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

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Our Friends Beneath the Sands – Martin Windrow

5/5 stars

By Dumelow
French soldiers in Indo-China in 1890

Our Friends Beneath the Sands is a history of the colonial operations of the French Foreign Legion from 1870 to 1935, written by the military historian and editor Martin Windrow.

I was somewhat familiar with Windrow's previous works, particularly for Osprey Publishing (for which he has edited hundreds of books), including his French Foreign Legion 1914–1945 (Men-at-Arms No. 325, published in 1999) with illustrator Michael Chappell on a similar topic. I picked up Our Friends Beneath the Sands in late 2011 from my local bookshop primarily to help me with writing the Zaian War article.

I dipped in and out of the book for research purposes but have recently read it properly from cover to cover. It is a truly comprehensive work (my paperback edition runs to 602 pages with additional epilogues, appendices and index) that covers almost every French colonial campaign of the period. In the first portion of this work Windrow charts the service of the legion from the Franco-Prussian War and suppression of the Paris Commune, through Indo-China, Dahomey and Madagascar. Windrow's meticulous research, including the use of long-forgotten legionary memoirs, sheds light on numerous "do or die" moments where the blood, sweat and toil of a handful of legionaries turned the tide of an engagement. Though focussed primarily on the legion Windrow provides a good, balanced overview of each campaign and the efforts of other French units and their colonial allies.

It is in Indo-China that we are introduced to Major Hubert Lyautey, recently called away from a routine deployment in Metropolitan France to the general staff. Windrow clearly recognises a good character when he sees one and Lyautey's career is a major theme of this book (he later become resident-general of Morocco for the French occupation). Indeed much of the later part of the work could almost be read as a biography of Lyautey so much does it revolve around this energetic and ambitious man.

A depiction of the Foreign Legion in action in Morocco, 1907

The second part of the book is devoted to the growing French involvement in Morocco from the late 1890s. Windrow tells the tale of the expansion of the French sphere of influence across the border from Algeria and the accompanying political negotiations with Moroccan Sultans well but the book really takes off with the declaration of the French protectorate in 1912. There follows a number of campaigns in the interior of the country against Berber tribes who refuse to accept French rule.

Windrow maintains a strong grasp of the narrative that propels the reader through the Zaian War, the effects of the First World War and the Rif War, right through to the pacification of the last rebel strongholds in the depths of the Anti-Atlas mountains in 1935. Once more the author provides detailed and personal accounts of small-scale battles whilst providing a good overview of the campaign as a whole. Thus, the reader is allowed to gain a sense of the brutal realities of day-to-day warfare for the individual legionnaire, while also being shown the reasoning behind Lyautey's strategies.

Windrow describes some of the leading figures of these campaigns so vividly (René Laverdure, Prince Aage, Captain Henry de Bournazel, Mouha ou Hammou Zayani, Thami El Glaoui) that I felt I almost came to know them personally, particularly the complicated character of Lyautey. Though he writes from the French viewpoint (there are few accounts from the Berber side) he does so almost dispassionately and conveys a respect for and understanding of the tribal system and fighting qualities of the Berbers.

Another aspect that Windrow puts across well is the effects of the mechanisation of warfare on the legion and he documents brilliantly the change from 1912's foot/mule-based legion battalions backed up by horse-mounted cavalry and foot artillery to a motorised infantry force mounted in trucks, supported by light-tank squadrons, tractor-drawn artillery and reconnaissance and bomber aircraft.

Windrow backs up his work with 24 maps that were invaluable to me (I found it best to photocopy the map sections so I could check the position of each new oasis or hamlet mentioned in the text) as well as 83 black-and-white plates with detailed captions. The appendices give an outline of the exploits of the legion in Europe from 1914-18 (which, as a non-colonial campaign, is not covered in the general text of the book), in Turkey in 1925 and a brief biography of Beau Geste author P. C. Wren providing Windrow's views on whether he actually served in the legion or based his famous book on the experiences of other men. Windrow's dedication to thorough research is backed up by almost forty pages of footnotes and a bibliography running to more than 130 entries.

This must rank as one of the best pieces of military history I have read for its detail and compelling prose that drives the reader effortlessly through 65 blood-soaked years in the ranks of the legion. For those seeking a comprehensive account of the "golden age" of France's elite fighting force that goes beyond the romantic ideals of Beau Geste, you cannot go far wrong with this book.

Publishing details: Windrow, Martin (2010). Our Friends Beneath the Sands. London: Phoenix. ISBN 978-0-7538-2856-4. 

Two recent Osprey Publishing books on New Zealand's military history

The death of Major Gustavus von Tempsky in fighting against Titokowaru at Te Ngutu o te Manu during 1868
One of the 2nd NZ Division's tanks being transported across the Po River in Italy during 1945; uniquely, this infantry division included a full armoured brigade

The New Zealand Wars:4.5/5 stars
The New Zealand Expeditionary Force in World War II:3/5 stars

By Nick-D

While New Zealand has a fascinating military history, few books on the subject are published overseas and those available from NZ itself tend to be very expensive. As such, Osprey Publishing's decision to include several books on the topic in its long-running Men-at-Arms series is a very welcome development. These 48-page books are well illustrated, and aim to give readers an introduction to their topics. So how do the two volumes shape up?

Despite its title, The New Zealand Wars covers both the intra-Maori Musket Wars during the 1820s and colonial-era fighting between British settler and Maori forces, which lasted from 1845 until 1872. Both wars involved considerable fighting, with all the involved factions deploying significant forces. Ian Knight has previously produced an outstanding book for Osprey on Maori fortifications during this era, and this volume is almost as good. He starts the book with a very useful 19-page summary of the wars before moving on to discuss the characteristics, equipment and clothing used by each of the factions. This material is largely focused on the Maori and locally-raised New Zealand settler forces, with the sizable regular British military forces deployed to NZ receiving lesser coverage; given the ready availability of works on the Victorian-era British military this seems sensible. Overall, Knight does a good job of describing the forces involved in the wars, the only shortcoming being that he doesn't address the experiences of individual soldiers in the fighting (for instance, he notes that most of the male British colonists had to serve for a month each year in millitia units, but doesn't describe whether they did so willingly or resented the time away from their new farms and settlements).

Wayne Stack and Barry O'Sullivan's book on the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) of World War II is somewhat less successful. This force comprised two divisions, one fighting in the Mediterranean until the end of the war and the other disbanding after a short campaign in the Solomon Islands. The topics covered include the organisation of the NZEF, short biographies of the two permanent divisional commanders, short summaries of the two divisions' campaigns and a highly detailed description of the uniforms worn by the troops. While the campaign summaries are useful, I felt that they were slanted to portray the NZEF in an unduly positive light. The terrible losses suffered by the 2nd NZ Division in 1941-42 are skirted over with undue haste, and the book includes some serious nonsense about "national values of 'mateship' and teamwork" underpinning the success of the Kiwi units; good training, doctrine and leadership are more likely to be the key factors here. In contrast to The New Zealand Wars' content-rich material, these summaries also felt a bit sketchy. I wasn't terribly interested in the material on how the NZ soldiers dressed, but the book's coverage of the NZEF's surprisingly complex organisation is excellent—the authors do a good job of explaining the changes to the structure of the divisions, and why these took place. I was somewhat disappointed that the book didn't so much as mention the large home defence force stationed in New Zealand during 1942 and 1943 though; while these three divisions did not form part of the NZEF, they were a significant part of the New Zealand Army's wartime experience, and their formation contributed to a shortage of replacements for the 2nd Division in North Africa.

Overall, while both books are recommended to people with an interest in NZ military history, The New Zealand Wars is clearly the better volume of the two. It packs a huge amount of material into its short length, and provides an excellent overview of its subject. In contrast, The New Zealand Expeditionary Force in World War II feels a bit lazy and is merely adequate.

Publishing details

  • Knight, Ian (2013). The New Zealand Wars 1820-72. Botley, United Kingdom: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 9781780962771. 
  • Stack, Wayne; O'Sullivan, Barry (2013). The New Zealand Expeditionary Force in World War II. Botley, United Kingdom: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 9781780961118. 

Recent external reviews

Rees, Peter (2013). Lancaster Men: The Aussie heroes of Bomber Command. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 9781741752076. 

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. 

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