Andrew Abram, For a Parliament Freely Chosen (Helion, 2021)
Sir George Booth launched his rebellion against the Rump Parliament on 1 August 1659. He had 4,000 men with him in Cheshire and expected others across England to join in; the auspices looked positive for success. Within 24 days, Booth was isolated, defeated in battle, and captured trying to escape disguised as a woman. What happened? Andrew Abram is here to tell us while putting Booth’s Rebellion in the wider context of an England in turmoil and on the cusp of revolutionary change.
Abram sets out his stall by surveying Cheshire after the First Civil War, from 1646 to 1650. This was a turbulent period of local political conflict and many old wounds remained open. The 1650s were, of course, the years of Cromwell’s Protectorate. In Cheshire, Abram reviews the settlement of the militia who fought for Cromwell in the Scottish invasion of 1651. The rest of the decade is highlighted as one of discontent within the county, particularly among dispossessed Royalists and disaffected Presbyterians, and Cromwellian attempts to smooth things over. Out of this emerged Sir George Booth, a man acceptable to both Royalists and Cromwellians, though not without suspicion.
1659 proved a pivotal year for the governance of England. This is where Abram focuses next in a contextual chapter that leads into Booth’s rebellion. Abram describes the rebellion’s strategy, leadership, and cohesion as Booth led his small army to Chester from Warrington to begin his campaign. Unfortunately for Booth, Parliament had been tipped off. Moreover, Abram argues that Booth lacked experience of military command and made significant mistakes, one of which was to expect a general uprising. That never materialised, and to make things worse, Major General John Lambert was on his way from London with a sizeable force. Abram detours from his narrative to describe Booth’s army, which he estimates at about 4,000 with the usual mix of trained and raw troops, some motivated and others pressed into service. Abram then turns to the Council of State’s reaction in London, which was to send the troops under Lambert and from other places, most notably Ireland. That brings both sides to the Battle of Winnington Bridge. This was as one-sided as battles get, and it seems that only Lambert’s restraint prevented a general massacre. The perpetrators of Booth’s rebellion got off light in the subsequent turmoil that led to the Restoration. Booth spent some time in the Tower of London but was released to play his role in Charles II’s return. Abram ends his story there but adds some appendices for primary documents and an excellent bibliography.
On reading For a Parliament Freely Chosen, there is no doubt that Abram is an expert in his field. He displays this through the detailed narrative and analysis he presents on every page and the manner in which he switches seamlessly from local to national themes. Abram is also persuasive that Booth’s Rebellion was a nationally significant event. He gets into the weeds at times, as you might anticipate in such a detailed work, but he never loses his readers in doing so. Abram’s book is part of Helion’s Century of the Soldier series, meaning that the production quality in illustrations, maps, and general presentation are what we have come to expect. Overall, not an introductory book to the Civil War era, but enthusiasts will certainly enjoy reading this.
Andrew Abram, For a Parliament Freely Chosen (Helion, 2021)
Brian Best, Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs and their War against Spain (Frontline, 2021)
Pity Elizabeth. In 1558, she inherited a State on the edge of chaos after the bipolar years of Mary and Edward. Religious strife dominated the national conversation. Elizabeth would try to steer a middle line, but the Catholic King of Spain was having none of it. That said, the impoverished Elizabeth had no qualms about trading with Spain’s possessions in the New World, and that commerce would soon enough turn to piracy, thanks to Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs.
Best demonstrates the vulnerability of Spanish commercial traffic lanes from almost their inception. The Dutch and French picked Spanish ships off with ease and attacked their settlements. Elizabeth wanted a piece of the action. She gave Letters of Marque to a group of captains of small, fast warships, which authorized them to attack Spanish ships, these were the Sea Dogs. Best describes these ships and introduces us to their captains.
First up is John Hawkins. He began his naval career as a merchant, making himself wealthy through the slave trade in particular. He was soon fighting the Spanish, however, on the Queen’s behalf, though certainly not without incidents that Best relates with relish. Hawkins’ career blossomed until he rose to become the head of Elizabeth’s Navy Council and appointed Rear-Admiral to fight the Spanish Armada in 1588. After an interlude to discuss the adventures of some English sailors left behind in South America, Best turns to the story of Francis Drake. He served with Hawkins, but his most famous exploits came with his own command. Those included his circumnavigation of the world, an event that receives three chapters from Best. Thomas Cavendish also attempted to sail the globe. He too attacked the Spanish but dies off Ascension Island.
Best next considers other privateers and military commanders in shorter biographies, including John Oxenham, Richard Greenville, Thomas Stukeley, John Norreys, Christopher Carleill, Walter Raleigh, Humphrey Gilbert, Michael Geare, Christopher Newport, Martin Frobisher, George Clifford, and William Monson, all of whom might merit a full biography. There follows an oddly placed chapter on the execution of Mary Quen of Scots, then Best jumps back a year to Drake’s attack on Cadiz. The defeat of the Spanish Armada is up next, told from English and Spanish perspectives, and the disaster that ensued around the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Short chapters on the deaths of Drake and Hawkins, the fall of Cadiz, and the end of the Sea Dogs era close Best’s book.
Rather like some of the voyages he describes Best’s book on Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs is an uneven journey. He sails through the stories of Hawkins and Drake in well written chapters, but rather than expand on some of the other adventurers in Elizabeth’s navy, Best chops through them to make room to describe events, minor and major, and the head-scratching chapter on Mary’s demise. Best’s structure also strains under his material, which skips around the chronology at times. Taken as a whole, including the unsatisfactory bibliography, Best’s book doesn’t quite work, but if treated as episodes then Best tells some exciting tales of high Elizabethan adventure and you can skip the rest.
Pierre Tiquet, German Tank Destroyers (Casemate, 2021)
In German Tank Destroyers, Pierre Tiquet surveys the machines that served one purpose and the men who fought in them. It is a story of German ingenuity and adaptation, albeit in a losing cause.
Tiquet begins with a timeline of major operations where tank destroyers were involved, then moves into his introduction of these weapons. He points out that the Germans needed a motorized anti-tank force rather than rely on cumbersome manual operated guns often pulled by horse teams. That necessity led them to manufacture anti-tank guns on existing tank chassis. These became heavier weapons as the war developed with the need to deploy heavier guns against heavier tanks. And with that explained, Tiquet examines the tank destroyer variants as they entered the battlefield.
The Panzerjäger Ente, Marder II, and Marder III are first in Tiquet’s catalogue. He describes the Ente as a ‘doughty little tank destroyer’ but it had issues, as did all the earlier models, the most obvious of which was the lack of protection for the crews. The Marder II and III had bigger guns and proved successful in all theatres, but it was tall and presented a juicy target in the open. Effective camouflage was therefore essential, and Tiquet includes some excellent photographic examples of this. Tiquet continues with the Dicker Max and the Sturer Emil. These had greater range and better optics but were heavy and only a few were built. The Hornisse/Nashorn carried the much feared 8.8cm gun on a Panzer II/IV chassis., but it too was heavy and suffered from transmission problems. Designed at the request of Heinz Guderian, the Hetzer solved the high profile problem of previous tank destroyers, and the Germans produced 2,700 of them from April 1944 to May 1945. The appropriately named Elefant comes next in Tiquet’s review. It was a massive beast with an 8.8cm gun, and highly successful in combat, but it weighed 68.65 tonnes and suffered from mechanical problems. The final tank destroyer under review is the Jagdpanzer IV with its sleek profile and long 7.5cm gun. Tiquet concludes that the German tank destroyers were developed in reaction to enemy tank development. The Hetzer and Jagdpanzer were the best of them, but they came too late to change the tide of war.
While German Tank Destroyers falls into the category of ‘illustrated books on war’ with lots of useful photographs of the machines, Tiquet’s text stands up well. He provides the technical details, as you might expect, but includes lots of testimony from the crews that served in the tank destroyers. He also adds sections on some of the major engagements where they fought. As for the photographs, they are mostly of abandoned machines, particularly those from the Battle of the Bulge, but there are also shots with proud crews and vehicles in transit, and they all tell a story. World War II vehicle enthusiasts will enjoy this, of course, but so will readers interested in combat experiences during the war.
Stephen Manning, Britain at War with the Asante Nation 1823-1900 (Pen& Sword, 2021)
They called it the White Man’s Grave; that part of West Africa that we now call Ghana but was the Asante Empire in the nineteenth century. The British and Asante people fought for control of this land intermittently from before Queen Victoria was crowned to almost the end of her reign. Indeed, one of the Queen’s most famous generals, Garnet Wolseley, fought a campaign so audacious and brilliant that it ranks with any of the century’s great colonial expeditions. Yet, the Zulus and the Mahdists are commonly known Victorian foes, while the Asante have been pushed into the background. Stephen Manning is here to fix that misperception.
Manning begins with the rise of the Asante Nation and its early contacts with European traders, mostly dealing in slaves. He describes the Asante army, one which was formed only of infantry and well organised and supplied. They also used muskets, long danes, which, though often ineffective physically, could induce psychological terror in the twilight battlefields of the deep forest. It was perhaps inevitable that this army would clash with the British merchants along the Gold Coast among the Fante people. That happened in 1824 as a result of the usual British hubris in colonial matters, underestimating their enemy and advancing into a massacre. They recovered their position after nearly two years of fighting and an uneasy peace was restored. That lasted until the 1860s when relations broke down but with only limited conflict.
In, 1872, the Dutch sold their holdings on the Gold Coast to the British, leaving them the sole Europeans in the area. In December that year, the Asante attacked, again catching the British unprepared. With that, Manning brings us to Wolseley’s expedition of 1873-1874. Wolseley was a meticulous planner and he had British public opinion in his side, but most of all, he had the Snider Rifle, which would do great damage. Minor morale boosting operations occupied the British, although they gained valuable information about fighting in such a hostile environment. Wolseley then advanced, bringing the Asante to battle at Amoaful, which was a hard fought win for the British. He pressed on to the Asante capital, took it, then returned to the coast and Britain as a hero. As for the Asante, Manning notes that their tribal confederation fell apart and fell into civil war in the 1880s.
The British sat back, but then took renewed interest with the Scramble for Africa. That led to the ‘bloodless’ invasion of 1896 and the seizure of the Asante capital, this time for good. One serious rebellion followed in 1900, resulting in a protracted siege of the British in the Asante capital and a timely relief mission. Manning concludes with the note that the Asante believed their revolt a success because the British never located the seat of Asante power, the Golden Stool that the Asante revered.
Manning’s detailed account of the fighting for control over the Asante is Victorian military history at its best. His narrative portrays vividly the complexity of warfare in this environmentally treacherous region of West Africa, and Manning captures the spirit of the Victorian officers and soldiers perfectly. He also pointedly brings the native allies of the British into his account. Manning also tells the story from the Asante perspective, creating a more balanced account than older texts on the conflict. Anyone interested in Victorian warfare and how the Empire was formed in far-flung corners of the earth will thoroughly enjoy this book.
Gareth C Sampson, Rome & Parthia: Empires at War (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In this military history, Gareth Sampson narrates the story of the Romans and Parthians squeezing the Hellenistic world from west and east until they clashed in what we now call appropriately the Middle East. It is a complex tale with many players, but Sampson’s deft narrative teases out the strands, providing a fascinating insight into an often overlooked period of intense warfare and all the drama that goes with that.
Sampson sets the foundation by bringing the rising new powers of Rome and Parthia down to 50 BCE. It is a story of expansion and civil wars on both sides, but also the almost inevitable wearing down of the Hellenistic powers until Rome and Parthia stood toe to toe and fought it out. The Romans lost at Carrhae in 53 BCE, but the war ended in stalemate, though Parthia held the balance of power, for now.
Internal divisions abated ambition on both sides until 40 BCE when Parthia successfully invaded Roman Syria. This is where the Roman general Ventidius enters the picture as the man who led the Roman recovery. He won a series of battles in one season and recaptured Syria. The Parthians counterattacked, but Ventidius defeated them at Gindarus in 38 BCE using a stratagem lauded by Sampson. For his troubles, Ventidius was sent home, a victim of Roman politics. Meanwhile, Parthia all but collapsed. But then it was Rome’s turn to follow suit.
Sampson sticks to his eastern theatre while Republican Rome went into a tailspin. The Romans, under Antonius, consolidated their hold in the Middle East, then went after the Parthians in 36 BCE. The invasion was a disaster and the Romans found themselves outnumbered and isolated; they had to retreat. It was a retreat to rival the worst in history with the Parthians harassing the Romans all the way. But the stalemate between Parthia and Rome continued through to 30 BCE while Antonius consolidated his position and planned to create his own eastern power base. The rising force of Octavianus had other ideas and defeated Antonius who committed suicide. Parthia pounced, taking the vital Roman client kingdoms of Medea and Armenia. But now Rome was united again under Octavianus and presented a very different foe.
Parthia again fell into civil war. But Octavianus arranged a truce, although he watched on as an ally attacked Parthia and lost. Octavianus, now Augustus, had other wars to fight in the east, most notably against Arabia and Galatia. By 20 BCE, the Roman and Parthian Empires were again in stalemate, and that is where Sampson leaves his story with a summary of the settlement between the two powers. Two appendices round out Sampson’s book: lists of kings and sources
Sampson tells an engaging and balanced story of two major powers slugging it out and the minor powers caught between them; all of which takes place in the chaotic collapse of the Roman Republic and various Parthian civil wars. The narrative is slanted to the Romans because of the lack of sources on the Parthian side, but Sampson winkles out what he can and makes educated guesses where he hits blank spaces. He also incorporates many of the sources into the narrative. My only quibble was on Sampson’s habit of repeating what those sources have just told us. Nevertheless, this is a first rate military history of an often confusing theatre of war.