Northern Men with Southern Loyalties – Michael Todd Landis

The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis

This book is a great complement to the previous book Slave Power.  That book describes the start of the process, while this book details the final decade as the Democratic Party failed to meet the challenge of how to reconcile the power of the slaveholding bloc in national politics with the increasing reluctance of the northern voter to accept the situation.

The poster child of the 1850s rift is the “doughface”, a term that originated in a diatribe of a southerner over how easy it was to manipulate northern politicians.  When it begins to be a term used by your own voters, you have an image problem.

The book is a short, but detailed look at the inner workings of the 1850s Democratic Party, by then the one national based party.  As the dominant force, it had the fate of the nation in its hand, and the result was continual sectional crisis, division, a virtual civil war in Kansas, and eventually the breakup of its own party and true national warfare.

The inner workings of the Democratic Party were the essential forces causing the problem, not outside agitation or other forces.  This book exposes that in a short and clear way.  No party ever had such a dominating position in history, and yet within a decade it had all crumbed to dust.

I’ll be reading this one again, like I do America in 1857.by Kenneth Stamp.as views into political collapse.

 

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Challenge of Battle – Adrian Gilbert

The Real Story of the British Army in 1914

As a believer in the recent revisionism on the First World War, I often am annoyed by the way the war is reported in most histories.  The standard view is a Liege, a dash of German offensive, Mons, the Marne, then Ypers.  After that you have some Verdun, a bit of Somme and the British offensive in Flanders in 1917 and then the crisis of 1918 and victory.  Notice the relative lack of discussion of anything French.

This book was refreshing because while it was a history of British operations and the army alone, so the lack of mention of the primary allied partner is excusable, at least it did not recycle the overblown depiction of the combat power of the BEF at Mons and actually described anything between the Marne and Ypres.  And it is overall a great depiction of an army introduced to a new sort of warfare, and how it dealt with and eventually survived the process.

Like all armies in 1914, the actual results were a mixed bag.  When troops had good positions and artillery support, they held well and inflicted severe losses.  When turned or unsupported by guns, they could be pounded themselves.  The BEF was a good outfit, but the tasks it had to take on meant it eventually was destroyed in the process.  When the British next took the offensive, it would be with essentially a new army raised for the purpose.

A very good corrective to the standard gung-ho treatment.

The Rzhev Slaughterhouse – Svetlana Gerasimova

The Red Army’s forgotten 15-month campaign against Army Group Center, 1942-1943

Ever since the old Soviet archives were opened up a few decades ago, new information has been revealed about the war in the East in WWII.  In the US, this was first popularized by the works of David Glantz.  In the last several years works in English by Russian authors have also started to emerge, adding even more viewpoints.

While this work has less detail on a single operation than Glantz’ do, it does provide a walkthrough of a section of the front that has received less attention than others, despite its importance.  After the German attack on Moscow and the Soviet counteroffensive in late 1941, German attention and post war historian’s attentions shifted south, to the area where the 1942 Fall Blau campaign would begin, and end with the Stalingrad battle.  But at the time the Soviets spent considerable effort on the central sector, the one closest to Moscow.

At then end of the Soviet Winter Counteroffensive in 1941, the line in this area was in a very confused state.  For the most part, Army Group Center survived by clinging to the areas around cities and towns, and the Soviet forces bulged in and behind them in the forested terrain.  A major bulge remained between the north-south communication lines between the cities of Rzhev in the north, and Viazma on the main highway to Moscow. The rest was a jumble of counterbulges of Soviet forces and pockets nearly cutting off the Rzhev salient.  The front face of this extension was the closest German position to Moscow.

The First Russian Offensive – Jan-April 1942

Almost at once after the Winter counterattack ended, the Soviets regrouped and attacked again to cut off and surround the forces in the German bulge, and to rescue their own forces in the German rear areas.  While the front face of the bulge was pushed in, and some breakthroughs were made into the German rear near both Vyazma and Rzhev, in the end these incursions were cut off and eliminated.

The Germans Tidy Up – May-JuLY 1942

With the end of Soviet attacks in the spring in this sector, and before Fall Blau took off in earnest in mid summer, Army Group Center attacked and eliminated the pockets inside the bulge and a counterbulge on the west face of the salient.  This made their hold on the salient much more firm.

First Rzhev-Sychevka – July-September 1942

While the Germans were driving East in the south of Russia, the Soviets mounted a major offensive to take Rzhev or cut it off from the south by taking the town of Sychevka on the communication road to the South.  A massive frontal assault, it managed to bash forward to the outskirts of both towns at great cost.

Second Rzhev-Sychevka (operation Mars) – November-December 1942

This massive offensive, fully as large or larger than Uranus, which cut off the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad, was intended to cut off the salient by attacking the top, front and rear faces at once. This would have cut off Ninth Army in Rzhev and torn the center front wide open.  However, the Germans were not as overextended here and the terrain was worse here than near Stalingrad, so the ruptures in the line created by the overwhelming attacks were eventually pinched off and the units crushed by armored reserves.

This offensive was both overshadowed by the success of Uranus, and downplayed by the Soviets because of the immense losses taken.

German Withdrawal – March 1943

In early spring 1943, the commander of Army Group Center realized that with his armored reserve depleted to halt the series of Winter offensives in south Russia, he would be unlikely to stop the next attack in the Rzhev sector that was sure to come when the Russians were ready.  Almost uniquely in the war, he managed to convince Hitler and the high command to allow a planned, phased withdrawal out of the position to a prepared line across the base.

Timed to coincide with the mud season, it went off well enough.  The Soviets tried to turn the withdrawal into a rout by attacking during the process, but a combination of the weakness of the units and the natural reluctance to attack fixed positions without preparation led to no real results other than the territory gained and the ability to reduce their frontage too.

Results and Remembrances

As more information is collected, total losses for both sides in these campaigns are revised continually upward.  A conservative estimate is 1.3 million casualties for both sides.  More recent tallys surpass 2 million.  Some even claim 800,000-900,000 deaths which would estimate some three million casualties.  By any standard these are a major set of battles that should be studied more.

The final chapter of the book is a interesting, and thought provoking of the aftermath of the battle up to the present.  Even to this day, parties are working these woods and swamps removing explosives and finding and identifying bodies from the area of the battle.

This was an excellent book for students of the war.  I look forward to more Russian historians putting forward their view of the battles.

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.

Between Giants – Prit Buttar

The Battle for the Baltics in World War II

This book tries to fill a gap in the histories of World War II that tend to move directly with the troops from big battles at one place to the next battle and place.  Thus we visit Stalingrad when the Germans arrive and depart once the armies have moved on.  Here the author stays in one place from before the time the armies come until after they have left.  Even when the war is supposedly over, it isn’t all over.

The place is the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.  Three small countries that were carved out of the old Czarist Russia and Imperial Germany and when the two countries began to recover and rearm they both began to look at these countries again.

The first stage came when Poland was broken up between the USSR and Germany. Lithuania was awarded a slice of land that Poland had been occupying which sounded good.  However, it soon turned out that Germany had agreed to allow the occupation of all three states in exchange for a slice of land leading to the city of Memel, Lithuania’s only port.  Over the next months the Soviets strongarmed the three countries to “accept” an occupation.

With this came the arrest of thousands and the fleeing of ethnic Germans to Germany.  The Jewish groups tended to be more pro-Russian, knowing some of what the Germans had in store for them, which increased the anti-Semitic tensions above the normal levels.

The second stage was the German invasion of the USSR in 1941.  In a matter of a few weeks the war swept over the Baltics toward Leningrad.  The book describes the military actions but as you can imagine, this doesn’t take long.

The third stage was the German occupation and the Holocaust in the Baltics.  This isn’t easy reading, and the people of the Baltic states have a mixed record.  Some did try and help the Jews, but others did not and some were enthusiastic participants.

The fourth stage was the reconquest of most of the region, save the Courland Pocket, by the Russians.  There were units from the Baltic states in both armies, sometimes fighting each other.  This section is the best I’ve found on this campaign in any book – while not as hyper-detailed as Glantz’ works, is far better than the dismissive few paragraphs often given to this part of the war.

This fourth stage saw more flight of natives to escape the new occupation coming.

The final stage is the post war occupation.  Some kept fighting as the USSR reoccupled  the area, often for years.  The west was not able or willing to make this an issue and the USSR incorporated the Baltics until the breakup of the USSR in the 1990s.

I think the book is evenhanded in its approach to the subject – facts are laid out and you can judge them for yourself.  Nobody comes out with a white hat.  But knowing the facts is better than sweeping them under the rug.

The Path to Blitzkrieg – Robert Citino

Doctrine and Training in the German Army, 1920-39

This is another book that supplements Citino’s thesis about how the roots of Blitzkrieg grew out of the conceptual training of the army, and was a continuation of the ideas of the Prussian and German army since the time of Frederick the Great and before rather than a new concept rising in the 20th Century.  The concepts of rapid movement, independent action, and aggressive attacking fit with the requirements of a small nation trying to survive amid stronger, or at least larger foes.

After the defeat in WWI, the army was by treaty limited to a tiny size and could not hope to compete with even a weak neighbor state.  Ironically this helped focus the army on training its officer corps in essentials and to decide on what modern developments to adopt without having to deal with the politics of entrenched cliques that the victors had to.  Instead, the Germans concentrated on developing close interaction of the arms they had and bold leadership with independence and initiative.  These leaders were able to quickly adopt new technology like the tank and aircraft and fit them into their plans and produce the blitzkrieg.

The book describes the various exercises and the struggles for funding at first and later some of the problems with the massive expansion under Hitler.

Lest you think that this is praises the Germans too much, the same “small state on the defense” framework tended to thwart them as they went on in the war.  A small state doesn’t have to worry about supply, since they are fighting at home or nearly so.  A quick and decisive war doesn’t require a long term view of production and manufacturing.  The sort of issues that Britain or the US have to solve just to get a single man in combat were just brushed off by the Germans, and when the war was extended in time and distance the problems they refused to cope with turned out to bite them.

In the business of combat they were superior, but in strategy and in logistics they were not even amateurs, but often were bunglers.

A very interesting book on a part of history that hasn’t been written a lot about.

Operation Typhoon – David Stahel

Hitler’s March on Moscow, October 1941

This is the third book in Stahel’s series on the War in the East, following “Operation Barbarossa” and “Kiev 1941”.  Together they paint a picture of an operation that was coming apart well before its actual stopping point.  The continual problem of too much space to cover with too few men and tanks, coupled with the steady if not increasing ability of the Soviets to put up resistance and the decreasing ability of the Germans to supply the far-flung units was the “handwriting on the wall”.  But rather than pay heed to the warning signs, both the government and the army leaders decided that one more offensive would change it all, thus digging a deeper hole.

This volume only covers the first month of the offensive, from the opening until when the fall rains locked the region in mud.  Presumably the final lunge for Moscow after the freeze and the Soviet counteroffensive are for future books.

Like Barbarossa, the attack met with initial success.  Germany’s decreasing armor forces were more or less concentrated on a single front, and one that had weakened itself in savage attacks during the earlier operations around Smolensk and the opening of the Kiev encirclement.  The result was a pair of large pockets that netted a lot of prisoners and also a lot of dispersed enemy soldiers in the rear area.   As was becoming common, the pockets were difficult to close, as the tank forces outran the infantry and were forced to man the lines themselves rather than move on.

The next phase, however, showed some warts in the plan.  Guderian’s forces started far to the south and were having trouble getting back to the Moscow region, as they had a long exposed flank to cover.  In the north, a lunge to take the city of Kalinin took troops off on a tangent – while it looked good on the map, the forces there ended up no closer to Moscow and defending a narrow corridor with Russians on both sides.  The Germans were having enough problems with a long front without adding a salient to it!

As October advanced, the weather began to cool and the need for shelter and winter clothing began to increase.  With no preparations having been done, and any preparations that might have been done negated by the long supply chain and lack of transport, the troops had to try to make do by stealing the homes of the locals and the winter clothes of them, or from captured or slain troops.

And as before, the ‘success’ of Typhoon still showed no sign of ending Soviet resistance.  One doubts that even the taking of Moscow would have changed this.  But despite signs that once again an operational success brought the war no closer to being over, the plan for the first winter was to undertake yet another offensive with even weaker, more stretched out forces, in another futile attempt to end all resistance.

Instead, what would happen is that with time, the Soviets would learn enough to be able to keep the field with the Germans and from that point on, the continual offensives would be moving the front in the other direction, back towards Berlin.

Take Budapest! – Kamen Nevenkin

The Struggle for Hungary, Autumn 1944

These are interesting times on the Eastern Front.  The opening up of the Soviet Archives has spread from just the works of David Glantz to other authors, and to more varied topics on the four year struggle.  This book covers the first attempt to knock Hungary out of the war and take the capital, which came up just short of the city.  The Soviets would have to regroup and try again in the winter, this time with success.

In the summer of 1944, the Soviets had crushed Army Group Center, driven to the Baltic Coast, and swept into the Balkans, forcing the Romanian and Bulgarians to switch sides.  The Germans were reeling, but the Soviets were tiring as well.  Could they knock out Hungary too, and possibly break out into Austria and points west?

The first part of the plan to take the country quickly was to get the government to change sides and take its defending units out of the line.  Unlike the earlier attempts, though, this was foiled by the Germans backing a coup in their favor and installing a more radical government under Sztojay.  With the enemy at the gates, this new government’s first act was to attack the local Jewish population.

With the chance of an easy win scuttled, the Soviets tried to win by force, using the last reserves for a lunge to Budapest before German reinforcements might arrive.  It was a good try, and they made it to the suburbs before the front firmed up and the weather broke.  As a side benefit, the forces moved here would be missed when the Soviets attacked on the Polish front and drove nearly to Berlin – reaching the Oder.

The book has good information of the unit actions for both sides in the campaign, and it was interesting to get full details over actions usually dismissed in a sentence or so in the books on the whole East Front that was all we had thirty years ago.  The author is fair to each side, even defending Stalin from some of the usual “If Stalin had listened to me, Budapest would have fallen!” claims make by old generals after the war, when it was safe.  He examines Malinovsky’s claim, but doesn’t find it too convincing when the true situation is understood.

 

 

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.