Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/June 2012/Book reviews

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The Chaco War 1932–1935 - Alejandro De Quesada and Philip Jowett

Paraguayan troops during 1932

3/5 stars

By Nick-D

This book provides a brief (48-page) history of the Chaco War that was fought between Bolivia and Paraguay. While it's the 474th book in Osprey Publishing's long-running 'Men-at-Arms' series, it has relatively little material on the military personnel involved in the war; apparently it was published in this series rather than the more detailed 'Campaign' series as Osprey didn't think that it could make a profit on a longer book!

I came to this book knowing next to nothing about this war, and it provided me with a useful overview of the fighting. The description of the campaigns and opposing forces is generally clear, and the limited space available to the authors is used quite well. I would have liked to have seen some material on the evolution of the structure of the opposing militaries during the war (the sudden appearance of multiple 'corps' in quite small armies is startling), but in general there's a reasonable level of detail. The book is well illustrated with photographs and some colour drawings, but the single map (which dates to the time of the war) is poor.

While overall the book appears accurate, it does have a couple of obvious mistakes early in the narrative in which summer and winter are confused (for instance, rains occurring in December are described as 'winter rains', despite this war being fought in the southern hemisphere). The fact that this wasn't picked up is a cause for concern, and makes me suspect that more subtle mistakes would also have gone uncorrected. The narrative seemed to be particularly sympathetic to Paraguay, but I don't know enough about the war to know if this reflects any bias or is the consensus view of the rights and wrongs of the conflict.

All up, this is a worthwhile introduction to this obscure conflict, and is likely to be useful in articles on the war.

Publishing details: De Quesada, Alejandro; Jowett, Philip (2011). The Chaco War 1932–35 : South America's Greatest War. Men-at-Arms 474. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 9781849084161. 

The Hard Slog - Karl James

Australian artillerymen moving a Short 25-pounder gun into position during fighting on Bougainville in November 1944

4.5/5 stars

By Nick-D

The Hard Slog is the first book by Australian War Memorial historian Dr. Karl James, and covers the Australian involvement in the Bougainville Campaign of World War II from late 1944 until the end of the war. While the offensive conducted by the Australian II Corps against the isolated Japanese forces on Bougainville, which cost over 500 Australian lives as well as the lives of thousands of Japanese, was controversial at the time and remains so to this day, this is the first in-depth study of the operation since the relevant volume in the Australian official history (The Final Campaigns by Gavin Long) was published in 1963. As such, it fills a significant gap in the recent literature on Australia's war effort.

Overall, this is a very good book. James has drawn on a wide range of sources, including interviews with veterans, official files, letters and diaries and the few secondary works, to provide a detailed and authoritative account of the events of the campaign and the experiences of the Australian and Japanese personnel who fought in it. His narrative is well written throughout, and is illustrated with excellent maps and well-chosen photographs. I found the account of the Battle of Porton Plantation to be particularly good, though his description of the complex Australian offensives in southern Bougainville is well executed. Like most books on Australia's involvement in the Pacific War, accounts of battles are focused on events at the company level (as the fighting was typically scattered and larger-scale battles were rare), though there are good descriptions of the planning conducted at battalion level and higher.

In addition to his highly competent narrative of the campaign, James' also does a good job of describing the unusual difficulties the senior officers faced on Bougainville - many of them believed that the campaign was wasteful and unnecessary, and even those who supported it were constrained by directives to avoid casualties wherever possible. Not surprisingly, this led to tensions between the officers, severe mental strains on battalion and brigade commanders who were called upon to execute a difficult offensive they didn't believe in and low morale among the soldiers in some units. James' fairly assesses the performance of the commanders and units involved in the campaign, and in doing so illustrates what led some units to almost collapse during the last months of the war. He also notes, convincingly, that it was just as well that the war ended when it did given that the under-resourced Australian force was poised to make a bloody assault on the main Japanese defensive positions.

Of course, the book has some limitations. I wasn't convinced by James' argument that the campaign was justified - while he writes that it was worthwhile to attempt to destroy the Japanese forces on Bougainville in order to free up Australian units for other campaigns, I don't see why the entire island couldn't have been abandoned given that it was of no strategic importance by this stage of the war. If it was considered politically desirable to maintain the relatively small allied beachhead, this could have been done by a relatively small garrison given that the Japanese forces were unable to mount any offensive operations given their desperate shortages of food and most other supplies. Other limitations to the book are that the coverage of the Japanese forces is often limited (though this probably reflects the shortage of material on this topic given that the Japanese destroyed their records before surrendering) and that the organisational structure of the Australian forces is often unclear - an appendix with orders of battle would have been invaluable. The book's high price ($A 60) is also difficult to justify, even when its excellent production standards are taken into account.

All up, this is an important book on the last months of the Pacific War, and I strongly recommend it to people with an interest in this topic.

Publishing details: James, Karl (2012). The Hard Slog : Australians in the Bougainville Campaign, 1944–45. Port Melbourne, Victoria: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107017320. 

Recent external book reviews

Gillies, Midge (2011). The Barbed-Wire University: The Real Lives of Allied Prisoners of War in the Second World War. London: Aurum Press. ISBN 9781845137779. 

Beevor, Antony (2012). The Second World War. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 9780297844976. 

Wright, James (2012). America's Wars and Those Who Fight Them. New York: PublicAffairs. ISBN 9781610390729. 

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I don't see why the entire island couldn't have been abandoned given that it was of no strategic importance by this stage of the war. You have to be sensitive to dates here. The Australians started arriving on Bougainville in August 1944; but XIV Corps did not depart until December, and the Americal Division remained on Bougainville until the end of January 1945. There were still some American units on Bougainville in August 1945. The base was still a strategically important staging area until February 1945, and could not have been closed before then. By this time, the Australian offensive was well under way. And too, the Jpanese had staged a major offensive on Bougainville as recently as March 1944. Hawkeye7 (talk) 12:04, 27 June 2012 (UTC)

Thanks for that point, and you are, of course, correct. Given that no-one thought the Japanese were much of a threat by this point a full-scale offensive to defeat them seems unnecessary to me. Nick-D (talk) 02:13, 30 June 2012 (UTC)