August Book Reviews
Prof. Rick Norton
Ah, August. Deep summer approaches. The kids are now long out of school and family
vacations are either over or about to begin. Colonial gamers have returned from
Historicon, ranting about the press of bodies and the heat, while raving about the great
deals, superb games and the grand success of the colonial room. (Brought to you by the
inspiration of Larry Brom, and the hard work of Lori and others.) This month we have
two new books squarely in our period, an old and odd treasure recently unearthed and a
little something from the First World War. Let's start with that:
Through the Wheat: A Novel of the World War I Marines, by Thomas Boyd,
*|(Lincoln, NE and London,UK: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 266 pages,
ISBN: 0-8032-6168-3, Cost: U.S. $13.95
Thomas Boyd was a former WWI U.S. Marine who died at the early age of 37. He based
"Through the Wheat" on his experiences in France and the book, although presented as a
novel is intensely autobiographical. In fact, as the forward points out, such famous
characters as Major John A. ("Johnny the Hard") Hughes are easily recognizable. (For
those who are wondering, Hughes earned his nickname as a result of being recognized as
one of the toughest officers in the Corps of his day. He had enlisted in 1900, been
commissioned a year later, was awarded the Medal of Honor at Vera Cruz and wounded
in Santo Domingo.)
It is easy to see why Boyd's book suffers from general neglect and why it has
been long out of print. His writing lacks the élan associated with most stories of Marines
and also has none of the sentiment and introspection of Remarque's "All Quiet on the
Western Front." He does not glorify sacrifice as in "Kaidun," nor does he revel in battle
as is found in "Storm of Steel." In short Boyd's Devil Dogs are tired, hungry fellows,
looking for a hot meal, the next cigarette and a cushy billet. They want out of the line,
and whenever possible something alcoholic to drink. They are, in a word, ordinary.
Combat occurs almost as a random event, but when it does the Marines die in droves.
The battlefield is the hell we have come to expect from WWI, shell craters, pockets of
gas, ribbons of machine gun fire - but there are also fields of wheat, terrain not blasted
into lunar landscapes - this is the more fluid front of the last stages of the war.
Boyd has presented little that is of use to the gamer. He has an infantryman's
view of battle, but is a honest view, perhaps even a compelling view. So, if you are
interested in accounts of men under fire or world war literature, get this book.
Next up is another account written by another veteran of the Great War:
Spun Yarns Of A Naval Officer, by Albert R. Wonham, Captain, Royal Navy
(London: P.S. King & Son, LTD., 1917), 265 pages, Cost and ISBN: Unknown
There is good news and bad news about this book. The good news is that it has
some great accounts of fighting pirates in Malaysian waters in the 1860s - yes "Rajah"
Brooke is mentioned more than once. The bad news is that this is a very hard volume to
Wonham was a remarkable fellow. He entered the Navy in 1860. The picture of
him, priggish, proud and proper in uniform is a treat. He retired in 1897, a full Captain
with an oddly unlined face and serene look about him. He was then brought out of
mothballs for shore service during WWI. The war was going strong when his book was
published and is dedicated to Admiral Jellicoe.
Not surprisingly Wonham saw some days. Cruises to China, fights (successful) to
pull Chinese Gordon's chestnuts out of the fire, fights with pirate prahus and wild men of
Borneo vie with accounts of attempts to carry the defenses of American girls (evidently
even then known for a somewhat adventurous outlook) and a never ending search for
rum. It's clear that many things about the sea service seem to be constant.
Wonham made his name as a salvage expert - which may be why he did not make
his star, such work as not being seen as the equivalent to winning sea fights, although it
was recognized as of more than passing importance. (Of course being on a ship that went
aground might have something to do with this as well - even though he was acquitted.)
There are several accounts of salvage jobs - enough to give the reader a sense of the
difficulty and science involved.
One shortcoming is the lack of photos. There are several throughout the book,
but they tend to be of rather stiff looking Admirals of small reknown. However, two
deserve mention. The first is of Jellicoe, with sea-faring crow's feet and a rather
annoyed expression. The Second is of Admiral Charles Beresford - a familiar name to
those interested in the exploits of British sailors fighting as army units.
So, a fun book, as well as a potentially useful one. Good luck in finding it!
The next two are easy to find - should you wish to:
Gordon And The Sudan: Prologue to the Mahdiyya 1877 - 1880 by Alice Moore-Harell (London: Frank Cass, 2001), 286 pages, ISBN: 0-7146-5081-1, Cost: $60.00
Almost every fan of the colonial period knows that "Chinese" Gordon has a
successful stint as Governor of the Sudan before being sent back into that forbidding
country to meet his death and his destiny. But what did he actually do when he was
Alice Moore-Harell answers that question in some detail. Well-researched and
articulately presented, her book describes Gordon's first experience with the Sudan. She
covers a wide range of pertinent and interesting topics including economics, civil
improvements, social policy and the structure of the Gordon Administration. All these
are likely be to be new areas of knowledge and therefore welcome to serious students.
The war gamer has to wait until the end of the book before striking gold, but the
patient reader is rewarded when Moore -Harell turns to the issue of "civil unrest and local
revolts." By the way, I do not recommend going to straight to chapter five to start in on
the fun parts. Much more is gained from taking the book head on as it was meant to be
Of revolts and armed conflict there was plenty. The book discusses (if not in the
detail one would wish) historical actions, forces, tactics and results. While none of these
could serve as a full blown scenario they are all rich sources of inspiration. This book is
a recommended read. The high price keeps it from being a recommended acquisition.
And finally, a long overdue biography:
Lord Methuen and the British Army: Failure and Redemption in South Africa, by
Stephen M. Miller (London: Frank Cass, 1999), 279 pages, Cost: $55.00 U.S.
Although the average person on the street will not recognize the name, we know
Methuen. He's the general who lost the battle of Magersfontein. He's one of the reasons
the British did so badly in the opening stages of the Boer War. He's the one who got
captured. So much is true.
Most pictures of Methuen show a clean shaven and massive chin, a small hat and
a placid if not bovine expression. Surely this man must have exemplified all that was
wrong with most of Victoria's generals? This is assuredly not true.
So who was Methuen? Alas, we are not much closer to that answer when the
book is finished. This may be due to Methuen's own stoicism and reticence. But some
things are known.
Methuen was not a blundering fool. He was a professional soldier dedicated to his
craft. A junior member of the Wolseley ring, he was committed to reform. Until the Boer
War his combat record, while not undistinguished, was not exceptional, but he still
managed to be promoted to the rank of Major General. He did not want to go to South
Africa, sensing that there would be problems, but he followed out his orders.
And here is where the book's biggest problem starts to show. Miller painstaking
points out every shortcoming Methuen is saddled with. His orders are politically derived
and militarily unsound. Requirements to evacuate civilians force him to advance along
rail lines. He is woefully short of cavalry, mounted infantry and adequate information
about the country and the enemy. Miller also highlights each and every attempt Methuen
makes to overcome these problems. It's clear that the General was doing his best and that
his best was far better than others. And time after time, Miller assures us that a string of
failures, losses and disaster was "not Methuen's fault," or at worst, "not only his fault."
But he can't get around the fact that there were multiple failures involving Methuen.
Methuen's reputation suffered from his failures. For a time it was touch and go
whether he should stay in Africa, or be sacked like many others. But he remained - in
part because Redvers Buller refused to sacrifice Methuen to save himself and in part
because Lord Roberts needed some general officer and had probably reached the limit on
the number of senior officers he could fire. And Methuen did show battlefield
Miller does a fine job in detailing Methuen's steady and well-earned rise and
rehabilitation in Robert's eyes. Not only was Methuen brave, but his was also truly wise
when it came to ending the war. Methuen was convinced that the British had to extend
the kindest hand to Boers and their families. Such a policy might well have ended the
war earlier, but it was not adopted. We'll never know. Roberts was not overly inclined to
be merciful and Kitchner decidedly was not. And Kitchner did not like Methuen.
And then, just before the close of the war Methuen was captured by the Boers.
This was the final straw for the general and his reputation. Although he never was
charged with any form of dereliction, his career was over.
I truly do recommend this book. While short of being a full biography, what is
here is not bad. But Miller would have done himself a favor if he had acknowledged that
there are such things as unlucky generals and that Methuen was as unlucky as they come.
And that's it for this month. Good luck, good dice and good gaming!
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