Gilbert Stuart MacDonald and Passchendaele

Gilbert Stuart MacDonald

Gilbert Stuart MacDonald, 1889 – 1917

As I’ve mentioned before, there is not much of a tradition of military service in my direct ancestors.

One served in the 42nd Wisconsin Infantry during the Civil War. But he joined in August 1864 and was out in less than a year. The company was on “post and garrison duty” in Illinois during that time.

Before that I have to go back to the American Revolution for ancestors who were in the military (as well as ancestors who were Loyalists and had to flee to Canada after the war).

But among indirect relations on the Canadian side several saw combat. One was in the Canadian Mounted Rifles in the Boer War.

Two were involved in World War One. One never left Canada and served as a cook in a training camp.  (He was also an American citizen born in Missouri but drafted in the Canadian Army. I am unclear about the legalities involved.)

The other was Gilbert Stuart MacDonald who died 100 years ago today.

I was told he died at Passchendaele, so I took a couple of books on the battle off the shelf and read them for the anniversary.

Review: Passchendaele: The Tragic Victory of 1917, Philip Warner, 1987 and Passchendaele: The Untold Story, Robin Price and Trevor Wilson, 1996.

Americans give little thought to Passchendaele. Neither American soldiers or marines fought in it, and Americans generally don’t give a lot of thought to World War One. It is the American Civil War and World War Two which are important in American culture and thoughts.Warner Passchendaele

But the British and Australians and Canadians and New Zealanders definitely still think about it. It was, in some ways, the most horrible battle of the war.

The bare metrics of the battle don’t agree for battles Commonwealth forces fought in. John Terraine’s The Smoke and the Fire provides some. It says Passchendaele lasted 105 days to the Somme’s 21 days. The Somme and the British offensive of August through November 1918 had more casualties than Passchendaele’s 244,000. Many other battles in the war exceeded its casualty average of 2,121 per day.

Nor was the battle the worst in the number of casualties measured against the ground taken or movement of the lines.

But it was the worse for the conditions it was fought in. (The fighting in the Italian Alps between Italians and Austrians, where avalanches and tunnels were part of the weaponry,  has its own unique, if smaller scale, horror.)

Some of the most iconic pictures of the war are from Passchendaele: men and beast moving across duckboards in a landscape of flooded craters and a few shattered trees. Men and horses really did drown when they stepped off those boards. Wounded men really did scream as they lay helpless in craters filling with water. Marches that would take an hour under normal conditions would take many multiples of that as men moved through the mud. Weapons clogged in the mud and rain; artillery shells had to be cleaned of mud before firing. Men waded exhausted across swamps under machine gun fire.

Passchendaele’s horrors came from the incessant rain and the nature of the battlefield.

It was fought on low ground, badly drained because of an underlying layer of clay. What little drainage work had been constructed before the war was destroyed by massive use of artillery, the highest density of shelling yet seen in the war.

Rain was expected around Ypres – the official name of the battle is the Third Battle of Ypres, but the rains were unusually heavy that year.

The battle started with a bang, a very loud bang, the largest explosion in history when 19 mines were detonated under the Germans at 3:10 AM on June 7, 1917. Over a million tons of ammonal explosive going off was heard as far off as London where David Lloyd-George, the British Prime Minister, was working late in his office. To give an idea of the low topographical relief, one of the mines was under Hill 60, a German strongpoint a mere 60 meters above sea level.

Yet, the chaos caused by those mines, some sources say about 10,000 German troops were killed when they exploded, didn’t start the battle proper. General Douglas Haig’s offensive started on July 31, 1917 and ground to a halt, the Germans pushed off their “high ground” of Messines and Passchendaele Ridges and the Gheuvelt Plateau, on November 10, 1917.

I read Prior and Wilson’s book second, but I should have read it first. Even Martin Marix Evans, author of several books on the battle, points out in the February 2007 issue of Over the Top: A Magazine of the First World War (put out by the people who do the Roads to the Great War site listed on my blogroll), who disputes their conclusion that the battle lacked “discernible consequences or achievements”, admires the clarity of their presentation.Wilson Passchendaele

They break each phase of the battle into its own chapter with relevant, clear, small scale maps showing lines of movements and zones of operation for the Commonwealth forces. Warner’s book, a popular history, uses 1920 maps from French sources. While they sometimes show important villages and topographical features lacking in Trevor and Wilson, they don’t show locations of units. It’s even hard to discern the Menin Road that is so much a part of British memory (as much as anything of World War One is) and site of the Menin Gate monument. Continue reading

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Storm of Steel

Review: Storm of Steel, Ernst Jűnger, trans. Michael Hoffman, 1920, 1961, 2003.Storm of Steel

Ernst Jűnger’s World War One memoir is striking for what it doesn’t have.

Jűnger and his comrades don’t speak of why they fight.

There is no lingering while Jűnger talks of the many strange deaths, injuries, and maimings that war can bring. What little emotion there is not horror.

There is no account of Jűnger before or after the war.

There is no description of basic training.

War is a test, a skill that Jűnger doesn’t just need to master to survive. He needs to master it to become the man he wishes to be.

Jűnger was not a common soldier who endured war to protect his nation and loved ones or to fulfill a duty. He was a born warrior.

When he steps off the train at the book’s opening, the test and rapture of battle await:

Full of awe and incredulity, we listened to the slow grinding pulse of the front, a rhythm we were to become mightily familiar with over the years. The white ball of a shrapnel shell melted far off, suffusing the grey December sky. The breath of battle blew across to us, and we shuddered. Did we sense that almost all of us – some sooner, some later – were to be consumed by it, on days when the dark grumbling yonder would crash over our heads like an incessant thunder?

… Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary. We were enraptured by war. … Surely the war had to supply us with what we wanted; the great, the overwhelming, the hallowed experience.

The German Army was not Jűnger’s first military experience. He so wanted to see war he had joined the French Foreign Legion in 1913 when he was 18. His father pulled strings to get him released.

Jűnger learned the science of war well. The war is still going on when the book ends with him winning Germany’s highest medal, the pour le Mérite, commonly called the Blue Max. He was the youngest soldier ever awarded it. But two bullet wounds suffered in August 1918 put him out of the war for good. They were the last of 14 wounds, not counting “trifles such as ricochets and grazes”:

five bullets, two shell splinters, one shrapnel ball, four hand-grenade splinters and two bullet splinters.

But Jűnger had a long life in front of him. He died at age 102 having not only been a man of letters including several works of magical realism and a science fiction novel called The Glass Bees which got a foreword by Bruce Sterling when re-released in 2000. He was also a distinguished entomologist, and devotee of mind expanding drugs and dropped acid with its inventor Albert Hoffmann.

Storm of Steel was a project he returned to again and again. Originally published in a different version in 1920 and privately printed for his fellow veterans, its sparse style comes from Jűnger not needing to explain all the details to a civilian audience in the manner of Henri Barbusse’s 1917 war novel Under Fire which I’ll be looking at it a future post.

Its long German title translates as In Storms of Steel: from the Diary of a Shock Troop Commander, Ernst Jűnger, War Volunteer and subsequently Lieutenant in the Rifle Regiment of Prince Albrecht of Prussia (73rd Hanoverian Regiment). Those diaries, in fact, were published in 2005.

While the German soldiers in Jűnger’s book do not speak of why they fight, that may not have been true of the original version. Translator Hoffman notes the first version ended with

Though force without and barbarity within conglomerate in somber clouds, yet so long as the blade of a sword will strike a spark in the night may it be said: Germany lives and Germany shall never go under!

That tone no doubt appealed to a fellow veteran, Adolf Hitler. Jűnger, though possessing a lifelong contempt for democracy, didn’t have time for the Nazis or Hitler. Fortunately, Hitler did have time for Jűnger when the Gestapo wanted to execute him due to his personal affiliations with members of the Stauffenberg group who tried to assassinate Hitler.

There were, in fact, eight different versions of this memoir. The last was in 1961 which this version is a translation of. Hoffman spends a lot of his introduction complaining about Basil Creighton’s 1929 English translation of the 1924 version. A 1934 version, dubbed “the quiet version” by one critic, may have further reduced the nationalist flavor of the text.

Online research tells me that the first version, however poorly translated, had more details on the stormtroop tactics that Jűnger help develop. While the text gives some flavor of them, Jűnger in no way presents them in a systematic and detailed way.

Jűnger’s text is also largely free of dates though one can figure out the battles he’s talking about. He does assign a date for the chapter “The Great Battle”: March 21, 1918, the beginning of the St. Michael Offensive which pushed the Allied lines back 14 miles in places, the largest movement of the war.

This chapter is the heart of the book, the revelry, ecstasy, and chaos of battle – an offensive at last for the Germans:

As we advanced, we were in the grip of a berserk rage. The overwhelming desire to kill lent wings to my stride. Raged squeezed bitter tears from my eyes.

The immense desire to destroy that overhung the battlefield precipitated a red mist in our brains. We called out sobbing and stammering fragments of sentences to one another, and an impartial observer might have concluded that we were all ecstatically happy.

Jűnger’s account of that day is swirling, restless, hyperactive, brutal:

Here I saw that any defender who continued to empty his pistol into the bodies of the attackers four or five paces away could not expect any mercy when they were upon him. The fighter, who sees a bloody mist in front of his eyes as he attacks, doesn’t want prisoners; he wants to kill.

But the book has quieter moments.

There is the cycle of the German soldier’s day in the trenches, the endless constructing and maintaining of fortifications, the thoughts that go through Jűnger’s mind as he walks sentry duty at night in the “eerie desolation” and “curious … emotional cold”, and the trapping of rats.

Jűnger expresses fondness for the French families he stays with in his time in the rear area.

There are the observations of nature “pleasantly intact” with birds singing in no-man’s land. In the land immediately to the rear

the war had given it a suggestion of heroism and melancholy; its almost excessive blooming was even more radiant and narcotic than usual.

There is humor of a dark sort.

Jűnger talks of one soldier

festooned with weapons – apart from his rifle, from which he was inseparable, he wore numerous daggers, pistols, hand-grenades and a torch tucked into his belt. Encountering him in the trench was like suddenly coming upon an Armenian or somesuch. For a while he used to carry hand-grenades loose in his pockets as well, till that habit gave him a very nasty turn, which he related one evening. He had been digging around in his pocket, trying to pull out his pipe, when it got caught in the loop of a hand-grenade and accidentally pulled it off.

Jűnger says that cold and boredom are the soldier’s greatest enemies. One of his passing amusements, with another NCO, is to collect unexploded artillery shells, pile them up at a safe distance, and try to detonate as many as possible with rifle fire.

The book memorably evokes the closeness of the enemy trench works – at one point only 30 yards apart in a sector Jűnger was in.

Sometimes, men would become confused where they were:

At dusk, two members of a British ration party lost their way, and blundered up to the sector of the line that was held by the first platoon. They approached perfectly serenely; one of them was carrying a large round container of food, the other a longish tea kettle.  They were shot down at point-blank range; one of them landing with his upper body in the defile, while his legs remained on the slope. It was hardly possible to take prisoners in this inferno, and how could we have brought them back through the barrage in any case?

He memorably conveys the experience of a trench raid on June 20, 1916:

These moments of nocturnal prowling leave an indelible impression. Eyes and ears are tensed to the maximum, the rustling approach of strange feet in the tall grass is an unutterably menacing thing. Your breath comes in shallow bursts; you have to force yourself to stifle any panting or wheezing. There is a little mechanical click as the safety-catch of your pistol is taken off; the sound cuts straight through your nerves. Your teeth are grinding on the fuse-pin of the hand-grenade. The encounter will be short and murderous. You tremble with two contradictory impulses: the heightened awareness of the huntsman, and the terror of the quarry. You are a world to yourself, saturated with the appalling aura of the savage landscape.

Junger never denigrates his enemy be it Scots, Indian, New Zealander, or English:

The sergeant practically had both legs sheared off by hand-grenade splinters; even so, with stoical calm he kept his pipe clenched between his teeth to the end. This incident, like all our other encounters with the Britishers, left us pleasantly impressed with their bravery and manliness.

The next paragraph Jűnger talks with some pride of grabbing a sentry’s rifle and shooting a British soldier in the head at 600 hundred yards.

And, later on during a different battle, Jűnger ruminates on the morality of killing:

Outside it lay my British soldier, little more than a boy, who had been hit in the temple. He lay there, looking quite relaxed. I forced myself to look closely at him. It wasn’t a case of ‘you or me’ any more. I often thought back on him; and more with the passing of the years. The state, which relieves us of our responsibility, cannot take away our remorse; and we must exercise it.

Having recently read Dennis Showalter’s Instrument of War about the German Army during World War One, I picked up on short remarks that support his narrative.

Early in the book, he talks about the German trenches and foreshadows the effects they were to have on German morale and effectiveness:

It’s not a question of the scale of the earthworks, but of the courage and condition of the men behind them. The ever-deeper trenches might protect against the odd head wound, but it also made for a defensive and security-conscious type of thinking, which we were loath to abandon later.

For  Jűnger, the worth of a soldier is in his moral spirit. Better the puny but courageous man than a strong coward. He mentions how the war grinds down the experienced soldier whatever his other qualities. On his stormtrooper raids, he preferred men under 20 not for their physical fitness but aggressive spirit.

Jűnger recognized, at the time, that the Battle of the Somme brought in a new phase of the war:

What confronted us now was a war of matériel of the most gigantic proportions. This war in turn was replaced towards the end of 1917 by mechanized warfare, though that was not given time to fully develop.

Jűnger brings to life what history books refer to as “the German Army’s retreat to the Siegfried Line”:

The villages we passed through on our way had the look of vast lunatic asylums. Whole companies were set to knocking or pulling down the walls, or sitting on rooftops, uprooting the tiles. Trees were cut down, windows smashed; wherever you looked, clouds of smoke and dust rose from vast piles of debris. We saw men dashing about wearing suits and dresses left behind by the inhabitants, with top hats on their heads. With destructive cunning, they found the roof-trees of the houses, fixed ropes to them, and, with concerted shouts, pulled till they all came tumbling down. Others were swinging pile-driving hammers, and went around smashing everything that got in their way, from the flowerpots on the window-sills to whole ornate conservatories.

As far back as the Siegfried Line, every village was reduced to rubble, every tree chopped down, every road undermined, every well poisoned, every basement blown up or booby-trapped, every rail unscrewed, every telephone wire rolled up, everything burnable burned; in a word, we were turning the country that our advancing opponents would occupy into a wasteland.

As I say, these scenes were reminiscent of a madhouse, and the effect of them was similar: half funny, half repellent. They were also, we could see right away, bad for men’s morale and honour. Here, for the first time, I witnessed wanton destruction that I was later in life to see to excess; this is something that is unhealthily bound up with the economic thinking of our age, but it does more harm than good to the destroyer, and dishonours the soldier.

Jűnger’s apotheosis came in the St. Michael Offensive:

The Great Battle was a turning-point for me, and not merely because from then on I thought it possible that we might actually lose the war.

The incredible massing of forces in the hour of destiny, to fight for a distant future, and the violence it so surprisingly, stunningly unleashed, had taken me for the first time into the depths of something that was more than mere personal experience. That was what distinguished it from what I had been through before; it was an initiation that had not only opened the red-hot chambers of dread but had also led me through them.

Through it all, Jűnger’s concern with his men, the family of the army company, comes through. In the penultimate chapter, “My Final Assault” recounting events on July 30, 1918 he says :

There wasn’t much to say in the course of the last few days, and with a kind of sweepingness that is only to be explained by the fact that an army is not only men under arms, but also men fused with a sense of a common purpose, probably every one of them had come to understand that we were on our uppers. With every attack, the enemy came onward with more powerful means; his blows were swifter and more devastating. Everyone knew we could no longer win. But we would stand firm.

There’s mention of all you would expect in this memoir – gas attacks, the unburied dead of no-man’s land, grenade duels, the tactics of defending against British tanks, and the effects of influenza on the St. Michael Offensive – and its reputation as one of the great memoirs of the war is well-deserved.

More reviews related to the Great War are on the World War One page.

Wake Up, America!

Review: Wake Up, America!: World War I and the American Poster, Walton Rawls, 1988.Wake Up, America

A beautiful, big coffee table book not only full of well-reproduced posters but also a brief history of the American war effort as touched upon by the subjects of those posters.

Rawls starts out with a brief history of the lithographic poster, an art form still in its golden age during the war. The art poster, not only advertising a product but also aesthetically interesting to collectors, started in France. He also talks about some of the famed European poster artists and their American counterparts on the eve of the war.

The poster was an ideal form of communication in the days before radio and tv, a form that yanked eyes to it and imparted a message even to the illiterate or those not speaking the language of the land they found themselves in. Every nation in the war used them. A German artist who later achieved some political prominence said that American and British posters were the best of the war, uncluttered and effectively conveying their demands to the viewer, conveying and persuading.

Destroy This Mad BruteThe book has a number of non-American posters illustrating events in the pre- and early war years or those few that inspired American imitators.

Americans were producing posters concerned with the war even before the country joined the conflict. Most begged for money to relieve suffering in France and Belgium, an effort very efficiently managed by future President Herbert Hoover. Others were affiliated with the 1915 preparedness efforts of groups like the private National Security League to get ready for a war they thought inevitable.1918_WillYouSupplyEyes_work

On April 17, 1917, a mere 11 days after America entered the war, the president of the Society of Illustrators, Charles Dana Gibson, the man who created the famous pictures of Gibson girls, was asked by illustrator George Creel to let the latter form a committee to produce whatever artwork the government needed. On April 22nd, Gibson met with Creel and the Division of Pictorial Publicity of the Committee on Public Information was born.

By the end of the war, they had produced 700 poster designs to the U.S. government as well as hundreds of other advertisements, cartoons, banners, seals, and buttons.

The subjects were multiple: recruiting for the military, food and fuel conservation, war bonds, war films, counterespionage and security awareness, book drives, the Veterinary Corps, the Y.W.C.A and Y.M.C.A, women in factories, war gardens, and admonitions to immigrants (often in foreign languages) to prove their loyalty.

2d043046493acb017581933931306827The book talks about American at war through the context of these posters with some mostly forgotten stories like the largely unsuccessful attempt to produce a purely American fighter plane, the Liberty Plane (proclaimed by American ace Eddie Rickenbacker as “Flaming Coffins”) or the specifics of the Liberty Loan drives or a call by the U.S. Navy for citizens to loan them binoculars and spy-glasses.Pennell_That-Liberty-Shall-Not-Perish-From-The-Earth,-Buy-Liberty-Bonds,-First-World-War-poster

There are a few post-war posters about hiring veterans, getting other veterans to re-enlist, and the “Watch on the Rhine” overseeing defeated Germany.Poster-Weapons_For_Liberty-Boy_Scouts

Of definite interest for those interested in poster art and World War One. With 279 pages of text and at least one poster on almost every page, there are hundreds of things to look at here.Poster_-_Food_will_win_the_war

 

 

More reviews of World War One related topics are here.

Instrument of War

Review: Instrument of War: The German Army 1914-18, Dennis Showalter, 2016.Instrument of War

The problem with the German Army in World War One, argues Dennis Showalter, is that it was an instrument of war and not for war.

It started with the insouciance of Prussian War Minister Erich von Falkenhayn. On July 5, 1914, he told Moltke the Younger (known as “Gloomy Julius” to the higher ranking members of the German General Staff) – after, of course assuring the Kaiser that the German Army would support the Austro-Hungary Empire’s ultimatum to Serbia — that nothing would come of this war talk. The man who planned the railroad timetables clocking how the German Army would go to war, Wilhelm Gröner, took a July holiday.

It ended with Ludendorff’s spring 1918 offensives which had little more by way of specific objectives than punch a hole in Allied lines and see what happened.

Germany pursued war with a too casual appraisal of strategic ends. It concerned itself with the operational scale of war, not the strategic. Battles were to be won. And the next battle would be won and … Continue reading

Nuggets to Neutrinos

I spent most of my school years living near, but not in, a company town: Lead, South Dakota.

The company was the Homestake Mining Company, and their prize possession was the Homestake Gold Mine.

I’ve walked through forests owned by the company. I’ve seen its buildings on back country roads and logging trucks on the way to the company’s sawmill.

We went on school field trips to see the mile-long, above-ground milling and processing of the gold ore.

I even made several visits to the house of one of the mine superintendents listed in the appendix. (His son was a friend of mine.)

The very landscape around Lead would change between trips home post-college as Homestake restarted surface mining and built large conveyer belts and tunnels to move ore about.

However, neither I nor any of my family actually worked for the company.

I wanted an historical context for all this, I wanted to know what all those Homestake buildings were for, and I wanted all the book’s pictures, so I picked this one up.

Review: Nuggets to Neutrinos: The Homestake Story, Steven T. Mitchell, 2009.Nuggets to Neutrinos

Mitchell’s book reminds me of one of those old James Michener novels with a place name for a title.

Like those novels, Mitchell starts his tale back in the Precambrian past with a look at the geology of the Black Hills of South Dakota where the Homestake Mine was located. He then talks about Indian settlement in the area and early white exploration of it. The various reconnaissance expeditions the U. S. Army mounted in the upper Great Plains from 1853 to 1874 get a chapter as do early explorations by white prospectors. The Black Hills gold rush has a chapter.

White expropriation of the Black Hills, granted to the Sioux Nation by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, is covered. Mitchell gives an even handed, yet concise, summary of white-Indian relations in the context of the Black Hills and the treaty violations on both sides and resulting wars.

It’s only after five chapters and 133 pages that Mitchell gets to the discovery of the Homestake lode. The outcropping of rock which provided the “lead” to the gold ore gave its name to Lead, South Dakota where the mine operated from 1876 to 2001. Continue reading

Somme: 1 July 1916

I read this one on the 100th anniversary of its title.

Yes, I’m catching up on some reviews.

This is an Osprey Publishing book. If you have spent any time in wargaming shops or reading military history, you’ve probably seen their work. They are chock-full of maps and color drawings for those painting wargame miniatures and models and offer concise yet detailed looks at their subjects. Scholarly monographs for popular audiences basically.

Before this one, I think I’ve only read one of their books. It was on Roman forts along the Saxon Shore of England – an interest I developed after accidentally wandering into one, Portchester Castle, on the way to Royal Armouries Museum at Fort Nelson. (Those familiar with Portchester’s geography may wonder how such an accident could possibly occur. It’s a long story.)

I’ve inherited a bunch of Osprey books on the English Civil War (not a particular interest of mine) from one of my companions on that expedition, and this book I got when a friend was purging his library.

Review: Somme: 1 July 1916: Tragedy and Triumph, Andrew Robertshaw, 2006.Somme

This book is the 169th entry in Osprey Publishing’s in Campaign series.

It lays out, in the first 41 pages, the context of the Somme campaign: the events in World War One that preceded it, the state of the opposing armies, strategic objectives of the opposing sides, and looks at the opposing commanders.

The rest of the 96 pages look at the first day of the Battle of the Somme including the experiences of soldiers on both sides. The concluding pages look at the battlefield today.

It’s hardly my first exposure to the Battle of the Somme, a battle that looms as large as any in the memory of Englishmen for its greatest single day slaughter of the British Army.

The book has a couple of points that stuck out for me.

First is the “triumph” of the title. There were Allied successes on the first day. The British XIII Corps took its objectives including Montauban. The French army also got as far as second-line German positions. Continue reading

The Crusade of Richard I

It’s been awhile since I read a full book on the Crusades.

I picked up an interest in the subject in college after studying the Knights Templar. This was before bookstore shelves sagged under the weight of dubious Templar histories in the wake of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. (Though it was after the publication of Brown’s inspiration: Holy Blood, Holy Grail from Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh.)

So, when I saw that NetGalley was giving away review copies of this old history, I picked one up.

By the way, whenever King Richard’s name comes up, Steely Dan’s “Kings” comes to mind:

Now they lay his body down

Sad old men who run this town.

I still recall the way

He led the charge and saved the day.

Blue blood and rain

I can hear the bugle playin’.

We seen the last of Good King Richard.

Ring out the past his name lives on.

Roll out the bones and raise up your pitcher.

Raise up your glass to Good King John!

Review: The Crusade of Richard I, T. A. Archer, 1898, 2016.crusade-of-king-richard-i

A good book, an interesting and very readable compilation of primary sources about the Third Crusade, what we would now call a sourcebook, and I’d recommend it to anyone curious about the subject.

This was part of a 19th century publisher to put together learned but popular histories for the English public, and Archer went on to write several entries in the Dictionary of National Biography.

Archer’s footnotes are valuable in annotating the confusing similarities of names and titles, providing alternate names for places, correcting mistakes in dates, and even trying to locate where certain settlements in Outremer were.

The famous stories from the Third Crusade are all here. Saladin (or his brother Saphadin) really did send Richard a horse after the king lost his at the Crusader assault on Jaffa. Richard did have almost 3,000 Moslem captives beheaded though both English and Islam accounts support the conclusion it was not gratuitous cruelty but impatience over stalled negotiations between Saladin and Richard. (They didn’t call them hostages for nothing.) A few noble emirs were kept alive because both armies were always looking to cash in with aristocrat redemption. Continue reading

What If?

The alternate history continues with a collection of essays from various historians and popular writers, a modern sequel of sorts to If It Had Happened Otherwise.

There was a follow up volume I have not read.

Raw Feed (2004): What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, ed. Robert Cowley, 2000.what-if

“Introduction”, Robert Cowley — A cursory look at the current state of academic “counterfactual” writing, teasers for the essays in the collection, and a brief discussion of their genesis in the special tenth anniversary edition of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History.

Infectious Alternatives: The Plague That Saved Jerusalem, 701 B.C.”, William H. McNeill — Not surprisingly McNeill, the historian who really first put forth the idea that disease epidemics affected many events in history, chooses a plague as his turning point. We don’t really know why the Assyrian king Sennacherib abandoned his investment of Jerusalem. We know his army suffered severe losses, and it is probable that it was due to disease. McNeill briefly sketches, in cultural and religious terms, the consequences of the Assyrians taking Jerusalem and, thereby, killing Judaism as a cultural force for good. (It really isn’t that much of a stretch. The splinter kingdom of Israel had abandoned Judaism and disappeared in 722 B.C. Several cities in Judah were taken, and the King of Judea ended up paying tribute to the Assyrians.) McNeill sees the main effect of Jerusalem being taken is that the Jewish faith looses further confidence. The unique universal monotheism of Judaism is weakened. When the Jews are taken off in the Babylonian captivity, they become just another locally centered, ethnically based faith and exert no influence on the following centuries.

A Good Night’s Sleep Can Do Wonders“, Barbara N. Porter — A very brief alternate history that imagines the possible consequences (actually, it spends most of its time recounting the historical record and not imagining alternative outcomes) of the Lydian King Gyges not getting a good night’s sleep and impatiently attacking the Cimmerians before he was ready. The Lydians don’t form an alliance with Assyria and, years later, nascent Greek culture is overwhelmed by the expanding Cimmerians. Continue reading

The Big Book of Jack the Ripper

No, I’m not a Ripperologist. I do not (often) go to Casebook.org.

But I don’t have to be a Ripperologist to know about Jack the Ripper, and neither do you. Never being caught and writing (maybe) those taunting letters to the police gave him a posthumous infamy not attained by those more vicious.

I’ve rarely gone out of my way to read about the Ripper – no nonfiction beyond some articles, a single novel and some short stories. All those, except for Robert Bloch’s The Night of the Ripper, were encountered by chance.

Ripper movies are another matter, but I don’t do movies at this blog. (For the record, my favorite Ripper films are Time After Time and Jack’s Back.)

So why did I ask Amazon to send me a review copy of an 864 page book on the subject?

Mostly because I didn’t have a copy of Robert Bloch’s “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” in the house, and we were discussing it on the Deep Ones discussion group at LibraryThing. And I am mildly curious about the Ripper.

Review: The Big Book of Jack the Ripper, ed. Otto Penzler, 2016.big-book-of-jack-the-ripper

Yes, it’s a big book, 864 pages, 11 non-fiction pieces and 41 pieces of fiction, and there’s no way I’m going to mention every single entry. (And, while it’s just barely manageable in print form and nicely laid out in double columns, you may want to spare your wrists the effort and go for the kindle edition. There are no illustrations.)

This book should satisfy everyone interested in the Ripper killings. The non-fiction pieces provide the context and introduction to the historical murders. Obsessive collectors on Ripper material will find new Ripper material here. (Though I note only one parenthetical mention of a suspect I find credible, American doctor Francis Tumblety.)

The first 136 pages are taken up with the historical details of the Ripper murders and the wake he left in criminology. Continue reading

Moment of Battle

You should get some new content shortly.

Until then, here’s a retro review from April 12, 2013.

Review: Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World, Jim Lacy and Williamson Murray, 2013.Moment of Battle

This is the latest updating of Edward Creasy’s The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo.

The battles range from Marathon in 490 BC to Operation Peach of the Iraq War in 2003. The authors opt for a specific criteria – not battles that changed the course of a war but ones that fundamentally altered the future influence of nations and cultures. Most of the time that criteria is met even if it means we get four from WWII (the Battle of Britain, Midway, Kursk, and Normandy). The inclusion of the Iraq War is, as the authors acknowledge, somewhat questionable given that history is only beginning to work out its effects. It seems there to mainly lend novelty to the latest entry in this military history sub-genre and to take advantage of the authors’ own contributions to scholarship on the war – in this case a fascinating look at Saddam Hussein’s decisions in response to the invasion of his country.

Besides the Iraq War, there are other deviations from the stated formula. The “Annus Mirabilis” chapter actually covers two 1759 battles, one on land and one on sea, that determined the British, and not the French, Empire would dominate the world and lay the groundwork for modern globalization. We get Vicksburg and not Gettysburg for the American Civil War – thus running counter to the authors’ wry observation that historians looking for a quick payday can always whip out a book on Hastings, Waterloo, or Gettysburg. (Hastings is here, though.) Continue reading