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.
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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.