The Plantagenets – Dan Jones

The warrior Kings and Queens who made england

While this is a thick book, it ends up being almost a survey of the Plantagenet Era from 1100 to 1399 when Richard II was deposed by Henry IV. Which is actually a bit early since usually the last Plantagenet is claimed to be Richard III.

The book is richer than a high level survey in that when it does dip down, it uses and entire chapter to discuss a single time in detail, then leaps on to the next big event rather than discussing the boring peaceful parts.  And you thus get a picture of a line of kings that wrangled with their nobles, their fathers, their wives, mothers, and sons with a little bit of conquering France and Ireland when they could get some time.

This is not a period of history I have read much on, so this kind of sweeping view of a few hundred years of history is just what I needed.

The Roman Empire at Bay – David S. Potter

The Routledge history of the ancient world

I picked this up from Amazon used books because of the subject and the author.  I have seen David S. Potter as a talking head on some of the historical television shows on Rome.  (For example, Rome, Rise and Fall of an Empire I think is one).  The period is one I am interested in because it is so poorly documented.  It is the period after the Golden Age of the “Five Good Emperors” through the Severan Emperors and then the Crisis of the Third Century. Then comes the Tetrarchy of Diocletian, Constantine and his Sons right down to Theodosius.

The book is a bit dry, which I don’t mind, and has a lot of interesting detail on the era.  Not an introductory text by any means.  I liked it so much that I hunted up another volume in the series right away.  Sadly, that volume was not nearly so good.  Since then I have been averse to going for a third one.

…way behind

Aside

As some might have noticed, posting books here has gotten erratic.  It isn’t because I stopped reading books.  In fact, I have branched into reading more on Kindle and have gotten into Audio books.  I’ll be trying to catch up with the stacks of books as I can

Sertorius and the Struggle for Spain – Philip Matyszak

traitor or Hero?

Quintus Sertorius is one of the more interesting characters to rise out of the better documented periods in Roman History, the late Republic. Virtually every other person you come across falls into a standard group – the politicians, aristocrat or ‘populares’ are familiar to us these days, and more similar in how they behave than different, despite the positions they stake out.  The Generals, too, seem to fit a similar mold.  Some are brilliant, some are dolts, but military men all the same.  The corrupt ones that rape provinces or wheedle out deals in the capital are all too familiar.

Sertorius is different.  He was a fine officer in the Roman Army, winning decorations for courage and losing an eye in combat.  The first Civil War broke out when Marius tried to steal the commission for war against Mithridates from Sulla, the consul.  Sulla marched his army on Rome and took it, passing a death sentence on Marius.  Sulla then left for the war in Asia Minor.

This gave Marius and the anti-Sullans room for a comeback and they took it and Rome.  There were even more atrocities than in the first taking of the city, soon followed by Marius dropping dead.  Sertorius, disgusted at the acts of Marius’ motley army surrounded their encampment and butchered them.  Matters in Italy entered a holding pattern for some years until Sulla returned.  When he did, incompetent leadership at the helm of the war effort so disgusted Sertorius that he left Italy and moved to Spain to take up resistance to Sulla there.

This is when Sertorius started to change from yet-another-general to something unique. The first army sent after him was too large for him to defeat, so he fled to Africa. When the army came after him, he managed to kill its general in a skirmish and recruit the army to join him.  Now he had an army and a province.  And soon he heard that the Romans in Spain were squeezing money out of the country to pay for the ruin of the Civil War and they wanted Sertorius to help.  He soon routed the Sullan forces and became effectively the war leader of all Spain.  He even tried to meld Roman government with Iberian customs to make a new nation.

He also invented a new mix of the hit and run brigandry of Spain’s traditional tribes with some Roman ideas and created a force that could crush Roman forces if it caught them in a bad position and vanish into the wild when it couldn’t.  Bad commanders would be ruined, and even good ones had to be very careful.  From 80 BC to 74 BC Sertorius checked first one army under Metellus Pius, then a second under Pompey the Great.  He defeated the overconfident Pompey several times, but could not drive him off and the tides started to turn.  Finally Metellus and Pompey offered a large reward for someone to murder Sertorius.  One of his Roman officers murdered him, and soon after that Pompey caught up to his remnants of Sertorius’ army and destroyed it and its general.  This war in Spain was over.

The Battle of Peach Tree Creek – Robert D. Jenkins, Sr.

HOOD’s First Sortie, 20 July 1864

The West in the US Civil War is in general very under-represented in the literature which seems far more ready to produce yet-another-Gettysburg book.  Even so, from time to time a book comes out to fill in one of the gaps with an excellent battle study.

This book succeeds in being one of those for the Battle of Peach Tree Creek, the first battle around the city of Atlanta, and the first for John Bell Hood as the leader of the Confederate Army of Tennessee.  The author claims to have started with a smaller history of the Mississippi regiments that his ancestors served in that paid a high cost in the battle, and then enlarged the project to include the entire battle.  It is a good thing that he did.

The MARCH TO Atlanta – May to July 1864

In the winter of 1864, U.S. Grant was named general in chief of the war effort, and he named General W.T. Sherman as the general in the West.  His mission was to advance to Atlanta and take the city.  Joseph E. Johnston was tasked to stop him.  The campaign started in the ridges and mountains of North Georgia and required the guarding of a single rail line for supply.  Sherman had a considerable advantage in numbers, but at this point in the war the use of field fortifications on defense by the veteran troops made attacking a prepared position costly and likely to fail.  Even a few hours of preparation could make a line that could hold against almost anything thrown at it.

The problem Johnston had in defense is that Sherman had enough men to eventually outflank any position he held.  And Sherman, for the most part, was content to find the main position, entrench part of his men in front, and send the rest marching to the flanks.  Johnston was skilled at detecting and checking these moves before they could lead to a disaster, but he had to give ground to do so.

An even more serious problem was Johnston’s poor relationship with the President of the CSA, Jefferson Davis.  This had been the case for years, and at this point Davis had no confidence in him and was forced by political pressures to use him.  He sent John Bell Hood west to take over an army corps….and to report to him unknown to his commander. And Hood took every chance to undermine Johnston.

Personally, I’ve always liked “Old Joe” Johnston, and his task here was a daunting one. That said, he probably could have done more to retard Sherman than he did.  There was one attempt at a counterattack at Cassville, but Hood called it off due to a mistaken sighting of forces on the flank.  Johnston erred in not overriding this, and Hood reported to Davis that the failure was all on Joe Johnston.

So when Sherman neatly flanked Johnston out of the line on the Chattahoochie River, the last major river before Atlanta, Davis had had enough and fired Joe Johnston and replaced him with Hood, as Sherman approached the suburbs of the city.

Peach Tree Creek

North of Atlanta, Peach Tree Creek runs across the line of advance of Sherman’s Army. They needed to cross this creek in the face of Hood’s army.  Johnston himself had planned to strike the US forces of the Army of the Cumberland, one of Sherman’s three armies, as they crossed the river and defeat them.  Then he was fired, and Hood took up the plan, but had to delay a day to take up the reins of the army.  This gave time for more forces to cross the creek, and to begin entrenching.

Hood was also finding that pulling off an attack was a bit more difficult than writing nasty-grams to the President.  It turned out that the forces needed to be shifted sideways to avoid being outflanked, which cost even more time.  It was now afternoon and the US had had even more time to concentrate and cross the creek.

The attack went in, and had some momentary successes where US troops were caught unaware or in flank.  In other spots, the line was fortified and the cost of the assault was high.  The Mississippians broke one line, but then were caught in crossfires from supporting units and suffered severely.  In other spots, the Rebels didn’t try very hard to overcome a line that seemed too strong.  This would bear bitter fruit in subsequent battles as Hood came to believe that this sensible caution was a kind of cowardice that needed to be cured by a diet of frontal attacks.

So after some tense hours the battle ended with no real result aside from the casualties.

Flankers

What neither Hood, or apparently Johnston knew when making this plan was that Sherman had sent about a third of his army on a wide circle to the east of Atlanta, which was entirely unguarded.  Only a few regiments of cavalry were delaying these 30.000 men from walking into the city.  A little less caution by the Union General McPherson and Atlanta would have fallen that day.

As it was, reserve forces had to be rushed to block the path, which was just as well rather than be bloodied in a frontal attack at Peach Tree.  Hood now had to plan a second battle for the day after tomorrow, to take McPherson in the flank and drive him back.  The troops that fought at Peach Tree Creek would form this flanking column, and would have to march all night to do it.

COULDA, WOULDA, SHOULDA

Like most battles, this one has come in for a lot of recriminations afterward.  Should Davis have fired Johnston? Could the attack have routed Thomas?  Could Sherman have been driven back?

Davis probably did the right thing by replacing Johnston, although doing it earlier would have been better.  The relationship was so poisoned that no information was moving between the two, leaving only Hood’s lies.  That said, Hardee might have been a better choice, even though he had declined command in the past.

The delay of a day may not have mattered much.  If they got there too early, there would be no forces on the south side of the creek to attack.  Punishing a brigade or so wouldn’t reverse the tide of the war.  And ironically, a more successful attack might have led to Sherman forcing McPherson to expedite his movement from the east, and led to an early capture of the city!

Hood just did not have the force to totally defeat Sherman’s three armies, even at the end of the long supply chain.  Wishing for that is like wishing for a miracle.  By this point, a win made the other side fall back a mile or so and come on again, and a loss meant you fell back a mile or so and stood again.  Hood managed to delay the fall for some time, but failed in the end.  It isn’t clear that Hardee or Joe Johnston would have done better.

A Mad Catastrophe – Geoffrey Wawro

The Outbreak of World war I and the collapse of the Hapsburg empire

The East Front in WWI is very unrepresented in the historic literature, but some new books are coming out for the centennial.  This book centers on the first year of the war effort of Austria-Hungary in WWI, where a whirlwind of bad planning, poor preparation, foolish decisions, and political flaccidness led to an uninterrupted series of disasters in the field that led to them becoming an arm of the German war effort.

The strength of this book is the background it gives on Austria-Hungary, which is pretty rare.  The internal political strains are an important factor in why the army was allowed to lag behind other major powers.  All the powers would find themselves not prepared for the kind of war WWI turned out to be.  Austria-Hungary was unprepared for the last war before that.

Austria-Hungary was unique in having the worst initial war plan.  As much as you might scoff at the supposed Schleiffen Plan, or the .French Plan XVII, what the A-H army planned to do bordered on the insane.  Feeling the need to invade Serbia to punish them for killing the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, they diverted a major part of the army South to Serbia.  But given the rapid increase in Russian units on the other front, this army was then planned to be shipped right back north across the entire country to face the Russians!

Despite the lack of many forces, the A-H army attacked the Russians in the Polish salient right off.  While this had some initial success, the half of the Russian army not tied down by the troops being shuttled to Serbia and back were able to attack into the rear of the advancing troops and send them tumbling back and away.

The offensive into Serbia was an embarrassing failure from the start.  The land is extremely rugged, and the A-H army didn’t have much artillery that could handle the vertical slopes.  The first offensive fell apart.

And if at first you fail, well, do it all over again.  For the rest of the autumn, the army tried and failed to defeat the Serbs, and the Russians as well.  None worked, and the cost was disastrous.  Even the Germans could not prevail and push the Russians out of Poland, having to retreat twice.  The Austrians were pushed back to the top of the Carpathian mountains.

Ironically, the betrayal of the Central Powers by Italy the next year would lead to a resurgence of a sort by A-H.  Many of the varied ethnic minorities in the nation were ambivalent or worse about fighting the Slavic Serbia or Russia.  But all could agree to fight the hated Italians, who were as unready for serious warfare as Austria-Hungary had been the year before.  The savage battles of the Isonzo – twelve in all, creatively named the First through Twelfth Battles – would at least give the country a taste of victory to match the losses.

Verdun – John Mosier

The Lost History of the most important battle of World War i, 1914-1918

John Mosier is one of the group of ‘revisionist’ historians who have collectively helped fill in the gaps that are created by the standard line of historiography that has dominated the field for as long as I have been reading about it.  Even when I had no additional information, I was vaguely aware of the limits in the West Front dominated, England-centric view which starts with the Schleiffen Plan – BEF – Mons – Marne – Ypres – Verdun – Somme and so on.  In this view the French hardly seem to be involved in the war at all!  Surely they had something to do with it.  Also, the million or so Americans somehow never get mentioned.

Mosier’s theory, first brought out in “The Myth of the Great War”, is that much of the history is distorted.  The Germans maintained a large tactical advantage over the French and especially the English throughout the war, based on better tactical flexibility and integrated use of large caliber artillery pieces with the ground forces.  The Allies did not catch up partly because they ground up their experienced soldiers repeatedly in yet another big push.  The Americans were able to match the Germans tactically because their large, fresh forces were taught by the French mountain troops to use similar tactics to the Germans themselves, and broke the stalemate in the Allies favor.

This book, Verdun, is following the same view of the war, but has centralized the focus to the area around the fortified region around Verdun.  He widens the scope to the battles in the region in 1914 and 1915, where the city was nearly surrounded in the first offensives, then subsequent September 1914 German offensives again nearly isolated the city, followed by frantic French counteroffensives that bled them white while gaining nothing.

Then came the German major offensive in 1916 that is better known, although Mosier convincingly contends that many major incidents are misunderstood.  Then came the Nivelle offensive, which claimed to push the Germans back to their start line.  There was only one problem – it didn’t, and they knew it.  So for the next year the French had to attack in that area under Petain and could take no credit, since they were taking the positions that they were supposed to have been taken the year before.  However, the small, limited goal offensives did rebuild the morale of the army.  They took positions, and the leadership didn’t bleed them to death doing it.

In 1918 the Americans came, and in separate operations on either flank of Verdun swept the Germans back in the St Mihiel offensive and then turned and ground them out of the Ardennes tangles in the Meuse-Argonne offensives.  They were able to beat the Germans in major operations, which was something the French lacked the strength to do.

As in his other book, this is not a tactical level account of individual battles, but more of a military and political analysis of these battles and the war around it.  But it makes sense, and fits with some of the other new historians’ theories too.