Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/January 2014/Book reviews

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Before the Anzac Dawn - Craig Stockings & John Connor (eds)

A painting depicting the departure of the New South Wales Contingent to Sudan in 1885

4/5 stars

By Nick-D

Before the Anzac Dawn is a collection of twelve articles on the key features of Australian military history in the period before its "dawn" during the Gallipoli Campaign of World War I. The articles have been authored by some of Australia's leading military historians, and most are essentially condensed versions of the books these experts have published. The collection has been edited by Craig Stockings and John Connor, who are academic military historians at the University of New South Wales' campus in Canberra.

In the book's introduction Connor notes that Australia's military history during the period prior to 1915 has been neglected, and argues that this is due to both the dominant role of Anzac Day in popular perceptions of Australia's military history and the fact that the pre-Anzac era is complicated and often considered "too-British". I'd also add that this period is typically regarded as being boring given that the small Australian forces are seen to have achieved little, and few people have much interest in wading through the lengthy and overly specialised books which up till now have been the only way of learning more about this era (the tedious gallery covering the period which is hidden away on the lower level of the Australian War Memorial also doesn't contribute much to awareness raising).

Thankfully, Before the Anzac Dawn succeeds in providing an accessible introduction to Australia's colonial military history. It covers a broad range of topics, including domestic conflicts such as the Australian Frontier Wars and Eureka Rebellion, the role of the British military, the slow growth of Australian military forces and the modest contributions these forces made in overseas conflicts. I particularly enjoyed Peter Stanley's article on the experiences of British Army units in Australia, Gregory Blake's convincing argument that the Eureka Rebellion should be regarded as a pitched battle rather than a one-sided massacre, Damien Fenton's overview of the roles Australians played in the New Zealand Wars and Craig Wilcox's excellent summary of the evolution of Australian defence policy in the Edwardian era (a topic which no other historian has been able to cover in an accessible fashion!). The various articles have been thoughtfully edited, and flow together well.

As is inevitable in a book like this, some of the articles are weaker than others. Andrew Kilsby's article on the colonial rifle clubs is somewhat confusing as he never really explains how these associations were organised or what their goals were, and I quickly became bored while reading Craig Stockings' overly-detailed account of the early army cadet movement. Augustine Meaher IV's article on Australian invasion novels felt like an odd inclusion, especially as he never really explained how influential these books were. None of these articles are outright bad though, and are more than made up for by the high standard of the rest of the book.

Overall, Before the Anzac Dawn is an excellent introduction to the early period of Australian military history, and should be of wide interest.

Publishing details: Stockings, Craig & Connor, John, ed. (2013). Before the Anzac Dawn : A military history of Australia to 1915. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing. ISBN 9781742233697. 


Passchendaele: The Anatomy of a Tragedy - Andrew MacDonald

An Australian 18-pounder field gun being moved through mud during the First Battle of Passchendaele

4.5/5 stars

By Zawed

The Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, was one of the most controversial campaigns of the First World War, aimed at capturing the ridges to the south and east of the town of Ypres. The ultimate objective was to take the coastal Belgian port towns of Ostend and Zeebrugge, occupied by the Germans. The campaign consisted of a series of battles from late July to early November 1917, and the armies of the British Dominions played significant roles. The New Zealand Division, as part of II Anzac Corps, first entered the fray on 4 October in the Battle of Broodseinde. It achieved all of its objectives, as did the other divisions involved that day, but in doing so enjoyed the last day of good weather before the rain set in. After a failed attack on 9 October involving the two British divisions of II Anzac (the Battle of Poelcappelle), three days later the New Zealanders, along with the Australian 3rd Division, participated in the disastrous First Battle of Passchendaele. This day, 12 October, remains the heaviest defeat in New Zealand military history.

Passchendaele: The Anatomy of a Tragedy examines the preparation for and conduct of the battle that day. It is not a huge book, coming in at 303 pages including an appendix, endnotes and index. It is also well illustrated with maps and two inserts of photographs. The author, Andrew MacDonald, is a New Zealand journalist with a PhD in military history. This is his second book; his previous work was an account of New Zealand's involvement in the Battle of the Somme.

In Passchendaele, the first chapter consists solely of reminiscences of the participants involved, highlighting the horrors of the battle. In my view, this comes across as slightly overblown. MacDonald's analysis begins with the second and third chapters, which discusses the background to the battle, the commander of II Anzac Corps, Alexander Godley, and the lead-up to 12 October. Naturally, the focus of the book is on the New Zealand Division and its failure on 12 October and why, but not exclusively so. Consistently throughout the book, particularly the latter stages, comparisons are made between the experiences of the New Zealanders and British of II Anzac and the Canadians who replaced them in the final stages of the campaign.

Right from the start, MacDonald places blame for the outcome of 12 October (and 9 October) squarely at the foot of the commander of II Anzac Corps, Alexander Godley. Buoyed by the success at Broodseinde, he made promises to Haig, commanding the British Expeditionary Force, that could not be kept and imposed a timetable on his subordinates that ignored the reality of the conditions in which his men were to fight. Furthermore, his corps headquarters was not well drilled. At corps level, it had only been involved in the Battle of Messines and consequently lacked the experience of I Anzac Corps (which had been involved in the battles on the Somme the previous year as well as Bullecourt earlier in 1917). Godley should have learned his lesson after the Battle of Poelcappelle, which became bogged down due to muddy conditions brought on by constant rain, poor logistics and limited time for preparation. Instead, he chose to make an attack with even tighter time constraints for preparation. He also disregarded the advice of the men on the ground, his divisional commanders Russell and Monash (of the New Zealand and 3rd Divisions respectively), who were both skeptical about the chance of success and had received feedback from their subordinates on various aspects of preparations. As MacDonald appreciates, the preparation work at divisional level was in stark contrast to that at corps level, and is a reflection of the approach and experience of both divisional commanders.

To reiterate Godley's influence on the outcome of the battle, in the book's final chapter (entitled Godley's Abattoir, leaving us in no doubt where his opinion rests), MacDonald contrasts Godley's role as corps commander with that of Arthur Currie, the commander of the Canadian Corps. Under Currie's leadership, and with his awareness of the need for full co-ordination between all the forces under his command, the Canadians were able to take Passchendaele village. Godley had boasted to Haig that an Australian flag would be raised over the village (the 3rd Division was tasked with the capture of the village itself on 12 October); instead, it was the Canadian flag flying when Passchendaele was captured on 6 November.

For a relatively scholarly subject matter (in my opinion), MacDonald has written an analysis of the battle that should be quite accessible to most readers. What should also make this book of interest for many historians is the coverage of the co-ordination of the various branches of the arms. As someone who hasn't served in the military, Passchendaele has certainly enhanced my understanding of the importance of logistics and engineering as a prerequisite to a well-executed battle plan and how corps and divisional staff work is performed. For this reason, the book should appeal to more people than just those interested in New Zealand military history.

Publishing details MacDonald, Andrew (2013). Passchendaele: The Anatomy of a Tragedy. Auckland, New Zealand: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 978-1-77554-030-4. 


Churchill's Bomb - Graham Farmelo

Churchill with Roosevelt and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945

4/5 stars

By Hawkeye7

Usually when you see a book with a title like X's Y you expect it to be about Y rather than X, but this is not the case with Churchill's Bomb. It really is about Winston Churchill. The book traces his relationship with nuclear weapons back to a time long before any scientist believed that they were possible, back to the science fiction of H. G. Wells, whom Churchill knew quite well.

Viewing the story through Churchill's eyes has its limitations. The book doesn't go too far into the technical side of things, which Churchill did not fully grasp, although author Graham Farmelo, who wrote The Strangest Man, about physicist Paul Dirac, would have had less trouble. Because of this, Churchill relied heavily on the controversial "Prof", Frederick Lindemann, also known as Lord Cherwell. The implications of this are discussed at length. Churchill's relations with the scientists were not too dissimilar to those with the soldiers, although less familiar to readers.

The book does not flinch from describing Churchill's - and Britain's - mistakes, particularly the failure to join the United States in Manhattan Project early when it was first offered, and later in causing the Cold War. The United States' falling out with the French, the British, and the finally the Soviets in the aftermath of the Second World War remains a tragedy. Other critics of the book have found the treatment of Niels Bohr's plan to share the atomic bomb with the Soviet Union. This all seems much less risky in retrospect, now that we know how thoroughly Soviet spies had penetrated the British and American projects, and how well the Soviet program eventually progressed.

The focus on Churchill also creates a hole in the post war years, when the British atomic program took off, but Churchill was out of office. In this period, he wrote his Second World War series of books, but was constrained in what he could say. The account here is for some reason not as thorough as it could have been, and the reader is directed to David Reynolds's In Command of History, which contains a fuller account. The narrative closes with Churchill's return to office, and his subsequent decision to authorise Britain's H bomb.

Publishing details: Farmelo, Graham (2013). Churchill's Bomb: How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 9780465021956. 


Recent external reviews

Reynolds, David (2013). The Long Shadow : The Great War and the Twentieth Century. London: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0857206354. 

Shenk, Robert (2012). America's Black Sea Fleet: The U.S. Navy Amidst War and Revolution, 1919-1923. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 9781612510538. 

Holland, James (2013). Dam Busters : The True Story of the Inventors and Airmen Who Led the Devastating Raid to Smash the German Dams in 1943. New York City: Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 0802121691. 

Burleigh, Michael (2013). Small Wars, Faraway Places : Global Insurrection and the Making of the Modern World, 1945-1965. New York City: Viking Adult. ISBN 0670025453. 

Schlosser, Eric (2013). Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. New York City: Penguin Press. ISBN 1846141486. 

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