Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Illustrated History of World War 1 - Andrew Wiest

Title: The Illustrated History of World War 1
Author: Andrew Wiest
ISBN: 978-1-78274-137-4
Publisher: Amber
Pages: 256
Photographs/maps: 100’s
Rating 4/5
There are many publications about WW1 in this centenary year of its commencement. This book is a high quality publication that provides the reader with an excellent synopsis of the war in pictures and maps broken down by year. He incorporates all of the fronts, both air and sea actions as well as short biographies of all of the major political and military figures. The information presented is not new but many of the photographs I have not seen before. I enjoyed the layout, style and presentation immensely; a good book to pick up and put down at your leisure and worth the investment.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Empires of the Dead - David Crane

Title: Empires of the Dead
Author: David Crane
ISBN: 978-0-00-745668-0
Publisher: William Collins
Pages: 289
Photographs//maps: 12 b/w/15 clr//3 

When one travels the battlefields of WW1 and 2 throughout the world, it is very likely that you will come across one of the hundreds of Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s interment sites. Each is laid out identically with a stylized cross and inverted sword overseeing the rows of common gravestones marking the final intermingled resting places of officers and men. They are striking and moving places, stark reminders of the sacrifices and service given by so many to their countries. 

What is not well known or remembered is the road that led to the creation of these final resting places; the personalities, drama, anguish and reflection that marked the discussion and national debate surrounding the remembrance of the war dead. Crane has authored a book that lays out in a balanced and insightful way just what were the driving factors behind the debates, how the War Graves Commission came to be, the impact of World War 1 on the national psyche of not just Great Britain but the entire Empire, and who were the personalities who navigated the waters of emotion and pride that came to typify discussion. 

Central to the success of this program was Fabian Ware. While his name has, to a great extent, been lost to history, it was his vision and drive that saw the concept of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission take root and flourish. Cranes traces the role that this remarkable personality played and how his core belief in the unifying power of the British Empire and the debt that it owed its soldiers served as his unwavering guiding light. 

For the first time in its history, a war had directly affected all facets of society equally from the highest nobility to the lowest labourer and all in between. The British common man and the Imperial colonies would not be left out of the discussion of how to memorialize the dead. Ware displayed remarkable insight when, in setting up his initial Commission, he included representatives from all walks including senior government and union leaders as well as senior Colonial representatives.  

The breadth and complexity of this program was astounding: over 1,300 graveyards in France alone, over 580,000 graves that required exhumation and reinterment and a mandate that literally was worldwide. Additionally, was the necessity to come up with a means of memorializing the tens of thousands of soldiers with no known resting place in such a way as to provide their families with an opportunity for closure and remembrance; this while trying to manage cost, land distribution and artistic difference.
Crane’s book not only relates the story of the development of the Commonwealth War Grave Commission, he also captures the mood of the nations as they struggled to comprehend the magnitude of the sacrifice that had been made. From the point of view of 100 years later, it is almost impossible to fully grasp the depth of grief and loss that affected every facet of societies; Crane’s book provides a glimpse into that abyss. This is an outstanding book in every way: educational, moving, gripping and above all insightful and wrenching.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Valour Road - John Nadler

Title: Valour Road
Author: John Nadler
ISBN: 978-0-670-06821-0
Publisher: Viking Canada
Pages: 368
Photographs: 37 b/w

The title ‘Valour Road’ refers to the name that Pine Street in Winnipeg, Manitoba was changed to once it was discovered that three of the 71 Victoria Crosses (the highest medal for combat valour) awarded to Canadians since its inception following the Crimean War, had come not only from that street, but from the same block. All three were awarded during the First World War; two posthumously. The recipients Leo Clarke, Robert Shankland, and Fred Hall were all recognized for exceptional bravery in the face of the enemy and their stories and the story of the place from which they came is the focus of this book.

Nadler combines the accuracy and detail of a historian with the engaging style of a reporter to bring to life the world of these three soldiers, both at home and at the front. The tale is gripping and harrowing as one is plunged into the chaos and violence of trench warfare while concurrently introduced to the activities of the home front and their unique challenges. The author limits his narrative to the story of these families and soldiers. In doing so he is able to bring out detail that would inevitably be lost were the scope broader. Thus is the reader introduced to the Winnipeg ‘Bomber’ unit that Leo Clark and his brother were a part of; these  soldiers undertook hazardous strikes against enemy trench lines securing the flanks of the main body attacks. Such was their fame and reputation that the City of Winnipeg named their Canadian Football Team after them.

Nadler has drawn upon present day family recollections, diaries, unit histories and British, French and Canadian national military histories to put together a story of remarkable depth and personality. This fusion of historical narrative and personal recollection adds significant breadth to this snapshot of time. I was particularly impressed by the isolation of Winnipeg during this period. Access to information was very limited and it often took a significant amount of time to garner news about casualties and the Front. Further, the idea of travelling to Europe was comparable to the idea of going to the moon today. Despite this, the home front remained very supportive and active; Nadler does a commendable job of shedding light on the stresses of absent soldiers on the routine of everyday life. I was also impressed by the unquestioning loyalty to Empire and the Crown; on the surface a seemingly simpler but extremely challenging period for Canada.

Nadler’s descriptions of life at the front are of particular poignancy. The emphasis on the lives of these three soldiers and their immediate comrades brings the readers focus to the lowest and most basic level of life experience. Faces are put to the WW1 experience; these men are no longer black and white still photographs on a page. They are alive once more with their strengths, fears, flaws and desires highlighted in harsh reality. The capacity for these soldiers to be able to fight, function and maintain their sanity within the absolute nightmare of the Front, is testament to their strength of character developed through their upbringing and bonds of comradeship. Through their recollections we are introduced to the terror, boredom and humour of life in a time far removed from today.

What would have added to the story, in my opinion, would have been the inclusion of maps of the regions in which these men were operating. This would have provided better context and a visual reference for the reader.

This is a gem of a book. For Canadians it serves as an outstanding study of our history both domestic and overseas. Nadler has done an outstanding job and deserves full credit for the contribution he has made to the Canadian story. The narrative of these three men, their comrades and their families is the story of Canada at the turn of the century and we may be proud of the legacy that they left behind.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Malta: The Spitfire Year 1942 - C Shores, B Cull, N Malizia

Title: Malta: The Spitfire Year 1942
Author: C Shores, B Cull, N Malizia
ISBN: 978-0-948-81716-8
Publisher: Grub Street
Pages: 704
Photos/Maps:100’s b/w /3

The authors have a long record of producing quality books of exceptional detail and breadth. This follow on to their first installment “Malta: The Hurricane Year 1941” is no exception.

As with their previous works, the authors break down their narrative into individual days and provide the reader with significant incidents on the ground, at sea and in the air as they occur (incorporating the experiences of both the Allied and Axis forces). The degree of detail that they are able to provide throughout their discussion (down to the serial numbers of individual aircraft engaged for example) is stunning and certainly adds a tactical dimension that compliments the strategic and operational narrative beautifully.

Books should be educational and not just a reiteration of dry facts and statistics; to that end the reader learns a great deal about the peripheral activities that were critical but have been neglected in the documentaries regarding the Battle for Malta. For example, the Italians lacked the capacity for RDF (Radar Direction Finding) resulting in their being severely hampered in naval operations in the Mediterranean. What is not well known was their superb capability in the development of ‘Servizio Alfa’ (Alfa Service) which entailed the use radio interception in order to track British movements, advise their aircraft of impending interceptions and interfere with British radio direction finding to draw Allied aircraft off course as they were transiting toward Malta. The Germans, for their part, employed multiple Freya radar systems to aid in the tracking and engagement of Allied resources.

Additionally, their discussions relating to the Allied use of Ultra intercepts – Ultra was the German coding system that had been broken by the British and subsequently provided unprecedented insight into Axis operations – showed the lengths to which the UK went to protect their accomplishments. The Commander at Malta was provided with information derived from Ultra about Axis convoy movements; however, he was ordered to have the convoys located via reconnaissance flights before engaging in order to ensure that no suspicions were raised regarding how the Allies were able to find these targets.

This book is focussed upon the air campaign associated with Malta; however, the sea and land campaigns within Africa and the Mediterranean could not help but have a direct effect upon the fortunes of the island. The authors incorporate these facets seamlessly into the narrative and provide for the reader not only ‘the bigger picture’ but also highlights the variety of operations that were undertaken concurrently (torpedo attacks, harassment bombing operations, fighter interception, reconnaissance, air sea rescue etc) by all players involved.

Due to the fact that the authors have broken out the narrative into individual days, one develops an appreciation of the scope and nature of operations that occurred on a daily basis but never have been recounted in histories. Individual strikes, close calls, narratives of downed flyers spending days floating in the Mediterranean with little hope for rescue are all included. Additionally, the steps taken by the Allies to aggressively take the fight to the enemy with strikes on Axis airfields and harbours despite the heavy pressure of the Axis on the defences of Malta are very eye opening.

One also begins to appreciate just how perilous was the situation facing the Allies. The logistic lines were extremely tenuous and the ability of aircraft to respond to Axis incursions relied exclusively upon the ability of tankers and supply ships to get through to the island; the story of the tenacious defence of and fortuitous arrival of the oil tanker Ohio being recounted in great detail. Associated with this, were the events surrounding the rescue of two Italian pilots (shot down while attacking the convoy) by a German flying boat being guided and escorted by British Spitfires and Beaufighters; all as a result of mistaken communications!

There is a heavy Canadian connection to the air battle above and around Malta. RCAF pilots and aircrew were a significant and integral part of operations associated with the battle. Probably best known is the success of Plt Ofr GF ‘Buzz’ Beurling of 249 Sqn. His reputation as a loner and superb fighter pilot was enhanced by his being the top scoring Allied pilot during the Malta Campaign with 26.5 kills credited (compared with his next closest at 12.5 kills).

There are very few observations to be made regarding this book that may be seen as anything but positive; the most significant being that the index is printed in a painfully small font. The degree of detail provided is unsurpassed and the flow and tone of the narrative, tight and engaging. Grub Street has produced a book of the highest quality. I highly recommend this book.