Tag Archives: books

Book Review: Trench by Stephen Bull

Trench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front by Stephen Bull. This is a joint publication by Osprey Publishing and the Imperial War Museum, so in addition to being well written it’s lavishly illustrated, with period photographs on every page (the Imperial War Museum being famous for it’s photograph archives), map reproductions, and Osprey’s well known illustrations where needed as well.

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The cover of Trench.
Trench is a big coffee-table style book, full colour throughout. The 270-some pages are broken up into ten chapters; the first few are a roughly chronological look at the evolution of trenches in the early part of WW1. The rest are focused on one particular aspect of trench warfare — gas, patrolling, sniping, tanks and armoured vehicles, new weaponry, trench and bunker construction, the evolution of tactics, and so on.

Stephen Bull is well known, and he does well in Trench, with a mix of his own writing, some excerpts from Osprey publications, and frequent bits of period writing, often letters or diary entries from actual front-line soldiers, including translations of French and German material. There are also frequent short articles inside the book focusing on a specific battle or engagement, with discussion of the strategic and tactical significance of this particular engagement and maps, photographs or period writing specific to that engagement.

If you’re interested in the Western Front at all, especially as a subject for wargamers, get yourself a copy of Trench. It’s an excellent mix of written and visual resources; the captions to the various photographs and other visuals are especially well done, instead of being just an afterthought.

Trench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front by Stephen Bull, © 2010 Osprey Publication, in association with the Imperial War Museum.
The Shortest Possible Review: A good introduction to the Western Front of WW1, especially strong on photographs and other visuals

Incidentally, as I write this (Jan. 2013) the Imperial War Museum London is in the middle of a massive renovation/rebuilding effort, which will (among other things) give them a completely rebuilding World War One exhibit before the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1 in 2014. They have a fascinating Transforming IWM London blog with lots of articles on what’s involved in renovating a large museum.

(I accidentally published this unedited and incomplete, 24hrs ahead of schedule! Sorry!)

Two New Books: Britmis & The Great War on the Western Front

My most recent order from Naval & Military Press showed up this week; just over three weeks enroute isn’t bad for surface shipping from the UK to western Canada.

This time I got Britmis: A Great Adventure of the War and The Great War on the Western Front: A Short History.

Britmis is an NMP republication of Major Phelps Hodges’ memoir of his participation in the British military mission to Siberia during the Russian Civil War and subsequent escape through the Gobi Desert to China when the Russian Civil War started going very badly. It has the gloriously Edwardian sub-sub-title “Being an account of Allied intervention in Siberia and of an escape across the Gobi to Peking”, and in addition to being interested in the Russian Civil War generally, I’m a sucker for any book with sub-sub-titles or chapter sub-titles that start with “Being an account…”, so I expect Britmis to be a fun read.

It’s a chunky little trade paperback, 365 pages or so and includes photographs taken by the author during his adventures. I read Beasts, Men and Gods in e-book a while ago, and Britmis looks to have a lot of the same flavour and interest!

The Great War on the Western Front by Paddy Griffith is one of the standard modern texts on the Great War, “revisionist” in the best sense as Griffith works away at the old myths that the Western Front was nothing but pointless slaughter and stupidity. I won’t be getting to this one for a while, but NMP had it on sale at an absurd discount (their regular price is pretty good too, mind you!) so I couldn’t pass up the chance to add this one to my library.

Book Review: The White Armies of Russia

"Brutality made Bolsheviks where none had been before."
—p.288, White Armies

The White Armies of Russia: A Chronicle of Counter-Revolution and Allied Intervention by George Stewart is another modern reprint from Naval & Military Press, and was part of the same order I made to NMP back in April 2012. I’ve been reading it in fits and starts in between other books, but finally settled down to actually finish it about ten days ago.

White Armies was originally published in 1933, so it’s not a modern book, but it is still one of the touchstone pieces of Russian Civil War history in English. When I asked about this book over on the TooFatLardies mailing list, Richard of TFL mentioned paying quite a lot of money for an original edition a few years ago and being happy to pay it, but thankfully these days NMP’s facsimile edition is available relatively cheaply. The book is 470 pages or so, paperback, and seems solidly bound. The original photographs and maps are included, although quality of these (as NMP warns for all their facsimile editions) is not quite up to modern standards. This is especially frustrating on the maps, which are numerous and were apparently most drawn by the author or commissioned by him for the book. Many of the reprinted maps have a lot of barely readable tiny print, though, which makes them hard to use. That aside, in a conflict as sprawling as the RCW, it’s nice to have any sort of map to try to follow the action with!

The book is focused, as the title implies, almost exclusively on the actions and personalities of the White movement(s) in Russia, and on the various non-Russian groups that interacted with them — primarily the Czech Legions and the British, American, French and Japanese interventionist forces. Stewart has an obvious distaste for Bolshevism, but he pulls no punches describing the corruption, brutality and ultimate failure of the Whites.

The book is laid out roughly chronologically, starting with the first (February) Revolution and the beginnings of the counter-revolutionary movements and moving on from there. Each chronological section has, generally, a chapter on each of the main theatres of the RCW (Murmansk/Archangel/the North, the North-West, the Southern/Ukraine/Crimean, and Siberia, broadly speaking). This book design does make following a single theatre all the way through the war a bit of an exercise in hopping around in the book, but it’s hard to see how to avoid either chronological or geographic dislocation when attempting to tell the story of the entire RCW in one book.

The White Armies of Russia by George Stewart. 2009 NMP reprint, original publication 1933. £16.00 at NMP, less if you get it during one of their regular sales.
The Shortest Possible Review: One of the classic histories of the White movement during the RCW, and still a good single-volume history decades after it was written.

Given how focused White Armies is on the White experience, I’d be curious to hear recommendations from readers on a similar book focused on the Bolsheviks and Red Army, to fill in the gaps, so to speak. Suggestions in the comments, please!

Book Review: Gone To Russia To Fight

"Very little has been written about the RAF in south Russia and much of what has been written has been inacurate. Several myths have been accepted as truths and written into the histories. This book is an attempt to set the record straight by going back, where possible, to the primary sources." — Introduction, Gone to Russia To Fight

The international intervention into the Russian Civil War — basically, the Western Entente (Allies) attempting to first keep Russia in the fight against Germany, and then to defeat the Bolsheviks and assist the anti-Bolshevik Whites — is not an area that gets a lot of attention, being overlooked as a sideshow both to the Great War and even to the larger Russian Civil War. Gone To Russia To Fight: The RAF in South Russia 1918-1920 is a look at a unique (and even more overlooked…) piece of that sideshow: the involvement of a couple of Royal Air Force squadrons in Southern Russia and the Caucasus/trans-Caucasus/Caspian Sea area during the Russian Civil War.

The book opens with a couple of chapters giving a brief overview of the entire Russian Civil War, the background to sending the RAF and other forces into Russia, and the adventures of Dunsterforce around the Caspian early in the RCW, then goes through the entire RAF deployment one month per chapter. The author, John T. Smith, goes right back to squadron diaries and both published and unpublished memoirs for his material, in several cases pointing out where previous popular histories (or even published memoirs) clash with the squadron diary records and are likely or even provably incorrect.

One unexpected connection to local Canadian history I learned through this book: Raymond Collishaw, a fairly well known RAF WW1 ace who was born in the same region of Canada I live in, was one of the RAF officers in charge of the South Russia expedition. Our very own local connection to the events of this book — who knew?

cover-gonetorussia
Cover of Gone To Russia To Fight.
The book has some neat period photographs from a variety of archives, including some fished out of the Russian archives in recent years. The writing is clear and readable, although Smith’s writing style, especially in the first few chapters, is staccato and choppy at times, with lots of short sentences, sometimes to the point where it seems like a grade-school textbook instead of an adult history book. The one major disappointment are the maps. There are only four in the whole book, none of which adequately cover the area discussed in the text. The detail map of one harbour on the Caspian repeatedly attacked by the RAF forces seems kind of pointless, given that a clear, full-page annotated aerial photograph is also included. Given the unfamiliarity of the theatre, the sometimes difficult Russian place names, and the fact that many place names have changed in the intervening 90-some years (making modern atlases or Google Maps unreliable), a few good detailed maps would have been a huge help.

The maps aside, this is an interesting and clearly written look at an oft-forgotten theatre, and Smith does a great job of going right back to primary documents to provide the clearest possible narrative of events 90+ years ago.

Gone to Russia To Fight: The RAF in South Russia 1918-1920 by John T. Smith, published 2010 by Amberley Press. £5.95 from Naval & Military Press. (normally £14.99, no idea how long the discount from NMP will last, but grab it while you can!)

The Shortest Possible Review: A fascinating look at an overlooked piece of RAF history, and a unique perspective on the Russian Civil War.

As a wargamer, I’m now fighting the urge to get some aircraft and some river boats and barges to try and recreate some of the actions from Gone to Russia. Maybe the 1/600 RCW ships from PT Dockyard and some 1/600 WW1 aircraft from Tumbling Dice or elsewhere? Must resist, not got the time or budget right now for a new scale!

Book Review: Notes for Infantry Officers on Trench Warfare

“The importance assumed by trench warfare… have rendered necessary special instructions in the details of trench construction and trench fighting.” — Ch1:1, Notes

This is a modern facsimile reprint of an official 1916 British War Office publication, published by Naval & Military Press. You can find scanned PDF versions of this document online, but I took advantage of NMP’s Easter sale to get a printed version very, very cheaply. It’s a small paperback, roughly 7″x5″ and 78 pages long. (I talked about my experience ordering from NMP previously.)

It was compiled by the British General Staff in March 1916 as a training and reference guide for, as the title says, officers in the trenches of the Western Front. The five chapters comprise an introduction, a long chapter on the construction and maintenance of trenches, the daily routine of trench warfare, defending trenches, and finally the attack in trench warfare. The book finishes off with a couple of appendices, thirty-five diagrams, and a short index.

notestrench
Cover of NMP's reprint of "Notes for Infantry Officers on Trench Warfare" of 1916.
The writers repeatedly remind the reader that trench warfare is “only a phase of operations“, and that “(t)he aim of trench fighting is, therefore, to create a favourable situation for field operations, which the troops must be capable of turning to account.” While this is technically true, it took until the last few months of the war in late 1918 to come true, and remember that Notes was published in March of 1916 — that trench-bound “phase of operations” lasted nearly two and a half years…

From a wargamer’s point of view, there are two major ways that books like this are valuable. The first is for period flavour and scenario inspiration; something as simple as knowing how a trench network was laid out or the basics of how it could be attacked or defended can inspire a scenario. Small details like the note in the appendix on communication on not routinely taking field telephones right up to the forwardmost trenches, lest the trench be rushed and the enemy able to tap into the field telephone network without anyone being the wiser back at headquarters could inspire quite detailed trench-raid scenarios, with more detailed and more interesting objectives than simply “kill the other guy”.

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Sample illustration from Notes, showing part of a basic front line and support trench setup.
The second (and related, of course) way this type of book is useful to wargamers comes mostly in those 35 or so diagrams in the back of this little booklet. If you’re considering building trench scenery or fieldworks of any sort, knowing the “standard” ways the British Army expected things to be done is obviously valuable. The diagrams cover frontline, support, and communication trenches, various sorts of dugouts, several types of machine-gun nest, wire and obstacles, and more. If you’re going to pull a Roundwood and build up a bunch of trench boards, this inexpensive little booklet could be a valuable starting point.

Notes for Infantry Officers on Trench Warfare, (British) War Office, 1916, reprinted by Naval & Military Press. £7.50

The Shortest Possible Review: If you want a basic WW1 Western Front reference, get this.

Note that there is also a May 1917 version of this booklet, with exactly the same title, but printed by the American War Department as they geared up to finally join the Great War. As far as I can tell the text is largely identical to the earlier British edition discussed above, but the value of the later American version is the hugely expanded number of diagrams in the back. The book has gone up to about 160 pages from 75 or so, and a huge amount of that is new diagrams. You can download a good, complete PDF of the War Department version over on the US Army’s Combined Arms Research Library website – Notes for Infantry Officers on Trench Warfare 1917. To get the PDF version easily, use the blue “Download” button on the far right-hand side of the screen.

Books from Naval & Military Press

Back in April I made an order to Naval & Military Press, a UK-based specialty publisher with a focus on military history. The books arrived last week and I’ll do full reviews of the books in the upcoming weeks, but I wanted to do a quick writeup of NMP themselves and a first-look sort of quick summary of my new books!

NMP were having an Easter sale, with quite spectacular discounts on everything in their catalog, so I jumped on the chance to get a few books I’d noticed in their selection that nobody else had. I thought I had seen one particular title in their catalog that I couldn’t find again, so I fired off an email asking if it actually existed, or if I was mistaken. Three business days later, with time running out on the sale and still no reply, I fire off a second email… two business days after that, on the last day of their sale, I still had no reply, so I went ahead and made the order anyway, a bit irritated at the lack of communication.

I still haven’t ever gotten a reply from NMP. Frustratingly, about four hours after making my order I got the first mass-mailout marketing email from NMP, which I’d opted into when I made my order. They seem to send out at least two advertising emails a week to their mailing list, but apparently that’s all they use email for, as they can’t seem to find the “Reply” button when potential customers send them one!

I got an email about 24hrs after my order saying my order had been “processed”, so I figured that was it in the mail, and started wondering how long Surface Shipping would take. I was not best pleased over two weeks later (11 business days later!) to get another email saying my order had been “shipped”… apparently “processed” didn’t mean what I thought it meant. Since when does it take 11 days to tuck five books into a box? If NMP were waiting for an out-of-stock item to finish up my order, fair enough, but an email to that effect would have been nice.

My order actually shipped on the 27th of April and I got it here on the 10th of May. As I said, I’d just paid for Surface Shipping, books being heavy and me being cheap, so no complaints there, but that’s down to the Royal Mail and Canada Post apparently playing well together.

So, a summary of NMP: given that they have titles I’ve never seen for sale anywhere else, and their prices are fair, I’ll certainly order from them again, but I’m not terribly impressed with either their communication skills or their dispatch speed.

The four books I bought for myself were all WW1 or Russian Civil War-focussed, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s been reading this site for a bit. In no particular order, they were:

  • Gone to Russian to Fight: The RAF in South Russian, 1918-1920 — a fascinating-looking book published in 2010 about the Royal Air Force’s expedition to support Wrangel and the White forces in southern Russia. I hadn’t realized that famous Canadian ace Raymond Collishaw was one of the senior RAF officers sent to Russia. The book also talks about the Tank Corp unit sent to the same areas to train the Russians in tank use, and who wound up fighting as well.
  • The White Armies of Russia, A Chronicle of Counter-Revolution and Allied Intervention — An NMP facsimile reprint of a 1933 history of the Russian Civil War. I’ve barely skimmed it since getting it, but various people including Rich of TooFatLardies recommended it as one of the standard early works on the RCW, so I’m looking forward to getting stuck into it.
  • Notes for Infantry Officers on Trench Warfare, March 1916 — I bought this book and the next mostly to inspire scenery projects, although I’m not planning a full Western Front setup (but never say never…) I wanted to get the trenchworks and fieldworks I build “right”. This is another facsimile edition, a very nice little booklet, about 100 pages, with all the original line drawings. Trenches, fortified shellholes, shelters and bunkers, and some notes on attacking and defending same are all covered.
  • Manual of Field Works, 1921 — Another facsimile reprint, this is a 300 page monster with 175 line drawings, covering everything from trenches to bridges to field camps to roadworks to demolitions. More fodder for scenery building and general inspiration. Amusingly, I received the hardbound version despite having only paid for the paperback…

The fifth and final book in the order wasn’t for me but for Corey, who has been doing some Anglo-Zulu War gaming recently:

  • The Zulu Army and Zulu Headmen — A facsimile reprint of the official 1870 British intelligence report on the Zulu nation and military, with details of Zulu regiment composition, numbers and even uniform details, notes on the principal leaders of the Zulu nation and more. As a facsimile edition, it even reproduces the handwritten amendments someone had added to the text, small notes like “This regiment destroyed at such-and-such an engagement” and similar, which is fascinating.

I’ll be doing full reviews of my books, as I mentioned, in the near future as I do at least a fast first readthrough of them. I don’t actually have much of a military history library, so it’s nice to fill some gaps and get more reference material on my shelves, and I’ll be keeping any eye on NMP and almost certainly picking up more books from them, as their World War One materials are quite extensive.

I probably won’t waste my time sending any more emails to them again, though…