BY JINGO - Colonial History & Wargames Page

February Book Reviews

By Prof. Rick Norton

And so we enter February. A month in the United States that has one day devoted to groundhogs and another to that special someone. (Let's hope that they are not one and the same.) For those readers who, like myself, are happily married, please allow me remind you that failing to remember Valentine's Day is a quick way to imperil that status. So do something romantic and pay back for some of the time the gaming table has stolen from your significant other. (And if you are lucky enough to have a significant other who is a gamer, more power to you both,)

Enough of the mushy stuff. On to the books. You'll note that some aren't newly published. Sorry. The new publication river is an unpredictable waterway. Sometimes it's in flood, and at others it all but dries up. Still, there are one or two "newbies." But our fist selection isn't one of those.

"Roberts In India: The Military Papers of Field Marshal Lord Roberts 1876 - 1893," edited by Brian Robson, (published by Alan Sutton for the Army Records Society, 1993), 478 pages, ISBN: 0-7509-0401-1, price unknown. (But believed to be high.)

I suspect that this book may be hard to find. But if you do, get it. Even if you don't want it, if you are a fan of the colonial period you will know someone who will. If you are interested in India, the Northwest frontier, or the British Army - buy it - if it's not too expensive.

Lord Roberts, "Bobs" to Kipling, "Fred" to his friends, was, as has been pointed out in an earlier column, one of the towering military figures of his age. His only real competition was Wolseley. Each has had plenty of books written about them and both produced autobiographies. This volume is, in some ways, something even better.

Fred Roberts was a prodigious writer and Brian Robson has done a nice job of culling the various reams of paper Roberts sent and received during his India years. As such, this is pure, raw gold. There is no spin, other than that Roberts himself intended to put into the letters, no interpretation after the fact by the editor - it's a delight. (Yes, Robson might have stacked the deck through selection, but that does not seem to be the case.)

The book covers a slew of years and an even wider variety of topics. Through his correspondence we can see Roberts shift his tactical and strategic outlook as he attains greater positions of power and leadership. We also get to see what he really thought of the Indians and, by and large, it isn't pretty. This is not surprising given his experience in the mutiny and his belief in the soldiery qualities of the so-called martial races.

There is also enough correspondence to showcase Robert's ambition - which is not, in itself, a bad thing and his desire for power, glory and wealth. There are also writings that touch on his rivalry with Wolseley, which, if not as stark as is often portrayed, was nonetheless real. Other treats include Roberts' evaluation of several figures of renown, and his fascination with his craft - he was a proponent of machine guns on the defensive and guns that could be loaded on pack animals for everything else.

All of this would suggest this is a book to grace any shelf. (By the way it also has a distinguished looking cover, if that sort of thing is important to you.) But there is an additional bonus for the historian and the gamer. For, when Fred Roberts was very senior, he spent much of his time wondering and planning what to do if war would come to India and Britain. The opponent would most likely be Russia of course and Roberts discusses several alternate plans and scenarios in detail. Great stuff for those looking for "what if" scenarios.

So mark this is as a "must read" and if you can afford it, a "must buy."

From one frontier we go to another:

"Five Black Preachers in Army Blue, 1884-1901: The Buffalo Soldier Chaplains," by Alan K. Lamm, (Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1998), 252 pages. ISBN: 0-7734-2249-8 Price: $US 65.00

Specialty books are notoriously expensive and this work is no exception. It's not one for the "gamer only" crowd, although there are references to some of the battles and skirmishes the U.S. black cavalry and infantry units (collectively referred to in this book as "Buffalo Soldiers") took part in. Many are suitable for the gaming table, but you can find better tactical accounts in other books.

That said, this is still a fine and fascinating book, exploring unknown territory and adding a more completely textured understanding of the social and professional lives of these historic regiments. The book is also, although it did not set out to be, a powerful testament to the pervasive racism of the 1800s and the attempts of men of will and character to deal with it. Perhaps the saddest aspect of the book is that these efforts, whether employing tactics of coercion or assimilation and acceptance, were all, in the end, unsuccessful.

The book traces the evolution of the black regiments and their spiritual ministers from the Civil War to 1901. The majority of the volume is given over to biographical chapters detailing the lives and experiences of the five African-Americans who held the position of chaplain. Then, as now, the chaplain did much more than preach. Teachers, counselors, role models; all these were part and parcel of the chaplain's job. The influence of these chaplains, given the standard length of military service and unique social aspects of black regiments may have even been far greater than the norm.

For those interested in the history of ministers, or of African-Americans or of the Old West, I recommend this work. It reads quickly and one walks away with the satisfaction that learning about previously unknown literary country always brings.

And now, a dip into the American Civil War:

"Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man," by Edward G. Longacre, (Conshocken, PA: Combined Publishing, 1999), 395 pages, $US29.95, ISBN: 1-58097-021-4.

If you've been reading this column long enough, you'll know that I from time to time, drop in a work on the U.S. Civil War. In part it's due to personal interest, in part it's because I occasionally teach the subject, and although the war is not usually considered "colonial," it happened in the period and influenced events that were "colonial. Besides this book was a present and, having read it, talking about it seemed the natural thing to do.

Ed Longacre is talented writer and biographer who tends to focus on the U.S. Civil War. His "Buford" is a very strong piece of work and "Chamberlain" is of a similar caliber. Although not for gamers, it is a book that would grace any ACW library or personal collection.

Joshua Chamberlain has long been a figure of veneration in the United States. Normally depicted as a highly literate, at times eloquent, intellectual, proven in battle and politics, a natural leader, he seems an icon of perfection. This tendency has been reinforced and given new life by Jeff Sharra's "The Killer Angels" and the Turner TNT movie version of the book, "Gettysburg." Biographers have, by and large, perpetuated these images.

Longacre didn't buy it, feeling that Chamberlain, as a human, could not have been so perfect. Sensing that another "man of marble," or perhaps some warmer, more humanistic stone, was being created, he set out to explore Joshua Chamberlain, American hero.

Given this background the potential reader would be forgiven if a shiver of foreboding occurred. Could this be a "hatchet job," selling copies by revealing Chamberlain's vices, or worse, hinting at foibles and behaviors that could not be proven?

Thankfully it is not. Chamberlain's considerable gifts are given full credit. However, when one considers the normal treatment of the "writer-warrior" from Maine, the book may seem overly critical. I do not think this is the case.

The book focuses on Chamberlain's war years and his life after, although there are some three chapters devoted to his earlier life. It is impossible to discuss Chamberlain without touching on his wife Fanny, but Longacre does so lightly - perhaps too lightly. Yet, at the same time, he is much more "gentle" with her than Chamberlain's other biographers.

The Chamberlain that emerges from these pages is a much more complex man than Chamberlain the film icon and statue. Restless, eager for power and advancement, quick to extol and exaggerate his virtues; at times petty and political, Chamberlain is very much human. Longacre reveals lapses of truth in Chamberlain's writings and memories. He also explicitly discusses the many wounds Chamberlain received in the course of the war - something many other writers are reluctant to do.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is a psychological profile of Chamberlain that appears as an appendix. It supports (not surprisingly) Longacre's conclusions, but still manages to retain a sense of balance. The methodology is well explained and makes one wish it had been applied to more Victorian figures.

Again, this is not one for the gamer. There are far better accounts of the battles, tactics, uniforms and all other items so dear to the warriors of the table. But for the Civil War buff and historian - professional or amateur - the book is worth the time. And least one fear that I am performing just another "hack job" on a hero, let me point out that Joshua Chamberlain, the icon, has long been a personal hero of mine - and Joshua Chamberlain, the human being remains so.

"The Algerian Guerilla Campaign: Strategy and Tactics," by Abder-Rahmane Derradji, (Lewiston: The Edward Mellen Press, 1997), ISBN: 0-7734-2292-7, $75.00, 319 pages.

Rarely have I expected a book to deliver so much to find that it delivers so little. Derradji's work, from the viewpoint of the colonial gamer is a terrible disappointment and readers should not be deceived by such intriguing chapter titles as "The Algerian Traditional Guerilla Resistance From El Emir Abdel Kader to Sheikh Bouamama, 1830 - 1908."

Had the author removed the reference to strategy and tactics and replaced it with an analytical, political science approach to the resistance in Algeria, it would have been a more accurate description and I would be recommending the work to those interested in such matters. But when one sees a look at strategy and tactics promised, one hopes to find something on the actual strategy and tactics used. Unfortunately these are dealt with in only the most general terms. Douglas Porch's fine book on the French Foreign Legion contains far more germane and useful data.

The shortcomings of "The Algerian Guerilla Campaign" point out a general weakness in the field. It would be nice to find a decent history or exploration of the topic by an Algerian or Islamic scholar. So much of what we have is from Western writers that it would be interesting to see if different cultural lenses produced different takes on the subject matter.

So, give this book a wide berth, unless you are into serious and somewhat dry scholarship about theoretical and academic aspects of the Algerian resistance. Even then, think twice about spending the required capital to acquire this tome. In other words, chalk this one up as a dud.

And that's it for this month. Next month, it seems as though I'll be looking at WWI in the Far East and who knows what else. Until then,

Good luck, good reading and good gaming!


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