Current Reading: May 2021

SnakMilitary History

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Current Reading: May 2021

maj 1, 8:22am

First out of the gates with finishing up The Battle for China, or at least as much as I'm going to get done before I have to return it to the library; I'm feeling like I need my own copy.

maj 1, 9:34am

Currently re-reading The Second World War by Winston Churchill. I'm reading the abridged version, a mere thousand pages or so. I first read the complete version 45 years ago when I was teaching in a small rural school in Uganda and to my surprise I found it in the school library. There wasn't much to do in the evenings and we were fortunate that we had electric light, so I lapped it up.

It's not the most objective view of World War II. As Churchill himself says in his preface, "I do not describe it as history, for that belongs to another generation. But I claim with confidence that it is a contribution to history which will be of service to the future." The reflections of a person who played such a central role in the war are of great interest and value. I also confess that I have always loved Churchill's mastery of the English language. His prose is a joy to read, just as many of his speeches are a joy to hear.

Currently I'm on the first section, which considers the run up to World War II beginning in 1919. Although Churchill is oft-portrayed as a warmonger (and in many ways he was), nevertheless I'm struck by how strongly he believed that the war should never have taken place, and that at many points steps could have been taken to prevent it - diplomatic steps, not only military ones. From the preface again, "One day President Roosevelt told me he was asking publicly what the war should be called. I said at once 'the Unnecessary War'. There never was a war more easy to stop..."

Redigeret: maj 6, 5:02pm

Finished a very good Into the Jaws of Death: British Military Blunders 1879-1900 by Mike Snook. In spite of the use of the word "blunders", perhaps suggesting some sleazy tell-all book, this is a very serious look at British (and British led) military defeats during the time period. The author wrote what I consider the best Isandlwana book I've read, How Can Man Die Better: The Secrets of Isandlwana Revealed and in this book he uses the same detailed, insightful style.

maj 6, 8:29am

I've got started on Das Kriegsbuch des Philipp von Seldeneck, a late 15C manual, or rather collection of treatises, on military tactics.

Spoiler: late medieval East Franconian is hard.

Redigeret: maj 6, 5:05pm

>4 AndreasJ: Is late medieval East Franconia the language it is in? Never heard of it, is it a German dialect?

maj 7, 3:22am

>5 jztemple:

Yes, East Franconian is the German dialect it’s written in.

maj 15, 7:35am

Finished up India's Wars yesterday, and I basically liked it. On the whole it could have been a bit better organized and edited.

maj 17, 12:12am

Finished a fascinating Archaeology, History, and Custer's Last Battle: The Little Big Horn Reexamined by Richard A. Fox. A participant in a 1980s archeological survey of the Custer (later Little Bighorn) Battlefield National Monument, Fox wrote this book a decade later to examine the results of the survey, the existing historiography of the battle and other information to theorize what may have actually happened on that day in 1876.

maj 17, 7:22am

Finished Two Armies on the Rio Grande, which is a concise examination of the initial campaign of the Mexican-American War under Zachary Taylor, and deals as much with diplomacy and politics on both sides of the river as with actual operations.

maj 17, 3:41pm

>9 Shrike58: Thanks for posting about that book, sounds interesting. Adding it to my wishlists.

maj 19, 12:02pm

>8 jztemple: That looks really good. Are there any major surprises and/or revelations about the battle?

maj 19, 4:52pm

>11 rocketjk: Regarding Archaeology, History, and Custer's Last Battle: The Little Big Horn Reexamined, I guess the surprises and revelations would depend on what other authors you have read. This book came out in 1993 and is a very thorough look at the battle and also what has been written about the battle. There are also very interesting chapters about the behavior of soldiers under battle stress and also tactical doctrine employed at the time. What the author is doing, according to his introduction, is to use archeology to validate the history (documentation) that has been written about the battle, including understanding how the companies might have been deployed and used. The author also discusses at length the concept of the stability of a military unit and how combat shock can lead to disintegration of unit integrity and eventually into fear and panic. It is an extremely well done look at the battle and even if you aren't all that interested in the battle of Little Big Horn, the systematic approach and the wealth of information on the military of 1876 would be worth the trouble to read. The bibliography alone is amazing.

As to the battle itself, from my recollection, the author concludes that the most probable sequence of events, based on the research, was as follows (I won't go into the Reno or Benteen detachments as there aren't any real questions about their activities). Custer divided the five companies (plus the headquarters detachment) that accompanied him into two wings. The left wing, with two companies, moved down to the river across from the Indian village and after doing a recon and seeing the non-warriors moving north and away from the river, returned to meet up with the three companies of the right wing which were at Calhoun Hill at the south end of what has become known as Custer Ridge. At this time the troopers were receiving some harassing fire but apparently weren't too concerned. The left wing was detached to move north, past what would become known as Custer Hill, and proceed past what is now the national cemetery and again moved down to the river. The author concluded that since there were few casualties there the left wing wasn't trying to cross but was doing another recon of the village. The left wing then moved back up to Cemetery Ridge and held there.

Meantime the right wing was undergoing more harassing attacks and so one company deployed into a skirmish line facing south while the other two moved back over the crest of the ridge into reserve. At some point a more concerted warrior attack from the west of Calhoun Hill caused the south facing skirmish line to deploy towards the west to meet the new threat. The threat from the south increased as well with the warriors moving in closely. At this point the skirmish line began to disintegrate, panic setting in and the troopers either riding or running north along Custer Ridge towards the two right wing companies in reserve. The warrior attack at that point caused the other two right wing companies to break as well and the survivors of the three companies moved towards Custer Hill where they fell in with the two left wing companies who had move up from Cemetery Ridge to hold the high ground at Custer Hill.

The author notes that few right wing survivors made it to Custer Hill where the two left wing companies and the HQ detachments were under heavy pressure. With most of the troopers panicking, one left wing company attempted a run towards the river going down what is (according to the author, erroneously called) the South Skirmish Line. Most reached the Deep Ravine where they were picked off and killed. And that was that.

I've gone through the whole battle summary (which by the way I enjoyed writing since it helped make my recollections more clear) because there are quite a number of books out there that give their own interpretation of what happened and I don't know whether this author's interpretation is now the currently accepted one or just is one of many. As I said, the author uses the results of the archeological survey of 1983 as a basis for his conclusions. He also dismisses (with logical arguments, based on his data) all of the glorious "last stand" interpretations like you might have seen if you have watched the Errol Flynn movie "They Died With Their Boots On". Basically once panic set in there would have been a few knots of more experienced troopers or officers standing and delivering fire but most of the younger, inexperienced troopers would have either died running or curled up on the ground. As I've noted above, the author gives plenty of reasoning backed up with data as to his interpretations and I found them well reasoned.

Any more questions? I'm happy to discuss this further.

maj 19, 5:50pm

>12 jztemple: "Any more questions?"

Nope, and thanks for providing that extremely interesting summation of the battle events. I appreciate the time you took to do that and I'm glad you enjoyed doing it.

maj 20, 7:39am

Finished up The Civil War on the Mississippi this morning. While I can't report any major revelations, I've read a number of the works that she leans on, the author does have a knack for narrative history and I'd be inclined to try some of her other books.

maj 22, 7:17am

I’ve started The Day of BattleThe War in Sicily and Italy 1943–1944 by Rick Atkinson. It’s a chunkster. This may take a while.

maj 22, 3:30pm

>15 varielle: I read the first book of that trilogy and my take-away was how petty and selfish some of the American generals were about prestage and recognition. I wonder how much things had changed by the time of the fighting in Sicily and Italy.

maj 22, 7:43pm

I’ve been reading The Wars of Modern Babylon, a 900 plus page history of the Iraqi Army by an Israeli author, Pesach Malovany. The book is a double translation in that Iraqi sources have been translated from Arabic to Hebrew, then the whole work has been translated from Hebrew to English. That process has led to some curious terms where clearing operations are referred to as “purification”.

I’m about a fifth of the way through the book, now at the opening months of the Iran-Iraq conflict. It’s been a good read so far—it’s interesting to see how the Iraqis reported the capture of Iranian towns by flying Iraqi flags from all government buildings and installing pictures of Saddam Hussein throughout the captured towns....

maj 29, 10:35pm

Finished a very interesting Steam, Politics and Patronage: The Transformation of the Royal Navy, 1815-54 by Basil Greenhill and Ann Giffard. The book is about the transition of the Royal Navy to steam, with a focus on an ancestor of one of the authors who was involved in a lot of the changes as a shipboard officer. Lots of little details about the implementation of steam power in warships including the change from paddles to screws, development of engines and how steamers were used both as support vessels and as combat ships.

maj 31, 7:08am

Finishing up the month with RAF on the Offensive, which examines how the British air arm began to understand the failures of its pre-war doctrine, and adapt accordingly. Baughen has a real talent for putting procurement choices in perspective, and his take on the more self-serving behavior of the RAF leadership can be withering. On the other hand, there is a critique of Baughen that is skeptical of how strong his grasp of British strategy really is, and some of his background reading, to go with his archival research, is a little dated. Still, I intend to keep reading the man's work.

maj 31, 3:24pm

Not exactly "Military" history, but "Return to the Future" (c. 1942) is a fascinating first-hand account by Nobel Prize winning author Sigrid Undset's flight from Norway to the United States, following the Nazi invasion of Norway in April 1940. She had been highly critical of Hitler and the Nazi subjugation of Poland and Czechoslovakia ... so it would have been dangerous for her to stay in Norway.

Rather than going the way Crown Princess Martha traveled ... across the Atlantic on a ship sent by President Roosevelt, Undset and her youngest son (her older son was killed fighting the Germans), first escaping to Sweden ... then to Russia and across Siberia to Vladivostok by train ... hence to Japan, prior to sailing to San Francisco on the SS Grover Cleveland.

Their weeks traveling through Russia in July were extraordinarily eye-opening ... a vivid look into Stalin's Soviet "Paradise" before the Nazi invasion, early in 1941. Almost equally fascinating were the several days Undset spent in Japan ... just 15 months before Pearl Harbour.

jun 4, 8:35am

>20 Rood: Sounds intriguing...