David Doyle, U.S. Vehicles & Heavy Weapons of the Vietnam War (Pen & Sword, 2021)
We can’t say that the United States pioneered mechanization in warfare, but we can say they have made the most of it. With the advent of the Cold War, that made sense with America preparing to fight on the plains of Europe. But that’s not where they fought; rather, they went to Vietnam. Of course, they took their vehicles with them, and noted expert David Doyle’s book shows just how many varieties of vehicle that meant.
Doyle divides his catalogue into three main sections: wheeled tactical vehicles, track laying combat vehicles, and tracked and wheeled artillery and heavy weapons. He begins with that most iconic of American vehicles, the Jeep, though it was a quarter-ton 4×4 truck and came in three varieties: not the only surprising fact in this book. Then we are off and running through the gamut of vehicles. These range from little Mules to big six-wheeler trucks; and personnel carriers to more tanks than you might imagine for a conflict like Vietnam. They performed all manner of functions from combat duties to maintenance tasks like telephone-line maintenance or helping local farmers collect their harvest. The vehicle descriptions are accompanied by copious photographs, many in colour, and Doyle includes general and engine data. My favourites were the bizarre multi-barrelled Ontos and the multifunctional but sturdy and simple M113.
Sometimes a book will deliver exactly what it promises to do on the cover. U.S. Vehicles & Heavy Weapons of the Vietnam War falls into that category. Like many of the vehicles Doyle describes, his book is a no-frills and quite pleasant survey with some surprises as to how many vehicles were deployed and what they did when they got there. Model makers with a penchant for Vietnam will especially like this as will military vehicle enthusiasts in general.
David Doyle, U.S. Vehicles & Heavy Weapons of the Vietnam War (Pen & Sword, 2021)
Tim Saunders, Masséna at Bay 1811 (Pen & Sword, 2021)
You have to feel for French Marshal André Masséna. He did not want to command the invasion of Portugal in 1810, but Napoleon promised him his full support in manpower and logistics. But the Emperor reneged, leaving Masséna high and dry in front of Wellington’s carefully constructed defences. Defeat would follow Masséna’s frustration. In Masséna at Bay 1811, Tim Saunders guides us through the action.
Saunders lays out his table with a discussion on forces and the strategic situation in 1810. For Masséna, the initial campaign went well as his army pushed the Allies back into Portugal, but he underestimated the toughening of the Allied defences along the lines of Torres Vedras. Saunders describes that interconnected parallel construction that Masséna could not penetrate and had to settle for a blockade, but one he could barely sustain. After much shadow boxing and small engagements, the French had to withdraw through Portugal into Spain with Wellington in pursuit. Retreats are never pretty, and Saunders captures this in horrific detail, using contemporary sources to describe the hellish scenes. Rearguard clashes made up the action, as at Redinha in March 1811, while the French command structure fractured through in-fighting – Marshal Ney would be dismissed for his insubordination. Along the way, the French indulged in atrocities on the civilian population, while stragglers endured the pitiless backlash. For his part, Wellington was quite willing to watch the French destroy themselves; why risk a battle with a disintegrating enemy? But he did fight at Sabugal in April 1811, pushing the French over the border. Saunders detours from the sides at a stand-off to briefly discuss some of Wellington’s intelligence officers before resuming his narrative with the blockade of Almeida. The culminating battle of the campaign came at Fuentes de Oñoro on 3-5 May 1811. Saunders handles that engagement as well as he does the campaign. The battle was not decisive, but the French just lost. Masséna, though, was the biggest loser; recalled to Paris and stripped of his command. Saunder’s appendices consist of orders from Wellington and Masséna, a memo from Wellington to one of his commanders, and the order of battle for Fuentes de Oñoro.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable book for those who enjoy narrative military history. Saunders builds that narrative from primary source material as much as possible, something that is sadly too rare in military history written for the general public. He also keeps the story moving along tidily with few diversions, and he is supported by a generous allocation of maps, photographs of reenactors and the major sites, paintings, and contemporary illustrations of soldiers and landscapes. There isn’t much analysis, but that wasn’t Saunders’ remit: he tells a story and tells it well. Masséna at Bay 1811 is certainly heading for the Peninsular War shelf in my library.
Simon and Jonathan Forty, A Photographic History of Infantry Warfare 1939-1945 (Pen & Sword, 2021)
In A Photographic History of Infantry Warfare 1939-1945, Simon and Jonathan Forty take readers on a survey of many aspects of soldiering during World War II. They set themselves a big task and determining how well they have succeeded depends on what audience they intended to reach.
The Forty’s begin with a bit of a ‘straw man’; that too often we buy into black and white narratives of WWII when the reality was more nuanced. I’m not sure what serious readers they are thinking of here. They are on firmer ground when they identify infantrymen as carrying the major burdens of the war. And with that, our authors take us into their collection of photographs and accompanying text, starting with a survey of the main national contingents. Mechanization made the World War II infantryman’s experiences different, and the Fortys include quite a few pictures of tanks and other war machines, though a photo of horses in mud and mules on mountain tracks remind us of the limits of modern warfare. We also briefly visit the extremes of the combat environment: desert, jungle, and snow. Amphibious operations were not new but had never been attempted on the scale or frequency as happened in WWII, and the authors note that all forces attempted these with varying degrees of success. The Fortys use their chapter on ‘Casualties’ to discuss combat and non-combat cases, as well as the numerous other ways men could become hors de combat, and their primary medical support. Two of the main theatres of war receive their own chapters: including the annoyingly misnamed Russia and Northwest Europe. Curiously, ‘Life in the Infantry’ comes in for the last chapter with many photos of soldiers training – surely, this should have been the first chapter? There are a few appendices on defensive positions, camouflage, mines and mine-clearing, grenades, flamethrowers, mortars, machine guns, ammunition loads, and communications.
For a ‘photographic’ book, this volume is a bit text heavy. Not only is there quite a bit of descriptive text, but vignettes of army life are also interspersed, such as health guides, lists of equipment, tactics, and excerpts from war diaries. The structure is off too; the nine appendices should have suggested this to the authors. You also don’t get the full effect of the photos because the Fortys cover so many different areas and themes, and it is all a bit shallow even if the range is quite good. The photographs are a mixed bag; some are classic images, others are mundane, and the rest are somewhere in between. As a result of all that, it is difficult to discern the audience for this book. The specialist or serious student will not be excited by it and there are better photographic studies. Nevertheless, a general reader, looking for a basic illustrated survey of soldiers in World War II, should find this reasonably entertaining and informative.
Dominick Dendooven, Asia in Flanders Fields (Pen & Sword, 2021)
In Asia in Flanders Fields, museum curator and historian, Dominick Dendooven analyses the Indian and Chinese contingents on the Western Front. These groups are understudied and undervalued in popular culture and remembrance of the Great War, yet they stood in the same mud and bled the same colour as their European counterparts. Their sacrifice is certainly worthy of more than a mention in the history books. Dendooven’s book may finally have changed that tide.
Dendooven begins with Indians on the Western Front: who they were and what they did. The Indian Army Corps took part in the fighting, though the infantry divisions left in 1915. The British originally did not want them there in the first place, arguing on purely racist grounds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a recurrent theme throughout Dendooven’s account. India also supplied a significant number of labourers. Both Indian contingents initially experienced the war as a completely alien environment with few friendly faces; the YMCA was a peculiar but perhaps exaggerated exception. The civilian population and Indians got on reasonably well given the circumstances, and sometimes too well, Dendooven notes. He devotes a chapter to Indian Prisoners of War who were fortunate when grouped together but otherwise endured in bleak isolation, though the Germans were usually decent captors. Whatever their fate, Indians learned from their WWI experience, and some returned to affect change in India.
It might come as a surprise, but 140,000 Chinese served on the Western Front, 96,000 with the British as the Chinese Labour Corps. Dendooven remarks that they are almost entirely forgotten to history. Britain did not want the Chinese in Flanders, but they needed the manpower after the Somme. China wanted a seat at the post-war table and contracted out fit Chinese men. The British knew them by the number on their brass armband and maintained strict segregation, at least on paper; language was, of course, a significant barrier. The Chinese did not fight but suffered casualties from shelling, a clear breach of their contracts, which sometimes led to strikes and violence. Dendooven contrasts British attitudes to that of the Belgians who got on better with the Chinese, though that often broke down in the post-war period. Both exhibited xenophobia and racism towards the Chinese, and sometimes that was reciprocated. Dendooven concludes with an examination of the legacy of the Chinese labourers when they returned to China. Their impact was more indirect than that of the Indians but still significant.
I should note here that this is a work of social history; World War I provides the backdrop to most of the description and analysis in Dendooven’s book. He makes excellent use of mainly western primary sources, but Dendooven also makes the most of those from India and especially China, including interpreting their message laden artefacts. The picture he draws of the Indians and Chinese is probably as good as we are going to get with the sources available, but we should thank Dendooven and other like-minded historians who have picked up the cudgel for a transnational history of World War I on the Western Front.
Arthur C Wright, English Collusion and the Norman Conquest (Frontline Books, 2020)
Review by Dom Sore
The Norman Invasion of England was one of the most successful invasions of all time. Conquering a country in one battle has to be some kind of record, and surely done by extraordinary people? In this book, Arthur C Wright attempts to pierce the Norman superhuman myth and discusses how the English helped conquer themselves. At only 212 pages it is a short read, but pleasantly split into short chapters with maps frequently used.
One thing the author does really well is not re-hash the build up to the Norman invasion or whether William was justified. The premise of the book is not to examine the rights or wrongs but how it was so successful. The author does argue well that William could have been simply looking to make some money from his invasion in a similar vein to the Vikings raids that still happened. There are also some excellent descriptions of what happened in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Hastings and William’s consolidation of his throne.
When the author is relating historical facts, the writing is clear, concise, and informative. Unfortunately, those sections are too few. The first chapter, for example, purports to be ‘Eliminating Fantasy’ but only announces it has done so without actually showing that. There is also an odd affectation in the text of the author underlining words for emphasis, which is somewhat jarring to the eye and disrupts the read. As a book for adults, I do not think we need to be informed what to emphasise; it is akin to the canned laughter in a terrible sitcom. That undermines Wright’s authority rather than enhances it, which is especially problematic for a controversial theory like this one.
Does this book set out to do what its author sets out to do? Not really: any evidence of collusion is masked by the author patting himself on the back for having discovered something that everyone else has missed. I do not think any serious student of the period has ever thought there was no collusion, or that the Normans were supermen, or even that the England as we know it existed. There was a missed chance here to discuss the actions of the Anglo-Saxon population in the aftermath of the Norman invasion. The research has been done and more discussion of that, as this book was meant to be, would result in a deeper understanding of the Norman conquest, but English Collusion and the Norman Conquest doesn’t reach that level.