Last Men in London

Surely you knew that mention of Olaf Stapledon was going to start another series.

We start with one of Stapledon’s most obscure science fiction works.

I read this one out of the 1976 Gregg Press. They never seem to have come with dust jackets, so you get no cover picture for this one.

This one definitely needs a re-read for the World War One in Fantastic Fiction series.

Raw Feed (1996): Last Men in London, Olaf Stapledon, 1932.

My reactions to reading this novel in 1996. Spoilers follow.

“Introduction”, Curtis C. Smith and Harvey J. Satty — Introduction to the 1976 edition of the novel. It talks of Stapledon’s vision that inspired his Last and First Men and Last Men in London. It also speaks of the generally harsh criticism of this sequel to Last and First Men and this novel’s obscurity. The authors also note many similarities between character Paul and Stapledon.

Last Men in London, Olaf Stapledon — In many ways, this sequel to Stapledon’s Last and First Men is very different. It is much lacking in the speculative wonders of natural and social evolution of the latter novel. The only new things in that regard are the society of philosophical lemurs which predate man. Their territory is invaded by primitive man who wipes the lemurs out because, though they are philosophically and morally advanced, they’re lacking in practical knowledge, skill, and curiosity. This notion that man must have intellectual curiosity, scientific learning, dispassion and detachment, a comfortable sensuality, a morality that emphasizes community, and a sense of cosmic purpose is emphasized again and again. Every species before the near-perfect 18th Man is lacking at least one of these virtues, and, therefore, doomed. Of course, even the 18th men are doomed and revert to primitive, near-animals. 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

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 Intelligence War in Latin America, 1914 – 1922

This one came from LibraryThing, and there was no way I was going to pass up a review copy of a book about World War One and espionage.

Review: The Intelligence War in Latin America, 1914 – 1922, Jamie Bisher, 2016.intelligence-war-in-latin-america

Not an easy read, but this dense book is rewarding and necessary for any student of World War One and espionage history.

The only books, according to Bisher, that even partially cover this subject are Barbara Tuchman’s The Zimmerman Telegram and Friedrich Katz’s The Secret War in Mexico.

Bisher’s story covers events from Canada to Tierra del Fuego and the Caribbean. It is, as he notes, unfortunately dependent mostly on American intelligence records. His requests, in writing and in person, for access to Latin American intelligence records were met with silence or derision. German, British, and Japanese (yes, Japan plays a significant role in this book) records were destroyed in the Second World War or were purged for space and financial reasons.

Bisher begins his story way back in 1867 with Aureliano Blanquet delivering the coup de grace in the execution of Emperor Ferdinand Maximillian – the uncle of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The young Blanquet went on to be a major player in Mexican politics in 1913 with the death of President Francisco Madero. Continue reading

If It Had Happened Otherwise

I’m on vacation, but I’ll still post this.

It even has some World War One material relevant for today.

This was, I believe, the first collection of academic alternate histories ever done and featured various famous historians and literary writers of the early 20th century.

This is a Raw Feed, so my historical ignorance is not as great as 29 years ago.

Raw Feed (1987): If It Had Happened Otherwise, ed. J. C. Squire, 1931, 1972.if-it-had-happened-otherwise

“Introduction”, J.C. Squire — Brief comments on academic alternate history treatises.  Emphasizes importance of causality chain beginning with trivial event (brilliantly explored in Bradbury’s “Sound of Thunder”) and how we almost always think of alternate histories as undesirable worlds to our own though this obviously depends on cultural/moral/political point of view.

“Introduction”, John Wheeler-Bennett — Brief comments on history of alternate history as literature and valid historical speculation. (His definition of alternate histories are peculiar. He includes political sf like Fail-Safe.)  He also writes on why he likes sub-genre.

If the Moors in Spain Had Won“, Philip Guedalla — Like most essays in this book promise to be, this story (told in excerpts from travel books, history texts, diplomatic papers, and newspapers) this is a rich source for alternate world ideas. The work not only develops its premise but wryly comments on historical study:  chance events of little seeming significance to change things drastically, the events of our history were not inevitable, over reliance on economic factors in studying history, and belief that events in our history were for the best.

If Don John of Austria Had Married Mary Queen of Scots“,  G.K. Chesterton — A rather muddled piece of writing (part of problem could be I’m not familiar with the fine points of English history) whose purpose seems to be less constructing an alternate history than an edifying Christian legend of true love (which, evidently, the rest of us mortals can not achieve due to the Original Sin) in Don John and Mary’s marriage. Chesterton’s portrayal of Mary (perhaps because he is a Catholic) seems very idealized though he does seem to validly suggest Mary was a charming, beautiful, vigorous monarch. Chesterton seems to think their marriage would have included England in a greater community (that would have been created with the marriage) of a Europe with Christian traditions and morality and Renaissance vigor and questioning. He seems to attack Puritan influence on England as culturally mordant and brutal. He does have a satirical wit in regard to the question of history and study. He also has a valid point when he says we should consider personal motives such as attraction (and, unspoken, sex) as well as great abstract motives of diplomacy and economics. (A similar point as to Ward Moore’s saying history is made by people obsessed with the trivial.) Continue reading

Faces of War

Faces of War

Something a bit different this time.

If you find yourself in Minneapolis before March 14, 2016 and have any interest in Russian history or World War One, I would highly recommend The Museum of Russian Art’s Faces of War exhibit.

It’s the third stop for the exhibit which premiered in Moscow and then went to Belgrade.

Looking at not only events on the battlefield, it also covers the home front, internal Russian politics — particularly the lives of the royal family during the war, and the war’s aftermath.

I’ve been to the Imperial War Museum (though I have not seen their revamped World War exhibit) and the National World War One Museum in Kansas City. You will see stuff here you have not seen before.

For me the high point was the actual telegrams and hand written letters exchanged by Kaiser Wilhelm and Czar Nicholas as they begin to realize the apocalypse about to descend on Europe. They corresponded in English so you can see Nicholas’ agitation in his handwriting and underlinings.

Other high points:

  • Coverage of Russia’s heroic Brusilov Offensive in 1916 that vey well may have stopped a German victory at Verdun.
  • Bios and photos of individual generals.
  • Photo of a Russian submarine being launched.
  • News reel footage of Archduke Ferdinand’s visit to Sarajevo.
  • The turmoil in the Imperial Court including the Czar’s abdication speech.
  • The October 1917 suicide note of a Russian Army ensign who would not serve in the post-Revolutionary army.
  • Russian wartime bond drive and propaganda posters.

The exhibition book costs $35, and, to be honest, unless you are a hardcore World War One buff, it’s not worth it. It doesn’t capture much of the flavor of the exhibits though it does have some interesting material on United States aid to Russia before America entered the war, the growing hatred against the Czarina and Rasputin by not only regular Russians but some nobility, and the stalling of the new Russian government in making peace with the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires in 1918.

This exhibit was put together with the help of the Russian Federation and its archives. This is not the first time the Russian government released some of its archives on the war. The first, under the Soviet regime, was to embarrass capitalist countries.

This exhibit takes a fairly neutral tone on the Czar. You can perhaps dispute its claim that Russia bears no blame for the war — but you can dispute a lot of things about the beginning of the war.

Perhaps understandably, the exhibit book doesn’t even mention the word “Tannenburg” though it certainly acknowledges a military defeat at the time and also mentions Russian successes in Galicia.

Both the exhibit and accompanying book mention the Allied “Polar Bear Expedition” to Arkhangelsk. The last survivor of that expedition was Harold Gunnes who was born in Barnesville, Minnesota and died in 2003.

 

The Man With the X-Ray Eyes & Other Stories From the Front

I had never heard of this book until I read David R. Langford’s “World War One” entry in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia: “Frøis Frøisland’s Fortaellinger fra fronten: Solidt halvlaeder (coll 1928; trans Nils Flaten as The Man With X-Ray Eyes and Other Stories from the Front 1930) includes sf and horror among its wartime tales.”

There is surprisingly little information about this book on the Web of a Million Lies.

John Clute, in his “Froisland, Frois” entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, says:

More correctly given as Frøis Frøisland (1885-1930). Norwegian journalist and writer whose Fortaellinger fra fronten: Solidt halvlaeder (coll 1928; trans Nils Flaten as The Man With X-Ray Eyes and Other Stories from the Front 1930) is a volume of tales about World War One, several being sf or Horror, including the title tale, about an American soldier whose war wound activates his x-ray vision.

A Google search for the collection’s English title turns up a couple of bookseller descriptions and two brief contemporary reviews.

I’m somewhat skeptical that either Langford or Clute has read this collection or any of the booksellers listing it. (Though I wouldn’t actually bet on it with Clute. He’s not generally in the habit of speaking about books he hasn’t read.) The reason? There really isn’t much of what we call horror (in the literary genre sense) or science fiction in this book. There are eight fiction pieces with only the titular one being obviously fantastical and one borderline case.

Which, I guess, means pretty much anything I say will be quoted in term papers for decades.

Actually, I hope people go out of their way to contradict me. That might mean this book would be reprinted, and I could actually own it because the lowest price I’ve found for it now is $168. I don’t even spend that much on big reference books. As it is, I had it from the library for a brief time.

Review: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes & Other Stories From the Front, Frois Froisland, translated Nils Flaten, 1930.Man with Xray

The dust jacket for the English language edition of this book has a quote from O. E. Rolvaag: “The first work of art to shed a ray of romance on the War.” (Rolvaag was a Norwegian immigrant at one time famous for his novel Giants in the Earth. These days I suspect he’s probably forgotten outside of the Dakotas and Minnesota — areas he lived and set his novels.)

“A ray of romance on the War”? I think I know what Rolvaag met. There is an element of that in the sense of exotic settings and events. There is an air of the travelogue about Froisland’s book.

The book’s core is eight stories, but they are introduced by a four part and fully realistic (and, from what I could determine, almost completely verifiable) history of “The Front”.

Froisland voices the book as if he is speaking to us and begins “They talk about the front, oh yes, the front — “. Continue reading

The Sleepwalkers

Six down, 24,994 to go.

That, way back in 1991, was the number of articles and books on the origins of World War One. As Christopher Clark says, there is no way even an omnilingual historian can read all the secondary works on the subject.

The primary sources for the war’s origin are very large and not flawless. There are bad memories, destroyed records, post-hoc lies and omissions and rationalizations to contend with. Official records are not always complete. For instance, the Russian records were used as propaganda tools by the Bolsheviks to attack the Czarist regime and capitalist governments or French records edited to justify the Treaty of Versailles.

Clark has written a book intended for serious students of the war. He’s not going to tell you what the German “blank check” said. He assumes you know. Similar, with the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia, he covers the main points without repeating it verbatim. He assumes you know the Franz Fischer theory of German war guilt and argues Fischer’s ideas may have as much to do with post-World War II German guilt over the Nazi years as real history.

Review: The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark, 2012.Sleepwalkers

And the whole notion of guilt, which countries get the blame for 15 million war dead, is one he firmly rejects at the book’s conclusion.

The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol. There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character. Viewed in this light, the outbreak of war was a tragedy, not a crime.

The arguments about the most complex social disaster in history cannot be summarized in a review, but here are the arguments that Clark brings that seem to run counter to the World War One origin literature I’ve read. Continue reading

History’s Greatest War

This is certainly the oldest of the World War One histories I have, and it was around the house the longest. And when I say house, I mean growing up.

It was my maternal great-grandfather’s and seemingly purchased about 1920 by him.  I looked at it once or twice as a child but never read it though I did read some massive picture book about the war, probably by Reader’s Digest or American Heritage.

As an adult, though, I only started to become seriously interested in the war in 2002.

This book was reprinted in 2012, but I’ve linked to the original edition since the reprint doesn’t seem to have pictures — one of the selling points of the original.

As to the American Legion, let me emphasize that the American Legion is a fine organization. In my youth, I participated in Boys’ State and their speech contests. However, like many institutions and people in America during the 1930s, they expressed admiration for Mussolini. Fascism, of course, wasn’t then associated so much with violence or racism. (Italian Fascism never seemed to have a racial element.)

From what little I know, I suspect the Legion admired the social unity of Fascism if not its other explicit core idea, the unity of political and economic interests through governmental control, if not ownership, of businesses.

However, unlike many organizations, the Legion seems to have improved with age.

I’m also more skeptical now of my assertion that it was written specifically for the American Legion. Instead, I think it was intended for a general American and Canadian readership. Across from the title page, is a place to post a “Soldier’s Photograph” below the “Roll of Honor”. On the sides of that space are a star and maple leaf, seemingly American and Canadian symbols.

From December 13, 2009 …

Review: History’s Greatest War: A Pictorial Narrative, S. J. Duncan-Clark, 1919.img192

As history, this book leaves something to be desired. The opening chapter – “The Red Trail of Prussia” – seeks to blame World War One solely on Prussian ambition. The German people were the “docile tools of the Prussian dynasty”, a dynasty that only knew force to realize its ambitions. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was not, according to this book, the work of the Serbian Black Hand but a Prussian plot. Likewise, the resolve of the Russian court was weakened, allegedly, by pro-German sympathies. (And in the failed prophecy department, we are assured that Russian will soon take its place among the democratic nations of the world.)

Seemingly written for the new American Legion and published shortly after the final peace treaty was signed on June 28, 1919, this book emphasizes America’s role in the war. Thus, we get almost nothing on the sub-Saharan Africa theatre of the war or its casualties. The book emphasizes heavily the brief time America fought in the war. Only 157 out of 384 pages cover the war before America entered it – though Canadian involvement is also emphasized. The organization is puzzling. “The Aftermath of the Armistice” and “The Price of Victory” chapters are before the “How the Central Powers Fell” chapter. (I suspect the type was set before a last minute expansion of the book.) Sometimes, the prose repeats itself. Continue reading