Thursday 19 November 2020

Book Review: The Ghettos of Nazi-Occupied Poland, Ian Baxter (Images of War)

As someone who literally loves the uniforms, equipment, materiel, and quite often even the combatants and their stories, the whole racist/fascist aspects of the Nazi regime are anathema to me. It would be beyond churlish, in my view, to even attempt to downplay, ignore or worse still deny or support those aspects of what was an appalling ideology.

Having said that, for the most part I do separate the two aspects: the fascinating military machine/history, and the contemptible visions it was employed in furthering. In the same way I could happily assemble both sides of American Civil War forces, or, for that matter, English Civil War armies, without declaring allegiance to any of the views espoused (or not) by the combatants.*

With those thoughts in mind, what of this book? Well, thus far I haven't read much of the textual content. Instead I've just studied the many interesting images and read the captions for them, and occasional parts of the text, like the short intro/aftermath segments. In some ways, whilst the underlying segregationist concept is, to me, awful - if not as unusual historically as some might suggest - what strikes one most, at first glance, is the ordinary everyday banality of much of it, street scenes and people milling about, even markets, policemen, firemen, postal workers, people working in factories, etc.

Ghetto residents working in a shoe-factory, Lodz.

But this disguises, now as it did for the Germans back then, including perhaps those who took most of these photos, who might've look at some of these images and fooled themselves they weren't being all that bad, several key things: first and foremost these weren't ghettos 'naturally' formed, so to speak, by ethnic groups choosing to congregate, as many around the world to this day remain. They were government enforced relocations, and part of the more sinister so called 'cleansing', i.e. institutionalised genocide. Aka the infamous 'final solution' to 'the Jewish problem'. 

And whilst the Germans, lovers of bureaucracy and form filling, list-making and so on, did create the semblance of normal institutions within ghettos, these were token gestures, beneath which racist contempt saw them utilise the Jewish population as a disposable low-maintenance workforce. Those who weren't dying of starvation, or diseases like cholera, typhus, and so on, would be working in German industries, mostly towards the war effort

This photographic study concentrates mainly on the ghettos as photographed, on the whole, by a number of German servicemen. Some of these collections of photos only surfaced in fairly recent years.  And, unusually for a WWII Images of war title they include a segment of colour photographs. 

One of a number of colour images. Biebow visits Lodz.

The main chapter headings convey the content:

Ghettoisation - Jews** are removed from their homes and relocated, mostly by train, but also on foot. This section also has numerous pictures of german 'brass' and functionaries, like Hans Biebow, a businessman turned Ghetto administrator.

Life in the Ghettos - This is, at first glance, the most apparently humdrum chapter. But the banality belies the underlying brutality, as the casual littering of corpses occasionally reminds the viewer

Liquidation of the Ghettos - as ominous as it sounds; this is the segment that, inevitably, depicts - even if only in a few shocking images - the most brutal part of the Nazi war crimes process, the wholesale butchery of unarmed non-combatants.

The Warsaw Uprising - Another brutally bleak chapter in this sad story sees the largest of the ghettos rise up, only to be mercilessly crushed.

The book ends with The Aftermath and two appendices. The first lists major Polish ghettos (but by no means all of them), many illustrated by single photos, and the second and last says a brief word on the infamous Reserve Police Battalion 101, who were instrumental in facilitating Nazi policy in these tragic times.

Personally I think it's very salutory to remind oneself of the reality and the enormity of these crimes against humanity. Their scale beggars belief, and their proximity in time should be a warning against complacency. On a European tour with a band I was once in, our Dutch tour bus driver took us to a transit camp in, I think, Belgium. To stand in a place of that type - not even an extermination camp - and think how whole categories of humans were treated as disposable trash, was a very powerful experience.

Note on photos: the two colour photos I've used here - so washed out they almost look black and white - are, like a number in the book, from the USHMM, or United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

* It's worth remembering that many soldiers are not primarily fighting for the causes their leaders say they stand for. Many just fight for their nation, homes and families, each other, or simply to stay alive.

** And, let's not forget, other so called 'undesirables', such as leftists, gypsys, homosexuals, and so on. But obviously, as per the title, this book concentrates on the Jewish aspect of Nazi persecution, it being the largest and primary 'out group'.

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Book Reviews: The French at Waterloo; Eyewitness Accounts, vols I & II, Andrew Field

One might be forgiven for wondering why, instead of two fairly slim volumes, at £20 each, these two books weren't instead published as a single fatter book, at say £25-30. But setting aside that brief attack of penny-pinching cynicism, the actual content of these two books, both reviewed here, is superb. 

Vol I - Napoleon, Imperial HQ & Ist Corps

"I cannot get over our defeat. We were manoeuvred like so many pumpkins." Col. Marbot.

After an opening chapter on the usage/reliability of eyewitness accounts, volume one begins with three descriptions from Napoleon: the official post battle report, as dictated to Fleury de Chabalon, which appeared soon after the battle in le Moniteur, then Gorgaud's and Bertrand's accounts. All three are widely accepted as being Napoleon's own versions of events, and each one is a successively larger and more detailed reiteration of the same basic themes.

The accounts that follow, from Napleon's Household and then the Imperial HQ, unsurprisingly perhaps, largely follow their leaders' version of events. Except that is where his subordinates have incurred his blame, and then they might seek to excuse of justify themselves. All of this makes the first half or two thirds of this first volume somewhat repetitive, especially as the numerous accounts frequently recapitulate the same lists of unit dispositions and the major sequences of events.

Marcellin Marbot, in his 7th Hussar togs, c. 1815.*

Where volume one really comes to life, for me at any rate - and what makes it five bicornes, not four, or four and a half - is in the Ist Corps accounts. Especially so in those from the middling and lower ranks, whose colourful and lively narratives generally focus more closely on events the individuals concerned actually witnessed or took part in. The 'big hats', with eyes on posterity (and higher social standing to fall from) tend to give overviews coloured by hindsight, later/wider reading, and post-war politicking. 

Napoleon's own influence on the French readings of events, unsurprisingly, casts a long shadow. And yet despite this, the natural 'fog of war', and the blame games - around Ney and Grouchy in particular, but also bearing on the actions of others, like d'Erlon, Marcognet, etc. - reveal how widely the same events can be perceived or understood, not just by the antagonist nations, but within the same nation's own armies.

An excellent and fascinating collection. Essential reading for the Napoleonic/Waterloo enthusiast.

* Acc. to Wikipedia!

Vol II - IInd & VIth Corps, Cavalry, Artillery, Imperial Guard & Medical Services

"(T)his immortal slaughter." Larreguy de Civrieux.

The same standard of excellence is observed here as elsewhere in Field's terrific work on the whole French experience of the Waterloo campaign. 

A brief introduction recapitulates things he said in volume one, in particular addressing the reliability of the types of material that make up these fascinating books. He then moves through the various military bodies already listed above, citing numerous extracts from the memoirs of participants, mostly from the upper echelons - i.e. officers - with, as per volume one, brief biographical notes about the person concerned followed by their recollections of these momentous events and their parts in them.

First of all it's terrific that we are gradually getting access to more of this French material, after two centuries in which the English tradition of Waterloo historiography has been pretty one sided. There is something of an irony in this respect, re the fate of Capt. Siborne and his researches, which occurred so soon after the battle, and which sought to include accounts from all sides. There are several interesting books on Siborne, his dioramas, and the research he undertook in order to build them, as well as Siborne's own writings (which I have, but as yet haven't read; they're reputedly rather tough going!). [1]

Sylvain Larreguy, c. 1828.

But returning to the accounts in hand themselves, they are great, adding a lot of colour and interest to this much written about (most written about?) of epoch-ending/making battles. I won't go into great detail about any specific accounts contained herein. But it is interesting to note how they differ from traditional Anglo-centric accounts, on things ranging from relatively minor actions that don't appear in English histories, to more controversial claims, such as the frequently repeated claim that the French took and even held Hougoumont for a while at some point.

But in the end, whatever the veracity of some of these interesting claims/differences, it all adds up to more interesting and useful reference on this most compelling of battles. I'd even go so far as to say that Field's entire oeuvre on this subject is all essential to the genuine Napoleonic/Waterloo buff. In a word, brilliant.

The author (found this pic in an online Wilts news article!).

[1] In both volumes Siborne is, if my memory serves, only mentioned the once: on p. 106 of vol II Field laments how the French Guard officers, unlike Siborne's English correspondents, only told of their own local experiences. I think the mention he gets in volume I is on a similar theme, re sources and their limitations, but I can't pinpoint it (no indexes!?).

Book Review: Dark Valley, Piers Brendon

NB: This is one of my occasional archival posts, regarding a book I read and reviewed years ago, but haven't posted here, that I thought might be of interest.

A small departure here in that this not strictly a book about WWII, as such, but the dark decade of the 1930s, that prepared the way. I won't go into any detail regarding the contents. There are lots of decent reviews and synopses to be found online. I simply want to add my voice to the general chorus of acclaim this book has deservedly garnered.  

Like William Shirer's Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich this is sweeping, compelling history that really draws you in. The kind of thing that'll threaten to end your fiction reading. Why read fiction when real world events are so massively interesting? The 1930s are a particularly fascinating decade, with totalitarian regimes, be they fascist or communist, gaining a worldwide foothold unparalleled before or since.

As others elsewhere have observed, Brendon has an excellent writing style, and is truly masterful at weaving together complex narrative and small anecdotal details. What a period the first half of the C20th was, and - leaving aside WWI - what a period the 1930s were. With Stalin, Franco, Hitler, Mussolini, the Hawkish Japanese military, the latter already at war in China, and more besides, all sandwiched between the cataclysms of two world wars! 

I borrowed this from a friend many years ago, and liked it so much I had to get my own copy after reading his, in a repeat of what had already happened with the aforementioned Shirer book.

The material relating to Japan is, I find, particularly fascinating, as so much historical literature on this period and the two world wars is so Euro-centric. Also the militarism of Japan differed markedly from that of Russia, Germany and Italy, in that it was much more broad based, rather than focussing on a charismatic figurehead. Indeed, the Japanese emperor seems to have been carried along on a martial current that flowed through a whole class (primarily the officer class), ultimately more or less saturating the whole culture.

One specific episode amongst the many in this brilliant book that really struck me - haunted me even, for a little while after reading it - was the horror of Magnitogorsk, in Stalinist Russia. The name of the city alone sounds both awesome and terrifying! A hint of what was happening can be inferred from the fact it was declared a closed city, i.e. off limits to foreigners, in 1937. But I won't say why here. Buy this superb book and read about it yourself.

Book Review: Wellington in 100 Objects, Gareth Glover

In the venerable tradition started - as far as I know? - by the British Museum's exemplary History of the World in 100 Objects, the book I'm reviewing here today joins an ever growing assortment of similarly themed books on numerous historical subjects. Prolific Napoleonic author Gareth Glover notches up yet more titles, annexing ever more shelf-space, authoring several such books on Napoleonic matters himself, including this one. And there are also titles by other authors, on the Third Reich, and all sorts.

In this book the objects themselves range from the tiny - a looted silver fork - to the massive - castles, stately homes, even whole villages, towns or cities, that Arthur Wellesley had some connection with. From the obvious, like his boots or campaign cape, to the more obscure, like dentures, or the saw used to amputate Lord Uxbridge's leg. 

From the humourous... [1]

And in the process of examining this wealth of material, which is frequently supplemented by other related stuff, we learn masses about not just the famed and celebrated victor of Waterloo, but his family, the times in which he lived, and the many and varied places his life story connects together. From the Congress of Vienna, to Napoleon's lonely and remote exile on St. Helena. From ancestral roots in Ireland, to nepotistic postings in India. And with his activities and interests connecting him with everywhere from the far-flung, such as to the Americas, to such near neighbours as Portugal, Spain and Northwest Europe.

Wellington doesn't have quite the same the mercurial mythological magnetism that Boney had, and continues to have. At the time of posting this review this book is listed as 'currently unavailable' on Amazon's UK website, unlike the pendant title, also by Glover, on Napoleon in 100 Objects. But, and especially so for the English, he is, and ought to be, someone we want to know more about. And this book does an admirable job of facilitating that.

... to the more macabre. [2]


[1] Wellington infamously duelled Lord Winchelsea, in 1829, whilst he (the former) was P.M!

[2] The saw and a bloodied surgeon's glove, from National Army Museum's collections, allegedly used to remove Uxbridge's shattered leg, at or just after Waterloo.

Monday 16 November 2020

Book Review: Artillery Warfare, '39-'45, Simon & Jonathan Forty

This excellent single volume packs an awful lot into a pretty small space. 

Over 400 black and white photos illustrate the massive range of materiel covered, taking in all the main (and many minor) combatant nations and theatres*. As well as the plentiful imagery, extracts from wartime records are used to show how the various artillery branches of the armed forces operated. 

A remarkable range of artillery is covered, even if - give the enormity of the subject - only in relatively quick or short form; from the brief mention of hand-held anti-tank weapons, to individual entries on such weaponry as the Long Tom, or those crazily huge Nazi rail-super-guns, including towed artillery, SP guns, rockets, AA and fixed batteries (like the Maginot and Westwall), and so on. 

From pocket-sized pea shooters, like the Pak 37...

The roots of modern artillery developments in WWI, their rapid evolution during WWII, and even hints of the postwar legacy - many guns of WWII remained in use long after '45, and many technologies evolved by quantum leaps during the Second World War, to create a new era (guided missiles/rocketry) - are all here. 

Appendices add info on observation and gun siting, etc. All in all a very impressive work, covering exactly what the title suggests. I'd say this is a pretty essential reference work for the seriously interested WWII history buff. But obviously being a brief and wide ranging picture based survey, more in depth detail is to be sought/found in more specialist publications.

... to huge monsters like this, there's a lot here.

Further to this last point, this book might also, as it has for me, stimulate a desire to delve further into certain sub-categories; for example, I recently got into the famed German 88mm gun, and I'm prompted now, having read this, to pick up a book from my pending pile about Germany's West Wall...

* The only notable omission theatre/combatant wise that struck me being China.

Tuesday 10 November 2020

Book review: A G.I. In The Ardennes, Denis Hambucken

I love this book!

It accomplishes what I think a lot of Dorling Kindersley style 'survey' type books attempt but, for me, usually fail to achieve, i.e. a colourful yet comprehensive synthesis of a vast amount of information, conveyed in an interesting, exciting yet easy to digest form.

Not only does this book tell the story of the Ardennes campaign, albeit in an admittedly very light and basic manner - from a primarily American perspective as the title makes clear - with numerous firsthand accounts, but it also covers a huge array of more general stuff. There are brief articles on everything from uniforms and equipment to more general American wartime institutions such as the USO (United Service Organizations) and PX (Post Exchange), and the ways in which the homeland and the 'sharp end' interacted.

Aside from the incredible richness and variety of the subject itself, perhaps the greatest strength of the book is the absolutely superb collection of photographic illustrations. These run the gamut from contemporary black and white photos to colour imagery, depicting everything from surviving veterans to a huge array of GI kit/weapons, from such small and humble items as socks, via back-packs and small arms, right up to various tanks, or such monster materiel as the mighty Long Tom 155mm gun.

Amongst this embarrassment of riches I think it's the ragtag yet colourful pictorial smorgasbord of ephemera that I find so evocative and exciting; the many beautifully designed things, from matchbooks (often also quite humorous) and food packaging, to the plethora of items of clothing and weaponry, all of which mix utility with a minimalist military aesthetic - in a range of colours, greys and browns and greens, that I happen to love - it's all just fantastic.

If you're interested in this theatre of the war, I'd highly recommended this thoroughly fascinating and incredibly beautifully put together book.