Book Reviews, I: 1870 – 1918

Content of each firsthand/eyewitness account is briefly described, then evaluated in terms of human characterization, atmospherics, and realism of combat-action sequences. Secondary studies (narratives, unit histories, etc.) are also reviewed, these in terms of content, accuracy, detail, etc. Finally, an overall rating on a 10-scale.

Books Reviewed (master list)

  • Binding, Rudolf: A Fatalist at War
  • Brannen, Carl: Over There – A Marine in the Great War
  • Desagneaux, Henri: A French Soldier’s War Diary, 1914-1918
  • Dixon, T. B.: The Enemy Fought Splendidly
  • Fallon, David: The Big Fight
  • Goodrich, Marcus: Delilah
  • Hamilton, Ralph: War Diary of the Master of Belhaven
  • Lee, Arthur Gould: No Parachute
  • Littauer, Vladimir: Russian Hussar, 1911-1920
  • Mallet, Christian: Impressions and Experiences…1914-1915
  • Regler, Gustav: Owl of Minerva
  • Rogers, Horatio: World War I Through My Sights
  • Wawro, Geoffrey: The Franco-Prussian War – German Conquest of France in 1870-71

 (others forthcoming)

 

 

  • Binding, Rudolf: Fatalist at War (orig. Aus der Krieg; tr. Ian Morrow, London, 1928, 246 pp.)

Diary of German officer who served as a frontline Regimental commander and later on rear echelon Staff. First entry, 15 October 1914, last: 14 November 1918. First combat at Ypres, October-November, 1914, with a raw, poorly trained Division composed largely of university student volunteers…most of whom are massacred by French artillery and British riflemen. Subsequent pages report static warfare on Flanders front through mid-1916, then Binding posted to a new Division which is rushed to the Eastern Front in order to backstop Austrians routed by Brusilov’s offensive. Back to Western Front, spring 1917, where Binding observes German withdrawel to Hindenburg Line, then batteles of Arras and Passchendaele. Finally takes part in March-April 1918 Kaiserschlacht assault and, even during the breakthrough notes symptoms of disintegration in German ranks. This book features powerful, realist descriptions of battelfield carnage, interspersed with heavy, Teutonic reflections on War and Life. Rated: *8*

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  • Brannen, Carl: Over There – A Marine in the Great War (College Station, 1996; 167 pp.)

Brannen Sr. enlisted for Mr. Wilson’s War in January of 1918. Gives a brief account of Parris Island and other training, transport to France, and subsequent combat adventures as a rifleman in the 6th Marine Regiment, brigaded into U.S. Army 2nd Division. He fought at Belleau Wood, Soissons, St. Mihiel, and on through the Meuse-Argonne bloodbath unril the November Armistics. Only about 1/3 of this work is Brannen Sr.’s own text; the rest consists of very detailed notes and background material by one of the author’s two sons, Carl Brannen Jr.; the other, a PB4Y pilot in the Pacific theatre, Round II of the WorldWar, was KIA. Also worth noting that Sr. wrote this all-too-brief memoir some 20 years after the events described, when many details had faded. So a weak effort in all respects, though a handful of the sharper traumas of close combat are well-evoked. Rated *6*

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  • Desagneaux, Henri: A French Soldier’s War Diary, 1914-1918 (orig. Paris, 1971; republ. 1975, 112 pp.)

During 1914-15 D. was employed as an official in the French military railroad transport network. Then, after hurried training, led a front-line rifle company at Verdun, 1916, and on the Somme. Spent 1917 as a company and battalion commander in the Vosges, later in the Chemin des Dames sector where, though in some sympathy with soldiers’ grievances, he helped supress the Mutiny. Battalion commander throughout the 1918 fighting, at several points along the French section of the line. Desagneaux generally led from the front, narrowly escaped death many times, and highly decorated. His book offers little in the way of individual characterization and only sombre colors and atmospherics, as he emphasizes trench miseries and bloody results of ineptly-planned attacks; but the sometimes stream-of-consciousness action sequences are quite effective. Rated *8*

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Dixon, T. B.: The Enemy Fought Splendidly (Poole, 1983; 96 pp.)

Diary of a RN doctor aboard British cruiser HMS Kent. Begins at sea, 12 October 1914, on patrol off West African coast. Then, with news of Adm. von Spee’s destruction of a British squadron off Coronel, Chile, Dixon’s ship drives south toward the Falkland Islands for a rendezvous with other Brit naval units. On December 8th, while coaling at Port Stanley, Kent + other cruisers and battlecruisers surprise and sink 4/5th of v. Spee’s squadron in a day-long sea chase. One German ship, light cruiser Dresden, escapes around Cape Horn and the blalance of this book revolves around a months-long pursuit among the myriad islands off the southwest coast of Chile. In addition to good combat descriptions, Dixon’s diary provides a strong portrait of an awesome, natural land- and seascape. Rated *7*

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  • Fallon, David: The Big Fight (NY, 1918; 301 pp.)

Fallon of Irish background, an Empire loyalist, who fought with the 1st Australian Division at Gallipoli, 1915, then Brit 48th Division during the middle and latter phase of the 1916 Somme offensive. Quite a bit of sharp-end combat description, all liberally mixed with reams of hate-the-Hun propaganda, Over-The-Top war-glorifying PR, and other contemporary Imperial Delusions. Author obviously a man of great personal courage, but lacking in broader human sympathy and his writing wins no medals. Basically a tub-thumping wartime recruiting poster aimed squarely at the American market. Rated: *5*

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  • Goodrich, Marcus: Delilah (orig. 1941; republ. NY, 2000, 501 pp.)

Categorized as a novel, but in fact the author’s largely unfiltered experiences as crewman on an American rustbucket destroyer on Phillipine Station, 1916-17. Sensual, technicolor atmospherics and deep, strong characterizations…plus frequent, long, introspective passages and psycho-philosophical meanderings. But if you can wade through all the dross and 10-clause sentences, you will discover a forgotten, vital world: one of brutalized lost souls, dregs of society, rejects and ordinary heroes, all thanklessly defending the outermost frontier of America’s early 20th-century Pacific Empire. A gem in the rough, but still a gem. Rated: *9*

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  • Hamilton, Ralph:  War Diary of the Master of Belhaven (orig. 1924; republ. London, 1990; 472 pp.)

Career military officer sent to Belgium in October, 1914, with 22nd Field Artllery Brigade, part of 7th Division. Takes part in First Battle of Ypres, where wounded and into hospital. Returns to France as battery commander in September, 1915, seeing action at Neuve Chapelle and Loos; also next year during the Somme inferno, and in 1917 at Messines Ridge and Passchendaele. Next year in command of an Artillery Brigade. Last diary entry is 29 March, 1918; two days later, during the chaotic, open-field warfare of Kaiserschlacht, Col. Hamilton was killed in action. His monumental book is cold and detailed in some places, personal and atmospheric elsewhere. Overall a superb account, and a must read for anyone interested in the dominant role of artillery along the mostly static Western Front from October 1914 through March 1918. Rated: *9*

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  • Lee, Arthur Gould: No Parachute (NY, 1970)

Author born 1894. Joins infantry, then trains as a pilot and soon attached as reinforcement to decimated RFC #46 Squadron, May 1917; this during the aftermath/continuation of “Bloody April”, when Germans flying new, superior Triplanes and D5’s cut a swath through Empire pilots and aircrew. Lee Flew a vulnerable Sopwith Pup at first, barely surviving due to superior skill (he had a much longer than average flight training) and great good luck, while seeing many squadron-mates incinerated, and others choose a quicker death by throwing themselves out of burning planes. When his squadron gets the Camel fighter, Lee scores several aerial victories and carries out numerous ground attack missions, strafing and bombing, during the battles of Arras, Cambrai, and Passchendaele. Text consists of letters written by the newly-married author to his wife, May through December, 1917, plus diary excerpts. This first volume of Lee’s WorldWar autobiography is a near-masterpiece, with lucid, detailed, intense combat sequences, solid atmospherics, and insightful discusions of policy, men, and machines. One flaw a somewhat evasive treatment of the four-year-long “no parachutes for pilots” scandal, which cost thousands of lives on all sides. Trenchard probably at fault here, but too much of an icon for this pilot to point the finger. Rated: *9*

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  • Littauer, Vladimir: Russian Hussar – A Story of the Imperial Cavalry, 1911-1920 (Shippensburg, 1993; 303 pp.)

L. begins with a lengthy, detailed description of training and socialization into a tradition-rich cavalry unit, the 1st Sumsky Hussar Regiment. As part of the First Cavalry Division, he and his horsemen take part in the initial, August 1914 Russian invasion of East Prussia and the critical encounter battle at Gumbinnen; here, after Russian Cavalry rout a German infantry division, the local German commanders panic, cry for help, and Von Moltke strips 5 German Divisions away from the right flank of v. Kluck’s army, then invading northern France, and sends them to Prussia…troops which might otherwise have outflanked the French, enveloped Paris, and ended the war then and there. As it was, these Divisions were initially unneeded in the East, arriving after the great German counter-attack at Tannenberg had annihilated one of two invading Russian armies. For the next three years the Sumsky Hussars fought all along the northern section of the Eastern Front, ending their war as dismounted infantry. The last chapters of Littauer’s book describe the two 1917 revolutions, the gradual disintegration of his Regiment, and his own narrow escape, via Siberia, from communist death squads. A highly atmospheric work, interesting anecdotes about friends long since perished; combat episodes rather more opaque, telescoped, as Littauer wrote his book about 40 years after the events described. Rated: *8*

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  • Rogers, Horatio: World War I Through My Sights (San Rafael, 1976; 268 pp.)

Author born 1897, joined ROTC 1916. Enlisted Massachusetts National Guard in July 1917, shortly to become a gunloader with Battery A (75 mm), 101st Field Artillery, in 26th “Yankee” Division. This book was written c. 1928, based on still-fresh memories and a fragmentary diary. Goes on to describe an enthusiastic, almost idyllic Atlantic crossing and arrival in France, September 1917. Then a long, desultory training during the winter of 1917-18…partly because AEF C-in-C Pershing had to spend much of his time and energy fighting off French and British efforts to break up his Divisions, integrate them into Allied units, and commit them to battle piecemeal. Rogers finally gets into the fighting during February 1918 near Soissons, and out of it just before the German March onslaught. Next couple of months spent in fire support missions along the southern edge of the breakthrough, and witnessing some up close infantry combat. July finds Rogers battery covering American and French troops who stop the last German thrust toward Paris; then, after refitting, into the thick of the St. Mihiel fighting and the Meuse-Argonne hecatomb, during  which 90% of his immediate comrades are killed, gassed, maimed. This book hasn’t quite the immediacy of fellow artilleryman Robert Casey’s, but still vivid and with some passages of cold, stunning, brutality. Rated: *8*

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  • Steel, Nigel and Peter Hart: Defeat at Gallipoli (London, 1995; 480 pp.)

Before they came to write this book, detailing one of the bloodiest excruciations of the 1914-18 War, both authors were professional archivists at the IWM. Though there are problems with the presentation on the military-political background to the 1915 British Empire & French assault on European Turkey (too little on Churchill’s role in arranging the disaster; not enough on the use of Constantinople and the Straits as part of the pre-war package that enticed the Russians into the Encirclement), the utilization of firsthand, mostly unpublished accounts by Allied eyewitness/participants is outstanding. At many points in the narrative, an adroit weave of such accounts provides an almost moment-by-moment sense of Being There. More material from the German/Turkish side of the hill would also have been helpful, but this a minor caveat as it’s only now being developed. Another (as usual…): maps all grouped together at the beginning of the book, instead of inserted at the appropriate textual points. Overall, though, Defeat at Gallipoli would be a rewarding read for anyone interested in the Mediteranean theatre of Round I. Rated: *9*

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  • Wawro, Geoffrey:  The Franco-Prussian War – The German Conquest of France in 1870-71 (Cambridge, 2003; 327 pp.)

A natural sequel to the author’s previous work on the 1866 Austro-Prussian War, this book is flawed only in its conventional title and skewed final chapter. The 1870-71 war clinched Bismarck’s fusion of the German states into an integral nation, and was fought by a largely-united Germany..not just Prussia. The next 11 chapters, dealing with the political background of the war, mobilization by both sides, military technologies of the time, and discrete battles are superb and well-researched and (compare to David Glantz’s work on the Round II Eastern Front) comprehensibly written, with appropriate illustrations and maps. One gets a particularly strong sense for the extent and savagery of the post-Sedan struggle as France, doing another of its occasional morphs from Empire to Republic, simply refused to surrender…necessitating a long-drawn-out German siege of Paris, a vicious partisan war in the provinces (which I think Wawro may understate), finally culminating in a bloody proto-communist uprising in Paris, equally bloody supression of same, and a harsh, Bismarck-dictated peace. The last chapter details this settlement – French cessation of Alsace/Lorraine and payment of a huge war-indemnity in gold – then leaps forward to 1914 and stumbles, simple-mindedly attributing WW I to a “German militarism” that derived from the victory of 1871, while counterpointing a couple of pacifist remarks from pre-1914 French intellectuals. Alas, these gentle men did not make French High Policy during the years of the Encirclement and, in particular, during 1912-14. French policy was made by a cabal of warmongering revanchists led by the “Man of Lorraine”, Raymond Poincaré. 

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