August Book Reviews
Prof. Rick Norton
Ah, August. Deep summer approaches. The kids are now long out of school and family vacations are either over or about to begin. Colonial gamers have returned from Historicon, ranting about the press of bodies and the heat, while raving about the great deals, superb games and the grand success of the colonial room. (Brought to you by the inspiration of Larry Brom, and the hard work of Lori and others.) This month we have two new books squarely in our period, an old and odd treasure recently unearthed and a little something from the First World War. Let's start with that:
Through the Wheat: A Novel of the World War I Marines, by Thomas Boyd, *|(Lincoln, NE and London,UK: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 266 pages, ISBN: 0-8032-6168-3, Cost: U.S. $13.95
Thomas Boyd was a former WWI U.S. Marine who died at the early age of 37. He based "Through the Wheat" on his experiences in France and the book, although presented as a novel is intensely autobiographical. In fact, as the forward points out, such famous characters as Major John A. ("Johnny the Hard") Hughes are easily recognizable. (For those who are wondering, Hughes earned his nickname as a result of being recognized as one of the toughest officers in the Corps of his day. He had enlisted in 1900, been commissioned a year later, was awarded the Medal of Honor at Vera Cruz and wounded in Santo Domingo.)
It is easy to see why Boyd's book suffers from general neglect and why it has been long out of print. His writing lacks the élan associated with most stories of Marines and also has none of the sentiment and introspection of Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front." He does not glorify sacrifice as in "Kaidun," nor does he revel in battle as is found in "Storm of Steel." In short Boyd's Devil Dogs are tired, hungry fellows, looking for a hot meal, the next cigarette and a cushy billet. They want out of the line, and whenever possible something alcoholic to drink. They are, in a word, ordinary. Combat occurs almost as a random event, but when it does the Marines die in droves. The battlefield is the hell we have come to expect from WWI, shell craters, pockets of gas, ribbons of machine gun fire - but there are also fields of wheat, terrain not blasted into lunar landscapes - this is the more fluid front of the last stages of the war.
Boyd has presented little that is of use to the gamer. He has an infantryman's view of battle, but is a honest view, perhaps even a compelling view. So, if you are interested in accounts of men under fire or world war literature, get this book.
Next up is another account written by another veteran of the Great War:
Spun Yarns Of A Naval Officer, by Albert R. Wonham, Captain, Royal Navy (London: P.S. King & Son, LTD., 1917), 265 pages, Cost and ISBN: Unknown
There is good news and bad news about this book. The good news is that it has some great accounts of fighting pirates in Malaysian waters in the 1860s - yes "Rajah" Brooke is mentioned more than once. The bad news is that this is a very hard volume to find indeed.
Wonham was a remarkable fellow. He entered the Navy in 1860. The picture of him, priggish, proud and proper in uniform is a treat. He retired in 1897, a full Captain with an oddly unlined face and serene look about him. He was then brought out of mothballs for shore service during WWI. The war was going strong when his book was published and is dedicated to Admiral Jellicoe.
Not surprisingly Wonham saw some days. Cruises to China, fights (successful) to pull Chinese Gordon's chestnuts out of the fire, fights with pirate prahus and wild men of Borneo vie with accounts of attempts to carry the defenses of American girls (evidently even then known for a somewhat adventurous outlook) and a never ending search for rum. It's clear that many things about the sea service seem to be constant.
Wonham made his name as a salvage expert - which may be why he did not make his star, such work as not being seen as the equivalent to winning sea fights, although it was recognized as of more than passing importance. (Of course being on a ship that went aground might have something to do with this as well - even though he was acquitted.) There are several accounts of salvage jobs - enough to give the reader a sense of the difficulty and science involved.
One shortcoming is the lack of photos. There are several throughout the book, but they tend to be of rather stiff looking Admirals of small reknown. However, two deserve mention. The first is of Jellicoe, with sea-faring crow's feet and a rather annoyed expression. The Second is of Admiral Charles Beresford - a familiar name to those interested in the exploits of British sailors fighting as army units.
So, a fun book, as well as a potentially useful one. Good luck in finding it!
The next two are easy to find - should you wish to:
Gordon And The Sudan: Prologue to the Mahdiyya 1877 - 1880 by Alice Moore-Harell (London: Frank Cass, 2001), 286 pages, ISBN: 0-7146-5081-1, Cost: $60.00 U.S.
Almost every fan of the colonial period knows that "Chinese" Gordon has a successful stint as Governor of the Sudan before being sent back into that forbidding country to meet his death and his destiny. But what did he actually do when he was Governor?
Alice Moore-Harell answers that question in some detail. Well-researched and articulately presented, her book describes Gordon's first experience with the Sudan. She covers a wide range of pertinent and interesting topics including economics, civil improvements, social policy and the structure of the Gordon Administration. All these are likely be to be new areas of knowledge and therefore welcome to serious students.
The war gamer has to wait until the end of the book before striking gold, but the patient reader is rewarded when Moore -Harell turns to the issue of "civil unrest and local revolts." By the way, I do not recommend going to straight to chapter five to start in on the fun parts. Much more is gained from taking the book head on as it was meant to be read.
Of revolts and armed conflict there was plenty. The book discusses (if not in the detail one would wish) historical actions, forces, tactics and results. While none of these could serve as a full blown scenario they are all rich sources of inspiration. This book is a recommended read. The high price keeps it from being a recommended acquisition.
And finally, a long overdue biography:
Lord Methuen and the British Army: Failure and Redemption in South Africa, by Stephen M. Miller (London: Frank Cass, 1999), 279 pages, Cost: $55.00 U.S.
Although the average person on the street will not recognize the name, we know Methuen. He's the general who lost the battle of Magersfontein. He's one of the reasons the British did so badly in the opening stages of the Boer War. He's the one who got captured. So much is true.
Most pictures of Methuen show a clean shaven and massive chin, a small hat and a placid if not bovine expression. Surely this man must have exemplified all that was wrong with most of Victoria's generals? This is assuredly not true.
So who was Methuen? Alas, we are not much closer to that answer when the book is finished. This may be due to Methuen's own stoicism and reticence. But some things are known.
Methuen was not a blundering fool. He was a professional soldier dedicated to his craft. A junior member of the Wolseley ring, he was committed to reform. Until the Boer War his combat record, while not undistinguished, was not exceptional, but he still managed to be promoted to the rank of Major General. He did not want to go to South Africa, sensing that there would be problems, but he followed out his orders.
And here is where the book's biggest problem starts to show. Miller painstaking points out every shortcoming Methuen is saddled with. His orders are politically derived and militarily unsound. Requirements to evacuate civilians force him to advance along rail lines. He is woefully short of cavalry, mounted infantry and adequate information about the country and the enemy. Miller also highlights each and every attempt Methuen makes to overcome these problems. It's clear that the General was doing his best and that his best was far better than others. And time after time, Miller assures us that a string of failures, losses and disaster was "not Methuen's fault," or at worst, "not only his fault." But he can't get around the fact that there were multiple failures involving Methuen.
Methuen's reputation suffered from his failures. For a time it was touch and go whether he should stay in Africa, or be sacked like many others. But he remained - in part because Redvers Buller refused to sacrifice Methuen to save himself and in part because Lord Roberts needed some general officer and had probably reached the limit on the number of senior officers he could fire. And Methuen did show battlefield improvement.
Miller does a fine job in detailing Methuen's steady and well-earned rise and rehabilitation in Robert's eyes. Not only was Methuen brave, but his was also truly wise when it came to ending the war. Methuen was convinced that the British had to extend the kindest hand to Boers and their families. Such a policy might well have ended the war earlier, but it was not adopted. We'll never know. Roberts was not overly inclined to be merciful and Kitchner decidedly was not. And Kitchner did not like Methuen.
And then, just before the close of the war Methuen was captured by the Boers. This was the final straw for the general and his reputation. Although he never was charged with any form of dereliction, his career was over.
I truly do recommend this book. While short of being a full biography, what is here is not bad. But Miller would have done himself a favor if he had acknowledged that there are such things as unlucky generals and that Methuen was as unlucky as they come.
And that's it for this month. Good luck, good dice and good gaming!
Rick(Close window to return to the Table Of Contents)