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.

The Restoration of Rome – Peter Heather

Barbarian popes and imperial pretenders

This is the third book in a series about the end of the classical world and the development of modern Europe.  The first centered on the fall of the Western Empire, and the second was on the change in Europe from a Germanic dominated to a Slavic dominated eastern Europe and Balkans.

The Restoration of Rome covers another aspect of post-Roman Europe – the attempt to recover the idea of the Empire in a new world.  First, came the attempts to physically duplicate the Empire – starting with Theodoric the Ostrogoth.

Within 20 years or so of the Fall of the West, Theodoric took a faction of Goths into the Eastern Empire to make their fortune, just as many other groups had in the last several hundred years.  With a little luck and cleverness, his faction grew to be powerful enough to be considered a threat to the Empire.  Thus they were ‘invited’ to move into Italy to take it away from Odovacar, who had put the final nail in the Western Empire.

Theodoric succeeded very well, and managed to dominate the successor states and become the arbiter of the region.  For a short time he even acquired south France and Spain.  He and his court saw himself as a true successor of Rome.  And he might well have pulled it off – except he did not produce an heir.

This left an opening for the second attempt to physically recover the Western Empire – Justinian’s attempt to recover the West.  He managed to destroy the Ostrogothic state in the end, but did not have the strength to hold on when faced with the subsequent threats of the Lombards in Italy and the Muslims in the East.

The third successor to claim Imperial honors was Charlemagne and the Frankish Empire in North France and Germany.  This was the first successor to move beyond the Mediterranean core and set up an Empire in Europe proper.  Again, they managed to produce a mini Enlightenment that lasted a while, but soon the power of the Empire faded, this time for structural reasons.  Dr Heather notes that a feudal state has a fundamental issue with rewarding followers – a state like Rome can give jobs and money from tax revenues perpetually.  A feudal state leader needs to give land to followers, which results in a permanent transfer of power from the central government to the aristocracy. Eventually, central power fades away.  This happened to the Frankish Empire, and the subsequent Ottonian Empires in Germany.

The final chapter is a new take on claiming the mantle of Rome – the Papacy. Rather than using force to make a physical copy of Rome, that could not be sustained in a post-Roman world, the Papacy claimed a moral successorship to Rome and became a moral arbiter of the successor states in Europe.  They had to pull some interesting tricks to pull it off, but the Middle Ages until the Reformation and later centered around the power of the Papacy in Europe.

This is a great, readable series on not only the history of this period, but also its reflection on other times.

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.

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.

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.

Omaha Beach – Joseph Balkoski

D-Day, June 6, 1944

This book is a detailed look at the invasion of Omaha beach on D-Day.  This is the beach that was best defended, more or less by chance, and came closest to being defeated.  While the preparation is looked into to some extent, the bulk of the material is how the troops on the beach adapted and created an entirely new plan, and won.

Worst Laid Plans

In an earlier book on the planning of the operation I mentioned the discordance between the desire for a ‘surprise invasion’ and the need to prepare the beach using bombardment.  Balkoski brings up another issue that compromised the initial assault.  Omaha beach is faced with steep bluffs, with a limited number of entryways inland – called ‘draws’.  Because of the need to bring masses of vehicles up these draws in the hours and days of the attack, the planners were concerned that the planned air bombardment would create huge craters.  So they reduced the power of the bombs, which might well have limited the effectiveness of the bombing.  The air forces, concerned about hitting the offshore forces, played it safe and the entire mission was dropped far inland, missing the fortified units.

A major improvement in the defenses was the lucky fact (for the Germans) that the experienced 352 Division was conducting exercises in the area and could take position to repel the assault.  The tides offshore pushed the invading troops out of the expected locations, and the obstacles were not cleared.  Most of the supporting tanks sunk. Casualties were severe.

Move or Die

It soon became clear that the initial plan to attack up the draws was suicidal.  The Germans had set up many bunkers covering the route, and the walls blocking them had not been blasted open by the engineers, since they were cut to pieces on the beach at dawn.  Flipping the plan on its head, the leaders left collected men they could find into scratch units and went straight up the sides of the bluffs.  The Germans had not covered these areas as tightly, so slowly men could get up on the cliffs and begin to take out the bunkers that were firing onto the beach below.

The Navy also helped, pushing destroyers close to the shore for point-blank fire support.  If the position could be spotted, they could usually hit it.  There were a few cases where they hit friendly troops in the confusion, but on the whole the support was critical to reducing the strongpoints.

The one part of the initial plan that ended up working well was simply the mass of the number of men and material that was to be put on the beach that day.  If the plan had gone right, these men would have been strolling off the beach and driving inland.  Instead, these troops were turned into infantry and used to pry open the stubborn defenses – but it was what was needed.  By the end of the day, the US was on-shore to stay, if not as far inland as they would have liked.

Balkoski has mixed in numerous quotes and observations from the men on both sides into the text.  He has done some great research and it shows.  I’ll be getting his other books on this subject.

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.

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.

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.