Dmitry Ryabushkin & Harold Orenstein, The Sino-Soviet Border War of 1969 v1 (Helion, 2021)
The thought of two nuclear armed superpowers coming to blows is the stuff of nightmares. When it happens over something as paltry as who owns a small island in the middle of a river, the mind boggles. But that is exactly what happened between China and the Soviet Union in 1969. Dmitry Ryabushkin and Harold Orenstein bring us a story shrouded in mystery and propaganda in a magazine-style book from Helion’s excellent Asia@War series.
Border tensions between China and Russia has deep roots, extending back to the 17th Century when there began a long series of treaties between them. These were discussions over extensive borders, but the fighting that broke out in 1969 centred around a small Island in the middle of the Ussuri River. The authors set that against the wider disagreements between the two communist powers, beginning in the 1950s after Stalin’s death. In the 1960s, the otherwise peaceful coexistence along the border changed to State inspired antagonism; scuffles and brawling followed, and a shooting war was not far behind.
The war began with a Chinese ambush on Damansky Island on 2 March 1969. The authors describe this action in some detail, aided by some remarkable photographs of the event. The Chinese withdrew from the engagement after a few hours, leaving about 20 dead on the battlefield and 31 dead Soviets. The authors add a quite unnecessary section showing photographs of some of the dead Soviets along with descriptions of how they died. The authors include this, they argue, to demonstrate Chinese barbarity driven by their propaganda. The rest of this volume is mostly dedicated to establishing exactly what happened and who was to blame. They follow that with a discussion on the western view of what happened before giving their own thoughts on why this incident occurred. They broaden their inquiry to the geopolitical aspects of the war and the greater clash between Moscow and Peking. While much of that concludes this volume, it also sets the stage for Volume 2 and the much bigger battle sparked by the Damansky Island incident.
The authors had an almost impossible task of seeking the truth from two secretive, totalitarian regimes. That they produced as much as they have is noteworthy, though it is evident that they lean heavily towards the Soviet view of events and sometimes tip into what feels like propaganda. That was hardly avoidable, however, when the Chinese evidence is almost entirely missing. The story of the ambush at Damansky Island is told with admirable clarity, and the maps and illustrations of soldiers and vehicles helps with that. This book will appeal to those interested in modern skirmish warfare and geopolitical issues in the late twentieth century.
Dmitry Ryabushkin & Harold Orenstein, The Sino-Soviet Border War of 1969 v1 (Helion, 2021)
Martyn Bennett, In the Midst of the Kingdom (Helion, 2021)
Martyn Bennett follows the fortunes of the Royalist army in the five counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Rutland, and Staffordshire, collectively known as the North Midlands, where the effort to establish regional Royalist powerbases and systemic control began in the wake of the inconclusive battle at Edgehill in October 1642. The plan was remarkably successful in the North Midlands, but not decisive, until the crippling defeats in the North in 1644. Bennett examines how the Royalist system worked, and sometimes didn’t.
The main thread running through Bennett’s work is the command of Henry Hastings, but he casts his net much wider to include the personnel, officers, and commissioners of array who ran the system. He notes that the soldiers and administrators in the region rarely saw eye to eye on a number of issues. As with all academic discourses of this type, Bennett begins with a historiographical overview, including the main sources. He then takes us into the heart of the Royalist administration, comparing that to Parliament’s efforts to do the same. Bennett turns to the Royalist army, and it was a proper army not the bands of piratical raiders as some pro-parliament historians claim. Having laid the groundwork, Bennett puts it all into motion with two narrative chapters that could be labelled as the rise and fall of the Royalists in the North Midlands. His concluding chapter draws all this together so that Bennett can offer his thesis on how the Royalists ran their war and why they lost.
This is a book based on Bennett’s doctoral thesis first produced in 1986 and updated for publication in 2021. As you might expect then, it is a bit of a dry read with lots of analysis rather than storytelling. By the same token, Bennett’s book is well-written and packed with information and insight. This isn’t a book for ECW beginners, but for those who want to dive deeper, In the Midst of the Kingdom will certainly assist with that.
Tom Lewis, Medieval Military Combat (Casemate, 2021)
In this examination of battle in the Wars of the Roses, Tom Lewis deploys various analytical weapons, including modern warfare parallels and re-enactments, to come up with some startling conclusions that if accepted will overturn a few historical apple-carts.
Lewis sets the scene with an overview of the Wars of the Roses then the development of the infantry combat that dominated the WoR battlefield. He also points out through the next chapter that contemporary accounts of battle are devoid of detail, for which there are a number of reasons, though he sets up a typical battle as a framework for exploration. Lewis examines weapons and armour, arguing that the poleaxe was probably the most lethal weapon used in the WoR. He follows that with a curious chapter on understanding medieval combat through modern books and movies because, Lewis argues, they shape our understanding of medieval combat; thus, he unmasks his intended audience as the most gullible constituency of historical readers. Chapter 5 returns to a discussion of how armour developed and when, and he again singles out movies as his enemy for understanding how armour worked. That brings us to the longbow, another misunderstood aspect of medieval tactics apparently, and back to a more involved look at the poleaxe and how it was used.
Lewis turns his attention to a hypothesis on how medieval battles were fought: he considers ground, weather, battlefield communications, loyalty in battle, aggressive leadership, the aim of the battle, the formation of the battle line, the preliminary to the foot battle, how foot soldiers were arranged, the rhythm of battle, the clash of the front lines, the infantry melee, and the continuation of battle. The Battle of Towton provides Lewis’ example. He relies on logic for the most part in his reconstruction, which looks good but is a doomed exercise for historical understanding of battles. Chapter 10 brings us to Lewis’ mythbusting. The first is the tally of deaths, which focuses solely on Towton, and then the numbers who fought in medieval armies, again based mostly on Towton. Lewis argues that the numbers of both have been exaggerated, though this is pushing at an open door and argues from the absence of evidence, which, as every historian knows, is not evidence of absence. In his short conclusion, Lewis posits a new theory of medieval battle, which is provocative but lacks the hard evidence he needs to force it over the line into an orthodox interpretation.
You have to appreciate a historian pushing the envelope to introduce new ideas to the field. But that historian has to be extra-careful with his methodology and evidence; unfortunately, Lewis falls short of the standard required in this book – when you make a historical error in your first sentence of your introduction, that does not bode well for what is to follow. He is strong on describing tangible things like weapons and armour, and he understands the limitations of his re-enactor evidence, though that does not stop him from drawing conclusions that stretches that evidence too far. Also, much of what Lewis describes, we already know, and it feels like filler. In addition, Lewis’ deployment of modern warfare analogies as evidence might look good, but it simply does not work – there is no universal soldier or timeless combat experience. His use of creative fiction as evidence, we will just file under Straw Man and move on. Lewis is on firmer ground pushing evidence from medieval warfare, but the historian has to be wary here too as with the modern analogies. And his focus on one battle, Towton, as his case-study leaves a lot of other equally important and potentially revealing battles out in the cold. Lewis’s writing is also loose at times and repetitious as if he is struggling to maintain a book-length project rather than an interesting article. His use of bullet-points merely contributes to that weakness. Nevertheless, Medieval Military Combat is thought-provoking and Lewis’s conclusions, however arrived at, are worth considering for those interested in that period of military history.
Stephen Turnbull, The Lost Samurai (Frontline, 2021)
You might not think that Stephen Turnbull has anything left to say after having written umpteen books on Japan’s Samurai warriors, but you would be wrong. This book takes us into the world of Japanese mercenaries in Southeast Asia from 1593 to 1688. It is a fascinating but sometimes brutal story of competing powers and factions and the men who fought for them.
Turnbull acknowledges that he deals in terms of convenience. Southeast Asia is loosely defined but shaped to fit the story. As for the Samurai, they were not Samurai in the classic, romantic sense but most were initially traders turned pirates, the Wakō. Others were left over fighters from the Sengoku Period of almost continual warfare; some were exiled Christians, while more were already resident in Japanese enclaves abroad. Turnbull notes that mercenaries were common in southeast Asia and hired on contracts of various lengths. They included men from many areas, including Europe. It just so happened that the Japanese were rather good at it and developed a fearsome reputation that frightened the enemy but made their masters suspicious.
As you might expect, it was the intrusion of Europeans into the region that created employment for so many of the Japanese mercenaries, though native powers had few qualms in using them too. Many of Turnbull’s sources are European, however, and that perhaps skews the evidence towards greater European emphasis. Fittingly, it was the Spanish in the Philippines who were the first to employ Japanese mercenaries for their schemes to invade China, which came to nothing, but their assault on Cambodia in the 1590s proved more fruitful albeit temporarily so. Japanese mercenaries here also found themselves useful as state executioners on a grand scale against rebellious natives. Turnbull describes the weapons and tactics of the Samurai; while they possessed unmatched bravery, they proved susceptible to European firepower. Nevertheless, the Samurai were used in attack and defence, and as bodyguards. Turnbull visits Siam, a long-standing recruiter of mercenaries through the trade system, then he describes how the Dutch were the most enthusiastic employers of Japanese mercenaries, recruiting directly from Japan. Of note here, is the role of the Japanese in the Dutch wars with the Portuguese, Spanish, and English for the Spice Islands, the Moluccas. But like the other Europeans, the Dutch began to distrust the Japanese, leading to the end of their employment from 1623. Similarly distrustful, the Spanish feared a Samurai invasion of the Philippines. The Dutch had a better case though, when in 1643, ‘native’ Japanese mercenaries helped defend Cambodia against the Dutch, which in reality proved to be a massacre of the Europeans. The Dutch also lost in Taiwan in 1662 with the ‘Iron Men’ playing a leading role. These were probably Japanese mercenaries, according to Turnbull, and they were the last recognised as such in the region.
Turnbull is without peer in bringing the complex world of the Samurai to a public audience yet works like this demonstrate that he is no lightweight historian. This is also a bit of a detour for Turnbull, away from the history of Japan he clearly loves and into southeast Asia with its ancient civilizations and early modern European interlopers. Turnbull follows the sources, sketchy as they might be sometimes, to paint a colourful picture of individual and collective exploits, some of them very gruesome indeed. He also provides the background and context for the use of Japanese mercenaries, which uncovers a familiar but alien world in many respects. The structure of Turnbull’s book is short, self-contained chapters like an edited book of essays on a theme, and it works well, though some chapters are deeper than others. Readers interested in the Samurai and southeast Asian early modern history will no doubt enjoy this book.
Ian Baxter, The Warsaw Uprisings 1943-1944 (Pen & Sword, 2021)
In a war full of atrocities, the Warsaw ghetto somehow stands out, perhaps as something tangible instead of the overwhelming numbers and evil of the Holocaust, something symbolic. It is even more so because of the defiance shown by the Jews and other Poles in resisting their fate in what was ultimately a physically hopeless cause but a spiritual and moral victory for good over evil. At first, I thought this was an inappropriate title in the Images of War series, but Ian Baxter shows us something important here, something that goes beyond war into contrasting definitions of humanity and immorality.
Baxter begins with the background of the German invasion of Poland and the establishment of ghettos for Jews. By October 1940, the Warsaw ghetto housed 400,000 Jews in horrific conditions. In January 1942, the Germans decided to liquidate the Jews in purpose built extermination camps; they called it resettlement and it began in July 1942. Realising their fate, a Jewish resistance movement spread. A short-lived but violent revolt broke out on 18 January 1943, then in April another more serious outbreak of resistance took place against the final resettlement order; 750 lightly armed fighters took on the German troops sent to expel them. Only through complete destruction could the German troops overcome the well prepared bunkers and defensive positions, though they had all but succeeded by 16 May. The surviving Jews were executed or transported to the death camps, the ghetto utterly destroyed, and a concentration camp set up for forced labour to clean the streets. But the resistance was not over.
In June 1944, members of the Warsaw Home Army rose up in anticipation of the Soviet offensive, but the Soviets may have betrayed them, waiting outside the city for the Germans to end Polish resistance, or German defences outside Poland stopped them; Baxter leaves this ambiguous but leans towards the former interpretation. This uprising was a much more organised fight against the Germans, resulting in special ‘pacification’ troops being rushed into the city. They initially slaughtered anyone they encountered but that only led to increased resistance. The battle then became more like a regulation urban engagement, though the poorly armed Poles had little chance. They had to surrender and did so on 2 October. Baxter then counts the cost: 11,000 Germans killed or wounded, 22,000 Polish fighters, and 200,000 civilians. The Germans partially reneged on their surrender agreement to transport 100,000 Poles to the concentration camps then started to raze Warsaw to the ground, but the Soviets finally arrived in January 1945 to seize what was left of the city.
Baxter’s narrative is straightforward and uncontroversial. But, as with all the Images of War series, the quality of the photographs give this book its value. Many are truly harrowing, even just the photos of lines of Jews being escorted out of Warsaw because we know their fate. The photos of often frightened fighters being captured conjure up similar emotions, while photos of laughing German soldiers prompt anger. Yet, looking closely, you can see the dignity and determination of the Jews; men dressed in suits, shirts, and ties, sombre rabbis, defiant women having lost everything yet standing upright in the face of death. The story being told in these photographs is one of true heroism, courage, and hope, and it is one worth telling again and again as Europe continues to face the legacy of the Nazism and hate in the 21st Century.