Archive for the ‘History’ Category


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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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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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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Gettysburg was the largest single battle fought on North American soil.  More so, it is famous for supposedly being the “high point” of the Confederacy and the turning point of the American Civil War, thus making it the climax of the most bloody saga in our nation’s history.  Today begins the 150th anniversary of the 3-day battle fought July 1-3, 1863, and is a good enough time as any to both remember the battle and seek to understand it’s importance.

I’ve been studying military history most of my life, and the Civil War has always had a special place in my studies.  I’ve especially striven to understand the war at a strategic level.  The individual battles have a romantic appeal but the truth is many of the bloody battles fought during the Civil War were inconclusive at the strategic level.  In fact, despite the Union suffering numerous large-scale tactical defeats early in the war the Union strategy of blockading and wearing down the south remained intact and relatively unchanged throughout the war even if numerous attempts to end the war earlier by direct assault ended in dismal failure.  By June 1863 the blockade was devastating the Southern economy, the Confederacy had lost much territory and manpower in the West, and the imminent fall of Vicksburg was about to sever the Western states of the CSA and secure the Mississippi river as a vital transportation conduit for the North.  In this context, Lee’s invasion of the North leading to the battle at Gettysburg was hardly a high point; the South had been losing the war steadily for over a year already, with the showy Southern victories in the east merely ensuring the slow death of the CSA rather than a quick one.

Which then begs the question, just how critical was the battle of Gettysburg itself?  If Lee had won a victory at Gettysburg, could the South actually have gone on to win the war?  Or was the South’s defeat inevitable by that point regardless of the outcome?

These kind of “what if” questions are always difficult to answer since there are so many variables in military history that affect the outcome of significant battles.  The answer of course would largely depend on what kind of victory Lee was able to manage over Meade’s larger army.   In truth, victories in the black powder era were usually limited by the inability to truly destroy the enemy army.  In cases where the enemy army could be surrounded and captured then significant victories were possible, but this was a very rare accomplishment and certainly would not have happened at Gettysburg; Meade was a competent enough commander who commanded enough troops to avoid outright disaster  So a more likely scenario is that the Union suffers heavy losses and is forced to retreat, either to the North or towards Washington DC.  Either way, DC is too heavily fortified for Lee to take.  Lee’s supplies of ammunition would be limited and he didn’t have a true siege train allowing him to capture a significant city target.  Lee might have roamed around and done significant damage foraging in the area, he might have even threatened or captured Baltimore, but fantasies of the Confederates marching into DC are just that.  Meanwhile the North would have brought in reinforcements from the West (thus slowing or even reversing the Union offensive there) and rebuilt the Army of the Potomac yet again, with the very capable Grant in charge.  In the long run, the South would have bought more time but would be unable to stem the tide.

For a slightly more detailed analysis, check out this nice 2010 post on the same topic from another WordPress blogger.

However, even if Gettysburg doesn’t truly live up to all the hype it has received over the years, there is absolutely no doubt that it was an incredibly important victory for the North.  It vindicated Lincoln’s steadfastness and gave him the opportunity to deliver the stirring Gettysburg address.  It shattered the best army the South had ever assembled, with Lee losing over 23,000 veteran troops that simply could not be replaced.  It left the Union offensive in the West unhindered and free to continue it’s march to Atlanta the following year.  And most importantly, it set up Grant as commander of the army in position to drive south to Richmond and bring an end to the bloody war.  I said above many of the large Civil War engagements were strategically significant, but that was certainly not true of Gettysburg; it just likely wasn’t significant enough to swing the outcome of the entire war.  Sadly, Gettysburg also marked a missed opportunity as Meade failed to aggressively pursue Lee’s army which could have led to it’s dissolution and an even more rapid peace.

As the war marches further and further away into history, and as the study of history in most public schools trends away from studying the reality of our wars and more into liberal arts favored political and societal issues, I fear that the true nature of Gettysburg will be somewhat lost and it’s status as “the battle that won the war” will become more cemented in many people’s minds.  Thankfully Gettysburg is also one of the most studied battles of all time and hopefully writing like this blog post will help keep the context of the battle alive for future generations who will continue to be fascinated by this conflict.

If you are curious to read more there are of course numerous great books but for online reading the wikipedia article on the battle is a great place to start.

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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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I’ve been feeling challenged to write more book reviews lately.  I picked up “The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece – And Western Civilization” by Barry Strauss for a few bucks from a used bookstore on Orcas Island, of all places, while my wife and I were there for our 6th wedding anniversary.

Reading ancient history is both fascinating and frustrating.  Fascinating because there are so many interesting and dramatic stories whose results shaped the rest of world history.  Frustrating because the sources are often very limited, both in scope and accuracy, which forces ancient history authors to either provide a lot of speculation or leave gaps.

Salamis is no exception; while there are a very few first-hand sources, most of the sources for the battle were written quite a bit afterwards, including the most detailed by Herodotus.  Even compiling all those sources together we still don’t have very much information on how the battle of Salamis actually played out, so Barry Strauss provides a very large amount of speculation on actions, motives and outcomes.

The battle itself is, of course, fascinating.  (more…)

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