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The Price of Glory is the second in Alistair Horne’s trilogy of books examining the three major French/German conflicts from 1870 to 1940, the first being The Fall of Paris about the Franco-Prussian war and Paris Commune which I reviewed back in April of last year.  The Price of Glory moves on to World War I and carefully examines the battle of Verdun.

Few names have been etched into the annals of Western Civilization as those of Verdun and Somme, and both of these horrific battles occurred in 1916 as part of the pivotal year on the Western Front of World War I.  Roughly 1.7 million men perished in these two battles which marked the beginning of the end of the Central Powers war effort.

At the start of 1916 things were looking bright for Imperial Germany for the first time since the bitter defeat of it’s initial drive into France in 1914.  A series of Allied offensives launched in 1915 had collapsed with heavy casualties, while the British landing in Gallipoli had become an expensive failure.  The Russians were reeling from a series of defeats and for a brief period Germany had the opportunity to take the offensive on the Western Front, the only front where the war could truly be decisively won.

This led the supreme German military commander, General Falkenhayn, to devise a fairly radical strategy: an offensive intended to bleed the French army white in a death struggle over a strategic city that the French High Command would refuse to give up.  Horne claims a battle of attrition on this scale was a new and unheard of concept at this time and I’m inclined to think he’s correct.

The area selected, the traditional fortress city of Verdun, was symbolically important but had by 1916 largely been stripped of its artillery and was fairly lightly defended.  Ironically, the carefully planned and orchestrated German opening offensive was almost too successful as the German’s gained so much ground initially that they were in danger of capturing the city before drawing large French forces in to defend it.  Horne proposes that an opportunity was present for a great and unexpected German victory but (more…)

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Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East is a detailed narrative of the Six Day War fought in 1967 between Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Israel by Michael Oren.  The 1967 war is generally considered the third Arab Israeli war and is by far one of the most interesting wars ever fought because of both it’s brevity and the far-reaching consequences of it’s outcome for the modern Middle East.

I first became aware of the Six Day war from my Dad, back as a kid during one of the conversations we would have about history while working on an outdoor project.  I was just getting into wargaming and military history at the time (largely because of my Dad’s influence) and studying long-running wars such as WWII and the Civil War, so the concept of a war lasting only six days was fascinating to me.

I picked up Six Days of War from a Goodwill for only a couple bucks a few months ago and after taking the time to read through it I’m pretty happy with my find.  The book is not truly a military history of the conflict; in fact, the accounts of the actual fighting are relatively few and far between, and are there more for flavor than as a proper military history.  Relatively information is present regarding equipment, orders of battle, and other details that military historians normally look for though the key military events are all discussed.

Instead, the author’s focus is on the war as a political event, and his dizzying cast of characters is the complex web of politicians and generals that were pulling the strings in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Israel, the Soviet Union, and the United States at the time.  After a very brief history of Israel’s previous conflicts with the Arabs the book’s narrative closely covers the months, then weeks, then days of time period leading up to the war.  The steps to war are carefully explained, from Nasser’s eviction of UNEF, to the closure of the straits of Tiran, to the Israeli decision to launch a preemptive strike.  The actual war itself is covered with a chapter per day, again primarily focusing on the political events and decisions more so than the military ones.

Where the book truly excels is in it’s careful explanation of why the Arabs lost the war so quickly and suddenly, a war that they had been fully anticipating and planning for years and which had been (more…)

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Empires of the Sea:  The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World by Roger Crowley is a chronological and thematic sequel to 1453:  The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West which I previously reviewed.  Apart from coming up with long book titles, Mr. Crowley has a real knack for bringing to life what is for many folks a rather obscure period of history.  1453 was a good read and informative on its subject matter but I found Empires of the Sea to be the superior book, in large part due to the grander scope of the story.

The struggle between Muslim and Christian states for control of the Mediterranean in the 1500s makes for some fascinating reading.  In many ways it can be looked as the first world war, with resources from 4 continents fed into the struggle for what was then the most important body of water in the world.  The Christian Hapsburg dynasty at the time controlled roughly half of Europe and was pitted against the might of the Ottoman Empire in it’s prime, creating a contest between two very large and very centralized superpowers.  On the side are various smaller powers; the Barbary corsairs making life miserable for the Christian nations, and Venice always trying to protect their valuable trade.

The book is organized into roughly three sections.  The first section covers the lead-up to the struggle and the Siege of Rhodes in 1522 which saw the Knights of St. John relocated to Malta.  The rise of the Barbary corsairs is described as well as the inevitable conflict between the courts of the Hapsburgs and Ottoman.  The second portion of the book covers the siege of Malta in great detail, one of the most fascinating sieges of all time and an epic tale well worthy of an exciting narrative style.  The somewhat shorter third and final section covers the Ottoman invasion of Cyprus, the lead-up to the decisive battle of Lepanto, and ends with a relatively brief description of the battle itself.

In general, I found Mr. Crowley’s narrative style better suited to the story in this book than in the previous 1453 book.  There are a lot better resources for the 1500s time period, including actual printed books due to the recent invention of the printing press, so that the book feels better fleshed out.  The faster pace and grander scope also ensures non-stop action.

Both the siege of Malta and the battle of Lepanto are stories completely worthy of their own books, but are covered in sufficient detail here to satisfy most casual historians.  Once again, Mr. Crowley is careful to paint both sides in a contemporary light.  There are no “good guys” or “bad guys”, there isextreme brutality and vile political backstabbing on both sides.  The gruesome nature of siege and galley warfare at the time is well described.  Once again, the book may be lacking a bit for those looking for a high level of academic detail but the book hits it’s target audience quite nicely.  It’s 5 star review rating on Amazon.com is well earned.

I would certainly give Empires of the Sea a stronger recommendation than 1453 for the interested reader, and would highly recommend it to just about anyone interested in the period.

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1453

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 is often regarded as one of the key points in history, as it represented the final destruction of the last vestige of the old Roman Empire and the rise of the Ottoman Empire as a great power and threat to Christian Europe.  It is also a romantic and tragic image, the last stronghold of the old empire finally falling to the overwhelming strength of the Muslims, its last emperor dying defending its walls.  Better understanding this historical story has long been on my wish list and Roger Crowley’s well regarded 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West seemed like the perfect fit.

The decline of Byzantium and accompanying rise of the Ottoman Empire is covered in the brief first portion of the book.  The pacing of the book is relatively swift; sparse background is given on either Byzantium or the Ottomans, with the author preferring to focus on the events of the siege itself.  If you are completely unfamiliar with the history in the preceding centuries the book will give you a basis of understanding but don’t expect long chapters on the battles of Manzikert or the 4th Crusade.

The real meat of the story is the detailed account of the siege itself which in effect lasted less than 2 months.  It was really more of a concerted assault than a siege, since the attacking army was so large it could not be sustained for long and since the symbolism and religious significance of taking the city motivated Mehmet II to try to seize it quickly.  There aren’t a wealth of accounts about the siege but there is sufficient information to allow the author to create a rather riveting narrative of the bombardment, the management of the defenses, and the reasons why the city received so little aid from the rest of Christian Europe.

The actual sad state of Constantinople in 1453 was something of a disappointment to many of the Ottoman troops hoping for rich plunder, and it was to me also.  By this time Byzantium was an empire by heritage and name only, and the city had been thoroughly wrecked during the 4th crusade and the multiple civil wars that followed.  The depleted population was actually too small for the size of the city, so that some of the city was really more disconnected towns within the outer walls.  Militarily Byzantium was spent, the defenses of the city amounted to only a few thousand Greek soldiers and a couple thousand more Italian and other Catholic troops and sailors who either volunteered or were impressed into the defense.  Still, (more…)

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The defeat and conquest of France by Nazi Germany in 1940 remains one of the most difficult to understand campaigns of World War II.  The fall of France was an epic disaster for the Allied cause and completely unexpected at the time, making it a fascinating campaign to study.  Unfortunately, it ranks relatively low in the interest of most popular WWII historical study which tends to focus on the Eastern Front or the American involvement in the war.  For the most part people assign France’s defeat to low morale, obsolete doctrines, and an over-reliance on the Maginot line.  The realities are not only more complex, they also diverge significantly from this common understanding.  France had one of the largest, most modern, and most powerful armies in the world in 1940.  The combined forces of Britain and France were equal or superior to the opposing German forces in every category; tanks, planes, guns, men.  How, then, was France defeated in a matter of a few weeks?  The analysis is no easy task, but Ernest May is up to it.

Strange Victory does not spend its pages describing the actual conflict as it played out; this is relegated to only a small portion at the end of the book.  Instead, the book carries forward two alternating narratives, one looking at the German high command and intelligence and the other their French and British counterparts.  He begins this narrative around 1936 when Germany moved to re-militarize the Rhineland, Hitler’s first truly aggressive action in the international sphere, and carries it forward through the various major events along the way; the Anschluss, the Munich Conference crisis, and the early stages of the war itself.  Prof. May is a master at describing this complex narrative from the perspective of intelligence.  What did each side know at each point, and how did they know it?  How was their strategic direction changed by this knowledge or lack of knowledge?

On the German side, the conflict between Hitler and his generals is brought to vivid life; few people understand just how tenuous Hitler’s hold was on the army in the late 1930s, with the army at several points considering removing him from power due to his reckless moves.  Hitler’s political genius and his ability to read the situation of opposing politicians allowed him to recognize some of the inherent weaknesses of the democracies he was facing off against, but he failed to read a critical shift in mood leading to a war with the West that no one in Germany wanted.  Epic clashes between Hitler and his generals on how best to defeat France followed, with Hitler’s planned invasion of Western Europe being delayed again and again.  However, this created an environment where the Germans were constantly re-designing their plans and wargaming them to attempt to predict the outcome.  More importantly, these wargames themselves allowed German intelligence officers to play the part of the Western Allies and attempt to apply assumptions about their unique strengths and weaknesses.  As a result, the German offensive plan that evolved represented Germany’s best hope for a decisive victory but even then the German generals carrying it out gave it a 90% chance of failure.

On the Allied side, May works very hard to re-create for the reader the immense confidence the Allies felt about their strategic situation in early 1940.  A German offensive around the Maginot line was not only expected, the entire Allied military strategy hinged on it; a completely defensive mindset in which victory would be accomplished with the fewest casualties incurred dominated the political mindset.  Thus, early opportunities in both 1938 and 1939 to act against Germany and swiftly obtain victory were squandered repeatedly.  Here you see all the weaknesses of democracies at war in their most glaring light.  The political bickering between parties, the French military overplaying German strength to try to obtain more funding, and the agonizingly slow decision-making process at every level.  France had a very centralized and incredibly powerful intelligence apparatus, but failed to exploit it by relying on preconceived notions of what the German strategy would be.  Ultimately, and most cripplingly, France and Britain proved unable to shake these preconceptions even as building evidence indicated that the Germans might launch an unorthodox offensive through the Ardennes and even in the first few days after the offensive actually began.

May goes out of his way to make abundantly clear his view that the Allied defeat was one of intelligence and planning, and rules out any other factors including morale, doctrine, equipment, or tactical performance.  When pitted against each other in equal combat as they were briefly in Belgium, the 1st line mobile forces of both armies proved equal to each other and provided a brief view of how Germany would have been defeated in a conventional campaign as the Allies expected.  In reality the German plan was a Hail Mary, an offensive launched on a shoe-string with a low probability chance of success.  The German victory was a result of a plan that also benefited from a fortunate chain of events, thus deceiving both sides as to it’s nature and leading to the myth of German military superiority which persists to this day.  Hitler’s level of involvement allowed him to take a significant portion of the credit for the victory, established his dominance over the military, and led to his obsession with his own military genius that would lead to terrible future strategic decisions and Germany’s crushing defeats later in the war.

The book is well written and the narrative flows smoothly, but the depth is significant.  This book is not a light read and I would recommend it only for those who are intensely interested in understanding the campaign from a new and interesting perspective.  However, I would view this book as nearly indispensable, not just in understanding what happened in May 1940 but also in understanding the mindsets of the German and Allied leadership from the 1930s up to that point.  The pulling aside of the intelligence curtain and looking at the campaign from the perspective of the officers planning for it months and years in advance is a fantastic lesson in real life military conflicts; I would love to see this same level of study done on many other campaigns in this war and others.

Where the book is weakest is in the statistics and numbers involved; May tends to fall back on a lot of anecdotes and statistics without context, which he uses in particular to drive certain points about the performance of the French army.  Some of these assertions have been challenged in online reviews and certainly I would not consider the book to be a standalone reference to the campaign.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough as an addition to the library of any serious WWII scholar.

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The Franco-Prussian war is one of those little-known, little-understood wars of the 19th century that few people outside of serious historians have any interest in.  And yet, the Franco Prussian war of 1870-1871 led to the creation of the German Empire and the geo-political situation in Europe which in turn led to World War I some 43 years later.  Since World War I then led directly to World War II, which in turn led to the creation of much of the modern world situation that we live in, it’s arguable that the Franco Prussian war was actually of critical importance in tracing world history.  More directly, it kicked off 70 years of intense German/French rivalry that was carried through three major wars and has been called by some the “modern Hundred Years War”.

My interest in unusual military history and some browsing on Amazon.com led me to discover Alistair Horne’s “The Fall of Paris” which was highly recommended as a narrative of both the siege of Paris during the war itself and the brief, bloody revolution that followed.  The book is neatly divided into two parts; the first part discusses briefly the opening campaigns of the Franco-Prussian war and then settles in to a detailed description of the Prussian siege of the city.  The second part of the book then looks closely at the revolution that established the Paris commune shortly after the war and the brutal repression of the revolution by the new French government.  Together the two parts paint a vivid picture of the end of an era and of a proud and cultured city to devastation and complete ruin.

The colorful first chapter deserves it’s own mention as it describes in vivid detail the great 1867 International Exposition in Paris, which the author uses to introduce the readers to a long-lost era of European society; he briefly discusses the state of art, science, French culture, and the poor state of the Imperial French government.  The book then delves into the causes for the war itself and the early mobile campaign which ended disastrously for the French with both their major field armies forced to surrender, including the capture of the French Emperor Napoleon III.  A new French government decided to continue the war after rejecting Prussian territorial demands and Prussia then put Paris itself under siege.  The siege is described in detail during the remainder of the first part with various interesting elements touched upon such as the extensive use of balloon communications, the plight and creativity of the French civilians in surviving the siege, and the bungling attempts by the few cobbled together French armies to relieve the city.  In the end the French war effort was broken and France was forced to sign a humiliating treaty, while Prussia united with various other German states to create the French nightmare of a united German Empire, thus sowing the seeds of animosity that would eventually lead to World War I.

The second part of the book relates story of the Paris Commune (technically the second Paris Commune, the first having been formed briefly during the French Revolution).  Understanding the complicated nature of French politics of the era with it’s tangled web of philosophies, movements, and personalities is no easy task, but is critical to in turn understanding the various causes that led to the revolution in Paris in 1871.  Overall Horne does a skillful job of relating the tale without going into crushing detail, though keeping track of the cast of characters can be daunting.  However the narrative is fairly easy to follow regardless, and is a fascinating and sordid tale that I knew nothing about prior to reading the book.  The commune was a brief attempt by radical left-wing political groups in Paris to take advantage of the bizarre circumstances immediately following the war (weakness of the French army, departure from the city of much of the right-wing population, and distance of the new government) to establish a local Paris government.

The commune only existed chaotically for roughly 2 months before a brutal government assault broke the unorganized defenses and re-took the city in bloody street-fighting (highly unusual for the era).  The formation and brief existence of the commune is nonetheless a fascinating look into left-wing politics of the 19th century , who contributed directly to the Communist and Socialist movements which grew to tremendous power during the 20th century.  Karl Marx, among many other later communist leaders, studied and wrote about the successes and failures of the commune in great detail and there is no doubt that lessons learned were applied successfully later such as in Russia during the Communist revolution there.

The book’s style is quite readable, the only downside being the immense number of names to keep track of in French politics.  The general narrative is easy to follow and full of strange and interesting stories; the book deserves it’s high rating on Amazon and is a great read for someone interested in the subject matter, though the reader must be willing to make a descent mental investment.

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I have an obsession with human failure.  Big human-caused disasters like the Titanic, the Great Depression, JAL flight 123, etc.  Partly it’s the engineer in me that wants to understand the mechanics of how the failure occurred.  Partly it’s the historian in me that wants to understand important unintended historical events that have had far-reaching consequences.  Partly it’s the reader in me who wants to read an interesting, tragic true tale and reflect on what it teaches us about humanity.

Military history, being made up nearly entirely of interacting human decisions, is especially replete with man-made disasters and tragic tales of lost causes and disastrous chains of events with far-reaching consequences.  Many of the major military failures have also become very popular and common images in the public mind; Teutoburg Forest, Little Big Horn, Pickett’s charge, the opening days of WW1, and many more.  One that has always piqued my interest is the battle of Dien Bien Phu, a pivotal event in the early Cold War that ended the French Indochina War and led directly to American involvement in Vietnam a decade later.  While I’ve had some vague idea of the battle’s importance for some time, I’ve never really understood what happened there and I decided to read one of the most recommended and highly reviewed books on the topic, “Hell in a Very Small Place” by Bernard B. Fall.

There are a few things to understand about the book right away.  First, it was written in 1966 shortly before the author’s death in Vietnam while accompanying US Marines on a patrol, so the perspective of the book on future events related to Vietnam is quite limited.  In some ways this is unfortunate, but it also allows the book to offer a unique contemporary perspective that is not tainted by revisionist history.  Second, this is not a book on the larger French Indochina conflict but instead entirely about Dien Bien Phu; the author has another book titled “Street Without Joy” that covers the larger conflict.  Lastly, while eminently readable if you enjoy military history, this is not a quick read; it is the product of enormous quantities of research by the author and is an incredibly detailed account.

That the battle of Dien Bien Phu even occurred at all was only the result of (more…)

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