Ottoman High Tide

Ottoman High Tide

Bruno Mugnai, Wars and Soldiers in the Early Reign of Louis XIV: Volume 3 – The Armies of the Ottoman Empire 1645-1718 (Helion, 2020)
Almost from its beginning in the 13th Century, the expanding Ottoman Empire, centred in modern Turkey, offered a potent threat to the Christian West. When it took Constantinople in 1453, the alarm bells rang out all across Europe. War across the cultural chasm separating the two spheres became endemic with no clear winner as usually happens when two titans clash. The Military Revolution in the 17th Century West revitalized that struggle, culminating in the Ottomans knocking on the doors of Vienna in 1683 in what proved to be their high tide. In this, the latest volume in Helion’s survey of the wars of Louis XIV’s reign, Bruno Mugnai analyses the Ottoman army in a book that will surely be considered definitive for many years to come.
Mugnai begins with an overview of the complex Ottoman political, economic, and military structure, which was in crisis by the mid-17th Century. He notes that the Ottomans failed to develop military theories along the lines of the Military Revolution in the West, illuminating the differences between them and the western powers. Mugnai next surveys the Ottoman allies: the Tatars, Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldavia, Georgia, the North African Regencies, the Cossacks, Persians, and even for a time the Swedish King Charles XII. That brings Mugnai to the thrust of his book, the Ottoman Army.
Judging how many men constituted the Ottoman Army is no mean feat, but they were generally described as a multitude. Mugnai has issues with the inflated numbers in the sources, though his detailed description of all the elements of the Ottoman army and its allied contingents illustrates just how impressive they were. Mugnai turns to how the Ottomans waged war, highlighting that they usually opted for the strategic offensive. Mugnai assesses how they did this through their logistical and administrative acumen. Ottoman deployment and tactics on the battlefield rarely changed over the 17th Century, notes Mugnai. They were adept at pulling enemies out of formation, he continues, but struggled against disciplined armies. The Ottomans also placed too much reliance on their cavalry, which was also not effective against troops who stood their ground. The Ottoman infantry became more prominent in the latter part of the century and their fanatical charges were feared by those facing them. They were not above creating field defences, however, when the situation required, and they were methodical in their siege-craft. Mugnai works through several battles and campaigns to illustrate how Ottoman tactics and strategy came together or didn’t as the case may be. A lengthy review of weapons, equipment, and dress, some of it highly ornate, rounds off Mugnai’s study.
If there is a better book on the Ottoman army in the 17th Century, I would like to see it, because it must be very impressive to beat what Mugnai has achieved in this volume. Mugnai writes with clarity and obvious specialist knowledge, and while I found the narrative of battles and campaigns, particularly those around the siege of Vienna in 1683, the most interesting aspects of the book, the understanding that Mugnai brings to every aspect of the Ottoman army is informative and well written. This book is full of illustrations and photographs, but it is the beautiful colour plates, also painted by the multi-talented Mugnai that catch the eye. Overall, this is an excellent book for specialists and general military history enthusiasts. Highly recommended 10/10.
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A Tale of WWII Injustice

A Tale of WWII Injustice

Kate Werran, An American Uprising (Pen & Sword, 2020)
On 26 September 1943, the War came to a small town in Cornwall, England, not in the form of a German attack, but a firefight between two opposing American units; one Black, one white. It led to a unique courtroom drama in nearby Paignton, Devon, where fourteen Black American soldiers stood trial in an American Court Martial on British soil. The charge was mutiny: the penalty, death. Kate Werran narrates the story of this troubling, but perhaps predictable, incident and its aftermath.
The firing started that September evening when MPs attempted to clear a crowd of ‘colored’ soldiers hanging around in Launceston town square. The soldiers opened fire, wounding two of the MPs, but in court the policemen could not identify their attackers and claimed there was no just cause for the assault when there clearly was. There were serious doubts about the witness statements too. But there Werran leaves us hanging while she explores the background to why these men were in England in the first place. She describes the horrific racism of a segregated army, which they brought with them. Werran continues that the Americans and British were antipathetic towards each other, except the ordinary British rejected segregation and treated Black soldiers well, much to the annoyance of white GIs. Their resentment erupted in a slew of violent incidents over the summer of 1943, then came Launceston.
Werran returns to the town, the build up to the mutiny, and the fateful day as told through the trial transcript. The trial was a media sensation, coming off the back of race riots in America and escalating tensions in England that summer. Werran highlights the inadequate defence put forward, missing many gaping holes in the prosecution’s case, suspiciously so, but she also notes the odds were already stacked against the Black soldiers. The cherry-picking of witnesses, moreover, suggested the trial was a sham designed to convict while disguising the evident racial bias underpinning that conviction. The verdict of Guilty was never revealed publicly, however, much to the consternation of the British, though the secretive decision did lead to some minor reforms in how the American forces acted in Britain. In her epilogue, Werran profiles the people involved in the Paignton trial and what happened to them. She closes with a personal account of how she became involved with the story.
Despite its overblown title An American Uprising is a very interesting read and, if you are unfamiliar with the depth of America’s historical racial problem, a surprising one too. Werran stitches together a moving and sometimes angry account of an ugly incident that contained the threads of much larger themes. Her book, therefore, works as a tense courtroom drama and a useful corrective to the untarnished ‘greatest generation’ myth. I felt reading it that there was the kernel of something much bigger and more profound waiting to be uncovered, but Werran skirts round that to tell her story, and there is nothing wrong with that. Students of race in America, social history during WWII, and legal history will gain much from An American Uprising.
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The Ship Killers

The Ship Killers

Jean-Denis Lepage, Torpedo Bombers 1900-1950 (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In my view, the bravest men in World War II flew torpedo bombers at wave height into the teeth of everything their target could throw at them, with nothing to do but pray they survive long enough to release their torpedo and make a quick getaway. Torpedo bombers did not have a long shelf-life after that war, but they had more of a history than I expected. Jean-Denis Lepage’s tidy book on the subject is therefore a welcome addition to my collection, and maybe yours too.
Lepage covers over 300 torpedo bombers, which were flown by all nations with a strategic maritime interest. They entered service just before World War I and sunk their first ship in 1915, though they reached their zenith in the Second World War. Lepage describes the tactics these warplanes deployed, which were always “very risky, difficult and dangerous”, particularly when ships were equipped with close-range weapons to deal with them. Lepage continues with chronological chapters broken down by nation and interspersed with sections on the development of torpedo bombers, aircraft carriers, weapons, and tactics. The chapters begin with an overview and each torpedo bomber merits a technical description, a potted history, and a monochromatic illustration. All the torpedo bombers you are familiar with are covered by Lepage, but he includes many more that might be new to even the most knowledgeable aviation enthusiast. Ultimately, the age of the torpedo bombers was relatively short-lived and they gave way to the jet-age and anti-ship missiles, but they still grip the imagination in a way few war machines can.
Torpedo Bombers 1900-1950 is a little bit more than just a survey of warplanes in a bygone era. Lepage handles his material well, offering valuable insight into not just the machines but how they were used as fearsome weapons in the arsenals of multiple airforces. These type of books usually have photographs, but the abundance of illustrations in Torpedo Bombers makes up for that deficiency. All in all, this is an interesting reference book and an enjoyable read.
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A Swift Survey

A Swift Survey

Roger Branfill-Cook, Riverine Craft of the Vietnam Wars (Seaforth, 2020)
Another in Seaforth Publishing’s useful and interesting Ship Craft series, Riverine Craft of the Vietnam Wars takes us to that unfortunate country, which was the scene of so much fighting around its vital network of rivers for much of the Twentieth Century. The theme that runs through the book is conversion; that of the foreign and ARVN armies trying to establish control, and for modelers building replica riverine craft.
Roger Branfill-Cook introduces his readers to the plethora of converted shallow-draft boats, landing craft, barges, amphibious armoured vehicles, and specifically designed boats that the French, Americans, and South Vietnamese deployed along the Vietnamese rivers, along with their technical specifications. They tested an abundance of weapons that they hoped would work against their nationalist and communist enemies, including all calibres of machine-guns, mortars and other light artillery pieces, flamethrowers, and even water cannons. Of course, the enemy returned fire, so armour was added in various forms to protect the vessels and their crews. But that affected the boats’ weight, therefore their draught and speed, rendering some of them unfit for purpose. Specialist troops, such as SEALS, needed specialist craft, and Branfill-Cook covers those too. The centrepiece of the book is the section on available models and displaying exemplary builds and dioramas, the Jack Carrico dioramas are particularly good.
Modelers will find Riverine Craft of the Vietnam Wars an invaluable and attractive source of information. The reference page also makes this book a useful jumping off point for further exploration into books, websites, and model manufacturers. However, as someone studying America’s Vietnam War, I found this survey interesting and informative too, and Roger Branfill-Cook answered in passing many of the questions I had about this peculiar form of warfare.
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The Dandy Warriors

The Dandy Warriors

Ben Townsend, Fashioning Regulation, Regulating Fashion (Helion, 2020)
This is Ben Townsend’s second volume describing the “Uniforms and Dress of the British Army 1800-1815”. As the title suggests, however, there is more going on here than a simple survey. The British Army’s uniforms became subject to often elaborate design changes throughout the Napoleonic Wars, some of which served no practical purpose. It is that dichotomy, between form and function, that Townsend explores through the army’s annual uniform regulations.
Townsend begins with Wellington’s ‘Dandies’, an officer clique that dressed impeccably to a fault. Unlike his later austere image, Wellington also dressed fashionably if not flamboyantly. But fashion cost money and that made it less available to lower ranks, including many officers. Townsend embarks on a series of annotated chapters for annual regulations, beginning in 1809, interspersed with chapters on specific elements such as greatcoats, leggings, and supply. The pivotal changes came in 1812 with the meddling of the Prince Regent, himself quite the dandy, though Townsend gives him the benefit of the doubt. Townsend adds appendices on Army agents, a Court Martial warrant, a breakdown of costs for outfitting an officer, and a list of French prints pertinent to occupation images. He concludes that for all the attention paid to fashion by young men considered fops, they fought hard for their country when called upon. The text is sprinkled with useful illustrations, including a section of colour plates, most of them contemporary.
Fashioning Regulation, Regulating Fashion is a difficult book to read for the non-specialist. The willingness of Townsend to include source texts without interference as much as possible reflects his prodigious research into this narrow topic, but his book becomes mired in information, so that Townsend’s points are sometimes difficult to extract. His references and bibliography are, however, also impressive. Somewhere in these two volumes is a book that general readers might find interesting, but as structured this will appeal more to Napoleonic enthusiasts and social historians of dress and costume. And, of course, if you enjoyed Volume I, you will find this equally enjoyable.
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