Monday, 29 May 2017

Agincourt: The King, The Campaign, The Battle - Juliet Barker

Title: Agincourt: The King, The Campaign, The Battle
Author: Juliet Barker
ISBN: 9-780-3-16726-48-1
Publisher: Little, Brown Publishing
Year: 2005
Pages: 460
Photos/Maps: 34/1

Agincourt, along with Crecy and Poitiers, is easily recognized and remembered as one of the greatest English victories over the French during the period now known as the 100 Years War. Against all odds, King Henry V and his ill, tired and heavily outnumbered army crushed the cream of the French nobility in a battle that forever established the myth and legend of the Longbowman. It was this weapon that proved to be the undoing of the French; however, there was more to the victory then simply a weapon and Barker has done a very commendable job at presenting the battle within the framework of the reign of King Henry and his campaign in France.

Her approach involved setting the broad stage and working her way towards the battle itself. This allows the reader to better appreciate the environment and conditions within which the campaign was launched and undertaken. It also helps explain the political context of the times and the rifts within the French leadership and nobility that served to undermine their ability to collectively respond to the English threat. She also underscores King Henry’s successful efforts to unify his Kingdom, thereby securing his base prior to departing for the mainland.

Barker’s detailed descriptions of Henry’s movements to France and his advance from Harfleur to Calais presents the reader with a superb analysis of the challenges of operations and the nature of siege warfare during this period. She also incorporates thorough accounts of the chivalric influence on the conduct of combatants (in terms of siege warfare, group and individual combat). These early Rules of Engagement are extremely enlightening in setting the context of medieval warfare and the influence of individual honour.

The author’s description of the battle itself is comprehensive in scope and meticulous in detail without losing its readability. Success or failure in any endeavor is a combination of luck, opportunity and skill and there is no doubt that, taken at face value, the Battle was France’s to lose. Unfortunately for the French, fragmented leadership, poor weather conditions, a lack of effective planning and hubris resulted in catastrophic failure when faced with the steady, focused leadership of Henry and his command team combined with a motivated army desperate to get to Calais. A lack of appreciation of the devastating effect of the bodkin arrow combined with the power of the longbow sealed the fate of the French Army. Barker incorporates detailed descriptions of the methods of construction of the longbows, various arrow types and the training and time needed to be considered an effective archer (10 aimed shots a minute was considered the minimum standard acceptable). In itself, these discussions are fascinating and speak to the nature of the logistics challenges of the period.

This book was an excellent read and is highly recommended. Barker’s style, research and breadth of narrative serve only to further underscore her achievement.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

War Without Garlands: Operation Barbarossa 1941-1942 - Robert Kershaw

This review has been submitted to WarHistoryOnline.

Title: War Without Garlands: Operation Barbarossa 1941-1942
Author: Robert Kershaw
ISBN: 978-0-7110-3324-5
Year: 2010
Pages: 626
Pic: 31

Much has been written about Operation Barbarossa such that it is hard to see where new or unique information may be presented. Robert Kershaw has not presented any new material, the details of the attack and its challenges are well known to any historian or student of military history. What he has presented, in a comprehensive and illustrative manner, puts more of a human face on the titanic struggle from the perspective of both the Soviet and German soldiers and civilians.

It is hard to imagine in today's age, the massive expanse of the conflict between these two empires; more significantly to the incredible resource and manpower bill, being the psychological assumptions and paradigms underpinning the war. Kershaw has drawn extensively upon personal accounts, recollections, diaries and journals to develop a picture of the thoughts, concerns, fears and confidences of the participants, He has woven this thread throughout his presentation and analysis of the campaign itself. This provides for the reader a much deeper and expansive appreciation of the human dimension of the war.

This is the true strength of this book and what helps it stand out from the myriad of authors and texts relating to the Eastern Front. However, the reader must appreciate that it is difficult to retain a true third person perspective when developing a story line in this manner. Recollections are skewed through emotional and physical recentcy bias. Kershaw has presented the recollections as they are without significant interpretation. This is not a bad thing as it adds to the rawness and the power of the narrative; however, it must be understood that these constitute both factual and emotional elements. Additionally, they are very limited in their scope and perspective encompassing only the immediate environs of the writer.

War Without Garlands reflects the deep emotional and physical toll that this campaign took on both the German’s and the Soviets. The period in question 1941-1942, a period when the German military was, for the most part (save the winter debacle in front of Moscow), victorious and the Soviets on the defensive, enhances the impact of the personnel recollections.

This observation is in no way meant to take away from the strengths of this book. Kershaw’s writing style is very engaging and his research thorough. I very much enjoyed reading this work and appreciated its operational/strategic discussion and its tactical candor. I recommend that this book be include in any library of Eastern Front operations.

Swords Trembling in Their Scabbards - Michael Creese

This review has been submitted to WarHistoryOnline.

Title: Swords Trembling in Their Scabbards
Author: Michael Creese
ISBN: 978-9-099-82819
Publisher: Helion Publishing
Publication Year: 2015
Pages: 202
Illustrations:  10 B/W

The relationship between the British and Indians underwent fundamental changes commencing at the turn of the 20th Century. This was especially the case with the advent of the two world wars. No where was this change more pronounced than in the Army. Traditionally officered by the British, either regular force or as members of the East Indian Company, necessity, professional development and maturity witnessed the advent of Indianization within the army and the creation of an Indian Officer corps.

Creese’s book undertakes a study of how this transition came about and how this change was accepted by the members of the military. This work is an expansion of the autho’rs thesis and is a well researched and balanced study. It is somewhat of a dry read but it does relate the story of development of the Corps, specifically focusing on the experiences of one of the early commissioned Indians Amar Singh who maintained a detailed diary of his experiences.

Creese’s analysis clearly shows that the transition was not always easy nor smooth. The British, especially in the period following the First World War certainly recognized the need and inevitability of the change of Indian status.. Availability of British forces to man the Regiments as well as noteworthy Indian performance in the cauldron of the trenches all pointed towards change. Nevertheless, while many accepted the changing status it required a shift in the paradigm of both the British troops and officers. As Creese points out, this was not a one way street however; the perspective of the Indians themselves and their abilities also underwent profound change as they found themselves conducting operations against Western adversaries and being more than equal to the task.

The author has drawn upon extensive primary source material and his work is obviously well researched. His study of the transition outlines the changes at both the societal as well as the military level. The work addresses some of the misconceptions regarding the relationship of the British  and Indians serving within the military. Unlike other aspects of the administration, to a great extent the British leadership recognized and actively supported the elevation of competent Indians to positions of authority. This extended to the creation of a military academy along the lines of Sandhurst. Creese points out that the transition was in fact facilitated by the fact that the methodology and doctrine was seamless between the British and Indians as both were trained in the same manner.

While the work is academic in nature, any reader with an interest in societal change and the profound impact that the transition within the Indian military had on the stability of the independence of India itself, would do very well to read this book.

The Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History - Williamson Murray and Kevin Woods

This review has been submitted to the Canadian Army Journal. 

Title: The Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History 
Author: Williamson Murray and Kevin Woods
ISBN: 978-1-107-67392-2
Publisher: Cambridge UP
Year: 2016
Pages: 397
Photos/Maps: 0/11

The Iran-Iraq war ran between 1980 and 1988 and effectively devastated generations of young men (estimated casualties for Iraq: between 550,000 and 1,040,000 and for Iran: between 1,050,000 and 1,930,000) as well as effectively bankrupting both economies (Iraq: 159 Billion USD//Iran 69 Billion USD). Relatively speaking, little has been written about this war due mainly to it being overshadowed by the Desert Storm operations as well as Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it holds lessons for the military professional to learn from. The authors have focused on primarily the Iraqi side of the conflict and have undertaken extensive analysis of documentation captured during the collapse of the Saddam regime. They readily acknowledge that their study is still somewhat limited by the lack of access to Iranian documentation but it certainly sheds a much broader light on the political, operational and economic facets of the war on the respective adversaries.

The military commanders on both sides of this conflict were hamstrung by individual styles of government that bread atmospheres of insecurity and mistrust amongst leadership. Decision making was as much a product of battlefield realities as it was political oversight and expectation. The authors have done a noteworthy job of tracing the impact of these realities as they translated into battlefield success or failure (with its resulting consequences).

Of particular interest is the study of the multi-faceted layers that prompted the Iraqi’s to launch against the Iranians: perceptions of internal weakness amongst the Iranians who were in the latter stages of a revolution against the secular establishment, international (read Arabic and US) support to undermine the Iranian Ayatollah, a desire to become a paramount power in the Middle East and deep seated hatred and mistrust between the Arab and Persian ethnic groups.

The authors also study in detail the respective operational methodologies of each player; noting for example the continuing failure of the Iraqi’s to be able to exploit significant technological and resource advantages over their larger but internationally isolated counterpart. Additionally they look at the Iranian’s use of poorly trained but highly motivated volunteers looking to defend and advance the Iranian revolutions domestic agenda through human wave doctrine. The effect of these is traced forward throughout the conflict years and its ultimate impact on the wars outcome.

This war is interesting as the stakes for each respective government went far beyond the loss or gain of territory. Each recognized that a peace might only be achieved when one or the other was utterly exhausted. The Iranians acknowledged this reality first and, rather than risk collapse of the Ayatollahs regime, they accepted a humiliating defeat and the consequent results. A significant part of the ultimate success of the Iraqi’s was the recognition by Saddam of the need to reinforce competence amongst his generals as opposed to the traditional sycophancy. As the authors point out however, this policy was quickly reversed once the war was successfully completed.

A very well crafted analysis of the war and its long term effects upon the region right up until the collapse of Saddam’s regime. The effect of religious, ethnic, governmental and opportunistic policies and the international attention/support provided Iraq and denied Iran upon the ultimate outcome of the war is a key learning outcome from one of the most recent intra-state wars in modern history.

Nanjing1937: Battle for a Doomed City - Peter Harmsen

This review has been submitted to Sabretache Journal.

Title: Nanjing1937: Battle for a Doomed City
Author: Peter Harmsen
ISBN: 978-1-61200-28-2
Publisher: Casemate
Year: 2015
Pages: 336
Photographs/Maps: 52/12

            The Sino-Japanese War which precluded but was, for the most art, eclipsed by World War 2, was a particularly vicious conflict in which the Japanese were notorious for their particularly brutal approach to warfare. Harmsen’s book follows on his last work about the fall of Shanghai and the continuing fight between the two powers. Many of the Japanese and Chinese units initially introduced in the Shanghai work continue to be followed as they march and fight east to Nanjing. Nanjing was important to the Kai-shek government as its capital and the symbology of being the final resting place of Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China. For the Japanese, it was viewed as the last remaining major city that they needed to capture in order to force the surrender of the Chinese.

            Hansen has done a good job with his narrative covering the period running from the fall of Shanghai to the fall of Nanjing. He provides a clear picture of the difficulty of operations, both offensive and defensive, faced by the opposing forces as a result of challenging weather conditions, unreliable logistics, poor reconnaissance and a hostile population (for the Japanese). He also explains the important role of the international community in creating a safe haven environment for civilians as well as eyewitness accounts of the nature and ferocity of the fighting; including the conduct of the combatant armies towards property and civilians.

            The battle for Nanjing has become synonymous with rape, murder and pillage on the part of the Japanese. Harmsen not only discusses this as part of the overall discussion but he also brings attention to perhaps the two most significant questions relating to this particular portion of the war. Those being: how much of the direction, conduct and control of the war was actually exercised by Tokyo and why was it that the Japanese conducted themselves so appallingly in their treatment of the Chinese? The author does not undertake enough analysis of these questions for the satisfaction of the reader. He certainly does not ignore them and he does suggest reasons for the actions and the loss of control such as the frustration felt by the Japanese at the lack of appreciation on the part of the Chinese at their liberation. Unfortunately, given the depth and breadth of the brutality and the complete absence of humanity in the Japanese treatment towards the Chinese civilians, it would be assumed that a deeper more comprehensive discussion would have been undertaken by the author. Similarly, the obvious loss of strategic control by the Japanese high command and its government to the commanders of the Central China Area Army was another area where a more comprehensive analysis may have helped to understand better the Japanese command climate and societal influences on their approach to war.

            Certainly one area that is well covered and is worthy of standalone research is the role of the Soviet Union in the battle. Having essentially wiped out the Chinese Air Force, the Japanese had command of the air. The Soviets intervened and provided pilots, ground crew and aircraft in support of Kai-shek’s forces. While this did not alter the tide of battle, it did cause considerable difficulty for the Japanese forces in the area. The author does a commendable job at tracing the roots of this assistance and its impact.

            Overall however, Harmsen has done a very good job at relating the nature and the scope of the conflict surrounding the fall of Nanjing. His book is well researched and makes for fascinating reading, touching as it does the spectrum of perspectives from the strategic to the tactical and both local and international observations. His research is comprehensive and his writing style engaging. The books production value is very high. This book is recommended for those wishing to garner an appreciation of the nature of war in the far east before the western powers became engaged.