Reviews

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[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

If I had to recommend one military history book I've read this year it would be Philip Sabin's Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2012). Admittedly, this is not your usual military history book. Sabin ranges at will from the 5th century BC to the present day, devotes twelve pages of its bibliography to games as well as providing the rules to eight games in the book itself, and talks about things that didn't happen more than those that didn't. The reason for all this is that Sabin argues, I think persuasively, that insights into historical warfighting can be gained through historical wargaming. In particular, he advocates the use of wargames in teaching military history, something he has much experience in and offers much advice about. Firstly, Sabin argues that what it is best to use what he terms manual wargames rather than computer wargames, that is played with dice and paper on a table-top (though there are in fact computer-assisted versions too). The advantage of this is that students can easily understand the rules, rather than have them hidden in a software black box. More importantly, they can also modify the rules, to experiment with increasing realism or playability, for example, or to alter what is being simulated. Even more importantly, they can design their own games, to reflect their research and understanding of a particular war, something Sabin has his own MA students do. Secondly, he advocates the use of what are called microgames with small maps and no more than twenty or so pieces per side, as opposed to the more complex wargames available commercially, which can have hundreds or even thousands of counters and very finely detailed maps. The main reason for this is that in his experience anything more complex than this is too hard to teach in a two-hour class. Also, given the need to make a game playable as well as gaps in our knowledge of the battle or campaign being simulated, Sabin suggests that it is better to focus on accurately representing key dynamics, such as the importance of suppressing fire in infantry combat, rather than trying to incorporate every last detail. Thirdly, and relatedly, for several of his courses Sabin uses nested simulations to represent warfare at different levels. So for the Second World War, he uses one game covering the war in Europe from 1940 to 1945, another focusing on the Eastern Front, a third at the operational level (depicting the Korsun pocket), and a fourth at the tactical level, gaming an assault by a British infantry battalion against German defences. This enables him to highlight the ways in which warfare looks different at different scales. There's much more in here, reflecting Sabin's years of teaching, playing and designing wargames; it's an essential book if you're interested in trying this at home (or in the classroom).

So if you had to recommend one military history book you've read this year, what would it be? What one book most impressed you, informed you, surprised you, moved you?

Note: I've changed the book featured here. I may discuss the reasons for this in a future post.

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[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

It's been a good year for reading military history, but then it always is. If I had to recommend one military history book I've read this year it would be David Stevenson's With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 (London: Penguin, 2012). Stevenson's previous book, 1914-1918 (published as Cataclysm in the United States), was a good survey of the First World War, even an excellent one; but it didn't hint at the magisterial nature of this book. In fact, I was worried that With Our Backs to the Wall might simply prove to be a padded-out version of the 130-odd pages in 1914-1918 covering the same period. Of course my fears were groundless.

The first third of With Our Backs to the Wall provides the narrative backdrop for the rest of the book. Here, Stevenson explains the events of 1918: in particular the German gamble on the Western Front in the spring, the successful Allied defence and the ultimately even more successful Allied offensive leading to the Armistice. This section by itself is almost worth the cover price (especially if you bought it in paperback like I did): it's easy to focus on the 'classic' period of trench warfare between 1915 and 1917 and forget the return to a war of movement in 1918. But where Stevenson really shines is in the following thematic chapters which explore how the war was fought in 1918, how it had changed since 1914 and why it didn't continue into 1919, as was widely expected until the autumn. There's something for everyone here: technology, intelligence, logistics, morale, finance, economics, gender. Of course the approach is necessarily largely synthetic, though Stevenson does often use primary source material to great effect. Each topic is treated in depth to a satisfying degree: even if you are familiar with the scholarship you are likely to find something worthwhile (as I did in the section on airpower), and if you aren't you'll learn a lot. But despite the density of the text and its length (nearly 550 pages excluding endnotes), I found With Our Backs to the Wall a compelling and even gripping book. Highly recommended. (But if it's not to your taste, perhaps try Claudia Baldoli and Andrew Knapp, Forgotten Blitzes: France and Italy Under Allied Air Attack, 1940-1945, London and New York: Continuum, 2012.)

So if you had to recommend one military history book you've read this year, what would it be? What one book most impressed you, informed you, surprised you, moved you?

Brian Madison Jones. Abolishing the Taboo: Dwight D. Eisenhower and American Nuclear Doctrine, 1945-1961. (Solihull: Helion & Company, 2011).

I found Brian Jones's Abolishing the Taboo interesting for two reasons. Firstly, the subject matter: the Cold War fear of nuclear war was the successor to the interwar fear of strategic bombing. Secondly, it's the book version of a PhD dissertation, which is something I'll be tackling myself.

The Eisenhower presidency (1953-61) was when the United States created its huge arsenal of nuclear weapons, rising from the roughly 800 warheads inherited from Truman to over 18,000 by the time Kennedy came into office: as Jones notes, even after recent disarmament measures this number has never since fallen below the level when Eisenhower came into power.1 So this was the critical period when we (meaning the world) had to learn how to live with the Bomb. Jones's intention is to explain how and why this happened, through a focus on Eiseinhower's attempts to make nuclear technology normal: that is, as just another way of making the United States stronger and safer. Speaking as a non-specialist in this area, I think he largely succeeds in this. But I do have some criticisms.
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  1. Brian Madison Jones, Abolishing the Taboo: Dwight D. Eisenhower and American Nuclear Doctrine, 1945-1961 (Solihull: Helion & Company, 2011), 122. 

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Michael Kerrigan. World War II Plans That Never Happened, 1939-1945. London: Amber Books, 2011.

As a historian, I'm probably not supposed to like counterfactuals. There are very good reasons for this. It's hard enough to reconstruct what did happen without worrying about what didn't. There are no minutes from meetings which never took place, no diaries from people who didn't exist, no newspaper reports of events which never happened. The further you depart from our timeline, the more speculation you indulge in, the more pointless it seems: thinking about the Roman Empire undergoing a steam-powered industrial revolution is fun, but what does it tell us about, well, anything to do with reality? And if objectivity is impossible to achieve when doing history, alternative history is prone to wish fulfilment and outright fantasy.

And yet I think counterfactuals can be useful. There is so much we don't know about the past, so much that we cannot now recover, but in one important sense we know more than the people we study: we know what happened in their future. Our histories of the Soviet Union, for example, will forever have to take into account the fact that it dissolved in 1991, something which nobody knew in 1917, 1921, 1945 or 1968. That makes it hard for us to truly understand how people thought about the future and, crucially, how that affected their decisions and actions in the present. Considering counterfactual scenarios can help restore this sense of contingency, of uncertainty: what did happen was not necessarily what had to to happen. Or even likely to happen. Besides, historians implicitly indulge in counterfactual thinking all the time: whenever we single out some event or person or institution as important in whatever way, we are effectively saying that if it that event hadn't happened, or if that person hadn't existed, or if that institution hadn't been created, then history would have been significantly different (for whatever definition of 'significant' works for you).
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Kate Moore. The Battle of Britain. London and Long Island City: Osprey Publishing, 2010.

Gavin Mortimer. The Blitz: An Illustrated History. London and Long Island City: Osprey Publishing, 2010.

2010 was seventy years after 1940, and in the usual way saw the publication of a number of new books about the pivotal events of that year. Almost none of which I read, or even bought. Mainly because, perhaps unfairly, I tend to suspect books published to coincide with historical anniversaries of simply reheating and reserving the same old stories. Which is fine for those readers not familiar with the old stories, but I don't need half-a-dozen narrative histories of the Battle of Britain saying the same thing. One or two will do. (It's a bit different for the Blitz, which as a whole attracts less attention from authors and publishers, and then usually only on specific raids or cities; though the tropes here are probably even more entrenched than for the Battle.)
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Ian Castle. London 1914-17: The Zeppelin Menace. Oxford and New York: Osprey Publishing, 2008. Illustrated by Christa Hook.

Ian Castle. London 1917-18: The Bomber Blitz. Oxford and Long Island City: Osprey Publishing, 2010. Illustrated by Christa Hook.

As the titles suggest, these two entries in Osprey's long-running Campaign series dovetail nicely. One takes as its subject the Zeppelin raids on London during the First World War, the other the Gotha and Giant raids on London. Together they provide a concise overview of London's first encounters with aerial bombardment.

'Concise' is key. Each book is just 96 pages long and amply illustrated (more on which later). That doesn't leave a lot of room for discussion, so the text can't always be as detailed as one would like. (For example, in the 1917-18 volume, Castle is incredulous that in March 1917, Britain's anti-aircraft guns were ordered not to fire on aircraft even if identified as German, unless expressly ordered. There must have been a reason for this, misguided or not, but Castle doesn't say what it was.) The focus on London helps: the Zeppelin raids on the Midlands and Hull can be covered in just a sentence or two, as can the Gotha raids on the south-east coast of England. But conversely, after having gone to the trouble of explaining the who, what, when and why of the bombing campaigns it's a shame that Castle has to skimp on the where. Still, London was undoubtedly the major object of the German raiders and so choosing it as the subject here is not unwarranted.

The books follow a common format: after an introduction setting out the origins of the campaigns, there's a chronology, notes on the leaders of each side and the strategies they employed. At the end come a brief bibliography, an order of battle and an index. There's also a page on London's few remaining scars of and memorials to the air raids.

In between are narrative accounts of the air raids themselves. By comparison with the Second World War, these were smaller and fewer and so each one can be described in some detail. It's not quite true to say the reader learns about the fall and effect of each and every bomb, but if you look at the accompanying maps it's not quite untrue either. These show the flightpaths (where known) of the various airships and bombers and where they dropped their bombs. Insets (more common in the Zeppelin book than the bomber one) are sometimes added to allow individual street-level detail. The death and destruction caused by the German raiders, of course, is not neglected; nor are the losses they themselves suffered (increasingly at the hands of the British defenders as time went on, but also thanks to a devastatingly high accident rate). Shifts in strategy and organisation on both sides come through clearly; advances in technology less so. I could wish for more detail on the popular response to the air raids, but then I always do.

It's no discredit to Castle's clear and succinct text (or to Hook's detailed illustrations of particular scenes and incidents) to say that the best thing about these books are the photographs. Nearly all are contemporary, the vast majority of which I haven't seen before, and all are well chosen. They portray such things as bomb-wrecked houses, sinking Zeppelins, and police warnings. Some are really quite remarkable, such as one taken from an airborne Gotha showing plumes of smoke rising over central London. Most interesting to me were the large number of British propaganda postcards depicting Zeppelins, a topic I've examined before. Again, many were new to me. My only criticism is that the captions no more than hint that the images are very likely fake (though I think one or two might be genuine).

If you're after concise, interesting and accurate books on the Blitz before the Blitz, London 1914-17 and London 1917-18 are probably what you're looking for.

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Daniel Swift. Bomber County: The Lost Airmen of World War Two. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2010.

This book is a very different way to approach the Allied bomber offensives of the Second World War. It is not a history of strategic bombing policy, nor is it a history of the machines used to carry it out, of the men who flew them, or the damage they did. While it is well-researched and has elements of all of these types of history, Bomber County is not really a history at all, but an account of a personal quest to understand the life and death of one airman, and more originally a plea for recognising the importance of the genre of bomber poetry.
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Pierre-Antoine Courouble. The Riddle of the Wooden Bombs. Toulon: Les Presses du Midi, 2009.

One of my early posts on this blog was about a story which goes something like the following. The Germans are constructing a fake airfield to decoy Allied bombers, with dummy aircraft made out of wood. On the day it is finished, a RAF bomber swoops down and drops a single bomb on it -- a bomb made of wood. The Germans look foolish: having tried to outsmart the Allies, it is they who are outsmarted. A moral victory for the good guys!

The details are usually vague and vary between tellings (it happened in France, or Belgium, or Egypt; late in the Second War, early on, or even in the First World War; sometimes it is the British who are on the receiving end of the wooden bomb; rarely does anyone claim to be an eyewitness). It sounds a lot like a joke, or an urban legend, which is what it has usually been dismissed as. I tried to work out if there was any truth to the story but have to admit I didn't get very far.

You might not think that there was anyway much to be said about such an obscure and perhaps trivial topic. Well, you'd be wrong! Pierre-Antoine Courouble has spent several years researching the wooden bombs and the result is this meticulously-endnoted 237-page book, The Riddle of the Wooden Bombs. He has scoured libraries, stalked bulletin boards, harassed museums and interviewed veterans for any information which might confirm that somebody, somewhere did drop wooden bombs on a fake airfield. And I would say he is successful in this task: he has found some wooden bombs in museum collections, and perhaps more importantly, found some eyewitnesses. There are still some gaps, but it does look like the wooden bomb story did happen in reality, and more than once.

The bigger question is: why? Courouble looks at a number of explanations, the most intriguing of which is that the wooden bombs were part of a SOE psychological warfare operation. This might sound fanciful, and admittedly there's no hard evidence for it (most SOE files were apparently lost at the end of the war, and many still are not open). But the lift to civilian morale in occupied France is very noticeable in many of the accounts Courouble has unearthed, and the relish with which the stories have been retold by veteran pilots speaks to similar effects in unoccupied Europe. And some of the wooden bombs apparently also carried propaganda leaflets inside ('Wood for wood, iron for iron'). It doesn't seem too fanciful to suggest that SOE perhaps carried out some wooden bomb operations, and fanned rumours of many more, as part of their brief to set Europe ablaze. But that is speculation, and Courouble rightly hesitates to claim more than the evidence can bear, leaving a (perhaps) final resolution to future researchers. He (again, I think, rightly) decided against looking at operational records and the like, in favour of canvassing the quickly-dwindling veteran community, but that should be the next place to look.

Along the way, Courouble also looks into the history of military decoys and training bombs, and there are some excellent photos of wooden pocket battleships and wooden coastal defence guns, as well as wooden Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs. The writing style is lively and always interesting; there are a few places where the translation from the original French perhaps falls short (mostly military terminology) but it's perfectly readable. (And how many books written in English have a simultaneous publication in French?) Although Courouble never claims to be a professional historian, I certainly appreciate his attention to detail and his doubt over hypotheses; and as noted his endnotes are extensive. I would like to have seen a table of contents and/or an index: the main text is over two hundred pages long, which is a bit too long to be flipping back and forth looking for certain passages.

It might be asked why such an obscure topic deserves a book all to itself. My answer would be: because, as Courouble shows, it happened! And because nobody has studied it in any depth until now. Anyone who likes following historical detective work, or traveling down the lesser-known byways of history, might enjoy Courouble's book. And certainly anyone with any interest in the wooden bomb riddle at all will want to read The Riddle of the Wooden Bombs.

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Jörg Friedrich's book The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945, was first published in Germany in 2002. In 2006, it was published in an English translation (by Allison Brown) by Columbia University Press. The Fire consists of seven sections: Weapon, Strategy, Land, Protection, We, I and Stone. These chart the development of aerial attack on Germany during the Second World War, the counter-measures undertaken by authorities, the experience of those under attack and the destruction wreaked upon cities and culture. The book received extensive publicity when it came out in Germany: according to the Columbia blurb, it features 'meticulous research' into a strategy the wisdom of which 'has never been questioned.' At the end of last year, we -- Dan Todman and Brett Holman -- received unsolicited copies for review. Despite some anxieties about the implications of such a marketing strategy (for the profession as a whole and for individual careers), we decided to collaborate on a review in the form of a conversation, which we'll post at Airminded and Trench Fever and highlight at Cliopatria and Revise and Dissent.

Dan Todman: It's very clear from the way this book is presented and the way it has been publicised that it's meant to be contentious. If we start with the moral aspect of strategic bombing -- a key area for recent literary and philosophical debate by writers such as W. G. Sebald and A. C. Grayling -- there are times when Friedrich comes close to saying something explosive in his treatment of German civilians as innocent victims. Yet he always backs off from the logical endpoint of his argument. Here is Friedrich describing the essential randomness of bombing for "terror":

The annihilation principle does not ask such questions. Not until it is too late does everyone know that they can be struck. Terror does not seek to achieve anything; its regime is absolute. It comes out of the blue, needs no reasons, atones no guilt. Its success might be unconditional subjection, but even that does not end the horror. It makes no deals; its resolve is inscrutable and its aim, absurd.
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... there was no correlation between the annihilation of the Jews and the annihilation by bombs. And no analogy. And death by gas will not create one. (296)

Ultimately, even in his epilogue written for the English translation, it seems to me that Friedrich makes a moral judgement on bombing only by implication.

Brett Holman: He does always seem to step back from the brink when he is about to actually come to a conclusion. (I say "seem" because he very often uses such flowery, allusive language that I sometimes find it hard to work out what he is saying.) And yes, that epilogue was disappointingly tame -- it was his chance to explain the purpose of The Fire to a readership very different to the one it was originally written for.

But the whole tenor of the book does lean towards the Germans-as-victims side of things. Or what is much worse, suggesting that area bombing is equivalent to the Holocaust -- despite his explicit denial of same in the above quote. I'm not the first person to notice that he often uses words like "crematorium" when describing the effects of incendiary bombing, which is perhaps apt but certainly unfortunate in this context. At one point Friedrich calls 5 Group 'No. 5 Mass Destruction Group' (306), which I thought was perhaps a mistranslation. Judging from Jög Arnold's H-German review, it may well be -- he translates the original German as 'group of mass extermination Nr. 5', which is even worse! To me, Friedrich's choice of words seems very pointed, and very telling.

It's also odd how the victims of Allied bombing always seem to be nuns and children, never Nazi officials or Gestapo agents. (Which, by the way, echoes wartime propaganda -- critics of which cynically marvelled at the amazing accuracy of the enemy's unguided bombs in seeking out orphanages and nursing homes.) Never does he admit that any hits on factories, or disruption of production due to loss of workers or infrastructure had anything more than a minor, temporary effect. The impression I got from reading The Fire was that bombing didn't help the Allies win the war at all, and only killed innocents.
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