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.

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“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.

Unlikely Warriors: The Extraordinary Story Of The Britons Who Fought In The Spanish Civil War – by Richard Baxell

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Paul Preston, Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies at LSE, reviews this book, Richard Baxell’s second work on the British contribution to the International Brigades, as “the definitive work on the British volunteers” – and I have to agree with him.

The work has as its foundation his 2002 PhD thesis on “The British Battalion of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939” carried out at LSE under Preston’s supervision, which looked at “the role, experiences and contribution of the volunteers” and was subsequently published as “British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War” in 2004 by Routledge as part of their series “the Cañada Blanch Studies on Contemporary Spain”.  Baxell then revisited the topic in this volume published in hardback in 2012 and then in paperback in 2014 (the edition reviewed here) by Aurum Press Ltd.

With the historiography largely consisting of studies of the International Brigades as a whole, the story relating to the British volunteers relied principally on their own memoirs which started to be published from the 1980s coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the war.  An academic treatment was missing until the publication of Baxell’s thesis.

“Unlikely Warriors” takes this groundwork and skilfully blends in an engrossing oral historical aspect in the form of the volunteers’ own words.  Also incorporated are elements of the extensive International Brigade archives sent to Moscow after the war – now available online – together with papers from the British Security Services held in the National Archives.  The combination gives an academically sound portrayal of the conflict – yet one which is immensely readable as the volunteers’ voices come through illustrating their beliefs, doubts and experiences of the actions and events that the British Battalion were involved in.  The volume also covers the experience of the Brigaders who were to languish in Nationalist prisons as well as the much smaller involvement of British individuals who fought on the side of Franco.

The post-war reaction and disappointment after the fall of the Republic of those involved receives good coverage as does the sometimes complicated relationship between the Comintern, the Communist Party and the men who fought for Spain in what they saw, primarily, as an anti-fascist response.

In conclusion, this is highly recommended and is unlikely ever to be surpassed as a sensitive and encompassing review of the idealistic Britons who fought for the liberty of Spain in the Spanish Civil War.

Brian Curragh MA – 20th April 2018
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Helion First World War Prizes for Scholarship

In conjunction with the Western Front Association, those nice people at Helion & Co* have introduced three annual prizes for book proposals coming out of research carried out either privately, as part of a Masters Degree study or as part of a PhD project. The three prizes will total £6,000 per annum so represent a very significant investment into research currently being carried out. The three awards will be entitled the Terraine Prize for private research; the Holmes Prize for MA research and the Edmonds Prize for PhD research. The 2015 Prizes will be announced in November so if you are involved in projects that are relevant, get your book proposal in the running. More details here.

* – I might be slightly biased as Helion published “Stemming The Tide” (now out in paperback) so clearly have enormous promise in spotting new talent!

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Loos, 25th September 1915

1518179_10152455948219073_7134580376713875590_oA very short update on my next project – a divisional comparison between Regular and New Army divisions in the opening days of the Battle of Loos in September 1915. A change from my work on Henry Wilson as this will focus on the pre-battle planning and look at the evolution of the plans as they migrated from First Army, down through I Corps to the two divisions. 7th Division, commanded by Thompson Capper, were a Regular division while the 9th (Scottish) Division, under George Handcock Thesiger, were the first New Army division to see action. It will be interesting to see if planning and subsequent execution will differ between the two divisions.

Stemming The Tide. Officers and Leadership in the British Expeditionary Force 1914.

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Having spent years reading military history, I have finally made it into print with a chapter in “Stemming The Tide. Officers and Leadership in the British Expeditionary Force 1914”.

This is the first volume in the Wolverhampton Military Studies Series and is an examination of command at all levels of the BEF in 1914 through a series of biographical essays on its key officers. Having finished my MA in 2011, I was approached and asked to contribute a chapter on Henry Wilson, the Sub-Chief of Staff during the opening months of the war. Wilson is a controversial figure who provokes a wide range of views on his military effectiveness – and in particular, his political “scheming” to achieve his ends. While his role as Sub-Chief did not entirely cover him in glory, he played a vital part in readying Britain for a Continental war through his activities initially as Commandant of the Staff College (1907-1910) and then as Director of Military Operations in the War Office (1910-1914).

I am very pleased with my chapter and to be included in such august company is a real honour. If you would like to read more – the book is out this month and will be officially launched at the University of Wolverhampton on 12th December.

Book description from the Helion & Co website:

The British Expeditionary Force of 1914 was described by the official historian as “incomparably the best trained, best organised, and best equipped British Army that ever went forth to war.” The BEF proved its fighting qualities in the fierce battles of 1914 and its reputation has endured. However, the same cannot be said for many of its commanders, who have frequently been portrayed as old fashioned, incompetent, and out of touch with events on the battlefield.

Yet the officers who led the BEF to war were every bit as professional and hard-bitten as the soldiers they commanded. These officers had learned their craft in the unforgiving school of colonial warfare and honed their understanding of conflict in the period of reform that reshaped the army between 1902 and 1914. As this book reveals, when faced with the realities of modern combat, the officers of the BEF were prepared for the challenge.

This collection offers a broad picture of command at all levels of the BEF through a series of biographical essays on key officers. Drawing upon much original research, each chapter explores the pre-war background and experience of the officer and assesses his performance in combat in the opening months of the First World War. The book features insightful reappraisals of famous figures including John French and Douglas Haig, fresh studies of staff officers such as William Robertson and Henry Wilson, and a thorough discussion of officers at the sharp end, with chapters covering divisional, brigade, battalion and company commanders.

The essays reveal an officer class that, despite certain weaknesses, provided highly effective leadership during the chaotic fighting of August to November 1914. Without their influence it is unlikely that the BEF would have been able to survive the difficulties of the Great Retreat, much less halt the German invasions of France and Belgium.

This book will be of great interest to anyone who studies the First World War, and of particular value to those who seek a greater understanding of the British Army of the era.

Book contents
List of illustrations
List of maps
Abbreviations
Notes on Contributors
Series Preface
Acknowledgements
Introduction by Spencer Jones

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1 Sir John French and Command of the BEF by Stephen Badsey

2 Major-General Sir Archibald Murray by J.M. Bourne

3 Henry Wilson’s War by Brian Curragh

4 ‘The big brain in the army’: Sir William Robertson as Quartermaster-General by John Spencer

Corps Command

5 The Making of a Corps Commander: Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig by Gary Sheffield

6 Lieutenant-General Sir James Grierson by Mark Connelly

7 ‘A Commander of Rare and Unusual Coolness’: General Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien by Spencer Jones and Steven J. Corvi

Divisional Command

8 The Bull and the Fox Terrier: Edmund Allenby and Command in the BEF in 1914 by Simon Robbins

9 An Inspirational Warrior: Major-General Sir Thompson Capper by Richard Olsen

Brigade Command

10 ‘A Tower of Strength’: Brigadier-General Edward Bulfin by Michael LoCicero

11 ‘The Demon’: Brigadier-General Charles FitzClarence V.C. by Spencer Jones

12 David Henderson and Command of the Royal Flying Corps by James Pugh

Command at the Sharp End

13 The Infantry Battalion Commanding Officers of the BEF by Peter Hodgkinson

14 The Company Commander by John Mason Sneddon

15 ‘Amateurs at a professional game’: The Despatch Rider Corps in 1914 by Michael Carragher

Appendix: British Expeditionary Force Order of Battle 1914

Index