Lost in the Bush

Lost in the Bush

Charles D. Melson, Fighting for Time: Rhodesia’s Military and Zimbabwe’s Independence, (Casemate, 2021)
With this book, Charles D. Melson has set out to analyse the changing response of Rhodesia’s military apparatus as it pivoted from a set up directed towards conventional warfare to one involved in special operations in the counter-insurgency role. The book is very firmly positioned in the academic sphere and the analysis very much forms part of this approach. It very clearly states at the beginning that the military aspects will be examined in a silo form; outside influences are not considered other than when they specifically impact the military. Coming in at 316 pages it has the main text plus appendices, extensive bibliography, and the always welcome index.
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The book begins with a nice potted history to set the scene and discusses the various weapons the Rhodesians had at their disposal (and would have). There is an odd affectation in describing the speeds of aircraft in miles per minute rather than per hour, but otherwise you get a nice overview of the various pieces of equipment and their abilities. Appendix 2 is a really useful explanation of acronyms, slang, and other terms.
This is not an easy book to read; surprisingly, given its subject matter, it lacks a story. The writing is accomplished but is lacking in some drama and connectivity. The main issue with the analysis is it doesn’t really deal with the transition it purports to be about. You move from the background at the declaration of independence into the operations during the insurgency and then independence is dealt with in a paragraph. That the book ignores anything outside the military sphere, except when it benefits the military, means a lot of the context is glossed over, as are the instances where the military overstepped the mark.
Even after completing the book, I am uncertain what the conclusion really is or what the purpose was. It doesn’t really describe the tactics, operations, or methodology even when dealing with specific operations. At all points you feel like you are missing something, and it has the feel of a first draft in many places. There is something to be said for being objective, but when that is at the expense of having tunnel vision you are doing all sides a disservice. It is a book with some interesting snippets and a reasonable collection of actions fought across the various borders of Rhodesia. It is not the book to read if you want to know more about the combatants or how Zimbabwe finally achieved independence from Smith’s racist regime.
Review by Dom Sore

Life in Scarlet

Life in Scarlet

Stephen Conway, The British Army 1714-1783 (Pen & Sword, 2021)
Have you ever wondered what life was like in the pre-Napoleonic British Army? If you thought it was a bleak, dreary existence under the cosh of stern discipline, then you are in for quite a surprise. In The British Army 1714-1783, Stephen Conway digs into the social world of the army to create an institutional history treating it as a living organism, which goes beyond its organization and operational function to reveal a distinct but in many ways familiar community.
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A survey of the political and social background in which the army operated leads into Conway’s survey. This was an army under civic control, with some exceptions in times of crisis. They were also disliked and feared in many parts of the British Isles, though not as universally as some suggest. Conway then fills in the army’s organizational and operational history where we find that the size of the army fluctuated in peace and war, but never came near to the establishment of mainland European powers. It also became an instrument of Empire, but despite that, argues Conway, the British Army was a European institution. With his framework constructed, Conway takes us into the social history of the army.
Conway covers the cycle of soldiering in the British Army, from recruitment to retirement, in a series of thematic chapters. He recognizes that establishing motive is a difficult task, but his management of the evidence is first-rate, as it is throughout the book. Conway next considers the army as a collection of communities, which again reflected those in Europe more or less. What life was like in the army comes under Conway’s scrutiny; officers wanted promotion, everyone wanted paid, fed, and ‘watered’ with alcohol. They also had to face death in combat and from disease. Conway muses on why soldiers took orders, and he stresses the effects of the moral economy and negotiated authority over fear-filled obedience. Civilian women in war zones had good cause to fear British soldiers, argues Conway, but women also served in important roles for the army at home and on campaign. Conway finishes appropriately with soldiers and officers leaving the service by various means, legal and illegal, and how those experiences differed along class lines.
This book on the British army in the 18th Century is quite short at 151 pages, but it touches all the bases to give a full picture of service life. Conway also adds an outstanding annotated Further Reading section for deeper study. While he takes a thematic approach to his subject, Conway rarely strays into dry and dusty territory, keeping his text flowing with clear exposition and engaging anecdotes. The result is an informative and enjoyable read, perfect for anyone interested in this period and the place of the army in it.

The Cinderella Front

The Cinderella Front

Philip Jowett, The Battle for Burma 1942-1945 (Pen & Sword, 2021)
Philip Jowett argues that Burma was a strategic sideshow with the main Allied purpose of keeping Nationalist China in the war. The Japanese too fell into this country that held no strategic value to them. But the intense and sustained combat that ripped through this theatre belied Burma’s importance. In this photograph heavy account, part of Pen and Sword’s Images of War series, Jowett takes us on a wild ride along the Cinderella Front.
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Jowett is keen to point out how massive and inhospitable Burma was with mountains, jungles, and monsoons to contend with along with the constant struggle against various diseases. And it is with that in mind that he begins his narrative with the Allies having retreated into India and China in 1942, and the Japanese in full control of Burma and ready to jump forward again into India. The Allies, however, were intent on recovering Burma. Thus, Jowett describes a series of offensives, including the Arakan – one failed, one successful – Chindit and Marauder operations behind enemy lines, and the over-optimistic 1944 Japanese offensives on Kohima and Imphal that ended in disaster. The subsequent Allied pursuit of the Japanese proved relentless, even through the monsoon and across many swollen rivers, until Mandalay fell in March 1945. That opened the road to Rangoon on the coast, which proved to be Japan’s last major holdout in Burma. Jowett also considers the air war, which like all other aspects of war in this theatre, had swung towards the Allies by the end of 1944.
The Battle for Burma is thicker than the usual Images of War series books. That is mainly because of the numerous excellent photographs that accompany Jowett’s engaging text. A second unusual feature is the amount of combat photographs Jowett includes, which are mostly from the Allied side, as you might expect, but also some from the Japanese perspective. Jowett also highlights the roles of the Chinese Nationalists, Americans, Indians, East and West Africans, and native Burmese, illuminating the joint Commonwealth and Allied war effort that it took to defeat the dogged Japanese. As an avid reader of the Burma campaigns, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it.

The Hard Men

The Hard Men

W.B. Barrett, Vikings – a History of the Northmen (Amberley, 2019)
(Guest Review by Dom Sore)
Books about the Vikings are many and varied, covering the minutiae of archaeological finds through to sweeping epics covering all aspects of Viking life and everything else. Where does this tome from W B Barrett fall? Towards the ‘all aspects of life’ but it isn’t an epic. Coming in at 432 pages, it is no small book, but it does purport to cover the whole of Viking history. It does this via thirteen chapters that split that history into easily digestible parts.
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There is a lot of information to cover when you talk about the Vikings, and Barrett tries to do that without bogging the reader down in too much technical detail. What you do get is a fast-paced journey through Viking life from prehistory to their “demise”. You will learn about some of the lesser known characters and the possible origins of some of the more well-known characters, looking at you Ragnar Hairy pants and Ivarr the Boneless. Speaking of Ivarr the Boneless, it seems there is a lot of evidence for his existence and the Boneless may refer to something a little more risqué than you would expect.
Where the book suffers is in providing a lot of disparate details without their connections, sometimes leaving more questions asked than answered –now and then you want that extra detail about specific instances. For example, the Viking origins of the Normans are almost skimmed over and not explored; that also happens for the circumstances surrounding the Hebridean, Shetland, and Orkney communities. This is combined with a lack of editing; there is occasional repetition and random addition of information. The prime example of this is the passage about Tryggve Olafsson, which ends with a paragraph regarding the minting of coins in Dublin likely using pillaged dies. These missing links between passages and sections are quite common.
The book is a decent primer for Vikings, and if that is all you need, this will suffice. It is easy enough to read, if somewhat repetitive, and it is somewhat Anglocentric. There are no glaring errors, but having the end of the Viking age concomitant with the death of Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge in 1066 will not sit well with many. Where the book does excel is in providing a potted history of the Vikings from start to end without getting stuck or missing any major parts out.

Booth’s Folly

Booth’s Folly

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.
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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.