Short reviews

Sometimes I am sent copies of books or other products that on Great War subjects that are outside my own area of interest (the British Army) or are reprints of works already in the public domain. I find it difficult and do not have time to write full reviews of these things but offer these "short reviews" for anyone seeking information. I am grateful to those publishers and authors who are kind enough to send me their publications for review.

The last Prussian: a biography of Gerd von Runstedt
by Charles Messenger
republished by Pen & Sword Military, 2012 (originally published 1991)
ISBN 978 1 84884 662 3
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 321pp plus appendices, notes, bibliography and index. Illustrated.
reviewed by Chris Baker.

A welcome reprint of a balanced and most interesting account of the life of Field Marshal Gerd von Runstedt. For my Great War purposes I was most keen to see the first 40 pages, which cover his background, early military life and involvement in the First World War. Von Runstedt's upbringing and immersion into the stiff Prussian officer code is absorbing; much less so is the war period. It is perhaps due to dearth of material and that he was a relatively middle ranking regimental and then staff office that this period is covered quickly and much of that is a description of the early battles in France (von Rundstedt being in von Kluck's First Army as Chief of Operations of 22nd Reserve Infantry Division - the unit which came closest to Paris) rather than on the man's own activities. Nonetheless a good read and of course the 40 pages are really only a scene setter to much greater (and worse) things to come for "the last Prussian".

 

Women wartime spies
by Ann Kramer
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2011 under the "Remember when" imprint
ISBN 978 1 844680 58 0
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 154pp plus bibliography and index. Illustrated.
reviewed by Chris Baker.

Only the first 69 pages of the book cover the First World War, and whether it is to do with the availability of material or the author's own preferences, it receives rather weak coverage in comparison with the powerful tales coming from WW2. "Women wartime spies" gives us the stories of Edith Cavell and Mata Hari - both subjects having received a good deal of attention in the past - and the lesser known "La Dame Blanche" network that developed in France and Belgium. We are left unaware of the source of information with regard to this fascinating subject for no primary sources or references are given and the bibliography offers little clue. The same applies to a chapter on women who worked in London for MI5, although as they were mainly in signals and other intelligence it is perhaps stretching things a little to refer to them as spies. Their work in cataloguing, indexing and sifting snippets of material was at once tedious and vital, and was for me the most valuable part of the book. On page 69, part way through a chapter, we leave the Great War and find ourselves at Station X in WW2, rather unannounced. Overall a read that may inspire a more rigorous examination of the 1914-1918 period.

 

Trench Art
by Nicholas J Saunders
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2011
ISBN 978 1 84884 637 1
cover price - £12.99
paperback, 160pp including bibliography. No index. Illustrated.
reviewed by Chris Baker.

Many readers of this page will be aware of or may even own or collect pieces of trench art - decorated shell cartridge casings, boxes or other trinkets made form military brass artefacts, cap badges and the like. Such things are sought after and genuine items often carry high prices. This book is a concise history of trench art, covering its beginnings, period and circumstances of manufacture and the market and presentation of it all today. It also acts as something of a catalogue, classifing the types of art and who made them; illustrating the various most commonly found items, and offering a rough guide to pricing in today's market. This is perhaps more of a beginners guide than something that would appeal to an avid collector.

I understand that this is a second, revised, edition. It was originally published under the Leo Cooper imprint in 2001 and Shire Publications in 2002.

 

Caporetto and the Isonzo Campaign
The Italian Front 1915-1918

by John Macdonald and Zeljko Cimpric
published by Pen & Sword Aviation, 2011
ISBN 978 1 84884 671 5
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 187pp plus bibliography and index. Illustrated.
reviewed by Chris Baker.

As this important campaign, and especially the Battle of Caporetto in late 1917, has so little coverage in English, this is a welcome book. It is noteworthy for an excellent collection of photographs, many of which are from archives in Slovenia and never published before. Apparently drawing only on secondary sources (including, bizarrely, Ben Elton's fictional "The First Casualty"), "Caporetto and the Isonzo Campaign" gives a good starter-level overview of the battles but never delves into detail - and it certainly does not live up to the publisher's claim that it focuses on the experience of ordinary soldiers. How could it, when it never mentions one by name? There are some good maps and an interesting if short chapter on the battlefield today.

 

Fall of Eagles
Airmen of World War One

by Alex Revell
published by Pen & Sword Aviation, 2011
ISBN 978 1 84884 527 5
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 197pp plus bibliography and index
reviewed by Chris Baker.

A collection of the stories of some of the "greats" and lesser known pilots of both sides of the air war, including Max Immelmann, Werner Voss, David Greswolde Lewis, James Huins, Frank Linke-Crawford, Larry Bowen, Joseof Kiss and Alan Winslow. An enjoyable read.

 

North Sea Battleground
The war at sea 1914-18

by Bryan Perrett
published by Pen & Sword Maritime, 2011
ISBN 978 1 84884 450 6
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 148pp plus bibliography and index
reviewed by Chris Baker.

A short history of naval operations in the North Sea, covering the two battles of the Heligoland Bight, the bombardments of Yarmouth, Hartlepool and Scarborough, and the deep water Battles of Dogger Bank and Jutland. A good introduction to the subject.

 

Birmingham Pals
14th, 15th and 16th (Service) Battalions of the Royal Warwickshire regiment

by Terry Carter
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2011
ISBN 978 1 84884 4 223
cover price - £25
hardback, 374pp plus details of honours, roll of honour. Profusely illustrated. No index
reviewed by Chris Baker.

Originally published in 2007 in a rather unwieldy large-format softback typical of the "Pals" series produced by Pen & Sword, this is a truly welcome reprint of one of the very best unit histories. Terry Carter trawled the archives of his native city of Birmingham for many years in researching for this book, which covers the whole war as experienced by the three Birmingham City Battalions. Their story is similar to that of many "pals" units, but their most significant introduction to the realities of the Great War came not on 1 July 1916 but just over three weeks later, when they took part in attacks near High Wood. A terrific piece of work, highly readable, brilliantly illustrated - and a fine tribute to the Brummies who fought. This hardback version is a much more durable and shelf-friendly artefact than the original and if I have a gripe at all it is the continued absence of an index.

 

The hidden threat
The story of mines and minesweeping by the Royal Navy in World War 1

by Jim Crossley
published by Pen & Sword Maritime, 2011
ISBN 978 1 84884 272 4
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 161pp plus index
reviewed by Chris Baker.

Valuable, if short, coverage of the development of sea mine warfare during the Great War. Had a large font and wide line spacing not been used then this book would have been perhaps no more than 120-130 pages in length. It includes some technical explanations of the British and German mines and methods used to lay and sweep for them, and of some of the key operations, principally in the North Sea and English Channel. But perhaps the most significant of all mine operations (and one in which I have most personal interest as it was a critical episode in the Gallipoli campaign) quite rightly gets a chapter to itself. This was the laying by the Turkish ship Nusret of a string of mines in Eren Kui Bay in the Dardanelles. Cleverly laid in an area where Allied ships had been observed to make a turn after bombarding the Straits forts, three ships went down with tremendous loss of life. A few mines thus caused a change of mind and heart by the British, leading inexorably to the commitment of land forces to a campaign that was doomed at the outset.