Wednesday, 22 April 2015

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

I found out via a post on TMP that 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. NB: As with my other Osprey review, for reasons of copyright, apart from the cover, the images used here are sourced from elsewhere.



I have to confess to being a slow and not massively enthused convert to 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 usually cheaper, and often 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!
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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 Miniaturen Wargames review.

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