Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/December 2013/Book reviews

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Monty's Men: The British Army and the Liberation of Europe

General Bernard Montgomery in 1943

3.5/5 stars

By Hawkeye7

John Buckley is a British military historian best known for his British Armour in the Normandy Campaign (2004). This is an important work, and I highly recommend it. No one has written a Wikipedia article on a related subject without consulting it. Monty's Men: The British Army and the Liberation of Europe takes a broader view, looking at the 21st Army Group through the entire 1944-45 campaign. It's an easy read; it took me only two days to get through it. It contains some lively first-hand accounts.

The thesis of the book will be familiar to readers of 21st century scholarship on the campaign. During the 1980s, empirical studies showed that the combat effectiveness of the British Army was lower than that of the German. Nonetheless, the British Army won the campaign. Buckley argues that it did so not by sheer weight of men and materiel, but by playing where possible to its strengths (principally its artillery and aerial firepower) and downplaying its weaknesses. That's what smart generals do. As the effort to rehabilitate the British Army's reputation gathered steam, so too did a reappraisal of its commanders. This is particularly true of Montgomery, who died a hero, but whose reputation took a hammering from revisionist historians like Correlli Barnett in the 1960s and 1970s. Buckley notes that if Montgomery was quick to claim all the credit, he also took all the flak for subordinates' mistakes.

Ultimately, the book is unsatisfying. It's not really enough to say that British logistics were sound. More details would be better. The common criticism of 21st Army Group for not opening Antwerp quickly always seems to pass over the fact that it was not the one that had courted logistical failure. Similarly, the treatment of artillery could benefit from a book on British artillery along the lines of British Armour.

Publishing details Buckley, John (2013). Monty's Men: The British Army and the Liberation of Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300134490. OCLC 860808920. 

Empires of the Dead: How One Man's Vision Led to the Creation of WWI's War Graves

Thiepval Memorial and Anglo-French Cemetery

4/5 stars

By Carcharoth

David Crane is a historian and author whose previous works include the acclaimed Scott of the Antarctic (2005). His latest book is a history of the early years of the Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission). Previous histories, with evocative titles such as The Immortal Heritage (1937), The Unending Vigil (1967), and Courage Remembered (1989), took varying approaches. The first, by the founder of the Commission, Fabian Ware, is a slim volume of 80 pages, a publication of his report to the Imperial Conference of 1937. The comprehensive 1967 work by historian Philip Longworth was written as an official history of the Commission, while Courage Remembered is both a work of military history and a battlefield guide. Crane's Empires of the Dead, ostensibly a biography of Fabian Ware (1869–1949), takes a more expansive approach in its 289 pages.

Drawing on the earlier works and a range of other sources, both published and archival, Crane tells the story of Ware and the organisation he founded, established by Imperial Charter in 1917 during the First World War. Though the main thrust of the story (chapters 2-9) will be known to those who have read the previous histories of the Commission, Crane's account is an engaging one. He provides extensive quotes, allowing his subjects to speak for themselves, while interjecting his own views (at times critiquing the official history), and skilfully bringing out the tensions and politics of the times. Problems encountered included the need to establish and defend the core principles of the Commission, negotiations with military and civil authorities, and defusing tensions between the leading architects such as Edwin Lutyens, Herbert Baker, and Reginald Blomfield. Behind it all, is the driving force of Ware and others in the Commission, such as Frederic Kenyon and Rudyard Kipling.

The material in the first and last chapters of the book will be mostly new to many, and it is in these chapters that Crane comes closest to producing an orthodox biography of Ware. The first chapter 'The Making of a Visionary', gives a brief but intense account, establishing Ware's background as "the erratically brilliant, 'warmongering' editor of the right-wing, imperialist Morning Post", and earlier as part of the "Kindergarten" of imperialists who followed the political philosophy espoused by Lord Milner. This background, with Ware aptly described as an 'apostle of Empire', underpins what follows and is brought into sharp focus again in the tenth and final chapter 'Keeping the Faith'. In an elegiac passage, referring to tensions encountered with other approaches to commemoration, Crane quotes extensively from Ware's inter-war addresses to the nation on Armistice Day, building to a moving conclusion in the sombre surroundings of Westminster Abbey.

Overall, this book is an excellent counter and companion to the earlier, and at times rather dry, official history. Crane's work manages to combine biographical details of Ware with the history of the organisation that was synonymous with him from the moment of its founding to his death in 1949, and does so in a way that draws the reader in. It has a pleasing selection of photographs covering 24 pages, though the black-and-white 1930s picture of the Thiepval Memorial does not provide as much impact as a more recent photograph would. There are three maps and a bibliography and index. A minor criticism is that the maps do not adequately show the vast numbers of cemeteries, graves and memorials on the Western Front. A slightly more discordant element, given Ware's nickname of 'Lord Wargraves' (he was also known as 'The Great Commemorator'), is the omission of any mention of the memorials erected to Ware himself. We have to turn to the earlier histories to learn that Ware's grave near his home in Gloucestershire was marked with a Commission headstone, and that tablets to his memory were erected in Gloucester Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. The latter, placed below the Commission's tablet to the Million Dead, can be seen in the gloom of St George's Chapel, a few paces from the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

As one of close to a thousand books expected to be published over the next 12 months on the topic of World War I, this book has been reviewed by, among others, architectural historian Gavin Stamp in The Spectator, and historian Thomas Laqueur in The Guardian. Shortlisted for the the 2013 Samuel Johnson Prize, it is an indispensable read for anyone interested in the history of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and its founder.

Publishing details: Crane, David (2013). Empires of the Dead: How One Man's Vision Led to the Creation of WWI's War Graves. London: William Collins. ISBN 978-0007456659. 

Recent external reviews

Crane, David (2013). Empires of the Dead: How One Man's Vision Led to the Creation of WWI's War Graves. London: William Collins. ISBN 978-0007456659. 

Lower, Wendy (2013). Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. London: Chatto & Windus. ISBN 978-0547863382. 

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