on 6 October 2008
Dorling Kindersley is well known for its colourful illustrated books. `Soldier' is a fine example of the genre with superb artwork showing the kit - uniforms and equipment - worn and carried by warriors from Greek hoplites to the SAS, Viking warriors to Viet Cong guerrillas.
Accompanying the major colour spreads are comprehensive essays on the style, customs and combat techniques of almost fifty types of soldier. These essays or articles are themselves illustrated with photographs, paintings, drawings, diagrams and highlighted quotations.
Two images resonate down the ages. First there is the aristocratic elite demonstrated by the Greek champion, the medieval knight, the samurai and the fighter pilot. These face each other in single combat, testing their courage and prowess. Just like young men in tribal societies everywhere and in every age.
Then there are the infantry whether volunteers or conscripts. In some periods, the high-born showed contempt for the fighting qualities of the peasants as simply rabble. Even Wellington described his common soldiers as `scum of the earth'. Yet history showed time and time again that with proper discipline and training, the humble could triumph.
Peasants and yeomen trained and indentured as archers, reduced the massed cavalry to thrashing fallen horses and unhorsed knights at Crecy and Agincourt. Wellington's `scum' when trained and disciplined, formed into British `squares' that held firm against repeated French cavalry charges at Waterloo.
Viet Cong conscripted villagers to become skilful and dedicated fighters, resolute enough to continue despite the fact that they almost always suffered far heavier casualties than their opponents in combat. They fought the French Foreign Legion, themselves no slouches in combat yet formed from "rootless misfits" of many nationalities.
For soldiers in peace time, training, harsh discipline and regular pay emerge as the key elements in maintaining morale and order. When these failed, serious trouble often ensued such as with the Landknecht mercenaries of the 16th century. When pay of four guilders a month finished at the end of campaign, they looked for other spoils. Hence the sack of Rome in 1527 when unpaid Landknecht troops pillaged the city for nine months, killing 6,000 citizens in the process.
Even untested troops could rise to the occasion when morale was high and belief was strong. It was largely men of this calibre that went `over the top' on 1 July 1916 without hesitation on the first day of the battle of the Somme. The British Army took 58,000 casualties on that single day.
The creation of warriors from the common clay is epitomised in the description of the US Marines or `grunts': "...grunts tended to belong to the less educated, most underprivileged strata of American society. They would make courageous soldiers, but not necessarily sensitive ambassadors for the American way of life".
`Soldier' is a fascinating book for anyone with a military interest. It is packed with information on soldiering, presented in a journalistic rather than academic style.
This is the second of the author's DK overview histories that I've read. The first was Battle which, when I reviewed it, I said was the best of the DK overviews that I'd read thus far. This just about improves on that, but remains imperfect.
As you would expect from DK, Soldier is lavishly illustrated, and the production quality is top notch. However, overviews always suffer from the fact that they are a "skim" of the subject, and this particular book manages to show the other fault. Even if you specialise in one particular aspect of history (and I've no idea whether the author does), it is very difficult to be expert across the vast span of history that a topic like this covers. In short, I spotted a few minor errors in this. I'm not an academic, but I've a decades-long interest in history, particularly in WWI, and the Dark Age / Medieval periods, where I have been a re-enactor involved in "Living History" standard groups. The difference between "ordinary" re-enactment and LH standard, being very brief, is the difference between "there's an example of this, so I'm having it" and "there's no evidence this was widespread; justify why you should be allowed to have it". The knowledge may not be academic, but is, nevertheless, based on very deep & thorough research.
The most obvious example of an error to cite is the author's opening para on the WWI British Infantryman. In that, he says that of about 4 million British soldiers on the Western Front, more than 1.7 million were killed or wounded. In Battle, the author displayed a definite "butchers & bunglers" view of WWI that I do not share, and is generally out of favour these days. This "fact" is a perfect example of why, because it is wholly misleading. Albert Jacka VC, Australia's first & greatest war hero, was wounded no less than 7 times in a single action on the Western Front. That would have appeared in the casualty figures just once. A soldier wounded on 3 separate occasions, and then later killed, would account for 4 of of those 1.7 million. The deliberate inference that some 40% of British soldiers serving on the Western Front in WWI were wounded or killed is simply wrong.
That aside, it's a very interesting & very well written book. It's just a pity that I can't be sure it's not misleading in minor details.
This review comes from a former soldier and military history buff, the son of a soldier,the grandson of a soldier and the great-grandson of a soldier. It is a good book and well worth the cost. Well laid out, good photography and informative. Eventhough it covers a large timescale from the ancient greeks to the present day it does not skimp on depth.
A good read and a good book.
on 5 May 2009
This book gives a fascinating insight into the life of the common soldier, throughout the ages. This book explains the training that they underwent, and the weapons and tactics that they used. This information is enhanced by beatiful, clear, colourful photographs and there are even a few pieces written about the ships and vehicles these brave men fought in. The main soldiers of every era, from the Spartans to the SAS is taken into account, with an emphasis on European soldiers, but the Americans, The Arabs, the Africans and the Asians are given a decent mention as well. People of all ages will enjoy this book. Children will enjoy it for the beautiful illustrations and photographs, and mature readers will enjoy it for the well-written, readable text.