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 Seven Years War in Europe 1756-1763 – Franz A. Szabo

The Seven Years War is one of those ‘tweener’ periods in history.  It is bracketed on either side by the massive catastrophes of the Thirty Years War and the Napoleonic Wars, so there is a temptation to call it one of those ‘nice’ wars where nations played it safe and damage in wars was minimal.  In the US, most of the attention is directed at the local portion of the conflict, the French and Indian wars, which laid down the groundwork for American Independence.

But this is misleading.  The ‘cockpit’ of the war in Germany was the scene of the most cynical land grab by a country since…the last cynical land grab they’d done.  Alliances shifted so that countries that had been enemies for generations were now allies, and vice versa.  There were numerous battles fought with severe casualties on both sides, and nations had to dig deep to find the men to keep fighting.


Like most wars, the seeds of the current war were sown in the war before.  The War of the Austrian Succession began when the Emperor of Austria had no male heir, and made the diplomatic rounds trying to get agreement for his daughter, Maria Theresa, to inherit the realm intact.  But almost instantly when she took power, Frederick II of Prussia invaded the province of Silesia and took it from her.  When the war ended, Prussia still held the province and thus nearly doubled its wealth and population, thus becoming a notable power and a permanent enemy of Austria.

With Austria now more angry at an aggressive Prussia than fearful of a less than powerful France, these two now aligned with Russia to fight the growth of Prussia.  England, still an enemy of France thus aligned with Frederick against Austria.

The Opening of the War

Since it worked so well the last time, Frederick opened the war with a quick land grab.  This time it was the state of Saxony, and quickly its army was incorporated into Prussia’s and its resources were stripped to support the war.  Interestingly, the stamps used to coin money for Poland were also captured, and counterfeiting was added to the tools used to finance the war.

Quest for Victory

But as in the previous war, matters changed after the initial blitz.  Attempts by Frederick to win a decisive victory and end the war repeatedly failed.  Now, having managed to surround himself with enemies, he found that they could threaten him at widely dispersed points.  His strokes deep into Austria were turned aside, but when his enemies tried to strike deep into Prussia he did manage to defeat them.  These latter battles are where his “Great”-ness hinges on.  But in-between these wins were defeats small and large, and even the victories cost men that his tiny state could ill afford.  And as time went on his enemies learned, and dismissed their most incompetent generals, and victories were hard to come by and even more expensive.

Staring Defeat in the Face

By the latter stages of the war Prussia was on the ropes.  The caution of the other side, and the great distances the Russians had to travel to reach the battlefield were all that had kept the country from being overrun.  Then, the Empress Elizabeth of Russia died and the Czar Paul switched sides to join him.  Even when he was deposed by Catherine, Russia did not feel up to continuing the war.  Austria had to give up, and restore the situation to that before the war started.

How Great is Frederick

If you ask this author, the answer would be “not that Great”.  It is obvious that he is no fan of Freddie, and many of his reasons are solid.  I do think he might have gone a little too far in exposing the less noble side of the King.  He relishes reporting every occasion that he fled a battle only to find his army won it in his absence.  He notes every time he neglects to reward a general for saving his bacon, or punishes one for obeying mistaken orders. He quotes numerous whining letters during troubled times claiming he would have to kill himself or die gloriously in some battle to avoid capture.

And many of these would have served as a good corrective for the usual gloss laid over Frederick the Great. But when somehow there is never a single time noted that Frederick boosted the career of a subordinate, when additional claims of fleeing battles are backed up only with ‘some say’…it is hard to take all of this seriously, especially when the coverage of the ups and downs of the other courts are covered more even-handedly.

So was Frederick a great general?  Well, he balances out his great victories with overaggressive losses.  He never seemed to be able to get out of these wars as easily as he got into them.  His invasions of major countries were uniformly dismal defeats.  I would shade this towards ‘no’.

Was he a great King?  There, you might have something.  Before Frederick, Prussia was not the top German state outside of Austria.  It might not have even been in the top 5.  But at the end of the period, the Kingdom was a great power in Europe, equivalent to France, Britain, Russia, and Austria.  And there would be no more Powers after that, as the middle rank states were absorbed into one or another power.  He certainly miscalculated the furor that his power grabs would unleash, but he managed to hang onto Silesia through both wars and dominate Saxony through most of the Seven Years War.  That’s good enough to earn that title – the fact that Prussia would dominate most of Germany was locked down by these two wars.  The domination of all of it would be set up by the Franco-Prussian war and Bismarck.

Overall View

So how was the book?  Very good.  The detail of politics in all the countries involved is unmatched.  Again, there might be a slant in the Prussian view tending to make Frederick look more like a jerk than he was, but keep in mind that he undoubtedly was quite a jerk.  Descriptions of battles are relatively short, but balancing this is that many more battles are covered, including ones that Frederick was not involved with.  It does not cover the war outside Europe at all, but never claimed to.  It covers the Austrian and Russian sides better than any other history I’ve read.

With Musket and Tomahawk Volume I – Michael O. Logusz

The Saratoga Campaign and the Wilderness War of 1777

The Saratoga Campaign was supposed to be the finishing stroke to crush the Rebellion of the American Colonies. After the retirement from Boston, the reinforced British returned and took New York City, nearly destroying Washington’s army multiple times in the process. Now, this success was to lead to a grand campaign to cut off the New England colonies and isolate them by a three pronged invasion of inland New York from Canada and New York City. It looked nice on paper, anyway.

And usually, studies remain at this elevated, paper level. This book, and the second volume of a three part series, go beyond that to put you in the realities of 18th century life and warfare in the colonies better than any other I have read.

The first reality is that the area to be traversed was a true wilderness that few Europeans had any idea about.  Inland travel was virtually impossible away from the few tracks and rivers.  Scouts could move well, but wagons and bulk traffic was virtually impossible.  So the idea that you needed to occupy this hinterland to ‘cut off’ New England was absurd. This traffic, if any, probably went by sea or by roads much closer to New York City than Albany and points north.  And putting a few thousand men in Albany wasn’t going to cut off the tracks for more limited communication such as messages and couriers.

The next issue was that of moving armies through the land.  Europe was trying to limit the impact of wars on civilians since the horrors of the 30 Years War, but even so imagine yourself on a tiny farm in the wilderness when a military unit of a few hundred men show up looking for a meal, or even more supplies. Even if they don’t lose control and shoot you and your family and burn the farm, the loss of what little food reserves were needed for selling for supplies or keeping you alive in the winter would often be ruinous.  The other factor was that both of the armies moving from Canada were going to make heavy use of Indians as scouts and even as a large part of the invading forces.  Indians on the warpath were going to generate a large number of atrocities. It was how they made war.

Not that the British weren’t counting on this terror factor in hopes of cowing the colonists. However, with the Indians not discriminating between loyal settlers and rebels, there wasn’t a lot of profit in staying loyal. so the effect ran to increase the bitterness towards England overall.  And during the year a woman, Jane McCrea, who was engaged to an officer fighting with Burgoyne, was killed by Indians and was made a symbol for the rebels and a reason for dissidents in the home country to oppose the war.

Initial Missteps

The first step in the plan going wrong was that Gen. Howe in New York wasn’t very interested in moving inland.  He wanted to use his naval forces and army to descend on the Rebel capital in Philadelphia.  And so he did, leaving the third prong moving north up the Hudson very weak. It was really now a support force, likely unable to act alone if something happened to the other two forces.

The northern forces had issues too – having fewer men than planned and being short of transportation.

Burgoyne Moves South

Volume I follows the northern invasion directly south from Canada.  The route was over Lake Champlain and the road beside it.  This let most of the heavy supplies travel in boats. At the south end of the lake as Fort Ticonderoga, a rebel stronghold. Burgoyne reached this fort and after a poorly conducted defense it fell, and the Patriots retired south, harassed by Indian scouts.  It was now early July.

Now, in the middle of the wilderness the real world began to take hold.  The original plan was to move up a river to Lake George, which ended up very close to the Hudson River. Now that he was on the scene, this river was little more than a rocky creek, and the other lake was 200 feet higher than Lake Champlain and the trail was small and nearly vertical. The river was vertical…there as a waterfall between Lake George and the river.

There were roads heading south, but no road heading for the Hudson.  Burgoyne decided to stay in this district and build a road to the Hudson, calling back for horses and wagons to Canada.  This took about a month, while Loyalist forces collected ahead of him.


While collecting himself for a final advance toward Albany, Burgoyne heard that there was a supply depot in Bennington, Vermont.  A force of about 800 men including some 150 British loyal colonists went off to try and collect them.  However, this was also where John Stark was collecting Patriot forces and he outnumbered this column.  The ensuing battle was a disaster, with most of the column being killed or captured.  Any loyalist men caught was killed by the army, or by angry Patriot civilians.  This was in no way a clean war. In this blow about 10 percent of Burgoyne’s force was lost.

Raid of Fort Ticonderoga

As Burgoyne moved off down the Hudson, Patriot forces attacked Ticonderoga in his rear and destroyed the supplies and boats there.  Burgoyne’s supply line north was now almost cut off.


With this news, Burgoyne had to break through the superior Patriot army fortified at Saratoga on the Hudson.  Beyond that was Albany, and a possible linkup with New York City.  There were several engagements there, which you could argue might be tactical victories but the strategic position was the same after each.  The Patriot army blocked the road south, it was being reinforced, and each battle cost the English men, officers, and supplies that could not be replenished.  Eventually Burgoyne had no choice but to surrender his force.

New York Starves

New York City, cut off from its agricultural supplies and stuffed with a garrison and numerous loyalist refugees, would be very short of supplies for the forseeable future. The inland areas, ravaged by war, would not be a lot better off themselves this year.

A final incident

The author relates a story where a group of retreating British soldiers were spotted by Captain Allen and some scouts. However, there was a black woman and baby along with the group.  It was common knowledge that blacks found by British soldiers, slave or free were taken and sold in Canada as slaves.

Allen intercepted the group, and found that the woman was Dinah Mattis, a domestic slave.  She was removed from her captors and sent to Vermont, where she and her baby were given papers as free citizens.


This book moves easily between the small personal details and the big picture views that somehow get left out of most descriptions of the campaigns.  Even the views of the impact on blacks, slaves, and women does not descend into political correctness but actually shows the complexity of the life in the wilderness.  From a “witch woman” executing prisoners to Jane McCrea and Dinah Mattis, its a nasty and complex world that we don’t often hear about.

The Struggle for Crete – I. McD. G. Stewart

Landings on Crete

A story of lost Opportunity

The story of the capture of the island of Crete by the Germans in 1941 is one of the more interesting ones in World War II, as it marked the dawn of a new era of major airborne operations and the end of it, at the same time.

It sounds so orderly and modern, using aircraft to drop crack soldiers onto an island far beyond the reach of normal operations, and wrest control of a vital island from the enemy. Like most military operations, the reality is a little more messy.

Planning…such as it was

When the German advance through the Balkans had driven the Commonwealth forces out of Greece, some of the evacuated units joined the garrison of the island of Crete.  This island could be used as a platform for airbases to bomb inland targets.  Their guess was there were only a few thousand defenders, demoralized by their defeats, to drive off.

These estimates were far off – there were some 30000 defenders of the island, some poorly armed and shaken up by defeats, but others resolute.  The German plan relied on the airborne troops to take airfields and ports to allow other troops to be delivered by air and by ship.  This latter would have to pass the gauntlet of the Royal Navy first.  Most of the troops would be dropped in the first wave, and at all the airfields across the island.  This left little margin for error and few reinforcements if the initial landings went badly. Aside from this small reserve, further troops would need an intact port or airfield to arrive.

The drop zones were right on top of the objectives, as if no resistance was expected. As it turned out, most of these areas were right in the middle of Allied troop deployments.

The Defense

The defense had a number of problems – it was occupied with the dumping of innumerable refugees and troops from the evacuation of Greece onto its laps.  Just getting them organized and fed was a challenge of sorts.  On the other hand, the original garrison had not been very energetic before that – there were no improved positions guarding the airfields, or beaches, or ports. When information started to come in that the Germans were thinking of invading, most thought of this as primarily a naval attack.  Still the airfields were not undefended.

The Airdrops

On 21 May the Germans landed in daylight all over the island.  The landings were a disaster, as the men landing on defending units were chopped up and wiped out.  Since this was the first airborne defense, the need to attack the airborne units at once was not known and only the forces at Heraklion did so on their own initiative.  Around the other airfields at Maleme at Retimo the Germans grouped up for attacks.

Also, the critical importance of the airfields was not known to the defenders. They thought that the troops could be brought in on flat beaches or fields.  They did not know that the paradrop reserves were so low.  They also imagined that naval invasions were an important factor that must be guarded.

Facing disaster, Student put all reserves at Maleme airfield and captured it.  Once down, troops were landed at any cost to provide the forces needed to take the island, as the paratoops themselves were mostly fought out.

The Advance

Once the lodgement was secure, mountain troops of the 5th Mountain Division were fed into the battle around Maleme and the defender’s position became critical.  The German air force was able to maul the troops and interdict supply.  Again, none of the defenders knew that by 22 June these planes would be needed in The defense could not be sustained and there were not the forces to reverse the situation.

An evacuation was ordered, that was aided by the pulling out of the German aircraft to prepare for the invasion of Russia.  Still, about half of the forces in Crete were lost.

The Butcher’s Bill

The tremendous losses of the airborne troops meant that the Germans would never risk them in a drop.  The lesson was that these troops could not survive for long in normal combat, so they could only be used if relief could be quickly.  The Allies learned that same expensive lesson at Market Garden, when the rosy estimates of how soon the British could come up the road were found to be in error.  The same result then was found – high quality troops destroyed.  Then the Allies made sure to never risk them again, only using them as infantry, or in the comic Varsity airdrop.

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 Guns at Last Light – Rick Atkinson

The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945

I approached this book with a bit of trepidation, since I was very put off by parts of his Gulf War book where he inserted after the fact political jabs to score debating points on the young men that were, you know, protecting his life in the operation.  So I wondered if the same temptation to throw the book across the room would come here.

Thankfully, no. The book is a good roundup of the fight from Normandy to the end of the war, and covers the final operations that often get left out entirely. It is pretty common for books to end at the Battle of the Bulge.

It has been a while since I have read the first two volumes in the series but it seems like the focus has changed from showing the development of the US Army into an overall history of the Allies.  In a way, here, the US Army now becomes a minor player, well behind the generals, the Yalta conference, Monty and his issues, the French.  When you consider the first book was about a 6 month period with far fewer players, the final book covering a year was going to be spread thin – but adding in these other elements tended to spread it a little too thin.

With the expanded scope, some of the little vignette stories now are overblown.  Patton’s attempt to rescue POWs now has more coverage that any of the battles to take the Rhineland – possibly more than all of them added together.  The shooting of the one deserter for the war also seems bloated relative to the events around it.

So all in all, a reasonably good book that suffers from stretching itself to cover too much in too few pages.

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.

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.

Normandy Crucible – John Prados

I picked up this book after reading and enjoying his book on the Solomons campaign, Islands of Destiny.  Like that book, this one is a short view of a battle, emphasizing issues of command and military intelligence more than day to day tactics.  It also is well balanced, giving both sides’ view of the situation.

The situation is the Allied invasion of France.  Each side struggled to get sufficient forces into the area to win decisively.  The Germans had to contend with the pervasive Allied air forces attacking any detected movement.  The Allies had to feed troops over the beaches or through a destroyed port of Cherbourg.

It is interesting to see just how much the Allies did know of the German countermoves as they happened, and thus were able to meet them and defeat them.  The breakout was a problem of its own, as the bad terrain of the hedgerow country stifled attacks. Finally, Operation Cobra launched with a devastating air bombardment at St. Lo and the breakout was on.

Aerial view of Saint-Lô, Normandie (France), a...

The discussion of the attempt to form a major pocket is interesting. Prados contends that the estimates of German losses in men are exaggerated.  He notes that the total number hasn’t changed a fraction since 1944.

Another interesting feature was an appendix where he wargamed the breakout using a modified version of the old Cobra game from SPI in the 1970s.  He explored various German alternatives strategies.  For one thing, he found that trying to form a mobile reserve usually led to a faster breakout through the weakened line.  He also examined when an all out retreat could have saved most of the army.  I had that game myself back then, and probably still have it in a box somewhere.  I thought it was a great idea to quantify even in a limited way the results of a changed strategy rather than just assert it as words alone.

A last topic that he introduces (well, to me at least) is that the Germans revamped their replacement system at this time in the face of this invasion. While it couldn’t help this battle, this was a major factor in the recovery of the German army on the borders for the fall campaign and the Battle of the Bulge.

Brute Force – John Ellis

Subtitle:  Allied strategy and Tactics in the second world war

I really wanted to like this book better.  It has some good points, and brings out some interesting angles, but in the end the relentless negativism about, well, everything both sides did in the war began to irritate as much as a pimply pre-teenager who just keeps repeating that everything sucks.

It is crammed full of details about Allied production and Axis lack of production.  I especially liked the measurement of the effectiveness versus cost of the Allied bomber offensives and the U-Boat war.  The bomber cost was especially thought provoking, as for a time the Allies were losing more trained pilot than they were killing even civilians.

He does spend some time attacking the Axis, mostly on the fact that without production to match the Allies they were going to come up short in the end.  But the bulk of the book is just critique that quickly degrades into carping.  Because nothing the Allies do can be right.

Either they were bad at putting their strength into play or committing overkill.  Offensives were bad because they hit the strong points and had no strategy, or if they didn’t hit a strong point they were up against no opposition and didn’t count.  For any particular general he quotes all of his rivals about how he sucked, then when discussing these rivals quotes the original fellow about his enemy.  In small doses this can be amusing, but four hundred pages or so the joke loses its humor.

Near the end of the book, I suddenly started to wonder what year this had been written – 1990.  That made a lot of things come into focus.  In those years it was very fashionable to tear into US and its military ability as a way to try and prop up the old bipolar world view.  The first Gulf War put an end to that sort of thing for the most part.

Normally I re-strategizing old campaigns and pointing out problems and errors.  But you have to balance that tearing down with the fact that matters were not so clear then as today in your easy chair reading or writing a book, and running a war is easier to talk about than to do.  Ellis gives the impression that he thinks he would have been a better war leader and general than all of the rest put together.  Given that he couldn’t lead me to accept his conclusions that I more or less agreed with from the start shows that he wouldn’t have been.