Sunday, 14 October 2018

Misc: Started A New Blog!

The latest post at my new blog.

For years now I've been meaning to start a blog attached to my sebpalmer.com domain. That has been my illustration 'business' website for a long time now. But as I'm currently not doing much illustration, it's been laying dormant.

My illustration website, currently dormant.

I've long wanted to make that a more general website, with different pages for my various different interests and activities, such as my drum teaching and art, as well as the illustration. I also had a yen for making the blog attached to the website a WordPress one. Not exactly sure why? But I suppose learning to publish in both Google Blogger and WordPress just seemed sensible/attractive.

This blog's most recent post.

Actually it turned out that choosing to do it using WordPress contributed to the long delays getting set up and started. But I've finally made a start. Whereas I've blogged quite extensively in the Google platform, and have arrived at a style I'm currently happy enough with, the same foes not hold for WordPress. It'll doubtless be a while before I learn how to present that as I really want to.

The most recent post on my inactive music blog.

So, I now have three blogs: this one for my wargaming and mini-military hobbies, sebpalmer.com/blog for my all round personal and professional stuff, and sounds from the funky goat, another Google blog, dedicated to music, and currently inactive.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Book Review: Iron Kingdom, Chris Clark




Beyond the Pickelhaube?

Prussia is perhaps best known to readers of military history, who will be familiar with her as a nation thanks to Frederick The Great, the Napoleonic wars, Bismarck and the Franco-Prussian war, and, of course, the two World Wars. This in itself says a lot about how we've thought of Prussia.




Before I get to Clark's book, I hope you'll allow me a brief digression on a very British view of Prussian culture: one of my first encounters with the classic cliché of the militaristic Prussian type came in the form of the comic film Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines. The German officer in that movie, played by Gert 'Goldfinger' Frobe, was a fairly benign rendering of the stereotype, sending himself up by parping tuba type bass-lines from pompous martial music, whilst simultaneously exemplifying the vaunted 'military efficiency' of the German officer class by teaching himself to fly from a manual. 

In the end his literal downfall is bought about, on one occasion at any rate, by that quintessential image of Prussian militarism, his pickelhaube helmet, the point of which bursts his balloon (during an aerial duel with a Frenchman). Behind this relatively recent iteration of the Junkers type as a harmless comical buffoon, there has long lain a much darker vision of aristocratic German elitism, whose paradoxical combination of rigid servility ('I voz only obeyink orderz' was still a comedic playground catchphrase in my childhood) and belligerent arrogance are still popularly seen as amongst the root causes of two world wars.


Gert Frobe as Col. Manfred Von Holstein.

Has a pickelhaube puncture, and winds up...

... in the drink.*


Whilst Clark makes no reference to the above-mentioned film, the character of the pickelhaube wearing 'kraut' is nevertheless much in evidence, from the amazing zeppelin-with-uhlans image on the cover, to cartoons from Simplissimus, or the image of a square-headed walrus-mustachioed Hindenberg, and throughout much of the text. But Clark's book, which at just short of 700 pages is not for those with only a passing interest, is about so much more; from Pietism and the Prussian enlightenment (Prussia was home to Hegel, and later Marx and Engels, as well as Frederick the Great, Bismarck and Hindenberg) to Prussia's dynastic dramas and personalities, and the conflicting driving forces of provincial particularism versus the desire to unify the crazy patchwork of atomised sociopolitical entities into a 'Greater Germany'.


And the book is, on the whole, all the better for this richer synthesis. Having said this, as with so many modern history books, I did find myself occasionally struggling with Clark's laudable but exhausting need to try and cover as much as possible. Adam Zamoyski addresses this issue admirably in excusing his brisk and generalising or simplifying treatment of the Congress of Vienna. Getting such a balance right must be a very difficult thing, and doubtless few authors can hope to please all their varied readers. Still, on the whole Clark does a very good job, peppering his narrative with interesting little details, as well as covering the grander arcs of events. Sometimes's the details, particularly regarding diplomacy or administration, can get a bit dry, and I did drift away from the book about midway through, ironically during the Napoleonic years (This is particularly ironic for me as it's my wide reading in Napoleonic history that lead me to buy this book).


Right, said Fred.

But after a brief respite I came back to it and got stuck in again. In the interlude I'd read Kershaw's single volume Hitler biog., in which he says, in the intro, that Clark suggested Hubris and Nemesis to him as titles for his full two-volume version. Clark does in fact use these titles himself, for two of his Napoleonic-era chapters. And, as with any good book, this has prompted the desire for further reading. 

Amongst the many intriguing threads Frederick the Great appeals to me, both for the excitement of 'great captain' style military history, but also because he's also just generally very interesting. Amongst other things I'm very attracted to his blunt irreligiosity: Clark quotes him as saying of Christianity that it's an 'old metaphysical fiction, stuffed with ... absurdities... fanatics espoused it, intriguers pretended to be convinced by it and some imbeciles actually believed it.' Brilliant!


Right next door to Prussia, Poland is another country with a famously unstable and chequered history. During the Napoleonic era Poland ceased to exist, her neighbours, Prussia, Austria and Russia, carving her up, whilst Napoleon exploited Polish nationalism without rewarding her people with the return to nationhood they thought he might help bring about (indeed,the War of 1812 was originally talked about in the circles of France and her allies as the Polish war!). 

Thanks to Prussia's role in two world wars it is the largest of the modern European powers currently erased from the map. Will she, like Poland, make an eventual return? It doesn't look very likely at present. But who really knows, perhaps at some future point the Prussian national identity will return? Based on our most recent previous historical experiences, this could potentially be a very scary development!


Prussia reborn? Nein!

Clark avoids such speculations, contenting himself with the rich historical story. Prussia's role in unifying Germany, including her relationship with her chief rival Austria, as well as the many smaller states (such as Saxony, Bavaria and a myriad of others) during a period of escalating nationalism, is just one of the many fascinating themes he expertly explores in this book. 

Whilst Clark is in many respects thoroughly academic, there are flashes of wit and style which make works such as this a little more palatable to the lay reader, such as when he observes that 'William I was ... widely revered... a figure with the gravitas and whiskers of a biblical patriarch.' But all told I found this a somewhat uneven read, compelling and even exciting in places, but sometimes a little too drily or academically thorough.

Overall, however, Iron Kingdom was rewarding and informative enough that I enjoyed and would recommend it.

* Twice, once in the ballon, and once in his plane.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Book Review: Wellington and the Fortunes of Peace, Rory Muir



In terms of scholarship and writing quality, volume two of Rory Muir's epic Wellington is on a par with volume one, and therefore a five bicorne affair. However, I'm not convinced by his stated reasons for his choice to split the book in two before Waterloo. [1] And, although I do find some of the post Waterloo stuff interesting, by and large it's nowhere near as compelling to me as the stuff that leads up to and includes Wellington's role as Napoleon's most effective adversary.

An iconic image.

Wellington and Blücher 'floging' [sic.] Boney.

At the time of starting this review I was with Wellington in post-Waterloo occupied France. And, with the sound of the cannon of Waterloo ringing in ones ears, it's still interesting, if not quite as exciting as events up to and including June 18th, 1815. Muir has already mentioned a monument to the fallen of Waterloo that was never actually built; I wonder what coverage there might be of Capt. Siborne's travails, and Wellington's role in relation to the latter's researches, and his famous Waterloo dioramas?

Wellington's way with the ladies and his 
relations with Ireland lampooned.

----------
It's now some time later, and I'm really struggling to keep up sufficient interest in the book, in which for much of the recent narrative, e.g. about the trials, literally and metaphorically, of the government with the king and his wife, Caroline, Wellington is more or less a peripheral figure. Albeit an admittedly important and influential one. Consequently chunks of the book read more like a general history of the period, in feel, than anything specifically Wellingtonian.

Some of the topics covered, such as the Catholic Emancipation business are, I suppose, of historic interest. Although as a rational materialist I find all this religious tomfoolery worse than tiresome. And even then, to the degree in which I am interested, I'm more inclined towards enjoying such caricatures as are shown here, all three of which immediately below relate to the Catholic business, than to trudging through the arcana that Muir sedulously covers.

Wellington's duel with Winchelsea. [2]

William Heath depicts Wellington as the King's coachman.

Wellington & Peel attack Mrs Constitution, letting Popery in the back door.

I admire Muir's obvious passion for his subject, and the amount of work he's done. And even more, perhaps, how he shares the fruits of his labours not only in commercial book form, but via his website (see below). And he obviously and unquestionably has great skill and flair as a writer. But none of this, alas, changes the fact that for me, Wellington is most interesting in relation to Napoleon. Once Napoleon disappears from the picture, it all feels a bit mundane.

Wellington as PM, and Ass!

'Majesty & Grace'...

Wellington fell from his horse, at a review, May 29th, 1829. [4]

And whilst this book and the first volume help add depth and nuance to my understanding of Wellington, and show him to be above all a practical man. Nevertheless, they don't fundamentally change the view I already had, which is that in the long run I'm on the side of 'enlightenment' - not, I must make clear, with violent revolution (I'd say I'm more conservative in some ways than most capital C Conservatives) - but I do agree with Paine that 'monarchy ... is the popery of government'.

Wellington, for all his pragmatism, wasn't a fan of enlightenment thinking. He was emphatically a church and king man, and I'm most definitely neither. So, whilst I have yet to finish volume two, and can't therefore give a full and complete judgement, as things stand: I found volume one intensely enjoyable, and essential reading. Aside from Waterloo and the immediate aftermath, I find volume two significantly less interesting or compelling, and therefore certainly not essential reading. Unless, perhaps, you're a Wellington nut?

I'm not. So I'm far from certain as to whether I'll be willing to invest the time to finish this book, as excellent as it may be.

'The Royal Shambles', by Cruikshank. [5]

----------
NOTES:

First of all I should mention Muir's Life of Wellington website. There's a wealth of information here, as well as links to other sources.

[1] A cynic, indeed, the cynic in me, might say - does say - that having Waterloo in part two was actually done to ensure better sales for a second volume that otherwise might not fare as well as the first, commercially.

[2] Wellington fought a duel, despite being the prime minister, with the Earl of Winchelsea, at Battersea Fields, South London, on 23rd March, 1829. I've not yet read what Muir has to say on the matter. But it's not an event that fits with the otherwise cool-headed pragmatism he describes as Wellington's normal m.o. And it was Wellington who called out Winchelsea, not vice versa.

[3] In 'Burking' Mrs C. Peel and Wellington are compared with Burke and Hare!

[4] In Hyde Park.

[5] George IV holds Wellington's sword, the latter calming the monarch, saying 'as long as you keep hold of my sword, you'll be ok', or words to that effect. I.e. the king is only able to stay in power thanks to the backing of Wellington and the army.

Technical Difficulties

Eh!? Not what I expected to see...

This post is on a different topic to my normal stuff. It's to do with Blogger itself, and how the software works (or doesn't). I've been battling weird formatting issues all the time I've been a blogger, from extra lines being introduced, creating unpredictable vertical spacing, to bob-uniformity ... Eh? (See what I'm up against?) That was meant to say non-uniformity... of font style, size or colour, etc.

The most recent bug-like weirdness concerns two older posts that I revisited, to re-format, because of the aforementioned issues. These are the ones on the Franklin Quatre Bras book, and Korolev's Retreat. Both of which have now jumped from their former positions deep in the back-catalogue of this blog, to the present (at the time of posting, naturally). 

From deep in the archives...

travelling through time...

I don't think this has happened before!? And I've had to reformat most if not all of my posts to some degree at one time or other. Does anyone have any idea why this should happen on this occasion? I usually 'google' such issues. But I can't face disappearing down that rabbit hole today, so I'm simply throwing it out here, instead, in case any of you fellow mini-military bloggers has had similar issues.

I can probably manually resolve each case, individually, by tinkering with the coding - as I do when clearing up formatting issues - but I'd rather not. I'd just rather the situation didn't arise to begin with...

... to the present.


Monday, 1 October 2018

Book Review: Osprey, Campaign series - Quatre Bras - John Franklin


NB - I found out, via a post on TMPthat this book was available in a Kindle edition on Amazon UK's website for just 99p (as opposed to £14.99). So I bought it. As with my other Osprey reviews, for reasons of copyright, apart from the cover, the images used here are sourced from elsewhere.

I should, perhaps, start this review by admitting I'm not always overly keen on the eBook format. And in the course of this review some of the more general issues I currently have with eBooks will come under consideration. Two things in their favour are, rather obviously, that 1) they're often cheaper (and sometimes, as here, much cheaper), and 2) they don't take up all that real estate on your shelves that ordinary books fill.

But to get on with the subject of this review: how about this book? Well, it's the Kindle edition of the popular small, slim, serial paperbacks which are an Osprey trademark, such as their Men at Arms uniform and equipment series, or their Campaign series, to which this title belongs. Osprey appear to have commissioned John Franklin, a new name in the field of Napoleonic literature (to me at any rate), to cover the Waterloo Campaign, such that there are now three titles by him in this sub-series within a series: this one on Quatre Bras, another on Ligny, and a third on Waterloo itself.

Let's start with the good news. The first thing to note is how well organised the content is. There's a short scene-setting introductory section, dealing with the context just prior to the campaign. This is immediately followed by a comprehensive chronology. This chronology starts with Boney escaping Elba, and runs up to late evening on June 16th, the day of the battle at Quatre Bras. I can see why you'd put a chronology here, but I'd have preferred it after the main body of the text. Either way, it's a usefully succinct reference point.

Very well organised!

Next come three 'opposing' sections: opposing commanders; opposing forces; opposing plans. As neat and well-ordered a structure as that guy's kit, pictured above! In Opposing Commanders we get very brief summaries of the commanders, limited in this instance to Wellington and the Prince of Orange on the Allied side, and Napoleon and Ney on the French side. [1] In Opposing Forces we get the OOB, and related info on command and composition, etc. And finally, a very brief synopsis of the two sides different goals, in Opposing Plans.

The real meat of this book, however, begins under the title The Campaign Opens, under which there are 19 sub-headings, each dealing with a major component of the unfolding action. 18 of these deal with the action at Quatre Bras, with the 19th quickly visiting Napoleon, further east, defeating the Prussians at Ligny. It's incredible how much detail and information there is on the action, and this is quite probably the best aspect of what this title has to offer. But the very density of the information, combined with two other factors, the style in which it's communicated, and the constraints of the Kindle eBook format, will soon bring us to some of the not so good news.

42nd Highlanders at Quatre Bras, by George Jones. [A]

One thing that struck me quite forcibly, in relation to the detailed minutiae of the myriad movements, themselves occurring amidst multiple ever-evolving actions - and given the arguments that the Waterloo campaign has consistently generated I was perhaps a little surprised about this - was the absence of any tentative note from Franklin's descriptions of events. The bulk of this account is essentially a long list describing the movements of various bodies of troops and the actions they were involved in; at no point was I aware, as I have been so often when reading about war in general, and Napoleonic warfare in particular, that Franklin felt any doubt about the information he was imparting. Having just read several other rather different accounts of Waterloo, in which such uncertainty was often a key note, this difference really struck me.

Before I embark on any critical comments [2], let's briefly finish the summary of contents. Following the highly detailed coverage of the action itself, we have Aftermath, The Battlefield Today, and Further Reading. One of these last elements that I particularly liked - perhaps in part because I've visited some of the Waterloo battlefield (and will be going again for the 200th anniversary!) - is the section called The Battlefield Today. Having not yet visited either the Quatre Bras or Ligny sites (we did have a nose around Plancenoit, in 2014) these sites have now been added to the 'must do' list! And, of course, Further Reading suggestions are always welcome and useful. So, to summarise my summary of the contents, what's best about this is how well organised the information is, and how much detail there is on the action of the 16th itself.

Brunswick troops at Quatre Bras, by Knötel. [A]

Okay, so now it's time to turn to the more critical observations. One or two of these have to do with how the book's been written [3], whilst several have to do with the way it feels reading it in the digital format I purchased. My first gripe, and this has proven true of all the eBooks I've bought so far, is the poor quality of the images. I've seen the originals of some of the eBooks I have (inc. this one and a book on modelling small-scale armour), and it's clear to me that one reason why one might want to spend more money on a hard copy could be for the higher quality of the images. 


In this edition, double-clicking on images in order to see them better, is, if you'll pardon an Osprey Men-at-Arms themed pun, uniformly disappointing. With such atmospheric pics as the portraits, actions, uniforms, and the like, this is a shame but not desperately troubling. But with the excellent 'bird's eye' view maps (they're sometimes referred to as '3-D'!), of which there are several here, the size and quality is, to my mind, unacceptably poor. Okay, you can just about read them (there's some very tiny text explaining what they illustrate), but these particular images are not only things of great beauty, but are rich in information: they deserve to be bigger and easier to read. The more basic maps fare better, but even they could do with being bigger and in higher resolution.

In other respects the selection of images supporting the text is, for the most part, about what one would expect. Most of the images, aside from the modern maps, such as the portraits of commanders, the views of various actions, uniform plates, and so on, are reasonably vintage. There's not much to say about these images, which, whilst of very varied quality, from some that are quite naïve to some that are quite exquisite, are all very evocative, except that they are really quite charming, and add a lot to the appeal of books such as this. My only small quibble with the selection of these images was when I encountered three images (and I think it may have even been three in a row?) on the same subject, namely the Prince of Orange, 'heroically' tipping his tile! There are also several original pieces by regular Osprey artist Gerry Embleton. [5]

There are three pics of this scene, showing the young Prince
of Orange raising his hat. This isn't one of them!

Like the area of image quality, which is a general concern I'm discovering I have with eBooks, my second problem has to do with a technical issue, this time regarding formatting, and how the Kindle software functions. It might be that I'm just not sufficiently au fait with the technology. But certainly I find it's not as easy to jump back and forth in this eBook when I want to refer to maps - and in a book of this sort that's pretty much constantly - as it is in an ordinary paperback or hardback. [6]

The final issue I had with this book, and, to be fair, it might be the 'other side of the coin' in relation to some of the strengths of the book, is not one of a technical/format nature, as were the previous two, but has to do with Franklin's approach to the text. But before I get to any criticisms, another thing I would like to observe on the positive side is how, as explained in his Author's Note at the end of the book, he remarks that 'wherever possible the original terminology has been employed'. Bravo! I've heard tell of translations of, for example, Caesar's account of his wars in Gaul, in which the editorial/translation team have decided to use modern terminology instead of Roman terms. Wrong! Franklin's way is most emphatically the right way.

As I've already alluded to, Franklin is certainly to be commended for packing his account full of information - and for those wanting an information rich account, this is definitely a very useful book - but it is, as a result, and because of the way it's done, rather dry. And this type of dryness translates, for me, into two rather doleful D's: difficult to follow (not helped as outlined above by the Kindle formatting) and, alas, rather dull. Franklin's approach here is more Siborne or Clausewitz than than Barbero or Paul Britten Austin, if you know what I mean? [7]

In some important respects this is, and quite obviously so, one hopes, very much a complement. Siborne and Clausewitz are both highly respected authorities, particularly, and very naturally, in the circles in which they are best known and understood. But theirs aren't the easiest or most enjoyable accounts to read by a long (grape) shot. And nowadays, one might wish for accounts that are both factually as correct as one can hope to be, and yet are also engaging at the same time. Ideally I want both information and enjoyment!

Franklin's account is saturated with information, and on that count I'd score it five out of five, but, whilst it's not the dry and stodgy porridge of Clausewitz's account of 1812 - reading that really did, literally, give me a headache - it is still hard to keep it all in one's mind (a fact not helped, as already mentioned, by the way the eBook format makes referring to maps trickier than it ought to be). But, as I've now said numerous times, to be fair, there is a heck of a lot of information, and perhaps sometimes it is an either/or case with information vs. drama?

71st Highlanders at Quatre Bras, again by George Jones. [A]

My final criticism of the text has to do with nomenclature: Franklin was dead right to use the languages and titles of the era when it comes to ranks, units, formations, etc. But I have to confess I don't like how he chooses to render the titles of the commanders. Constantly reading such full and correct but unnecessarily verbose titles as Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, or Willem, Hereditary Prince of Orange-Nassau, was, I found, rather galling. I would personally prefer a practice I've seen other writers employ, whereby they give the person their full title once, ideally when first mentioned, and thereafter use shorter names, e.g. simply Wellington, or The Prince of Orange. [8]

In terms of information, I'd score this five out of five (primarily for quantity; I'm not sufficiently expert to judge the quality [see note 2 below!]); in terms of user-friendliness and the quality of the experience in Kindle, it'd be two or three out of five; and finally, in terms of enjoyment - how much of a pleasure was it to read? - I'd score it three out of five.

A reviewer at Amazon's UK website, writing about Corunna by Christopher Hibbert, says 'I'm a huge fan of history, particularly if it's about the Napoleonic wars, but I'm not a huge fan of history books filled with fact after fact and nothing to 'hook' you' (you can read that review here, if interested). I find it hard to say this, especially having followed some exchanges on TMP in which Franklin and another forum member (registered under several different names over an extended period) engage in some quite vitriolic exchanges, but, despite it being a well organised and fact-filled read, I found it rather flat and dull.

This was especially noticeable to me, as also was the absence of any real sense of the 'fog of war', having just read several incredibly compelling and moving accounts of other aspects of the Waterloo campaign, the best of which were Paul Britten Austin's 1815 The Return of Napoleon, and David Howarth's A Near Run Thing. So, as hard as I find it to be openly critical of what is obviously a well researched labour of love, I felt, when I first submitted an Amazon review, that I must score this at three out of five. However, after re-reading some of the book, and going over my reviews, I eventually opted for four stars, despite my not having really greatly enjoyed the fact-filler but rather dry text. This said, it's definitely worth having and reading, and I probably will be getting his Ligny and Waterloo titles as well, certainly if they're going for just 99p!
----------

Images:
[A] These pics were found at pinterest. This link ought to get you there: Waterloo 200

NOTES:

[1] In a way this is fine and obvious, but in another way, perhaps it isn't? Wellington and the Prince of Orange both commanded at the battle this book covers, as did Ney, but Napoleon, of course, did not, as he was busy fighting Blücher at Ligny. You could of course argue that as Napoleon was C-in-C (not to mention something of a control-freak!) and Ney was working to his orders...etc. Granted. But one could also argue that as Napoleon features more centrally in the Ligny and Waterloo battles, those would be the titles in which to cover him. Otherwise there's a danger that there could be some repetition of content in other volumes in the series, as there might also be regarding Wellington.

[2] My limited knowledge of the subject doesn't permit me to extend my critique to the factuality of the actions described. At present I'm busy reading books like this to try and learn what allegedly happened. I frequently see online debates, even some in which Franklin has himself commented (for example some currently active over at TMP), in which such things are discussed, and often rather too heatedly for my liking. I'll leave such debate, at least for the time being, to the more learned!

[3] I feel mildly paranoid about the hubris of critiquing anyone who has the wherewithal to do anything successfully in the public domain, such as writing a book like this. But I also value quite highly the views of others, people who like me are buying and reading such books, whether they express them on their blogs, in a forum, or on a commercial website. I almost always check several reader reviews before buying a book (usually via Amazon UK). But to be perfectly clear: I have nothing but respect and admiration for those who put their work 'out there', such as authors like Franklin. 

By and large when I write reviews, especially if they're destined for Amazon, for example, I try and stick to stuff I love. So any more critical reviews, should I get as far as posting them, have been agonised over as they've been written and re-written! With my Napoleonic reading I'm intending to be more comprehensive, and I hope to ultimately write something about more or less everything I've read, posting shorter versions on Amazon, and longer versions here. Why? For several reasons: doing so helps me both evaluate and remember what I've read; because I find when others do so it helps me make informed decisions, and I want to contribute to that process; and lastly, simply because I enjoy doing it!

[4] I don't see that this has to be so. Sure, eBooks will be bigger, memory wise, if they have better quality (i.e. higher resolution) images. But that's something I for one definitely want. Indeed, I can't see why, ultimately, eBooks ought not to be able to challenge conventional print (on yet another front!) by supplying superior size and quality images. But as they are, the images here are, to me, the equivalent of what low sample-rate MP3 music files are to a CD-quality track: the original image (or music, to keep the analogy going) may be fabulous, but granular low-res versions, be they MP3 music files or the images in this Kindle edition, aren't up to snuff.

[5] Embleton was the uniform illustrator for another Osprey title I recently reviewed, on uniforms of the Mexican-American war. As accomplished as his contributions to this title undoubtedly are, they sit slightly oddly in the book, to my eyes - and I'm an art graduate and occasional illustrator myself - which is dominated, for the most part (and excepting the maps) by more antique art styles. 
   My favourite of Embleton's contributions is the image of some Jägers in a field of corn. The other three of his works (at least the ones credited to him) are all reproduced twice, once in colour, and once in back and white (with numerical annotations on the latter), and accompanying blocks of text set against grey backgrounds. These appear to illustrate little vignettes, drawn from the main narrative, which the text explains in more literal detail. 
   Interestingly there's a note at the very end of the book saying that 'the original paintings from which the colour plates in this book were prepared are available for private sale'. As an occasional freelance artist and illustrator I can really relate to that! Osprey give Embleton's website address, and then add: 'The Publishers regret that they can enter into no correspondence upon this matter'!

[6] In the end I discovered that what I had to do was jot down the 'locations' where the maps were (not page numbers, because there are no page numbers, the format being fluid and flexible; i.e. depending on the size of screen one might have more or less pages), whilst placing a bookmark at the point in the text where I momentarily exited to visit the map. I could then navigate back to my bookmark. Perhaps as I read more eBooks using the Kindle app on my iPad I'll get better at this sort of thing. But it did strike me that there might possibly be some better way!

[7] For anyone who doesn't know what I'm getting at here, contrasting Siborne's treatment of the Waterloo Campaign with Paul Britten Austin's treatment of the 1812 Russian campaign shows two polarities of approach. Both are based on exhaustive use of original source material, but Siborne recasts it into a rather impersonal sounding/feeling factual narrative, whilst PBA weaves the original protagonists words into a richly evocative and very humane (and emotionally involving) tapestry. The Siborne approach is, perhaps, rather more like a scientists report, with the the facts all present and correct (as far as the author could determine them; and yes, I know there are debates over the correctness of some of his information), but the feeling of personal human involvement, the subjective voice, rinsed out. 
    Paul Britten Austin's approach takes the same kind of material, but leans instead towards the subjective experience, with a result more like what that the author himself very aptly described as a 'word film'. In my ideal world, you could have the two things together. I'm trying to think if I've encountered such a balance... Was Gill's 1809 trilogy a case in point? Is this what Chandler achieves in his Campaigns of Napoleon? Some of the books I've enjoyed the most, Barbero's The Battle, Zamoyski's 1812, and Simms' The Longest Afternoon have certainly felt that way. But perhaps they err more towards the subjective?

[8] I'm not alone in this: the book is criticised for this approach in a Miniature Wargames review.

Book Review: The Great Retreat - Alexander Korolev

The book... a rather handsome cover, n'est pas?


A treasure trove of poignant relics and information.

Whenever I attend a wargaming show I always make a bee-line for the book stalls. Whether or not I'm going to buy any figures, terrain, paints, or whatever, I will pretty much always be buying books.

One of my chief areas of interest since my return to these areas, is Russia, 1812. And I'm beginning to amass a sizeable collection of books on this ever-fascinating subject. A surefire sign that I have tipped over into the obsessional is my latest acquisition, The Great Retreat, by Alexander Korolev, a book filled mostly with pictures of ... buttons.

As I mentioned in my recent post about the current British Museum show, Bonaparte and the British, the utterly superb series A History of the World in 100 Objects effected something of a sea-change in me, as regards what I'd hitherto ignored as rather mundane objects. Buttons would almost certainly have fallen into this category in years prior to AHOTW100. Yet when I found this book on the Ken Trotman stand at Salute, 2015, I picked it up and was immediately transfixed.

Page after page after page of well-photographed detritus from the Russian 1812 campaign is beautifully catalogued herein, all in full and glorious colour, along with information on all the pertinent units, the two threads of images and text running more or less in tandem. These parallel lines, of apparently mute artefacts and unit information that helps contextualise them, are supported by plentiful ancillary images, and even occasional extracts from contemporary accounts.

Numerous uniform plates enhance this books appeal,
including a cleaned up reproduction of this plate by
Bellange (source: wikipedia commons) [1]

Approximately 250 pages long, The Great Retreat is full to bursting with excellently reproduced colour images. I haven't counted them! The foreward and author's preface suggest that there are 2,400 images, whilst the promo blurb at the Uniform Press website mentions '1600 previously unpublished illustrations'. Unsurprisingly pretty much all of the artefacts that form the core of this incredible collection are metal, as that's what survives best buried under soil.

The commonest artefacts are buttons - lots and lots and lots of buttons - but there's plenty more besides: 'firearms and bullets, cannon and cannonballs, swords and sabres, reins and stirrups, as well as the personal items - buckles, coins, pipes, razors, and souvenirs' is how they describe the archaeological artefacts at the Uniform Press website. This is supported with '289 biographies of all the regiments and units, backed up [by] eyewitness accounts of those there.' There are also many portraits and uniform plates, plus the sundry other elements, both visual and textual, such as the detailed images of a French musket on p. 65. [2]

A replica 1777 Napoleonic French musket. [2]

Another fascinating bit of information we glean in the author's preface relates to how this material was collected, during a brief window of opportunity between the fall and dissolution of the Soviet Union and some very recent Russian legislation which makes the kind of amateur treasure-hunting this collection is built upon illegal! Take a look here for an article about the finding of a mass grave in Vilnius whiuch has yielded much of interest in this line.

It was both touching and amusing to read 'This book will undoubtedly find its readership'. One almost senses the unspoken side of this statement, i.e. that this might just be too specialised to have an audience, let alone reach it! Well, I'm one of those 'amateur military history enthusiasts', who's delighted to be able to view this poignant collection of illicitly gathered contraband, which speaks so modestly and quietly about an episode of such enormous suffering.

There are lots of people selling stuff like this on eBay.
I'd like to get some, but I'm very wary of such things,
having heard that there are lots of fakes being sold.

There's almost something spooky about how this incredible collection of ostensibly mute objects can speak so eloquently not just about the retreat itself, but a whole era: not only are the units officially designated for the invasion represented, many others are to. As well as items giving concrete evidence of the presence of units one would expect to see represented archaeologically, there are many that one might not anticipate seeing.

Some of the buttons and other detritus found along the route of the Grand Armée's advance and retreat represent units that were disbanded long before the Russian campaign. Some were simply disbanded, others renumbered or re-amalgamated, whilst others belonged to previous epochs, such as Republican units, and even the odd Royalist outfit. There are even occasionally bits and bobs most likely acquired by troops campaigning elsewhere, such as ephemera from the Peninsular.

Some of these anomalous items may perhaps have been kept as souvenirs. Others, one suspects, from the tortured complexity of Napoleonic uniformology, may appear as a result of the many instances of irregular and/or outdated equipment still being in service. There were also instances of men sent from unrelated units on various grounds, such as naval artificers who joined the pontoon trains, or just odd groups of troops sent seemingly at random to make up the numbers in another unit. It all adds to the richness and complexity of an already fascinatingly Byzantine subject.

Louis-Victor Baillot, photographed in 1890, 
approx. 97 years old. (Wikimedia commons)

The picture above appears on page 62, and is, I think, both fabulous and quite amazing. The info given in the caption beneath the picture in The Great Retreat says when he was born and died (to the day: 9th April, 1793 - 3rd February, 1898!), but doesn't say when the pic was taken. I found the above picture on French and Italian versions of Wikipedia. The French entry tells us the picture was taken in Baillot's home town, Carisey, in 1890, making Baillot about 97 years old at that point, and around 105 when he died (assuming his birth and death dates are correct); what a long and intriguing life!

Baillot was a fresh faced conscript, about 19 years old, in 1812. If he went to Russia and survived his life story is that much more amazing: the 105th, despite being kept in the rear - advancing only as far as Vilna due to being raw young conscripts - 'starved and died ... whole detachments at a time' during the chaotic retreat. I can find no direct mention that he was in Russia in 1812, but he is alleged to have served at Waterloo, and therefore have been the last and longest living survivor of that fateful day in June, 1815.

Faber du Faur's On the Main Road Between Mojaisk and Krymskoi,
18 September; an image that perhaps depicts the kind of scenario in
which the artefacts in this book wound up on Russian soil?

Almost buried (how apt!) within the exhaustive and potentially exhausting minutiae, the lists of units, troop movements and numbers, are a very few but nonetheless very interesting quotes from firsthand accounts. Some come from names readers of this episode will already know - Heinrich von Roos was a name I recognised - but one or two, such as the anonymous writer from the wagon train who laments the lack of opportunities for rest, and the impossibility of properly caring for the horses, may be new. The sad fate of the many horses lost in this campaign is quite upsetting. And whilst many (perhaps most?) descended into a state of callous self-preservation, the painting below by Albrecht Adam speaks to the fact that many saw the suffering of the horses and were, as I am when I read about it, appalled and upset.

A beautiful painting of one of the countless horses abandoned
to a sad and lonely fate, by artist and veteran of the campaign
Albrecht Adam. Entitled Riderless Horse at Mojaisk.

Every arm of the massive invasion force is covered here: all the units are described, giving their origins and their particular fates during the 1812 campaign, with pertinent surviving artefacts illustrated alongside. What is an already informative resource is further enriched by portraits, uniform plates and suchlike. This obsessive rigour is extended to the numerous French allies, all of which makes this, quite literally, a treasure trove of information and visual reference material.

So, all in all, a brilliant book. Perhaps really only for those really obsessed with subject? I can only say that I love it, and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in the 1812 campaign.

----------
NB - I bought my copy for £30 from the Ken Trotman stall at Salute. I've subsequently discovered that you can get it from the publishers themselves at the significantly cheaper price of £22.50. I don't know if that includes postage.

----------
NOTES:


[1] The book uses a multitude of sources, listing some interesting websites, and even deigning to use Wikipedia sourced images on occasion.


[2] In the book itself there are several items reconstructed from surviving fragment of original artefacts, including one of these firearms - not the one pictured, incidentally - several of which are 'Made by Alexei Smoliakov, Smolensk.'

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Film Review: Sea of Sand, 1958




Although Richard Attenborough gets top billing, this is actually a very good ensemble piece. And the actors I didn't recognise were every bit as good as those I did.

The ensemble cast deliver good performances.

A scary apparition emerges from the desert... 

I only recognised Attenborough, who plays the cockney character Brody, and Percy Herbert, who plays a character called 'Blanco' White. It's actually White that's depicted on the (rather cool) cover illustration for this particular edition of the DVD, manning the machine-gun 'neath some netting, as 'Jerry' advances across the titular 'sea of sand'. I didn't recognise either Michael Craig, nor John Gregson, who play the two Captains, Cotton and Williams, respectively, leading the mission.


A nice 'strategic view' type image.

Trudging across the burning sea of sand.

The mission itself is to blow up a behind-the-lines fuel dump, and the unit is the LRDG, or Long Range Desert Group, to whom the movie is dedicated. War movie anoraks like me will bemoan the inaccurate arms and materiél. Those American half-tracks look nothing like the SdKfz 251s they're probably standing in for. 

Such inaccuracies also add to the fudging of a theme that occurs several times in the film, and no doubt happened for real as well, when our chaps pass themselves off as Germans by the rather overly simplistic means of Cotton donning an M43 Feldmutz!


The DAK did use captured materiél, but this smacks of expediency.

This Dodge looks rather more convincing.

Despite stepping on a few WWII cliché land-mines, this remains a very solid and enjoyable film. The mission is a tough one, and a lot goes wrong, causing one soldier to speculate on the presence of a 'Jonah' in their midst. But English pluck wins through, albeit not for all concerned. Not the greatest war film ever, and neither the most historically faithful nor the most hamfistedly patriotic, Sea of Sand is simply a very enjoyable boys-own adventure yarn.


The modern U.K. DVD cover.*

* What charm this has it owes to the vintage image that's been recycled for the artwork.