Three Book Reviews
It is just over a year since Shadow of the Eagles was published, and I have to admit that this blog has been severely underused. The main reason is straightforward - I am not playing enough games. This, I hope, can be rectified as the year progresses, but for the moment I wanted to share my thoughts on some books that have come my way recently. They are not books that have just been published, but rather books which are relatively new to me personally.
These books have all raised thoughts in my mind about what makes good history, and also what makes history that is useful to wargamers. My main purpose here, then, is to raise some thoughts in readers minds and hopefully receive your thoughts in return, whether agreeing or disagreeing.
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The Anatomy of Glory: Napoleon and his Guard. Henry Lachouque, translated by Anne S.K. Brown. 1961, reprinted 1997 by Greenhill Books.
The thing about this book for me is that whilst many wargamers and military history enthusiasts continue to love it, I find myself a bit mystified as to why. The author was a very well regarded historian of the Napoleonic Wars in his day, and David Chandler himself described the book as "in every way a fitting memorial... to a superb military formation." Why don't I agree?
You can get the book today for under a tenner, which to be fair is great value. It is also, I believe, a judgement on the book's current value as history. You can also pay over £100 if you want, but of course you would have to be certifiably insane to do so. The Greenhill edition is a heavy, well produced book of 550 pages, on quality paper and with all the excellent original colour and black and white plates present. The translation generally reads beautifully. The depth of knowledge of the author is also apparent - to fill a narrative history of this length with the detail he manages clearly demonstrates this.
That, however, points to my first issue - this is fundamentally a narrative history, and the narrative itself is a problem. Lachouque presents the history of the Guard primarily as a supposedly thrilling and glorious story. This sometimes descends into little more than a series of anecdotes, most of them un-footnoted, which the reader is left to believe or otherwise. The reasons for perhaps not taking everything in this story as believable are straightforward - the lack of source notes, the narration of personal accounts as necessarily truthful, and the lack of any real analysis as the work progresses.
And then there are the two other overarching issues - the author's practically undiluted worship of Napoleon himself, and his high regard for military glory which I myself find rather distasteful. In short, the author's politics and personal beliefs intrude so centrally into the text that the history becomes suspect.
Glowing reviews on Amazon and elsewhere (John Stallard of Warlord Games recently described the book as "romantic" and "an absolute treat") often tell of readers racing through the book as if it were some kind of novel, and re-reading it more than once over the years. I'm afraid I didn't get much past the first 50 pages. Its triumphal tone and lack of analysis left me frustrated and bored.
It would be daft to argue that one cannot learn a great deal about the Imperial Guard from this book - one gets the overall story, details of uniforms and leaders, details on organisation, and details of innumerable events both major and minor involving the troops. In fact there are often minute details, such as the cost of items of uniform. If you want to know about the Imperial Guard, as a history buff or as a wargamer, you will end up buying this book, as I did. But as for it being good history, or even a good read - well, I beg to differ from its fans. As an analysis of the Imperial Guard and its place in military history it fails, admittedly rather grandly, but it fails nevertheless.
French Guardsman vs. Russian Jaeger, 1812-14. Laurence Spring, Osprey Combat 4, 2013.
The 'Combat' series from Osprey I have found rather variable, judging by the handful of these which I own. They overlap a bit uncomfortably into the 'Duel' series, which tries to do much the same thing with more emphasis on hardware than on the troops themselves.
This title is in the 'average' category. It is a useful source of basic information about the Russian Jaeger and French Imperial Guard of the chosen period, and tells an interesting story of the decline of the Guard as they were expanded, as opposed to the rise of Russian Light Infantry as their tactics and training improved during the Napoleonic Wars.
For me, the book fell down in the three battle accounts (Krasnyi, Leipzig and Craonne), which were a bit confusing in places and tended to be fluffed out with the overall picture of corps and divisions but lacking in the detail of unit combat which the book is supposed to be about. The map and description of the Battle of Krasnyi I found particularly difficult - a rare example of a map in an Osprey book that made things more confusing rather than less. On the other hand, the account of Craonne was the best of the three accounts in living up to the series' intentions.
I have found the 'specially commissioned artwork' in recent Ospreys a bit of a disappointment, with a tendency to a 'Boy's Own' comic book style which sometimes grates with me. This book has one of these illustrations (pp. 56-57), but also a rather interesting 'split-screen' illustration on pages 40-41 which shows an encounter from both sides of the line. The latter is a much more useful concept.
So, a decent enough book. Osprey do create a very specific format for such books, which produces perhaps a more saleable publication but which can produce issues as history, and the authors' preferences, are bent into shape to serve the format. Nevertheless, worth buying.
Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace. Dominic Lieven, Viking, 2010.
This fine book is everything that The Anatomy of Glory isn't. The author is Professor of Russian history at the London School of Economics, and his extensive research into the Russian archives in particular has at last produced the story of 1812 from the Russian perspective, in both depth and breadth.
For wargamers, much of this will be deep background, but it is a background which I found fascinating, being written in a scholarly but accessible style over nearly 600 very readable pages. That is not to say that military detail is necessarily lacking, but it extends all the way from the front line up to Alexander himself, so that the Russian military is seen in its full context. And the takeaway here is that the Russian military of the later Napoleonic Wars was a lot better in quality and performance than many of us wargamers tend to think, in organisation, logistics, training and leadership.
That this comes over not as a partisan opinion but as a re-balancing of past works is a measure of the author's achievement and his effective but subtle deployment of scholarly apparatus, which again contrasts so strongly with the propaganda efforts of Lachouque. This is a balanced and lively account that changed my perception of the struggle between Russia and Napoleonic France.
As if this were not enough, the book goes on to describe and analyse the continuation of Russia's war against Napoleon in 1813 and 1814, which takes up nearly half the book. Again, this greatly illuminated my understanding of the significance of this period, how it came about and how it was fought.
The maps in this book are not its greatest feature, but are sufficient for readers to follow the action both overall and through the battles described.
Perhaps the only thing to point out as a caveat is that this book (as the title says) emphasises the Russian side. This is its purpose, in the context of so many histories in which the French take centre stage, usually as a result of the greater accessibility of French (or Western) sources. Here, the French, and Napoleon, are to a certain extent in the background. Nevertheless, the required facts on their activities, and Napoleon's thinking and various options, are sketched out as required to make Russian actions intelligible. The book remains fair to both the problems and achievements of the French side.
Overall, this is military history in full context, and history at its best. Even if this is not your 'specialist subject', read it if you can, for the simple pleasure of doing so.
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So there we are. Your thoughts, as I mentioned, would be valued, as would suggestions for other reading in our period of warfare. Some more solid wargaming content (involving actual toy soldiers!) is planned for the future. Until then, go well, and Good Wargaming.