Stephen Manning, Bayonet to Barrage (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In Bayonet to Barrage, Stephen Manning analyses seven Victorian battles to demonstrate how changing technologies enabled the British to build the biggest empire in history. He selects crucial technological and tactical turning points to illustrate his argument and produce a fascinating survey of Victorian warfare.
The Battle of Sobroan in the Anglo-Sikh War of 1846 acts as the datum for his exploration. Here, the bayonet triumphed for the British, but at a fearful cost. Up close and personal was not the way forward against disciplined armies. The percussion rifled musket, specifically the Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle-Musket and Minie Rifle, featured in the Crimean War, decimating the Russian ranks and furnishing the Allies with the ability to involve snipers. The Enfield also proved its worth in the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the American Civil War from 1862 to 1865. The Breech Loading Rifle, the Snider Rifle, followed and was used to great effect by the British against the Ashanti at Amoaful in 1874 and again in the Second Afghan War from 1878-1880. The Martini-Henry Rifle’s development overlapped the Snider and was used in various frontier wars, most notably against the Zulus in 1879. Manning makes it clear that rate of fire and accuracy were too much for technologically backward armies, but it was the psychological impact of these weapons as much as their killing power that did for the enemy.
Manning moves onto the Sudan campaigns of 1884-85 where Gardner machine-guns and the Martini-Henry inflicted more fearful damage. Indeed, Manning is keen to point out that despite the romanticised image of this war, the Mahdists did not come close to winning any battles. The British tactical deployment into squares helped achieve that victory. Then at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, British technological superiority led to slaughter with the Maxim machine-gun and Lee-Metford rifle to the fore. The British would not find it so easy against the South African Boers in 1900. The technological improvement required here was in the British artillery. Smokeless rifle ammunition helped the Boers defeat British assaults, requiring a radical British rethink and rapid development of artillery tactics in support of the infantry. This came to fruition at the attack on Pieter’s Hill in the relief of Ladysmith. Manning concludes with a chapter on ‘Lessons Forgotten’ in which he argues that the offensive spirit re-entered a battlefield where defence through firepower reigned.
In the space of just over 200 pages, Stephen Manning effortlessly traverses the military landscape of Queen Victoria’s reign. A book that begins with bayonets ends in artillery shells fired from miles away and the reader barely notices the transitions until they are complete. Manning achieves that by skilfully weaving technical details of weapons with engrossing battle narratives full of observations from the men that fought in them. Bayonet to Barrage is thus an excellent survey of the Victorian battlefield and should be enjoyed by anyone interested in Britain’s pursuit and maintenance of Empire through military success.
Stephen Manning, Bayonet to Barrage (Pen & Sword, 2020)
Nicky Nielsen, Egyptomaniacs (Pen & Sword, 2020)
Ancient History is dead, right? What difference does it make? Let it go. Or maybe don’t. In Egyptomaniacs, Nicky Nielson demonstrates the continuing relevance of Ancient Egypt in our world through examining how we came to know what we think we know about a culture that is at once alien and familiar. In doing so, he exposes many continuing myths about Ancient Egypt and presents arguments that will have you thinking about history long after you have closed his book.
Nielsen argues that our perception of Egypt stems from Classical authors, the Bible, and European explorers in more modern times. He begins with how the Greeks and Romans perceived Egypt in their different ways but both with respect for Egypt’s age and mystery. Nielsen notes also that important mediaeval Arab scholarship has been ignored for too long by many Egyptologists. Then we are into the Renaissance and a renewed interest in Egypt in Europe, though they depicted the civilization in European terms. Then we come inevitably to Napoleon’s 1798 expedition and the finding of the Rosetta Stone, indeed, much of the early part of the book focuses on hieroglyphics.
The 19th Century saw a surge in artefact collection for European museums and private investors, and great competition amongst the specialists sent out to get them, though they look like a bunch of vandals to modern eyes. Despite laws to stop it, looting continues to this day, which leads to a discussion of artefact repatriation. More controversial commentary follows when Nielsen delves into past and present tourism. He then uses obelisks as a case study for how ideologues have used Ancient Egypt for their own ends, including the strange pull Nefertiti exercised on Adolf Hitler.
Part 2 is titled ‘Inventing Ancient Egypt’, which begins unsurprisingly with Tutankhamun, or rather his spectacular burial and its discovery. And then, of course, the curse of the Pharoah’s tomb, invented by the Press and lapped up by the public. Neilsen’s discussion of mummies starts with the tons of cat mummies that arrived at Liverpool in 1890, which leads to the story of mummification and the mummy trade. Mummies also mean movies, and Nielsen shows how Hollywood has also shaped our understanding of Egypt. He arrives at the pyramids next; who built them and why? He traces the lineage of some bizarre theories, including pyramidology and links to Atlantis, and, of course, aliens. Nielsen examines belief in such conspiracy theories, which leads to a chapter on who ‘owns’ Ancient Egypt: Nielsen thinks this is a foolish question. He concludes that amongst all the distortions brought to bear on Ancient Egypt their remains a great story, perhaps the greatest ever told.
Egyptomaniacs is an informative and sometimes amusing survey of our fascination with Ancient Egypt. Neilsen confronts numerous tropes that litter modern western thought, dismantling widely-held beliefs while deflating myths and the egos of those who have perpetrated them. The book feels a bit disjoined at times, and more of a sketch than a finished work, but I also think this history of History should be required reading for those inclined to dismiss serious academics in favour of trendy theories based on prejudice and outmoded practices, not just for Ancient Egypt but all fields of history.
Michael Glaeser, By Defeating My Enemies: Charles XII of Sweden and the Great Northern War (Helion, 2020)
This latest foray into the Great Northern War by Helion is a military biography of one of the main players, Charles XII of Sweden. Glaeser begins by setting the scene in Sweden before Charles’s birth, which leads seamlessly to his formative years and ascension to the throne. This provides a sense of the King as a man and is expanded on in the Appendix where other elements of his personality and life are discussed albeit briefly. Glaeser also takes the time to show the different schools of historiography throughout the book and tries to steer a reasoned path between them.
The main thrust of the book is, however, the military campaigns of the Soldier King and this is where the book shines. It covers the main theatres of operation with the primary focus on the actions of Charles XII and his military campaigns against Denmark, Saxony, and Russia along with his enforced exile in the lands of the Ottoman Sultan. Glaeser provides sufficient detail for the general reader and sets a framework for those who would like a more in-depth treatment of particular aspects of the great Northern War. The book also contains 18 maps, each of which is produced on a full page, making them easy to read and they link to the text nicely. While some make take issue with the level of detail included, I for one applaud their inclusion and hopefully we will see more of this in future publications.
Helion appear to be on a bit of a roll at the minute and this is another one to add to the growing pile of quality literature coming out of their Century of the Soldier series. Overall, By Defeating My Enemies gave me a flavour of the man and his campaigns and allowed access to a war that has always been a little shrouded in mystery. Recommended for those who would like a better sense of who Charles XII was and what he achieved in his short lifetime, and if you are new to the Great Northern War this will only whet your appetite for more.
Richard Israel, Cannon Played from the Great Fort (Helion, 2021)
When we think of historical wars, images of big battles fought in the open fields usually spring to mind. But while battles were important, they were also quite rare events. Wars have been won far more often with the spade over the sword or musket because sieges play such a crucial role in control of territory and resources. That was arguably the case in the English Civil War where regional control proved so important to victory. In Cannon Played from the Great Fort, archaeologist Richard Israel takes us on a trip along the Severn Valley to examine some of the critical Civil War sieges in the region.
Israel begins with a survey of siege warfare leading into the 17th Century and the Thirty Years War. He describes how siege tactics developed rapidly during that war, particularly with regard to fortifications and artillery. And with that Israel embarks on the major sieges in the Severn Valley in chronological order. First up is Worcester, besieged by Parliament forces in May 1643. Bristol followed in July, this time by Royalists, then Gloucester in September, which Israel breaks down into the main sites of the siege. Israel skips over 1644 to look at the sieges in 1645 at Shrewsbury and Bristol that brought the Severn Valley under Parliamentary control. They attacked Bridgnorth in March 1646 where Israel illustrates how much damage was caused preparing and executing sieges, not all of it intentional. The final siege came at Worcester from May to July 1646 with more testimony on how destructive sieges could be especially for the civilian populations. Having described the sieges, Israel compares Royalist and Parliamentary siege techniques, which he again runs through chronologically. He adds an interesting piece on his methodology before bringing his work to a conclusion by summarising events and siege tactics.
Cannon Played from the Great Fort is an important addition to the study of the English Civil War. In his descriptions of sieges, Israel uses his landscape archaeology knowledge to pick his way through the historical accounts and the physical evidence to establish how the sieges worked. His weaving of the archaeological record into the narrative is the highlight of the book for me, and it is perhaps surprising how much of the physical evidence is still available. The latter is supported by many photographs of relevant sites. I would have liked more on what it was like to experience a siege, but that does not distract from the book’s quality. Anyone with more than a passing interest in the English Civil War and archaeology will enjoy this book.
Jonathan D. Oates, King George’s Hangman (Helion, 2019)
You might not think there is a gap needing filled in the study of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, but Jonathan Oates has found one in this study of Henry Hawley, commander in chief of Scotland from 20 December 1745 to 30 January 1746. Hawley’s reputation as a particularly odious character and inept general lingers. But is it time for a reassessment of “Hangman” Hawley? Oates thinks so.
Oates sets out on his military biography of Hawley by digging into his heritage, his officer father (kia in 1692), and his early military career from 1694. Hawley’s royal connections meant he moved in high social circles away from the battlefield, but he wanted to fight. He got his chance in the Peninsula in 1707 where he was wounded but still remained active in the war. Oates follows Hawley through his ‘peacetime’ career and rise from 1709 to 1740, highlighting the politics of command within the context of the rising Jacobite threat from 1715. Hawley was wounded in that rising, campaigned in Spain, took command of a regiment in Ireland, hunted while taking care of his country pile, and looked after his family. He also wrote down his thoughts on warfare, which is where Oates takes us next.
Hawley was a disciplinarian in thought and deed, and he wrote about politics, military tactics, and gave advice for all ranks entering the service. He hated slovenliness, which led him to underestimate the Jacobite rabble when the time came to fight them. Hawley was soon putting theory back into practice. From 1742 to1745, now a General, Hawley commanded a sizeable force in Europe against the French, then news came of the Jacobite rising. Hawley was late on the scene, continues Oates, but took command of the British Government army in Scotland in December 1745. That led to the Battle of Falkirk, where Hawley commanded a full army in battle for the first time and is the centrepiece of Oates’ book.
Oates tells the story of the Battle of Falkirk, which the Jacobites won. Hawley received much of the contemporary blame, though Oates is a wee bit more generous by adding the foul weather to Hawley’s loss of command and control. Cumberland, in overall charge of the campaign, did not blame Hawley either and his was the opinion that counted. He did intercede against Hawley’s orders to execute deserters and cowards, which has gone against Hawley’s reputation ever since. Hawley went on to command cavalry at Culloden where they did severe damage to the wretched Highlanders. Hawley’s men also took part in the depredations that followed the battle, though Oates is quick to point out that this was acceptable conduct in European wars of the time. Hawley retired from Scotland, but fought again in Europe in 1747-1748, and did so with distinction at the Battle of Laffeld. From 1749, Hawley was all but retired. He wrote his memoirs in 1752 and was involved in organising a possible defence against invasion in 1755. He died in 1759. Oates concludes that Hawley’s epithet of ‘hangman’ was unjustified and that his loss at Falkirk be taken in context with his other military service.
Oates’ stimulating military biography of Henry Hawley illuminates the world of a professional soldier of the ‘middling sort’. We get to see how the system worked for these ambitious men with patronage and politics a prime concern for successful careers. But all the machinations and deals could come unstuck on the battlefield as happened to Hawley at Falkirk. Oates’ account of how that occurred is central to his story and he narrates it well, although perhaps too favourably through diffusing his subject into context. Oates has also contributed an important story to the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. Students of the British army in the 18th Century will enjoy this book but the arguments over Hawley’s character are not yet settled, and that is a good thing.