, as much time is spent describing life on the blockade and how the fleet tried to trap runners as is spent on one of the rare ship-to-ship battles.  It is a nice switch of emphasis that makes this book seem fresh.

Roman Conquests: Macedonia and Greece – Philip Matyszak

This is the third book in the Pen and Sword series on the growth of Rome that I have read..it is a bit hard to figure if they are in an exact sequence.  Probably not, as the Gaul book has parts that are fairly early in history – the taking of Provence, and ends with the campaigns of Caesar in the late Republic.

This book is more cohesive in time, as aside from some interludes for the Punic Wars these actions took place in a relatively close sequence.  The first shots came in response to piracy in the Adriatic rather than any desire for lands.  An embassy was sent to an Illyrian Queen, Teuta, to demand she stop her state-sponsored piracy. She not only refused, but had one of the blunt-speaking Roman ambassadors assassinated.  This was probably a mistake.

Teuta’s forces had just taken Corcyra when the huge Roman fleet and army arrived.  Her general, after counting the size of the arrivals, switched sides and became the Roman’s base.  After punishing the Illyrians, the Romans went home, but now this city was an enclave on the Greek mainland going forward.

Macedon was the strongest state in the region, if not as strong as when Alexander conquered Persia.  It wanted to regain its power in the area, and with Rome involved in the Second Punic War against Hannibal it seemed like a good time to start.  Rome managed to deflect most of the damage with alliances with other Greek cities.  But when Hannibal was defeated it was time for a little payback.

But even after this, Rome did not go for all out conquest at first.  But the Greeks viewed war as more a sport than a serious business and tried to involve Rome in the game.  The Romans were not playing around, and showed it in how they conducted the wars.

Eventually the entire region was incorporated into the Roman state, after a series of wars against Macedon and finally against the Greek ‘allied’ leagues that had a different idea of their standing in the area than the Romans did.

This is an excellent recounting of the information on these wars all combined into one book.  I’ll be getting more books in the series for sure.

Infantry Attacks – Erwin Rommel

Yes, this book was written by that Rommel, the ‘Desert Fox’.

In the early 1930s, Erwin Rommel, then a middling officer in the small German army, wrote this book about his experiences as a small unit leader in World War I to help train new officers in what works and what does not work in war.  Rommel had received several medals for his actions so a lesson coming from him would be that much more impressive.

Rommel fought in France, Romania, and Italy, often in difficult terrain in operations carried out on a shoestring. The story of each action describes the situation, and what the unit did and how it worked out.  After each is a quick summary listing some lessons that could be derived from the battle.

But it isn’t just a dry tactical lesson – he also goes into the personal details of how he and his men felt at the time, how it felt to be stuck in a tight place like a mountainside without much food or equipment during these actions.  I suppose in a way that might be just as essential a preparation for a new officer as the arrows on a map.

The book shows in miniature the traits that he would use to thwart the Commonwealth in the Western Desert and France in the next war.  Making activity and enterprise overcome an enemy with a superiority in numbers and materiel.  If the Allies had read this, they might have had an idea of what they were in for.

1066 and all That – Sellar and Yeatman

A Memorable History of ENGLAND, comprising all parts you remember, including  103 GOOD THINGS, 5 BAD KINGS, and 2 GENUINE DATES.

The subtitle is more or less the review of the book.  This classic comedy take on the History of England as remembered by a schoolboy who didn’t really pay attention in class, but had certain turns of phrase stick in the head.

If you like the Monty Python Movies and/or Horrible Histories kind of thing, this is a very funny book.  And the more you know about history, the funnier it gets.

Oh, the other date is that of Caesar’s invasion.

Victors in Blue – Albert Castel with Brooks D. Simpson

How Union Generals Fought the Confederates, Battled each other, and Won the Civil War

This book caught me a little bit by surprise.  I’ve read some of Castel’s work in the past, notably his large work on the Atlanta CampaignDecision in the West.  He’s a good historian, but since then he has been working in the Trans-Mississippi Theater or writing biographies which aren’t high on my list.  One notable feature of DitW was that it was fairly critical of Sherman.

Now, Uncle Billy is a favorite of mine, but even so some of his points were good ones.  Sherman was not a fan of the large battle, and tended to view them as annoyances to be tolerated on the way to the good stuff.  Some later historians, like Lidell Hart, have used this to tout their own strategic fads.  But it is pretty clear that through the overall objectiveness of the book, Castel personally isn’t a Sherman fan.

Then I read the preface and it was pretty clear that in this book, Castel was taking the gloves off to say the stuff that he might have passed over in the rest of his career.  When you say that the co-author can “write his own book to clear his name” you aren’t mincing words anymore.  It seems clear that this is his last book – or that he plans it that way now.

So I feared a bit for Uncle Billy, but in the end Castel didn’t take the cudgels to him again. Or not too badly.  The scope of the book is above tactical details – except from the details of the generals elbowing for jobs and favor.  And also, because this is about winning the war rather than making press clippings, the action in the west has much more discussion than the stalemate against Lee in the east.

Who gets the kudos – Grant, of course, and Sherman as his sidekick.  Phil Sheridan gets some praise, and it is clear that Castel likes him – which is sometimes hard to do.  The interesting twist I didn’t see coming is the boosting of Rosecrans.  He tends to get overlooked as the ‘anti-Grant-and-his-family’ crowd more often seize on Thomas as the their man who should have gotten more chances.

Both had talent – but Rosecrans had the additional talent of annoying his bosses with lecturing messages and delays, so they weren’t keen on dealing with him once they had an alternative.  Thomas was in a similar position – having had a rough start with Grant when Halleck put Thomas in command of Grant’s army after Shiloh, making Grant “Second in Command” with little to do, Thomas made things worse by being fairly cool with him years later in the Chattanooga campaign when Grant was ascendant.  He might have been annoyed at Grant firing Rosecrans to give Thomas the job.  Either way, this cold shoulder meant that he to would be shouldered aside by those more congenial to work with, like Schofield.

McClellan gets some smacks, but the unkindest cut is by hardly mentioning him and his antics in command of the Army of the Potomac.  Once chapter is called “Nobody at Antietam” to match “Meade at Gettysburg” or “Grant at Shiloh”.  With Little Mac’s vanity, that had to sting.

But that is a harsh, but fair assessment of the fellow.  And that’s how this entire book is, a relatively open judgement of the generalship of the north and the details of some of the army political moves they had to make or failed to make to give them the chance to get at the actual enemy in the field.  It reads like a bull session over drinks more than a scholarly tome with all the juice squeezed out of it.  But there’s a lot of content too.

One of the better Civil War books I’ve gotten in a while.  Thanks, Mr Castel.

The Wars Against Napoleon – Gen. Michel Franceschi, Ben Werder

Debunking the Myths of the Napoleonic Wars

This book – or rather this set of three articles, as they don’t really mesh into a single narrative except in that all are attempts to refute the overall view of Napoleon as a warmonger and the sole cause of the wars of the Napoleonic era.  Frankly, I’m not sure that the viewpoint that they are attacking is prevalent aside from British propaganda from the year 1806 or so, but the question is – do the authors pull it off?

Let’s find out.

“An Irreducible Belligerent Situation”

This section is probably the best, possibly because it is shortest.  There were a number of reasons for the wars of the era, aside from Nappy himself.  Remember, England in particular had been at swords’ point with France under the kings every dozen years or so.  England has always had an unofficial policy of opposing a single overpowering nation dominating mainland Europe.  When this nation was France, they opposed France.  When in the 20th Century Germany became that nation, suddenly England and France were chums.

Added to that was the horror of the Revolution by the Monarchists, and the desire to avoid having that spread to their lands and you have the recipe for a long struggle.

Only the dubious addition of a supposed fear of France economically spoils the mix.

“A Builder in Love with Peace”

This section is trying to show Nappy’s importance in rebuilding civil institutions and infrastructure after the feckessness of the Old Regime and the horrors of the Jacobins.  A lot of this is pertinent, and a nice corrective.

The rest of the argument goes entirely off the rails when it terms the annexation of North Italy and the Netherlands as a ‘protective glacis’, stuffing his relatives into rule of South Italy, Germany, and Spain as ‘a flank guard’ and dominating everything up to the Russian border as ‘a dream of European Union’.

Yes his neighbors were hostile, but chopping slices off of them and stuffing them with your relatives as a new Royalty isn’t making things better.

“Enemy of War”

This is probably the best section, being a brief history of his wars and the political maneuverings   While I don’t think the contention of the Little Corporal as a pacifist and innocent victim is quite sustained, and at times the tone of outrage at normal power political moves is amusing or tiring, it does show that to set up a 20 year era of war it takes two to tango.

My own view is that the other nations were very eager to take France down a peg or two.  Napoleon was perhaps a bit too eager to take the field himself, because that was what he was really good at.  A less sure general would have been more willing to play Prussia, Austria, and Russia off against each other too keep the peace. England, for all its bluster, really could do little without the backing of these powers.  But like the man with only a hammer who tended to see everything as a nail to be pounded in, Napoleon tended to think that one more campaign could solve his problems.

Even his one non-military act, the “Continental System” was too much a hammer to be effective.  By punishing all the nations, including his own, to harm England he drove them together and deprived himself of the trade.  A more interesting move would have been to try and encourage illicit trade and thus drive a wedge between the commercial interests in England financing the war and the hawks prosecuting it.  It might have resulted in England enforcing his own embargo themselves!

So overall, the book has some points to make, but tends to rush well past them into the lands of special pleading and distortion.  It also tends to be fighting a straw man picture of the image of Napoleon that hardly exists in the books I have read.  It then sets up its own cartoon image in opposition.  Personally, I prefer the real history and the real Napoleon, warts and all.

Roman Conquests: Gaul – Michael M. Sage

This is the second book I have read in Pen & Sword Book’s series detailing the Roman conquest of their provinces, one by one.   These are slim books, but interesting as they put in one place all the information about the region in one continuous narrative.  Since often parts of the story of Rome in a province falls into one of the neglected periods of history, this is a great advantage.

Even in this case, where the bulk of the book summarizes Caesar’s Gallic Wars, there is an interesting chapter on the movement of Rome into “The Province”, southern Gaul along the Mediterranean coast.  As is often the case, it was more of an accidental advance than a planned one – the need to keep open supply lines to Spain, where the Romans were trying to break down both native resistance and Sertorius, a Roman renegade, meant that suddenly calm and order in this region was required.  Thus normal ebb and flow of tribal squabbling brought Rome’s big hammer in to settle things their way.

Even Caesar’s conquest was accidental, in a way.  His original mandate to govern was for Cisalpine Gaul (North Italy) and Illyria (the Balkans).  The Province was a ‘toss in’ when the original governor, Metellus Celer, died suddenly before heading out to south Gaul.  Caesar was then named to that province, too.

The narrative is good, with only a little bit of the standard academic bias against Caesar sneaking in while the author isn’t looking.  Thus there is a tendency to view the anti-Caesarian forces as ‘legitimate’ here and there.  I seem to remember a part where the author leaped forward some years to ‘explain’ current events, which was confusing at first and then irritating.  These are quibbles and for the most part Sage is neither too adulatory nor too unfair.

There is a little wind-up at the end of the history after Caesar, which is short because the area soon became a solid province and a base to support the new frontier zones on the Rhine and in Britain.

A great series and I’m already reading a third book right now, this one on Greece and Macedonia.