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

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Russian Warships in the Age of Sail, 1696–1860: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates - John Tredea & Eduard Sozaev

5/5 stars

By Sturmvogel_66

Russian Warships in the Age of Sail, 1696–1860 is a comprehensive history of the Imperial Russian Navy. Divided into five sections, it begins with a very nice overview of the navy's organization, ship types, shipyards, and ordnance before providing specifications and short histories of virtually every sailing ship used by the navy from its founding by Peter the Great. These comprise the bulk of the book and are divided into four sections: deep-water, seagoing ships, the inshore navy of galleys and shallow-draft sailing ships, naval auxiliaries of all types, and steam-powered ships. This last section includes all ships that were laid down before the end of 1860, including those wooden ships converted into ironclads during construction. Each of these sections is divided into geographical regions, then into chronological periods and the ships are ordered by size within each period. This organization facilitates tracing the evolution of each type of ship between periods within each fleet or area, although it does hamper comparisons of ships between fleets. This was a deliberate decision by the authors because ships were designed for the conditions unique to each region and were not always directly comparable.

While the ship histories will provide the basis for hundreds of articles on the ships, the first section provides the true value in this book, especially the short (60 page) general history of the navy that covers every fleet action in which it participated as well as operational details of its overseas operations, mostly during the Napoleonic Wars. Basic information on the most eminent officers is provided by short sidebars sprinkled throughout the section. Appendixes provide orders of battle of various fleets on multiple dates, a detailed chronology as well as orders of battle for both sides in every fleet engagement.

In short, the authors have provided us with a gold mine of information on the early Imperial Russian Navy that will serve as the basis for the creation and expansion of hundreds of articles, not merely on ships, but those on various aspects of the navy, its operations, and the battles in which it fought.

  • Publishing details: Treadea, John; Sozaev, Eduard (2010). Russian Warships in the Age of Sail, 1696–1860: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates. Barnsley, UK: Seaforth Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84832-058-1. 

The Proud 6th: An Illustrated History of the 6th Australian Division 1939–1946 – Mark Johnston

Soldiers from the 2/5th Infantry Battalion fighting around Mount Tambu, Salamaua, July 1943.

4/5 stars

By AustralianRupert

The Proud 6th: An Illustrated History of the 6th Australian Division 1939–1946 is part of a series on the divisions of the Second Australian Imperial Force (2nd AIF), which includes works on the 7th and 9th Divisions. It was published by Cambridge University Press in 2008 and written by Mark Johnston, a leading Australian military historian who has published a considerable body of work focused on the experiences of Australian soldiers during World War II.

Formed shortly after the war broke out, the 6th Division was the first division raised as part of the all-volunteer 2nd AIF. It was also the first Australian division to see action during the war, doing so against the Italians in Libya in 1941. Other campaigns followed against the Germans in Greece and on Crete, and against the Vichy French in Syria. The division was then brought back to Australia in 1942, with a brief interlude in Ceylon, where they undertook garrison duties in the wake of lightning Japanese advances in the Pacific. Throughout 1943–45, the division undertook a number of campaigns against the Japanese in New Guinea, including those along the Kokoda Track, around Buna–Gona, Wau and Salamaua and then finally, in 1944–45, around Aitape–Wewak, where they fought until the end of the war.

I have used the book for a number of articles on Wikipedia, including most recently the article on the 6th Division, but I came read the book for the first time in 2008 – before I began contributing to the encyclopaedia – when I was doing some research into my grandfather Ted's service with the 2/3rd Infantry Battalion. A shearer from Deepwater, New South Wales, who grew up during the Great Depression and who taught himself to read, his experiences mirrored those of the 6th Division as a whole; he was typical of many of the men that joined a division that "attracted the most adventurous as well as the most reckless elements of the community" at a time when the war seemed a distant and uncertain prospect. What I had known about Ted's time in the Army had been pieced together mainly from family anecdotes as he had rarely talked about it before he passed away, and my understanding was sketchy at best. After reading Johnston's book, though, I gained a deeper insight into Ted's experiences and what he must have gone through.

Enlisting in early 1940, Ted had been wounded for the first time while fighting in North Africa in January 1941 and was briefly taken prisoner when the casualty clearing station he had been evacuated to was overrun. After being liberated and recovering, he later took part in the fighting in Syria before being sent to Ceylon in early 1942. While there, he was nearly court martialled for refusing to obey an order as the lead scout to swim across a flood swollen river, only to be released on his CO's orders after the strongest swimmer in the battalion, a surf lifesaver, nearly drowned in the attempt. In late 1942, he took part in the fighting along the Kokoda Track, arriving just as the tide of the battle began to turn in the Australians' favour. Enduring the physical hardships of the track, and witnessing such shocking sights as cannibalism amongst the Japanese troops he encountered, he fought with the 2/3rd through to Sananada as the Australians pursued the Japanese back towards the beachheads around Buna–Gona. Upon returning to Australia in early 1943, Ted then soldiered through almost two years of inaction before taking part in the division's final campaign around Wewak, where he was wounded by a Japanese sniper in February 1945, which ultimately led to his discharge.

Members of the 2/3rd Infantry Battalion during a memorial service held for members of the unit who were killed in the Aitape–Wewak campaign.

Ted remained a private the entire war and received no decorations for gallantry, but for me he epitomises the spirit of the "Good Old Sixth" as their first commander, Thomas Blamey, called them. Adventurous and reckless, the 6th were among the first in and among the last out, and famously "parsimonious" in recognising the bravery of their members. Like many men that were damaged and broken by the war, Ted struggled in many ways to return to "civvie street" and was troubled by his experiences for the rest of his life. After being "demobbed", he moved to Glen Innes, New South Wales, and then later Warwick, Queensland. He went back to work and tried to "make the best of it" working on the railways, but he stayed away from Anzac Day parades and the RSL as reminders of a painful past. He never forgot a mate, though, and one of my earliest memories of him is on the main street of Warwick shaking an elderly man's hand and introducing him to me as a "cobber from the 6th Divvie". His mates in the 6th Division never forgot him, either, it seems, which I discovered while researching Ted's battalion. Shortly after his passing in late 2005, a small, unassuming notice appeared in the 2/3rd Infantry Battalion Association's newsletter farewelling him. It was a moving experience to find this, and to me it is illustrative of the incredible bonds soldiers form during their service, which those that have not served will possibly never understand.

Printed as a hardcover, Johnston's book has strong production values and provides a good overview of the division's service, from its formation and structure, to its campaigns, its casualties and its honours and awards. It does so without going into too much detail that a lay reader would find difficult to penetrate, but at the same time it manages to provide sufficient context so that the reader understands why the division was sent to the places it was sent, who its soldiers were and what it was like for them. It is also illustrated quite well with images on nearly every one of its 264 pages; these have been drawn mainly from the Australian War Memorial's excellent collection, although some were sourced from the private holdings of soldiers who served in the division. These provide a unique perspective, as many have probably never been published before.

I recommend the book to anyone interested in gaining an insight into what the war "looked like" to the men that participated in it. It is an excellent book for writing articles about the units of the 6th Division, although I would suggest using it in conjunction with a unit history (many of which exist for Australian infantry battalions) and also the relevant volume of the official history series of Australia in the War of 1939–1945. The book would also be useful in writing about campaigns or battles that the 6th Division took part in, but in this regard it is not definitive as in places the narrative necessarily glosses over a few details in order to maintain a focus upon the division. It can be purchased through a number of online book sellers either as "new" or "second hand". It can also be found in many libraries, including local city council libraries in Australian towns and cities; there are also copies available in overseas libraries. Anyone who is interested can locate the nearest library that holds the book by searching using their post code.

  • Publishing details: Johnston, Mark (2008). The Proud 6th: An Illustrated History of the 6th Australian Division 1939–1945. Port Melbourne, Victoria: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-51411-8. 

Engines of War - Christian Wolmar

A German armoured train in 1942

3/5 stars

By Nick-D

Engines of War is a history of the role railways have played in warfare. It was written by British railway historian Christian Wolmar, and is focused on the 'railway era' which lasted until the 1940s.

In the book's introduction, Wolmar states that there have been surprisingly few books on this subject. While he does a good job of drawing from the available histories, I was surprised that he didn't undertake any significant new research when preparing the volume. As a result, the book is somewhat uneven. The early chapters on the initial employment of railways for military tasks (mainly to move troops around to suppress domestic uprisings) are very interesting, as is the coverage of the first military railway in the Crimean War. The relatively brief treatment of the American Civil War is surprising, however; while most histories of the war emphasize the role railways played in the war's logistics, Wolmar accords the subject only a brief (though quite good) chapter. After a couple of chapters of the role railways played in Colonial warfare and European and Asian wars of the 19th Century and early 1900s, Wolmar devotes two chapters to the railways of World War I. While this material is quite detailed, unfortunately its a bit repetitive and is largely focused on British military railways. The book concludes with a single (and much too short) chapter on railways in World War II and another brief chapter on the limited role railways have played in subsequent warfare.

While Wolmar admits to not being a military historian and being unfamiliar with the military, he's done a pretty good job of describing the complex topic of military logistics, and explaining this in a way that will be accessible and interesting to non-specialist readers. His analysis of the factors behind the success and failure of railways in different wars is quite detailed and convincing. Wolmar's argument that military forces generally failed make good use of railroads unless they either left them in the hands of civilian operators or raised specialist units with complete authority over railway operations is well made. He also convincingly makes the case that railways allowed the scale of warfare, and the resultant casualties, to be drastically increased.

However, Wolmar's lack of familiarity with military history does show at times. His coverage of military campaigns generally lacks confidence, and is often referenced to outdated works (much weight is put on A. J. P. Taylor, for intance). He also overlooks some important aspects of the role railways played in war - for instance, I was surprised that there was no coverage of the major offensives the Japanese launched in China during 1944 in an attempt to open railway routes from the ports in eastern China to Indochina (which was the last major Axis success of the war), the brief coverage of the major Allied air campaign against the French railways prior to D-Day is simplistic and unconvincing and little is made of the way in which Germany used railways to rapidly switch troops between fronts during World War I.

All up, this is a useful book which provides a good overview of both its topic and military logistics more generally. However, its limitations illustrate the need for more comprehensive coverage of this important topic.

  • Publishing details: Wolmar, Christian (2010). Engines of War : How Wars Were Won & Lost on the Railways. London: Atlantic Books. ISBN 9781848871724. 

Recent external reviews

Jewett, Clayton E., ed. (2012). The Battlefield and Beyond : Essays on the American Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0807143553.  |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)

Kochanski, Halik (2012). The Eagle Unbowed : Poland and the Poles in the Second World War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674068149. 

Applebaum, Anne (2012). Iron Curtain : The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956. New York City: Doubleday. ISBN 0385515693. 

Harrison, Frances (2012). Still Counting the Dead : Survivors of Sri Lanka's Hidden War. London: Portobello Books. ISBN 1846274699. 

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