Tag Archives: Military History

Book Review – Brutus by Kirsty Corrigan

Until Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 Brutus was the most famous assassin in the world. The consequences of his action on the Ides (15th) March 43 BC were almost as serious and yet there are relatively few biographies of him. This book seeks to fill the void, and it’s quite a tale. Continue reading Book Review – Brutus by Kirsty Corrigan

BOOK REVIEW: Armoured Horseman by Peter Willett

This is Peter Willett’s memoir of his service in the Second World War, all of which was with The Queen’s Bays, a tank equipped cavalry regiment in the Eighth Army serving in North Africa and Italy. It is an utter delight to read; the authors prose is engaging (as befits a former racing journalist and fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts) and the story compelling.

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Book Review: Deep Sea Hunters by Martin W. Bowman

My review of this book was originally posted on ARRSE (www.arrse.co.uk) and appears here with their kind permission.

One of the major British concerns during the Second World War was maintaining sufficient imports of food and materiel for the population to avoid starvation and be able to fight.  The German U Boat campaign threatened to win the war.  Its ultimate failure to do so was caused by a combination of improving convoy escorts and in particular improved airborne anti-submarine warfare.  This book seeks to tell the story of the latter.

It should be a rich tale.  The crews were routinely flying long endurance missions (often over 15 hours), sweeping their search area at low level.  If they spotted a surfaced U Boat they had to be able to deliver their ordnance before the U Boat crash dived, and that required flying straight at the target and over it.  Never easy, buy the end of the war U Boats had an armament equivalent to that of a ZSU 23-4.  Few modern combat pilots would relish the prospect of taking that on in a plane the size of a Hercules, but slower.

Continue reading Book Review: Deep Sea Hunters by Martin W. Bowman

Let’s Not Rewrite History Again

The Guardian ran an article by John Sweeney over the weekend, lamenting the inattention to 306 soldiers shot for desertion during the First World War. Predictably it demanded a pardon for them all, and cast aspersions on the MOD and the conduct of the war. As it happens I have been re-reading Gordon Corrigan’s excellent Mud, Blood and Poppycock, which devotes a chapter to military discipline and the application of the death penalty during that conflict. As a soldier, Corrigan spent a significant amount of time as a president of courts martial so he knows what he is talking about. His research is impeccable.

The first point to be made is that military discipline is covered under a separate branch of English Law, enshrined in the Army Acts. These have changed somewhat since 1918, but the general thrust remains the same. A string, just and effective legal framework is required to maintain order in the lethal chaos that is battle. The point being that the Acts were passed (annually) by Parliament and therefore represented the view of the electorate at the time. Note also that the acts proscribed how justice was to be administered; there was due process, albeit somewhat less complicated that would be found away from the battlefield, and that was complied with.

The second point is that of the 123,383 Field General Court Martials held during the war (the most common format for dealing with soldiers), 3,080 resulted in the award of a death penalty and only 346 were executed in all theatres of war, 322 of which were in France or Belgium. The offences tired covered all offences under the Army Act, the overwhelming majority of which did not have the death penalty. The court comprise three officers, and in the case of a death penalty they had to be unanimous. Moreover the punishment had to be confirmed by higher commanders, and in almost 90% of cases they ordered clemency.

Almost all offences effectively turned upon points of fact: the accused was either at his post or he was not. He either had his weapon, or did not. He either obeyed an order, or did not. In almost all cases, the accused was in no better or worse part of a battle than his comrades – the difference was that they did their job and the accused did not.

“Shell shock” was a known problem, as it had been since the Boer War and treatment was provided, that treatment usually involved evacuation from the front line and rest, which is pretty much what it would do today (although the terminology might be different). If shell shock was cited as a defence doctors were consulted and no soldier diagnosed with shell shock was executed. If the doctors were nor satisfied that the accused was suffering from shell shock, then the defence was not accepted. The Southbrough committee of 1920 investigated, inter alia, and it was satisfied that from 1914 onwards allegations of shell shock in courts martial were examined very carefully.

Corrigan actually reviews the case of Lance Sergeant Stones; as he observes it is one of two often aired in the press around Remembrance Day. Following a German raid on the British forward trench, L/Sgt Stones was found 750 yards away, running away from the front along a communication trench without his rifle. Duly charged with “shamefully throwing away his arms in the face of the enemy” he was defenced at his court martial by a Captain of his regiment who was a qualified solicitor. Stone’s reason for not having his rifle was that he had used it to block the trench. It is hard to understand how a single rifle would constitute any sort of obstacle; the better solution would have been to use it as intended, to shoot at and kill the advancing enemy. Corrigan comments further that, had Stones been a private soldier he might well have received clemency, but he was an NCO from whom more is expected.

Remembrance Day is the time when we remember those who did stand, did fight and, as a consequence of that dutiful resolution, died. The simple fact is that those executed failed to fight when their mates were. While their deaths were caused by the war, so were many others. They should all be remembered, but 11th November is for soldiers who died doing their job.

BOOK REVIEW – The Somme Campaign by Andrew Rawson

This review originally appeared on the Army Rumour Site (www.arrse.co.uk) and is reproduced with their kind permission.

The average reader of this blog is probably familiar with the First World War and may well ask whether the centenary of its start is cause enough for another book on the Somme Campaign of 1916.  The author, who has written many military books, asks the same question in the introduction and answers it.  This book is a comprehensive, chronological record of how and where the British Army fought during the 142 days.   It was worth writing, and is certainly well worth reading.

The book eschews commentary, discussion of the intriguing relationships between the commanders and the German view and experience.  Instead it produces a dry, unequivocal record of who did what, why and when.  The author has also avoided the common trap of wallowing in the (appalling) casualty rolls.  The result is a crisp, authoritative and clear text.

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BookReview: The Kaiser’s Captive by Albert Rhys Williams

This Review was posted on the Army Rumour Service Site http://www.arrse.co.uk and is reposted here with their kind consent

This book, which was first published in America in 1917, describes the experiences of a 30 year old American in the opening days of the First World War.  It has been reprinted to coincide with the centenary.

Born and educated as a minister in America, with spells at university in England and Germany, the author found himself on the German side of the front during the battles of the Meuse.  He spent much time on his feet observing the German advance through Belgium and the reactions of the locals.  Much of the book comprises vignettes, some of which are quite charming.  He is, rightly, full of admiration for the stoic resilience of Belgian peasant farmers and disgust at the destruction of a neutral country.

Continue reading BookReview: The Kaiser’s Captive by Albert Rhys Williams