Tag Archives: Military History

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Book Review: World War II: Cause and Effect by Bill Brady

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

World War Two: Cause and Effect by Bill Brady is not so much a narrative history as a topical anthology of the war.  It is a collection of papers Mr Brady has presented over the years collected and published in one volume.  According to the jacket Mr. Brady is a lifelong history buff and is a member and President of the South African Military History Society of Kwa Zulu Natal in Durban, South Africa.

The book itself is 341 pages in length.  The text is divided into twenty-nine topical chapters with each chapter being one of the papers presented.  Unfortunately, the book as neither a bibliography nor an index.  While disappointing, that lack does not seriously harm the book.

There is really nothing new or innovative about the topics covered in the book.  No new theoretical ground is broken and no new facts or data about the war are presented that would tend to change the way the war is viewed.  That being said, the text is clear and the writing style is quite good making this a very enjoyable read.  All the topics are well covered and there are descriptions of some of the less covered events of the war.  The three chapters I found most interesting covered the Battle of the River Plate, the Fall of SIngapore, and the Slapton Sands accident before D-Day.

While this book does not present any ground-shaking new information about World War II, it is a good introduction to some of the wars most famous and also some not so famous events.  The analysis of strategy and tactics within follows the widespread conventional wisdom and judgement of historians.  The lack of a bibliography and index is distressing but then, this is not an academic work nor does it aspire to be one. This is a book about World War II that the average person who knows little about the war can both read and understand.

I recommend this book for people who only know the allies won World War II.  It provides a good, topical, chronology of the war and provides just enough information to cover it’s topics while sparking an interest to learn more.  A good introduction to the war that shows both the complexity and extent of the world’s most devastating war to date.

Book Review: Battle Tactics of the Western Front by Paddy Griffith

Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army`s Art of Attack, 1916-18 by Paddy Griffith is a very interesting book. The premise is that despite what many historians have said about the inertia of the British Army in WWI and it’s resistance to tactical change, that is not true and the British were committed to innovation throughout the war in an effort to break the deadlock of the trenches.

The book itself is not long, 219 pages of text including appendices. There are extensive endnotes and the bibliography is fairly extensive as well. The book is organized topically and though it purports to only deal with the developments of the last two years of the war that is not strictly true. It is divided into 4 parts and with 11 chapters and 3 appendices.

The 4 parts cover an extended introduction, infantry, heavy weapons, and the conclusion. Of particular note to me was his appendix decrying the lack of battle history in recent scholarship in preference for social military histories. That is a topic that speaks volumes to me.

His analysis of the evolution of infantry tactics during the war is incisive and he is wholly correct in saying that the infantry and their commanders were not the static cannon fodder often portrayed in the history books. I particularly found his discussion of the actual impact that machine guns, artillery, and tanks had on battlefield success interesting. He correctly stresses that despite the claimed effects of these wonder weapons, particularly the tank, they were not the war winning weapons that most histories paint them to be. While the tank is dramatic, it played a decidedly secondary role in WWI. Any good history of the methods that won the war should instead focus on the role of artillery and infantry because it is that combination that developed and executed the ground warfare tactics that led to victory and the breaking of the trench stalemate.

This is an interesting study and while it is by no means the final word on WWI tactics, it is a breath of fresh air into a topic that many historians have considered closed for many years. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is dissatisfied with current WWI tactical historical interpretations.

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What is Military History?

The title of this piece is a very good question in my opinion. The question really came home to me recently when I was reading the Calls for Papers in the bi-annual newsletter of the Society of Military History of which I am a member.

It strikes me more and more often that Military History, like other branches of history is increasingly splintered and Balkanized. Much as traditional history is now more concerned with what the average person did than with the trajectory of nations or kingdoms, modern military history seems to focus more and more on the experience of the average soldier instead of how and why wars were fought and won. Many conservatives like to complain of the left’s takeover of academia and I have generally dismissed the idea that it could happen to military history. I am starting to think that I am wrong and the left is usurping the traditional role of military historians to suit some strange social engineering agenda that they unconsciously share among themselves.  Perhaps this trend is happening because fewer military historias have actual experience of war than was previously the case.

When I think of military history I think of the tales of wars, campaigns, and battles. How they were fought and why one side was victorious over the other. Let’s face it, war is about battle and battle or combat is the currency of war. Whichever side builds up the better balance sheet in combat wins. The question to me then becomes, as the title of this post states; What is military history? The Germans break military history down into two different schools what they call Kriegsgeschichte and Militärgeschichte.

1. Kriegsgeschichte is traditional military history having to do with battles and how and why they were won. It was pioneered by the old Prussian General Staff in the time of reform after the Prussian defeat in 1806 and refined to precision by Moltke the Elder in the 1860’s-1880’s. If you want to know what it is like just pick up a copy of the Prussian Official History of the Austro-Prussian or Franco-Prussian Wars to see the epitome of Kriegsgeschichte.

2. Militärgeschichte is a new, post-World War II development in German historiography that has slowly gained ground among the rest of the Western world. It focuses on the individual and their experience, or on the social dynamics of military organizations and not so much on battle itself. One of the things I dislike the most about it is the almost constant moralizing in this type of history. Not all histories of this type are moralizing, but enough are that when I find one that is not it stands out even more. I call it the effeminate military history as it seeks to understand the soldiers motivation to kill or tries to describe the ways in which armies get men to act against their own instincts. Some examples of this type of history are Keegan’s Face of Battle and Mask of Command or Doughty’s American Military History and the Evolution of Western Warfare.

Needless to say, I am generally a Kriegsgeschichte type of historian. I think the purpose of military history should be instructive. It should try to find the lessons of successful armies and make them comprehensible so they can be passed on to succeeding generations. I guess you could say I am Clausewitzean in my outlook although I don’t buy his premises completely nor do I think there is or can be an overarching theory of war. War Theory is properly the subject of a whole series of other posts and I will not go into it here. In short, I believe that good military history examines and analyzes battles and campaigns to determine both what the victor did right and what the loser did wrong. It describes the battles themselves and also the tactics, doctrine, and strategy employed by both combatants in an effort to determine the relative effectiveness of the methods employed. I am talking here of discussing the use open vs. closed order battle formations, differing levels of technology, battlefield and strategic maneuver, surprise, and the motivation and morale of the opposing armies just as a start. There is a place for Militärgeschichte type history in military history but focusing on the individual private soldier detracts from explaining the cause of victory. As cold as it sounds, the individual is but a cog in the machine in military engagements, especially battles involving thousands of soldiers. The only individuals who can make a decisive difference in those kinds of battles are the colonels and generals who make decisions upon which the fate of all the others rests. Individually the soldiers of an army can be the best in the world but if they are used fecklessly or unwisely their competence will not make a difference in winning the battle, only in determining the length of the casualty lists.

Military history is not about right or wrong, good versus bad, or the defeat of evil. It is about what one side did better that made his army more effective and thus let him defeat his enemy. In those factors lie the lessons to be learned from studying the wars of the past. At least, that is my view. I would love to hear from anyone that disagrees or even agrees with me.
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Historical Resources on the Web – Updated 16 Jan 14

Updated 30 January 2014 – Below the fold is a list of historical sources on the internet, this includes both primary and secondary source collections.   I am constantly updating this list when I run across useful sites.   Please point me at sites I miss in the comments section. Continue reading

Book Review: The Color of War: How One Battle Broke Japan and the Other Changed America by James Campbell

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the publisher for purposes of reviewing it. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

The Color of War is one of those strange history books that seems both bipolar and unified at the same time.  It is the story of the invasion of Saipan and the Port Chicago naval disaster told mostly convergently.  At first the somewhat bi-polar nature of the way the story was told was off-putting but the more I read the book the more the method made sense.  The two different but temporally convergent narratives reinforce the separation of black and white service members during World War II.  This is not immediately apparent, but true nonetheless.  The book is 362 pages with almost 100 pages of notes and a 18 page bibliography.

The story of the invasion of Saipan is told from the view of several marines the author interviewed personally and whose memoirs were made available to him.  It easily transmits the variables and uncertainty of the war in the pacific to the reader.  Where the author makes an impact is his description of race relations and the conditions under which black sailors worked at Port Chicago.  Those of us who grew up after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have only a vague idea at best of what life was like for black Americans prior to then and even that view is skewed.  The author does an excellent job of describing that life.  He does an even better job of describing how select individuals reacted to that situation.  The wonder is not that blacks put up with such treatment but with what dignity they endured it.  The author does an outstanding job of describing the situation faced by both white and black marines in Saipan but also that faced by black sailors forced to endure the intolerable at Port Chicago.

My only complaint about the book is that by trying to tell two stories at once it seems they both are somewhat neglected.  I cannot point to anything concrete, but I was left with the impression that there was more to both stories than the author had room to say.  Both narratives are worthy of book-length treatment individually and I would love to see that.  that being said, The way the stories are told is enlightening and it’s somewhat original organization will probably lead to the story of Port Chicago reaching a wider audience than if it had been published as a stand alone work.  One thing that is clear from this book is that the stories of Black soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines in WWII is both interesting and compelling and needs to be told now before the people that experienced pass away and we lose their stories forever.

This is an excellent book that deserves to be on many historians bookshelves.  It tells an important story of WWII in a sensitive and compelling manner.  I highly recommend this book.