Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

The Crimean War: British Grand Strategy Against Russia, 1853-1856

November 5, 2012

The Crimean War: British Grand Strategy Against Russia, 1853-1856, by Andrew D. Lambert

Farnham, Surrey, UK/Burlington, Vt: Ashgate Publishing, 2011. Pp. xvi, 380. Illus., maps., tables, appends., notes, biblio., index. $104.95. ISBN: 1409410110 .

A revised edition of the ground-breaking 1990 look at British strategy during the Crimean War from Prof. Lambert (King’s College London), who specializes in British naval history during the Nineteenth Century.

If anything, the revised edition reinforces Lambert’s basic argument that Britain essentially waged a limited war because of the limitations of British power.  Supreme at sea, Britain nevertheless committed itself to a land war against Russia with a small army, unsuited to a protracted conventional war, and with little ability to expand it.  This had two important results.  Firstly, potential allies such as Austria and Sweden, although tempted, were reluctant to commit themselves to a war in which Britain seemed unwilling to make a determined effort.  Perhaps more importently, however, the focus on the Crimea led Britain to neglect what was certainly the more important theatre of operations, the Baltic.  Lambert argues convincingly, that after the initial Anglo-French success in the Baltic with the capture of Bomarsund in mid-1854, the allies largely ignored the theatre.  Despite this, the Russians invested heavily in strengthening the defenses of St. Petersburg.

This is an important work for several reasons.  Not only does it throw fresh light on the Crimean War, but it also reveals the limitations of British power even at the height of its greatness, and stresses the failure of British political and military leaders to address those limitations, so that Britain went into World War I little better prepared for a protracted land war than it had been 60 years earlier.

A valuable book for anyone interested in how superpowers can fail to understand the limitations of their power.


Passport Not Required: U.S. Volunteers in the Royal Navy, 1939-1941

June 6, 2012

Passport Not Required: U.S. Volunteers in the Royal Navy, 1939-1941, by Eric Dietrich-Berryman, Charlotte Hammond, & R. E. White

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010. Pp. xix, 186. Illus., appends., biblio., index. $27.95. ISBN: 1591142245.


The Americans who volunteered to serve in the RAF before the United States entered World War II have received a lot of attention from both historians and film makers.  In Passport Not Required, the authors, respectively a German immigrant and long serving U.S. naval officer, a British attorney, and a former Royal Navy enlisted man and police officer (who died as the book was being completed), observe that in contrast to the Yanks who served with the Royal Air Force, the story of the Americans who served in the Royal Navy has never been told.

The book is focused on 22 men. Largely from prosperous families, some of them were military men, but most were professionals.  The examines the reasons they offered their services and the process of joining the Royal Navy.  This, despite a favorable attitude by the President, was fraught with obstacles due to American and British law.  The book then follows the men through training and into their assignments.  Most of the men went into the fleet, some to command small warships, two dying in action, and some into administrative or intelligence operations.

Both well-written and ground-breaking, Passport Not Required will be enjoyed by students of the American military experience in World War II, international military volunteerism, and the naval service in general.


Buy It At

World in the Balance: The Perilous Months of June-October, 1940 (Book Review)

May 29, 2012


World in the Balance: The Perilous Months of June-October, 1940, by Brooke C. Stoddard

Washington: Potomac Books, 2011. Pp. xiii, 254. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 978-1-59797-516-2.


In World in the Balance, Brooke C. Stoddard,former editor of Military Heritage, takes a fresh look at the desperate months from Dunquerque and the Fall of France to the defeat of the Luftwaffe over Britain and Hitler’s decision to abandon Operation Sealion.

Although the story of “Their Finest Hour” has been told, and well told, before, its intricate complexities, high drama, and enormous importance are such that Stoddard is able break new ground by exploring some hitherto obscure aspects of the great crisis.  He looks at secret negotiations among the English, French, Germans, Spanish, Italians, Poles, Irish, Soviets, and, of course, Americans, in various combinations, and provides a discussion of the long-term origins of radar, centralized air combat control, code-breaking, and other technologies and techniques that were vital to British success in the air war.  Stoddard also gives us looks at many interesting people, from Churchill and Hitler, through some well-known secondary figures such as Jodl, Somerville, Darlan, Franco, and Dowding, to obscure inventors, bureaucrats, politicians, and warriors who contributed in many small ways to the overall outcome.

A good read for those interested in the war in Europe

Buy it on Amazon

Lincoln, the Cabinet, and the Generals (BOOK REVIEW)

May 28, 2012

Lincoln, the Cabinet, and the Generals, by Chester G. Hearn

Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010. Pp. xii, 357. Notes, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 0807136379.


Interest in the politics of high command during the Civil War never seems to wane, and in Lincoln, the Cabinet, and the General, Chester G. Hearn helps us see why that is the case.

Hearn, author of When the Devil Came Down to Dixie: Ben Butler in New Orleans, Ellet’s Brigade: The Strangest Outfit of All,  The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson, and a good many other works in Civil War and military history, gives us a look at the unusually complex mix of politics, personality, and performance that underlay the selection of many senior officers during the war.  He follows their fortunes in the field, and how that influenced, in turn, the course of the war.  In this way, Hearn helps bring us to a better understanding of Lincoln’s approach to decision making, his willingness to make – and tolerate – mistakes, and his ability to take responsibility for the consequences of his decisions.

A very useful read for those interested in policy, strategy, and command during the Civil War.


Buy It At

The Dogs of War: 1861 (Book Review)

May 24, 2012

The Dogs of War: 1861, by Emory M. Thomas

New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2011. Pp. xv, 113. Notes, index. $14.95. ISBN: 0195174704.

The Dogs of War is a meditation on the out-break of the Civil War byone of the most notable scholars of the conflict, Emory Thomas, Regents Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Georgia, author of, among many other notable works, The Confederate Nation: 1861-1865 and The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience.   

Prof. Thomas opens by observing that few people, North or South, during the winter and spring of 1861 seem to have thought a long war likely, if any at all.  He then asks why it came.  Thomas examines the beliefs and misconceptions of the people of the two sections and of their leaders, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.

Thus, in the South, there was an almost racial sense of superiority over Northerners, while Northerners, although almost as arrogant about their superiority, were largely indifferent to secession, until Sumter.  Lincoln failed to realize the extent that ordinary non-slaveholding Southerners were committed to secession, while Davis shared Southern beliefs about Northerners, and thought their resolve would collapse after their first defeat.  These prejudices came to a head at First Bull Run, which, of course, proved both sides wrong.  Of course this is but an outline, for Thomas packs considerable analysis into this short work.

The Dogs of War, 1861 is indispensable for anyone studying the Civil War.

Buy It At

Stalin’s Genocides (BOOK REVIEW)

May 20, 2012

Stalin’s Genocides, by Norman M. Naimark

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. Pp. ix, 163. Notes, index. $16.95 paper. ISBN: 0691152381.

A volume in Princeton’s series “Human Rights and Crimes against Humanity”, Stalin’s Genocides takes a look at the Soviet dictator’s use of mass slaughter in pursuit of total mastery of the USSR, the Soviet Bloc, and the world communist movement, one which puts the dictator squarely at the center of events.

As such, this is a useful overview of one of the most horrific bloodlettings in all history.  But there’s more, for Prof. Naimark (Stanford), author of The Russians in Germany: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945-1949 and Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe, among others, uses Stalin’s crimes as a lens with which to examine the nature and, indeed, the very meaning, of the idea of “genocide.”  This has more than just historical significance, since mass slaughter is still with us.  Thus, for example, Naimark notes that while paper definitions of genocide tend to deal with the killing of ethnic, cultural, or religious groups, a great deal of mass killing has been targeted at political or social  groups, a matter that has implications for policy makers, jurists, and historians.

This makes Stalin’s Genocides of importance not just for students of modern Russian and European history, but also for those interested in very contemporary questions of international law and human rights.


Buy It At

Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (BOOK REVIEW)

May 18, 2012

Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, by Stephanie McCurry

Cambridge, Ma.:Harvard University Press, 2012. Pp. iii, 449. Notes, index. $21.95 paper. ISBN: 0674064216.

This look at the political life of the South on the eve of and during the Civil War, opens by asking, “Who are the people?”, and then proceeds to examine the complexities of class, gender, and race in the south during the Civil War.

Prof. McCurry (Penn) is a specialist in nineteenth century southern life and culture. Her previous book, Masters of Small Worlds, examines social and political life in South Carolina’s “Low Country” before the Civil War. In Confederate Reckoning McCurry reminds us that in the ante bellum South, the people who counted politically were no more than a third of the population, that is white men. But within that group it was the even small slaveholding minority which brought about secession, plunging the South into war.  Nevertheless, as the struggle for Confederate independence deepened, the South’s political leadership found increasing difficulties in sustaining the war effort, and the traditionally disenfranchised sectors of society became, in varying ways, politically active.  This created problems with which the South’s leaders were poorly prepared to cope, and usually responded with repressive measures, thus deepening the internal political crisis.  White women protested food shortages, inflation, and taxation in kind, while increasing numbers of poor white men resisted conscription or deserted, and enslaved African Americans became increasingly restive, fleeing bondage and even enlisting in the Union ranks.

A ground-breaking look at the consequences of the Civil War on the political life and social structure of the Confederacy.


Buy It At

Gallipoli: The Ottoman Campaign, by Edward J. Erickson (Book review)

May 17, 2012

Gallipoli: The Ottoman Campaign, by Edward J. Erickson

Barnsley, So. York: Pen & Sword/ New York: Casemate, 2010. Pp. xvi, 271. Illus., maps, tables, appends., notes, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 1844159671.


In Gallipoli: The Ottoman Campaign Prof. Erickson (USMC University), continues his impressive work on the Ottoman Army found in such works as A Military History of the Ottomans and Defeat in Detail: The Ottoman Army in the Balkans, 1912-1913.

By carefully exploiting Turkish documents, Erickson looks at the Ottoman Army on the eve of the war, the plans and preparations for the defense of the Straits, available resources, personnel, and even staff procedures.  He then reconstructs the operations in great detail from the Turkish perspective.  In this fashion Erickson demonstrates that the Turkish success, usually attributed to British ineptitude (of which there was much), German advisers (of whom there were some), and Mustafa Kemal (who was brilliant, but was not alone), was due in large measure to the Ottoman Army’s reforms in the aftermath of the disastrous Balkan War of 1911-1913.

An excellent read for those interested in the Great War, amphibious operations, or the reform of military institutions.


Buy It At

Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days That Shook the Union

May 14, 2012

Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days That Shook the Union, by John Lockwood & Charles Lockwood

New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2011. Pp. xiv, 298. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $27.95. ISBN: 978-0-19-975989-7.

In The Siege of Washington, John Lockwood, National Mall Historian for the National Park Service, and his brother architectural historian Charles Lockwood, take on the extraordinary story of Washington during the twelve days that followed the Confederacy’s initial bombardment of Fort Sumter, that is, from the 13th to the 25th of April of 1861.   With secessionism rife in Virginia and Maryland, a virtually undefended capitol seemed certain to fall to the Rebellion, particularly after rail and telegraph links to the North were cut, on April 20th, isolating the city – in essence putting it under siege — until the 25th, when the 7th New York and 8th Massachusetts arrived, restoring contact with the outside world.

The story is well cast, with Lincoln, of course, and the aged General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, who, though overweight, would prove to have no fat between his ears, in the lead roles, and such strong supporting characters as Jefferson Davis, Benjamin Butler, one of the true heroes of the moment, and Virginia’s Henry A. Wise, best described as a putschist, as well as cabinet members, senators, representatives, governors, pro- and anti-slavery advocates, soldiers and militiamen, and a number of notable women, including Mary Todd Lincoln, Varina Davis, Clara Barton, and more.

This is a very good read, covering a rather neglected, yet vital period in the Civil War, with plots and counter-plots, subversion, heroism, opportunism, and more, including war planning, mostly notional on the Confederate part, but grimly serious “last ditch” thinking by Union commanders. While there are some small errors, “militia” and “volunteers” are confused, there were no notable defections of enlisted men from the Regular Army, and, despite a hoary myth, Robert E. Lee was not offered command of the Union Armies but a major field command, these are relatively minor.

The Siege of Washington should be read by anyone with an interest in the Civil War.

Buy It At

“Execute against Japan”: The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

April 27, 2012

“Execute against Japan”: The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare, by Joel Ira Holwitt

College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2009. Pp. xiv, 245. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $37.50. ISBN: 1603440836.

This ground-breaking work builds a convincing case that demolishes the commonly accepted view of that the US Navy resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare in the Pacific only as a result of the disastrous surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Holwitt, a U.S. Navy submarine officer and frequent contributor to naval publications, opens Execute Against Japan with a review of the complex history of the long-standing American defense of “freedom of the seas,” before going on to review Germany’s submarine operations during World War I, and the international and domestic legal restrictions that were imposed on submarine operations in the interwar period, which were in fact incorporated into U.S. Navy regulations.  He then demonstrates that, in fact, despite legal restrictions, the U.S. Navy secretly prepared to engage in unrestricted submarine warfare in the event of a conflict with Japan, a policy that was never explicitly approved by either the President or Congress.

An important contribution to the literature of the Pacific War.

Buy It At