Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Book Review - Napoleon in Egypt: Paul Strathern

A gripping and exciting read.





In a rare instance of books living up to dust-jacket hype, Paul Strathern's book is indeed 'remarkably rich and eminently readable.' (This is from my edition, which is a Bantam hardback, as pictured above.) Several other reviewers have already covered a number of key points of interest in this excellent book, so I'll just mention a few things that struck me as particularly intriguing. For one thing, considered in conjunction with his Italian exploits, undertaken just prior to this Egyptian adventure, these episodes of Napoleon's early life might be taken as a premonitory microcosm of his larger career, a fact Strathern himself reflects upon near the books close.

Having taken on the Mamelukes and put them to flight, bringing Egypt more or less to heel, Napoleon had to deal with the aggravated landlords; Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire at this point. The 'Turks', as they were then known, had been French allies, but they now joined with England, and even their own traditional enemy Russia, to oust the Republican infidels. The consequent French expedition to Syria, to meet this threat, has interesting parallels with that to Russia, inasmuch as Napoleon's and Berthier's much vaunted organisational skills don't seem at their peak. Just as Napoleon's normal modus operandi unravelled in Russia, so in Syria he failed to see every eventuality. This last fact stands in contrast with the myth of Napoleon's omniscience [1], a facet of Napoleon's genius much trumpeted by many writers, including Strathern himself (as on p 19: 'he learned to consider all the options ...', etc.).

Another image from the Fitzwilliam Museum Napoleonic prints
exhibition, currently on display in Cambridge. This one showing
Bonaparte in Egypt. Apologies for the poor quality of my photo!

However, with an ominous foreboding of what would later happen in Russia, Napoleons's troops, and even more so his horses, were not adequately prepared for conditions in Syria. In what Strathern calls 'a classic military mix up' French forces were finally issued with lightweight clothing, suitable to their initial theatre of operations, just as they embarked on a new campaign, during a change of season and under very different conditions: having sweated it out in the Egyptian delta wearing heavy European cloth, they were destined to endure the cold and wet conditions of winter along the eastern Mediterranean seaboard clad in lightweight summer fabrics!

The parallels with Russia extend beyond mere lack of preparedness in the clothing department, in that the crossing of the Sinai desert, closely followed by the siege of El Arish, found the French running out of supplies. As in Russia, living off the land frequently simply wasn't viable. One anecdote which illustrates this in a way both amusing and horrifying, whilst sounding uncannily like countless 1812 stories, is the mention of a major who, on awaking, discovers his troops have eaten his horse during the night! Everyone was suffering, again just as in Russia, but particularly the luckless equine contingent, whose reward for being long-suffering undernourished beasts of burden would often be to end up as dinner themselves.

The current UK edition looks like this.


Having noted all this, overall the expedition had been going reasonably well, the one major exception being Nelson's resounding defeat of the French fleet at the Battle Of The Nile (the one aspect of the campaign English readers are likely to be most familiar with). Despite this, Egypt had been successfully occupied and largely pacified, with Desaix's campaign into Upper Egypt, a model of success, forming the fascinating core of several chapters mid-way though this superb book. Napoleon's foes were regularly and soundly beaten, a serious rebellion in Cairo was successfully contained and put down. Certainly the clash of two very different cultures, namely Enlightenment-influenced post-revolutionary France, and the Mameluke ruled primitive conservatism of Islamic Egypt, looked very tricky to resolve. This mismatch remained at all times, barely below the surface, threatening to undo anything the French might achieve very rapidly, as ultimately proved to be the case. Had the French held on to this part of their empire longer, who knows what the global geopolitical outcomes might have been?

One of the many areas Strathern does an admirable job of covering, an area one might expect the more military buff type writer to perhaps gloss over, was the role of the 'savants'. Napoleon was inordinately proud to have been elected a member of the Institute of France. So much so that this part of his official title preceded his military rank during this period. Not only is this interesting in itself but, via a passing reference to how Napoleon was modelling his exploits on those of one of his heroes, Alexander The Great, we also learn that Ancient Greek 'natural philosophy' was closer to modern science in some respects than is often made out. A fascinating example is the savants collecting flora and fauna as they move through territories that are being occupied, sending samples back (to Cairo in this instance), much as Alexander had done in sending back specimens to Aristotle. Fascinating!

Gillray mocks the French savants in Egypt.

Strathern occasionally speculates on aspects of Napoleon's character, sometimes in what sounds like semi-Freudian pop-psychology terms, but fortunately he doesn't go in for too much of this, and what little there is is couched in purely speculative and gently understated terms. Of all such instances, the most striking is when he refers to Boney's annoyance and frustration during the slow-moving attrition of the Syrian campaign, noting that the setbacks he faced didn't undermine his sense of destiny, which, in Strathern's words, 'was his substitute for self knowledge.' 

The massacres perpetrated at Jaffa are horrifying to read about, and went on for about a week, starting with the drunken bloodbath after the initial breach and only ending with three days of systematic butchery, as the remnants of the garrison (who'd holed up in the citadel, and then surrendered to Napoleon's aides, Beauharnais and Crosier) were put to death. In typical dictator fashion Napoleon manages to justify his actions to himself, but many of his compatriots are all too aware that this could not be whitewashed. At the same time the bubonic plague was striking and, in marked contrast to his actions in ordering the massacre, Boney visited his sick troops: 'Is it mere accident that this hazardous and selfless act should have come just a day after he had been responsible for the most cold-blooded atrocity he would ever commit?' [2]

This was a gripping, exciting read. Now that I'm finished I've got a need for more!

Gillray received detailed instructions from his Tory paymasters
as to the composition and content of this incredible image.

----------

Notes:

[1] I don't mean to say in using the term myth that these ideas are totally unfounded, merely that in celebrating heroic charisma they are sometimes overstated.

[2] Strathern comments on what he regards as Napoleon's 'erroneous belief in willpower and ... overweening self-belief', hinting that Napoleon felt himself, as a man of destiny, safe from the contagion of plague. True or not, Bonaparte was both brave and foolhardy to take such a risk.

Book Review: Bonaparte and the British - Clayton & O'Connell




Museums have exploited Napoleon's fame from 1815 to the present...'





Not only does the British Museum continue the above-mentioned tradition, it also owes its very existence, in its current form, to emulation of Napoleon's cultural legacy. [1] 

Bonaparte and the British is a sumptuously illustrated compendium of Napoleonic-themed visual delights, produced to accompany the show of the same name at the British Museum (the show runs from 5th Feb to 16th Aug, 2015). The vast majority of the exhibits, splendidly reproduced in this very handsome volume, are prints, a medium that was then enjoying a golden age in Britain.

In the background of Gillray's Slippery Weather we see Hannah Humphrey's
print-shop window. As ever an appreciative crowd is assembled to admire the
many topical caricatures, a good deal of which are Gillray's own designs.

The book begins, after a brief scene-setting introduction, with two short chapters about the British and French uses of prints at the time. Their titles, 'The London Print Trade: Commerce, Patriotism and Propaganda', and 'Napoleon and the Print as Propaganda' give you an idea of their general content, as well as signalling an intent to give an even-handed treatment to a traditionally partisan subject. After that the prints and other exhibits, 165 in total - beginning with a print of Napoleon as First Consul, and ending with a plaster cast of his death mask - are grouped into 10 sections, following the chronology of Napoleon's life during the tumultuous period of history which has subsequently borne his name:

The young general
Egypt
Consul and peacemaker
Little Boney and the invasion threat
Emperor
Trafalgar and Austerlitz: triumph and disaster
Spain and Russia
Leipzig and the collapse of empire
Peace of Paris, Elba and Waterloo
After Waterloo 

Canova's neo-classical portrait bust of Napoleon.

I don't know whether it's a change in me, a change in the institution of the BM itself, or something else entirely, but ever since hearing the museum's director, Neil MacGregor, present the absolutely wonderful series A History of the World in 100 Objects [2], I've found myself able to become interested in, even sometimes fascinated by, a far wider range of exhibits than I was before.

In the exhibition and this catalogue there are, as well as the very numerous prints, a number of ancillary objects, such as coins, medals, pottery and suchlike - even some genuine Napoleonic 'relics' - as well as a few examples of the more ordinary categories like drawings and sculpture, which, if you take the trouble to read about them, offer up all kinds of fascinating insights.

But the stars of the show are undoubtedly the beautifully reproduced prints. These range from earnestly pro-Napoleonic images, mostly but not exclusively French, via examples of straightforward classical allegory and beautifully depicted battle scenes, to the satirical prints of numerous nations, chiefly - and unsurprisingly given the title of the book and exhibition - British. The works of these British artists, and James Gillray's most of all, show very clearly why this is regarded as a golden age of English satirical printmaking.

The whole of The Plumb Pudding In Danger,
a cropped version of which appears of the
cover of this exceelnt book.

Gillray is undoubtedly the star of the earlier part of this period, with Cruikshank (son George, as opposed to father Isaac) perhaps taking over this position in the later stages. Gillray in particular, whose life story would make an interesting subject in itself, is confirmed as the master of the satirical print. His memorable images - 'The Plum Pudding In Danger' (above), for example, which features on the cover - are biting and exuberant: masterpieces of invention, design and execution, as well as fascinating studies in the attitudes of the day, they crown both book and show.

The modern notion, an idea that's only really held sway for a tiny proportion of the history of art, in which an artist is not only the maker of their art but the originator of the ideas, is dangerous when applied here. Gillray's first images show sympathy for the Enlightenment ideals of Revolutionary France, but the vast bulk of British satirical prints, including his, are very much the propaganda of the establishment Tory right. 

Whatever artists like Gillray felt personally, they were, for the most part, acting on the instructions and in the pay of the British establishment. Gillray himself, for example, being the recipient of a government 'pension'. This was actually a wage, and not what we think of as a pension: he was abandoned to poverty and insanity in the end! The text of Bonaparte and the British illuminates the close relationships between artists and politicians, with much of Gillray's most political work being very minutely directed by the high ranking Tory George Canning.

Maniac ravings: alas poor Gillray, twas he who
actually went insane, and not 'Little Boney'!

Some of the satirical printmakers lend their talents to polemicists on either side of the political divide, and there certainly were also dissenting voices. It's fascinating to view and read this material and contemplate the interplay between the apparent freedom of the prints to say many diverse and sometimes shocking things, and the reality of control and repression, a story played out in Britain and elsewhere (e.g. Czarist Russia) as well as Napoleonic Europe. [3] 

In some ways the Napoleonic wars are far from over: Andrew Roberts' recent Napoleon The Great seeks to rehabilitate Bonaparte for an English readership that can't quite shake off images - the 'Corsican Upstart' or 'Little Boney' - so assiduously fostered by much of the printed propaganda shown here. Confronted with page after page of the extravagantly exaggerated vitriol known as the 'Black Legend' it's hard not to conclude that Napoleon had become the repository for all the bilious outpourings of anti-enlightenment conservatism. 

Bonaparte's alleged atrocities are rehearsed and recited ad nauseum in many of the prints shown here, alongside frequent evocations of Napoleon as in league with Satan. It's hard not to feel that there was something rotten at the heart of establishment British attitudes towards Napoleon. It was this sort of material that helped turn William Cobbet from a royalist to a reformer: having been appalled at the way Napoleon was being caricatured, he would soon see himself mercilessly lampooned in the works of Gillray and others. 

George Cruikshank: Murat reviewing the Grand Army.

The powers on British right were merciless to their own perceived 'enemies within', such as Cobbett, or the Whig Charles James Fox (see Gillray's Tree of Liberty print, not in this book or show, but reproduced near the end of this post). Napoleon had hoped that he could win over the Ancien Regime powers, and be accepted into their circle, hence his marriage to Marie Louise. 

But ultimately, far from securing a place at the top table, Napoleon evolved into the official and remarkably singular focal point, at first metaphorically and finally, at the Congress of Vienna, literally, for the reactionary backlash of the Ancien Regime against Enlightenment ideas. [4] By making Bonaparte the fall guy, they were able to distract their own peoples from the backward looking autocratic natures of the regimes and social orders those same people were fighting and dying to uphold.

Rowlandson casts Bonaparte as the
spawn of Satan, in The Devils Darling.

A young civic Napoleon, in a watercolour
by Edouard Detaille, wearing the outfit of an
Academcian (This doesn't appear in the book). 

Napoleon's rise to prominence was achieved on the back of his successful defence of post-revolutionary France, so it could be argued that the Ancien Regime powers created him as much as Revolutionary France herself ever did. Who knows if Volney's description of the young Napoleon as 'member of the National Institute, peacemaker of Europe' might not have been a true and accurate description, had post-revolutionary France been left alone? 

Once the brief peace of Amiens ended, when England declared war on France, the perpetual assault on the country viewed as the hotbed of revolution by those Ancien Regime powers was resumed. They never let up until after Waterloo. Apart from a few debacles (in South America and Holland), Britain's active role was limited. Thanks to the audacity of Nelson, which cost him his life, we scored two notable naval successes. But on land our only sizeable contribution, until Waterloo (and even there we were only a small part of a mixed allied force) was the Iberian or Peninsular campaign, which didn't get off to the best of starts.

Gillray's amazing Grand Coronation Procession of
Napoleone. Using the Italianate forms of Buonaparte's name
was a favourite ruse of Boney-baiting Brit hacks.

As Napoleon's French media liked to point out, England's chiefly role was as agitator and financial backer (see two prints down). It was the wars France's enemies continually made upon her,
 funded by British money (the need to fund these wars saw the introduction of income tax here in Britain) that raised Napoleon, and as long as Britain bankrolled successive coalitions - seven formed against France in this period - his gift for swift and decisive warmaking would help him become ever more powerful. So it could be argued that they effectively forced him into becoming the caricature warmonger they had always made him out to be.

On the other hand it has to be borne in mind that he himself said 'Conquest has made me what I am, and conquest alone can maintain me'. But this was, I believe, something he said in his memoirs, when a lifetime of near continual conflict lay behind him. Napoleon also said that 'History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon'. It's interesting that, in relation to the history of his times, the argument rumbles on.

John Bull's Luncheon, another Gillray gem.

I've always felt mystified, even somewhat ashamed, at the way Britain has viewed it's roles in relation to both revolutionary America and revolutionary France: we lost our war with the U.S, and don't talk much about it. But we were instrumental in helping defeat a similar move towards more democratic society in France, and have crowed about it ever since. Of course there were those, from Fox and the Hollands to Byron and Cobbett, who felt at the time that there was something amiss in the caricatured vilification of Napoleon.

Fortunately the book and the show include both the official and the dissenting British views, as well as those of our allies and adversaries. And just as there was here, there was a diversity of opinion amongst the French, from royalists to Bonapartists, and beyond. The image of the British as a 'nation of slaves' fighting and financing wars to prevent the spread of liberty was a central plank in Napoleon's propaganda. This was a view rarely aired this side of The Channel, the or since. It's good that this show doesn't gloss over these other views.

Francois II Partant Pour La Guerre: an anonymous French
engraving shows a fat red-coated personification of Britain
handing Francis II of Austria a bag of money. The figure behind
the curtain talks of conserving British lives at the exepnse of
their allies' populations.

Tim Clayton and Sheila O'Connell have written a clear, informative, and fairly well balanced text. They go further than most British writers in pointing out the multiple readings of these histories that are possible. But it's still, as the exhibition's title says, a resolutely British story. More than the still-vexed politics, which continue to present a conundrum Britain and Europe struggle to solve, it's the pictures of prints and other objects that are the main attraction in this book: there are lots of fantastic memorable images here, as well as some that are less delightful but still very interesting. Gillray's work is what I enjoy looking at the most, even if I don't always like the propaganda he's peddling.

Francois Aubertin, Passage du Grand St. Bernard.

There are also some terrifically beautiful 'straight' prints, such as Francois Aubertin's Passage du Grand St. Bernard, a French print celebrating an early and audacious move by the young Napoleon, or Matthew DuBourg's Field of Waterloo, an incredible work that beautifully depicts a truly appalling scene, the bloody aftermath of the battle that ended Napoleon's career. Dubourg was of French extraction, but worked in England. It's interesting that his mixed cultural heritage resonates with the scene he depicts, in which the various nationalities are reduced to a common suffering. The Field of Waterloo is hardly the sort of triumphalist image that many in Britain favoured. 

Matthew Dubourg, The Field of Waterloo.

Of particular interest to wargamers, perhaps, in addition to the magnificent images by Aubertin and Dubourg (see above), is a series of panoramic Watercolours, painted only days after the battles at Waterloo and Quatre Bras. Rather ghoulishly corpses can be spotted here or there in the fields, and troops and civilians are also evident sparsely populating what had been only days before close-packed scenes of carnage. These watercolours show the battlefields as they were at the time, and would presumably be useful to gamers seeking to recreate the battle and the terrain, as no doubt many will attempt to do this year. [5]

This is a gem of a book, produced to accompany a fascinating show. I already had Mark Bryant's The Napoleonic Wars in Cartoon, which is a fun but comparatively superficial look at much of the same material. This gorgeous volume allows one to explore similar territory in much greater breadth and depth. I love it, and think it's an essential purchase for the Napoleonic history nut.

----------
Notes:

[1] P. 197:  'Earlier museums had been based on the personal collections of monarchs and aristocrats... Napoleon introduced the notion of a collection of treasures as a public asset that conferred prestige on the nation. The desire to emulate Napoleon's Louvre was at least part of the motive for parliament's support of the development of the British Museum...'

This particular image is not in the show or the book, but it
depicts a view of the British. popular in Napoleonic France,
as badly dressed and unable to relate properly to their
harridan womenfolk.

[2] This utterly brilliant series is available in several formats. Here are a few useful links:
--- The book (paperback from Amazon) - paperback
--- BBC podcasts (my favourite format!) - podcasts
--- And finally, here's a link to the BM page for AHOW - british museum

[3] France and the other European nations had their own traditions of printmaking and satire, and the balance between freedom and censorship outside the British Isles shows, in both similar and different ways, how Napoleonic France, its empire, and these other nations dealt with similar issues. But obviously the focus here is mostly on Britain and France, with other nations, Russia and Spain for example, being treated in a subsidiary manner.


Gillray's The Tree of Liberty: Whig politician Charles James Fox
earned the undying emnity of the Tory right for his liberal views.
Here he's taken on the guise of the Satanic serpent, tempting
John Bull. This is another image not actually in the book or show.

[4] There were those, from Lord and Lady Holland, to the poet Byron, who loved Napoleon. And even those critical of 'Jacobinism', like William Cobbett, found the excessivly propagandist vilification of an obviously enlightened man distasteful and dishonest. The book illustrates some Napoleonic 'relics' that once belonged to Byron, and quotes his anti-Wellingtonian views as expressed in Canto IX of Don Juan:

'The World, not the World's masters, will decide,
And I shall be delighted to learn who,
Save you and yours, have gained by Waterloo?'

[5] Does anyone know if the observation derrick (behind the French lines) pictured in one of these images was erected before of after the battle?

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Book Review: Masters in Miniature - Alan & Michael Perry


I don't know this for a fact, but I suspect twin brothers Alan and Michael Perry may just be the most prolific of miniature figure sculptors known to history. 

Starting with Games Worskshop as freelancers in their teens, before going full-time (for the same employer), they have also produced loads of ranges for Wargames Foundry, the historical gaming cousins to the predominantly fantasy and sci-fi Games Workshop lines.

They've also worked on the Peter Jackson Lord of The Rings figures (there was a Citadel LOTR range years back, but that was - I think? - the work of other hands), and more recently have been making larger figures, including a stunning array of 54mm sculpts for a WWI Museum diorama in New Zealand, funded by Jackson. Whether these will be made commercially available I don't know, although I'm sure the demand will be there.

Anyway, to matters in hand: Masters In Miniature is a landscape-format book of roughly A4 dimensions running to about 160 pages. An hardback, printed in sumptuous colour (by Atlantic Publishers, who publish Miniature Wargames magazine), it is basically a de-luxe coffee-table picture book, illustrated with an enormous number of - nearly 400 - excellent photos, taken by the Perrys themselves. One staggering thing to bear in mind is that all the figures in these pages are from their own range, Perry Miniatures. These are produced in their spare time... when not at the day job sculpting for Games Workshop!

Medieval period action. Beautifully colourful!

The book was published in April 2014, just in time to be sold at Salute, the big London wargames hobby show run by the South London Warlords club. I bought my copy at this years Salute (2015), on its first anniversary, from the Atlantic publishers stand. This fact gives me the chance to air my first gripe about a book I'm otherwise filled with praise for: at the show I paid £25 for it, which seems reasonable (RRP is £29.95). Online at the Perry's own website, and on Amazon, copies are selling for around £40 a pop. That seems too much to me! [1]

Anyway, that aside, let's get onto to the reasons for buying it, i.e. the all important content. Well, there's a short foreward by Rick Priestley [http://rickpriestley.com], fellow Games Workshop employee (and creator of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000), a very brief introduction by the Perrys themselves, numerous chapters which I'll detail in a minute and, finally, a six-page feature called 'The Perry Twins', by Henry Hyde (editor and publisher of Miniature Wargames, as well as this book itself).

A nice AWI spread.

The central attraction of the book however, is the rich collection of myriad marvellous battle scenarios and the like, arranged and photographed on superb terrain by Alan and Michael themselves. These are arranged in chronological order of the periods which each respective range of figures portrays, covering about a millennia of historical warfare, as follows:

The First Crusade (1096-1099)
Agincourt to Orleans (1415-1429)
The Wars of the Roses (1455-1487) & European Armies (1450-1500)
Samurai Armies (1550-1615) & Choson Korean Army (1592-1598)
The English Civil Wars (1642-1651) and the Border Reivers of the 1580s
The American War of Independence (1775-1783)
Napoleonic Armies (1809-1814) & Napoleonic Armies (1815)
The First Carlist War (1833-1840)
The American Civil War (1861-1865)
The Mahdist Uprising in the Sudan (1881-1885)
World War II (1939-1945)

According to info on the Perry's website this represents 6 months of work in terms of photography alone, and years in terms of the painting of the figures. They modestly refrain from anything further, but clearly the superb quality of the figures themselves is the result of decades, or more precisely two lifetimes worth of artistic skill, that's been constantly honed and developed in very productive careers.

ACW action, including some colourful NY Zouaves.

Each section has a brief intro from one of the twins, which says a little about the period and how it came into being as a figure range from Perry Miniatures. It's surprising how much info the tiny little introductory sections pack in, some of it about the era, and some about the Perrys work in relation to it. They give generous credit to their numerous painter chums, and the makers of the scenery (some of which they make themselves). The pictures are, for the most part, wonderful. There are a few instances of visible 'Photoshopping', such as the hail of arrows in the Agincourt pictures, and some retouching of scenery and backdrops. Where I could spot this it was a minor irritant to me, as I think the figures and terrain as they are look sufficiently fabulous. 

But this brings us on to another important thing about this book: these collections are described by Rick Priestley as being real wargaming armies. And no doubt they are. But they are presented and photographed here more as if they were dioramas. This is not a complaint from me, just an observation. In fact it's a strength of the book; I love it! But obviously these are not pics of an ordinary wargame in progress, where one sees bases, rule sheets, dice, gamer's arms, etc., or the backdrop of a club or a show [2]. 

What I hope to one day achieve in my own wargaming is, effectively, a movable diorama kind of look. That's the approach they've employed here, only tidied up so that any clunky features of the gaming aspect are airbrushed from view. This is kind of a double edged-sword, inasmuch as whilst it's all undoubtedly very impressive and highly inspiring, it could also leave one feeling disappointed with ones own efforts. Rick Priestley acknowledges this in his foreward, when he says 'Whilst we may not all have the same eye for detail, or the boundless creative energy, of Michael and Alan, we can all admire and be inspired in our own efforts in our own individual way.'

Gordon of Khartoum, etc. Not a period I'm
normally drawn to, but it looks good here.

All of the periods covered are, or certainly become, in the hands of the Perrys and their accomplices, highly interesting. There's the obvious danger that to you'll be seduced into raising new armies in scales and periods you weren't previously involved in. As a kid I collected Napoleonics in 15mm, and now I'm doing the same in 6mm and 10mm, and I still consider, even with the advent of plastics, which the Perrys have been intimately involved with pioneering and developing [3], 28mm Napoleonics as (currently) beyond my means. But such is the seductive beauty of their work that I'm slowly amassing a collection of their Napoleonics, despite my efforts to resist! 

There are some obscure periods or theatres covered here, from the more obviously unusual, like the Carlist Wars and the colourful Choson Koreans, to off the usual road-map moments, like the inclusion of Neapolitans vs. Austrians in the 1815 section (which one might've assumed would be purely Waterloo-focussed) or the 'Battle' of Baltimore scenario in the ACW section. And there are also all the old warhorses, like the ECW, the AWI, the Napoleonic era, the ECW, and WWII. In my musical tastes I may pride myself a little on occasionally pursuing, alongside mainstream tastes, a few more obscure avenues. But in wargaming, I must admit I'm slightly surprised to say that I'm entirely content to remain fixated by several of the most mainstream eras.

A Napoleonic spread. Still my favourite era! 

My absolute favourite remains the Napoleonic period. And it's so nice to read Alan Perry saying this: 'I had already produced a fair number of Napoleonics for Foundry over fifteen years, before we set up Perry Miniatures in 2001, which hadn't dried up my enthusiasm for the period. Twelve years on and I'm still making them!' The Napoleonic era is represented here by two sections, one covering 1809-14, the other just 1815. 

In conclusion, whilst this book is not, like most of life, entirely perfect, it is, unlike a lot of life, predominantly very wonderful indeed. As Rick Priestley says in his foreward, 'long may [they] continue to amaze and delight us all.'

----------
My thanks to Henry Hyde for permission to use the colour spreads shown here.

NOTES:

[1] Signed copies are available from the Perry's own website at the slightly higher price of £42.50.

[2] The backdrops used here are very effective, mostly being of the vaguely cloudy skies type. Occasionally a photographic element is included, and sometimes the Photoshop touch is detectable. Photographing beautiful games at shows is often really hampered by the fact that a beautiful view across a gorgeous terrain populated by fabulous figures terminates in a backdrop of a room full of middle aged men with beer guts.

[3] The Perrys brought out the first hard-plastic Wargames figures in 28mm, with their ACW I set.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Boney's Bicorne - A new scoring system for my reviews!

Hello, I've decided to add a scoring system to my blog reviews.

For now I've designed a simple little 'Boney's Bicorne' image. As with Amazon's system of five stars, there are five bicornes available to score with. But unlike Amazon's system, where the lowest score is one star, on my system there is also the 'no bicornes' option. Hopefully I'll never need to use it!

Here they all are:







---------------------------------

Boney's Bicorne, the real McCoy.

The above pic was the model for my image. As it's scaled down a lot I exaggerated the curves a bit. Pictured below are a couple of screenshots of how it looks on a couple of my previous book-review posts. Let me know what you think!

A five bicorne review...

... and a four bicorne affair.

I may do a five 'balkankreuz' system for rating WWII AFV models and the like. If/when time allows!

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.