Journey Through The Wilderness – Paul McNicholls (Helion, 2019)

A forensically detailed description of Garnet Wolseley’s 1870 Red River Expedition, that uses primary sources and the written accounts of many of the participants to tell the story of the 1,200-mile journey from Toronto to Upper Fort Garry, modern day Winnipeg, the site of Louis Riel’s rebellion.  That the Expedition lost only one man during the three-month journey, largely by river and lake crossings, is a testament to the staff work carried out by Wolseley prior to departure together with the assistance provided locally. 

The Expedition is interesting as it sees the first gathering of many of the subsequent Wolseley Ring members – Redvers Buller, William Francis Butler, George Lightfoot Huyshe, Hugh McCalmont and John Carstairs McNeill, who, between them, made a further sixteen appearances as members of Wolseley’s staff over the following 14 years.  While the initial grouping is coincidental, as the members were largely already in Canada as the Expedition was being put together, it clearly gave the Ring members the opportunity to impress Wolseley sufficiently that he was to subsequently use them on later missions.

Helion’s production is up to its usual high standard with many excellent illustrations and maps included.  The text is fully annotated and there is a good bibliography of the sources utilised.

It is hard to see how this analysis of a fascinating Expedition – the last time British troops carried out a military campaign in North America – could be bettered leaving McNicholls’ volume as the definitive text on the Red River Expedition.

Highly recommended.

“1776” by David McCullough

Well written summary of the key events in 1776 – the siege of Boston, the Battle of Brooklyn, the retreat to Manhattan and subsequently to New Jersey concluding with Trenton and Princeton. McCullough’s characters come across strongly with good used of contemporary quotes with all sources fully noted. An excellent introduction to one of the key years of the American Revolutionary wars.

Veterans Day in the US

Spending my first Remembrance Day outside the UK provided the opportunity to attend a Veterans Day parade in Kissimmee, Florida.

The emphasis of the parade focused on the surviving veterans of American conflicts rather than the war dead so different from the traditional British commemoration. Additionally, the prominence given to the POW/MIA flag in the procession – given much wider legal status recently – references the 82,000 American missing in action rather than casualties.

The local war memorials were well kept but entirely undecorated with wreaths – but this may be because the parade was 2 days before 11th November.

What was very different was the make-up of the parade: local dignitaries, school ROTCs, two Daughters of the Republic and a troupe on horseback outnumbered the veterans – who were largely riding Harley-Davidsons.

So an interesting comparison to traditional British methods of commemoration.

In memory of Sergeant (Wireless Op./Air Gunner) John Merifield, killed 6th November 1940

“ONE OF THE BRAVEST AND THE BEST DOING HIS DUTY CALLED TO REST”

Sergeant John Merifield, service number 751514, 30 Sqdn., Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, was the son of Edith Mary Ann Merifield, of 7 Hopps St, West Hartlepool, Co. Durham.John was the wireless operator and air gunner in a 30 Squadron Bristol Blenheim and was killed on 6th November 1940 as his aircraft patrolled over Valona in Albania and was attacked by three fighters from 349 Squadrigilia. Although the plane made it back to base, John subsequently died of his wounds.

What makes John’s death more than a tragedy for his family was that he was the first British airman to be killed in the defence of Greece and was given a full state funeral by the Greek authorities. The King of Greece was represented at the funeral and the Greek President attended personally. One Greek newspaper wrote “The coffin was covered with two crossed flags – the flags of Greece and Britain”. The procession was filmed by Pathe News and shown in Cinemas throughout the British Commonwealth. As the first casualty of the battle, the Greek sculptor Phamyreas proposed making a symbolic bust of him in Pentelic marble, the same stone as the Parthenon.

Unfortunately, the bust does not appear to have been constructed but John is still commemorated by a CWGC headstone over his grave in Phaleron War Cemetery on the coastline south of Athens.

My thanks to Manolis Tsoulos, the CWGC Head Gardener at Phaleron, for the photo of John’s headstone and to all the CWGC staff for their ongoing care and attention to the memory of the men and women under their care.

Finally, there is a personal connection for me as my wife’s mother was a Merifield and a relation of John.

NB – this post is a work in progress but have been published today to mark the 79th anniversary of John’s death. Further material will be added in due course.

Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: A Political Soldier – Keith Jeffery

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Having just completed my second reading of Keith Jeffery’s 2006 biography of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, two thoughts are prominent:

What a misunderstood man, Henry Wilson was – until this biography came out, finally correcting the image of this intelligent, mischievous soldier away from the malicious intriguer portrayed in Charles Callwell’s edition of his diaries, which were rushed out at the behest of Wilson’s angry widow in an ill-conceived attack at those she felt had let her husband down. What comes across is Wilson’s early awareness of the political turmoil that was beginning to engulf Europe and the likely course it was to take – alongside his occupation of the space between the brass hats and frock coats at a time when strategy was still the province of the generals and before it became the use of war for the purposes of policy. Wilson was a man ahead of his time.

What a grievous loss to the historical world, Keith Jeffrey’s premature death in 2016 was – particularly to the history of Ireland in the twentieth century. Jeffrey was to go on to write an official history of MI6 as well as his global history of the key events of 1916 but his death at 64 has deprived us of anymore of his insightful historical analysis – which is a great pity.

Very highly recommended.

“The Country House and the Great War: Irish and British Experiences” by  Terence Dooley & Christopher Ridgway (Editors)

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An interesting collection of sixteen pieces from Four Courts Press of Dublin, focussing on the effect of the Great War on the Country House which is aimed at the general reader but is fully annotated as to the sources used. Edited by Terence Dooley, director of the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates, based at Maynooth University, and Christopher Ridgway, curator at Castle Howard, the chapters cover ten Irish houses and six in Great Britain and all illustrate the devastating familial and society-changing impact that the war had on the families that inhabited the Edwardian “big house”.
A good introduction to a subject that needs more research.

Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (Vintage Civil War Library) – Allen C Guelzo

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I read a lot of military history including accounts of campaigns and battles – but Allen C Guelzo’s “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion” is possibly the best single battle study I have read.

The first quarter of the book provides an excellent description of the men and the armies involved and then the manoeuvring, and the logic behind those manoeuvres, that takes place in June 1863. The battle and the account is split over the three days in July commencing with the Hill & Ewell assaults to the north-east of the town on 1st July; then Longstreet’s attack along the Emmitsburg Road towards Cemetery Ridge on the 2nd and concludes with the spectacle of Pickett’s Charge on Friday, 3rd July.

The strength of this book is that it goes from analysing the thought processes of the commanders through to the individual experiences of the men on the ground. By taking this approach, Guelzo provides strategic analysis, with numerous maps, and comment while also placing the reader in the heat of the action through use of personal accounts. The political landscape that surrounds the action is also covered providing context from Washington and Richmond.

Guelzo holds strong opinions of the combatants and is not afraid to express them, which has gone down less well with readers entrenched in one or the other camps. Lee‘s over-confidence in his own forces combined with inexperienced corps commanders under him lead to the view that “Lee lost a battle he should have won” through a premature engagement that lacked concentration of his forces, poor co-ordination of the forces available and a failure to understand how tenaciously the Army of the Potomac would hold their ground. Meade, appointed to command only three days previously, comes out of the encounter only marginally better – his subordinates act “as though he didn’t exist” seeing him as an equal – with his performance being seen by Guelzo as “entirely reactive”. Guelzo’s conclusion on the two commanders is that “Robert E Lee lost the battle of Gettysburg much more than George Meade won it.”

By the 4th July as the Confederate troops slowly retire south – and Vicksburg falls – Guelzo concludes that Gettysburg while “less than decisive in strictly military terms, it was decisive enough to restore the sinking morale of the Union”, that “the Confederacy would never be able to mount a serious invasion again” and that “the momentum of the war would from now on belong solely to the Union”. He ends with the observation that “after Gettysburg, the sun never shone for the South again.”

Dr. Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era, and Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College. He is the author of “Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President”, which won the Lincoln Prize for 2000, “Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America”, which won the Lincoln Prize for 2005, and “Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America”, which won the Abraham Lincoln Institute Prize for 2008.

Very highly recommended.