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The Other First World War: The Blood-Soaked Russian Fronts 1914-1922
The Other First World War: The Blood-Soaked Russian Fronts 1914-1922
Price: £12.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Frequently Forgotten Front In The Great War., 15 Oct 2014
Military history that is not set in a geographical context is meaningless. Despite this, over 86% of the 43 books so far published this year on the Great War make lttle mention of the geographical context. Nowhere is this more important than when writing about the Eastern Front, a front that, while of the utmost importance, gets scant attention in comparison with the Western Front. Most people if asked to name three battles that took place on the latter would trot out the usual, Marne, Somme and Paschendale. If asked to name even one on the Eastern Front they would struggle, two or more would be beyond them. Hence, Stalluponen, Gumbinnen, Bolimov and Masurian Lakes are unknown battles. The author of this book aims to bring the Eastern Front more on to centre stage. Although he is not by any means the first to do so, his well written account is most welcome.

The relationship between Germany and Russia pre 1914 was a complex mixture of attraction and repulsion. Russian intelligentsia after 1825 turned to Germany for cultural and intellectual models. Hegel's philosophy was imitated, and students went to Germany for higher education. Russian secondary schools were based on German models. German scholars and artists were full of admiration of their Russian counterparts. German bankers funded Russia's economic enterprises.

By 1890 this was changing. Suspicions grew on both sides. Panslavism and German militarism exacerbated these. From the inception of the Empire the German general staff based their plans on a two-front war against France and Russia. Economic tension after 1885 worsened relations with Russia. On the other hand, Russian relations with France steadily improved in the financial and military spheres.

From the Swiss border to the North Sea was some 300 miles. From the eastern end of East Prussia down to Rumania was over 1000 miles long. The Eastern Front was in 1914 some four times as long as the western, it was never less than three times.The terrain consisted of mountains, tundra, vast steppes, gigantic swamps, bogs and marshes. Each posed enormous problems for transport, particularly given the state of the roads and the fact that waterways ran north-south. The German railways were also far superior. This allowed them to move troops from one sector to another with comparative ease. Temperatures on the Russian front frequently fell 40 degrees below zero. Force-to-space ratios in the east were half those in the west. In the west, Germany deployed 2.5 as many divisions to a sector compared with the same area on the eastern front. Geography, in short, played a vital role on this front just as it did from 1941.

We forget that Russia lost 1,735,000 dead in the war, a number very close to German losses. Hers was the greatest number killed on the allied side, as it was in the Second World War. Wounded and missing numbers were equally horrendous.

'In the west, the armies were too big for the land; in the east, the land was too big for the armies'. So wrote Churchill. The prevalent image of warfare in the Great War is familiar; it, therefore, requires no repetition here. Yet that image is highly misleading once we move away from the western front. There was major fighting in the Balkans, Italy, East Africa, the Dardenelles. Some 15 major offensives took place between Austria-Hungary and Italy across the Isonzo River although it hardly merits a word in most books. Land battles occurred in Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, China, and sea battles took place in every major sea and ocean. The standard excuse for ignoring these sectors has always been they were all 'side shows' that did not determine the outcome of the war.

You cannot say the same about the Eastern Front. Moltke in August 1914 was so concerned about the front that he took 5 key divisions from the forces involved in the so-called Schlieffen Plan and moved them east. He and others on his staff believed in the summer of 1915, after vastly outnumbered German forces had eradicated two Russian armies, that victory could be achieved by concentrating on this front. It did not, it led to the Brusilov Offensive in 1916 that lasted six months took 70,000 prisoners and which drew vital German troops away from, for example, Italy and Verdun. If these troops had not come to Austria's aid she would have been knocked out of the war. The offensive cost Russia around 840,000 casualties. The battle made revolution inevitable. We should remember that from early 1916 the growing anti-war movement in Russia was played on by the Bolsheviks. Anti-war riots by 25,000 wounded soldiers due to be sent back to the front broke out in Odessa. This was followed by strikes in naval bases, and dock yards throughout 1916. By this time Russia had 9 million men in her army, Germany 7 million.

The author rightly draws attention to the way that, again as in 1942, Russian forces occupied the attention of approximately 22% of the Kaiser's army between 1914 and 1917. Poison gas was first used on the Eastern Front at Bulimov and, the creeping barrage was largely developed on the same front. In all, 750,000 Germans died on the Eastern Front together with almost 1 million troops from the Habsburg armies.

Not until 1975 did the first scholarly analysis of this important front appear in English. Since then there has been nothing like the avalanche of books to match accounts of the Western Front. Tannenburg is about the only major battle that has been studied. One reason for this is that vast amounts of key German primary sources were destroyed during the Second World War. Many existing sources are notoriously unreliable or incomplete. Norman Stone has said that:' what is true is not new, and what is new is not true'. There is still no official Russian account of the war that has been translated into English.

Unlike the war in the west, that in the east never became stagnated. Trench warfare did exist but because the territory was so massive flanks could be turned, and cavalry used. Encirclements were frequent and breakthroughs did take place. Tactics as a result were more flexible, new ones were tried more often. Brusilov in particular drew on the experiences of the Russo-Japanese war and adapted his tactics to the terrain.

This book underlines the fact that you cannot begin to understand what was taking place on the Western Front without understanding events on the Eastern. It should be remembered that during the first two years of the war, when the British army was providing only peripheral help, it was the Russian and French forces that were battering away at the Germans.

The origins of the war lay in the East. The Germans shared a common frontier of over 400 miles with Russia, or Russian Poland. The Germans saw the main threat to their security coming from Russia. Bethmann-Hollweg said in July 1914 that: 'Russia grows and grows, and lies on us like a nightmare'. A 500 year-old Russian jingle expressed their side. It ended thus:'The German is coming, the univited guest'. Germany was very concerned at the improving Russian economy, her birth rate and the growing might of her military 'steamroller'. Her alliance with France, who financed much of Russia's railway development with short-term loans, fed German fears of encirclement, hence the Moltke-Schlieffen plan.

There was a view in this country that had Russia received proper help from the west, she could have ended Germany's plans for European domination by 1916. Lloyd George shared this view and spells it out in his memoirs. The jury is still out on this. The evidence available, however, indicates that the belief that Russia was defeated in 1917 owing to crippling material weaknesses is not true. Casualty figures, poor leadership, anti-war propaganda that sapped morale and economic incompetence were among the major reasons.

This book also discusses, somewhat oddly, the appalling civil war that broke out after the coup d'etat that toppled the government in 1917. The fighting took place inside a 12,000 mile loop from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. Anarchy, famine, was widespread. For four years allied expeditionary forces that included Canadians, Japanese, Finns and Belgians fought Soviet forces. In the Ukraine and Siberia the Czech Legion comprising some 100,000 POW's from the Austrian-Hungarian army, and three other White armies joined in a 'rainbow of death' with the Blue army, the Green army and the Black army of anarchists fighting the Red. Disunity of command, and poor leadership on the White side plus corruption and sheer stupidity led to Trotsky's forces in the end winning.

I have two criticisms of the book. Firstly, the three opening chapters devoted to, among other things, the assassination, in detail, of the Archduke should have been exorcised. These events are so well known and so oft repeated that to include them here is unnecessary.
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Secondly, the Russian military deaths are wildly wrong. All figures are only estimates but these are beyond any figures I have ever come across. Even if wounded are included, they are wrong. My figure above is the one most historians accept. One of the problems about casualties is that the British, German and Russian figures are calculated differently. The German and Russian often include deaths from disease, deaths that occurred months after hostilities ended, missing and even prisoners of war who died in captivity.

The war on this front should never be forgotten. As in the Second World War, it played a very valuable role in determining the outcome.

Recommended


Taking Command
Taking Command
Price: £6.99

12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A Very Outspoken Modern General., 11 Oct 2014
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This review is from: Taking Command (Kindle Edition)
The purpose of all memoirs is to defend or enhance the author's reputation and legacy. Tolstoy said it was to prepare for your maker. These memoirs are no exception.

General Richards, now Baron Richards of Herstmonceux, retired from being Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS ), the professional head of the British armed services, in 2013. He was made a life peer in 2004. He joined the army some 4O years ago as a gunner. He is a keen sailor, and since retirement has become involved with some 24 charities. In addition, he is an advisor to the International Institute For Strategic Studies based in London. His daughter works for the PM.

His memoirs begin with a rapid account of his early education, public school and his entry into the army. His revelation that he cheated in a crucial Common Entrance exam while at Ascham prep school with the aid of another pupil in order to enter Eastbourne College is somewhat displeasing; at least he admits he is ashamed that he did this. He always had a love of military history. His father had been in the Royal Artillery during WW11, in 1949 he was transferred to the RAPC.

The former general has a reputation for plain, frank speaking, and this shows in his book. He saw service in postings around the globe including : Germany, Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland, East Timor, Iraq (he was sent on a covert mission by Hoon to assess what could be done to avert a bloody civil war, His report was rejected because his senior officers had not known of the visit),and Afghanistan where he was head of ISAF (and nearly died of pneumonia) before becoming Chief of the General Staff ( CGS ). In Sierra Leone he chanced his arm by putting down a nasty 8 year civil war without orders to do so. It made his name but it could have ruined his career if it had gone wrong.

General Richards gives the impression he is not enamoured of politicians or some senior officers. Anyone who has worked in the MOD will not be surprised to hear this. His relationship with Gordon Brown was uneasy. This is not surprising given Brown's ignorance of military matters. On the A.Marr programme he said: 'We could defeat the terrorists in Afghanistan if they would only stand and fight'!!

Richards tells us how he told David Cameron that once being in Eton's combined cadet force cut little ice with him, a professional soldier. It was, he said:'no qualification to run the Libyan war'. One suspects the PM was not amused. Defence Secretaries fare little better. He reveals he even had to lie in order to get a meeting with Hoon, another defence secretary out of his depth. Richards was highly critical of the lack of the right equipment for our troops, and the lack of a reserve, in Afghanistan. He reveals how he was even refused an helicopter to get around a country half the size of Europe!

This reviewer would have liked to see him take on Dennis Healey, the finest Defence Minister since 1918, a minister of outstanding intelligence, cultured and with active military service to boot. (In, for example, Italy during the Second World War). One of the major problems today is the lack of military experience in the cabinet and shadow cabinet. This makes communication and understanding between the chiefs of staff and politicians, always fraught, extra hard. However, he doesn't shirk from revealing the intense battles with other senior officers of all three services, all of whom have always been more concerned with protecting their interests rather than the national interest. Their infighting is renowned. Twice he was severely warned that criticisms of strategic decisions, if made public, would end his career.

Fascinating are the details not just of petty infighting between the Chiefs of Staff but how in order to 'win' he had to conduct business in secret meetings in dinner parties and the like. Of course, such things are also commonplace in the business world.

General Richards' severe criticisms of the Strategic Defence Review illustrates the problem very well. As he explains, he was, for example, unable to understand the logic behind the decision to build two aircraft carriers. He is not alone in this. He feared it would cripple the navy by devouring a huge share of its limited resources. It is very likely that Gordon Brown's decision was based on a desire to pump billions into the Scottish economy, thus preserving jobs. The more recent decision to reduce the army to 82,000 men, a decision based more on politics than mlitary strategy, was also criticised by Richards. His doubts were not welcomed by Whitehall.

Even ambassadors fail to escape the knife between the shoulder blades. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former British ambassador to Kabul is damned with faint praise. The author's condescending tone towards some people is again manifest and at times a little grating.

Over Syria, the general argued for an operationally sound action rather than a media driven one. His caution was regarded by politicians as 'obstructionism', and 'too purist'. One would have thought that the lessons of Iraq would have been learned, apparently not. Currently, the author is one of those who believes that ISIS will not be defeated by bombing ( incidentally, this costs around one million pounds per mission from Cyprus by two 30 year-old planes).Boots on the ground he says are essential but he knows this is unpalatable to the public owing to the Iraq and Afghanistan ventures, the former based on Blair's lies. However, as he says, the troops don't have to be ours. Arab states should provide the majority of them. He has stated recently that a ground war could defeat ISIS in six months. I am not so sure.

At times, this entertaining account of the life of a military man who attained the heights of his profession smacks of arrogance and self-regard. There is a great focus on what he achieved while at the same time criticising others including senior army officers. For example, 42 pages are devoted to 'my set piece battle in Kandahar' but only a very few paragraphs discuss the dreadful shambles in Helmand.

His criticism, for example, of Brigadier Butler, the ground commander, in Helmand is close to being reprehensible. The problem in Helmand was not individuals it was the ludicrous six month tours. This meant that just as one was getting to grips with the complex situation you were going home to be replaced by the next Brigadier and new troops. A very inefficient revolving door that the Americans rightly criticised.
Our generals today have a tough row to hoe. To earn the reputation of being 'difficult' is easy, as Richards found out.

The author believes we were right to intervene in Afghanistan but that we have left too soon, in fact five years too soon, and that the black flag of the Taliban will return. Many will forget, and the general does not mention it, that very shortly after being appointed CDS he said on television that our forces 'could be in Afghanistan for 30 years'. There were rumours that he had his knuckles rapped for this indiscretion.

He often called a spade a shovel but that took courage, and the author is clearly not lacking in this. What is remarkable is how such an outspoken officer ever rose to the position he did for I can assure readers it is very, very unusual. Luck clearly played a part, being in the right place at the right time (Sierra Leone) is and was crucial if one is to get promotion. Nevertheless, a profession that all too often rewards tha average because they toe the party line and don't rock the boat has seldom rewarded an officer so handsomely.

A fascinating book by an oustanding soldier. A maverick, a realist, someone who doesn't suffer fools gladly, a man not averse to self-promotion. The author is all of these things but his willingness to speak out and challenge orthodoxy is admirable. Very few future Chiefs of the Defence Staff I suspect will achieve that lofty position with a personality like Baron Richards.

Recommended.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 19, 2014 6:17 PM BST


Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth
Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth
Price: £12.92

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Combating Dirt In Victorian London., 10 Oct 2014
This is the second book Lee Jackson has written about London in the nineteenth century. In thiis account he describes how the capital in mid century was at the heart of the British Empire. It was a financial hub for the world.but, at the same time, it was notoriously filthy. This despite the fact that the Victorians had invented 'sanitary science'.

Despite millions being invested in an enormous network of sewers, a massive project planned by the engineering genius Sir Joseph Bazalgette, London remained in the 1860's a very dirty town. One of the major reasons for this was its unprecedented growth. Its population grew six fold, from 1m in 1801 to 6.2m in 1901. Waste products multiplied as suburbia crushed up ' the country in its concrete grasp'. Nuisance and discomfort were all around. Some of the dirt posed a real danger to people. The worst types of filth were: mud, human and horse excrement, dust from coal fires, and ashes and cinders.

Based on impressive research, Lee Jackson details not only sewage problems but also the state of housing, burial problems, waste, and soot that was a feature of London life until the Clean Air Act of 1956 removed the causes. Of smog. It is easy to forget that, for example, as late as the winter of 1952 London was blanketed in foul smog that led to the wearing of masks. Smog in fact was said officially to have taken over from cholera as 'the scourge of the city'.

In Victorian England every stinking breath was dangerous. Miasma, bad air or mal aria, brought disease. Florence Nightingale knew this and designed her new hospitall, St Thomas's so that stinks could not poison her patients. The Thames stank so much that on occasions Parliament had to be suspended. A report in 1840 said that a horrible stench generating malaria and fever was only 100 yards from Buckingham Palace. Descriptions of pauper burial grounds are sickening. Slums, of course, were foul places. In Bermondsey the stink was almost unbearable owing to skins and hides being turned into leather. Not until around the 1850's did water closets become a normal part of a house but not of the poorest. By 1857 there were 200,000 in place.

In London's streets battles were being fought throughout thr century to combat disease, squalor, poor housing, dirty water, sewage, ignorance and germs. Among the most important men who were at the forefront of the campaign were four, the two Frenchmen Sir Joseph Bazalgette, and Sir John Simon together with Edwin Chadwick and John Snow. Other battles had to be fought by politicians, social reformers and philanthropists. At the heart of these battles was the dispute over the role of national and local government. Should they or not take responsibility for education, health and general welfare was the question. Should the state intervene or remain a night watchman? The author's analysis of the obstinacy and 'Bumbledom' encountered by reformers is quite excellent. Eventually, the decision to abandon laissez-faire ( this was never a hundred percent) proved to be the greatest legacy of Victoria's reign. Without this the massive improvements that had taken place by 1901 could never have come about.

Jackson rightly celebrates those who championed reform, people like Shaftesbury, Wilberforce and, Cochrane, an advocate of clean streets. He also details the villains, the slum landlords, dustmen and their managers. We learn also how some of the earliest public conveniences were designed to look like Swiss chalets to make them more acceptable. The capital despite great improvements still ended the century with the nickname of 'The Smoke' because of its most enduring pollutant. The world's financial centre and filthy at the same time.

In brief, anyone interested in the Victorian Age and London in particular will enjoy this excellent book full of fascinating facts and detail.

Talking of dirt, Bazelgette's great grandson is responsible for bringing us the show 'Big Brother'!
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 22, 2014 11:27 AM BST


Napoleon the Great
Napoleon the Great
Price: £10.04

41 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Bad Man., 7 Oct 2014
The historian Andrew Roberts has written books on Lord Salsbury, Wellington, the Second World War plus several others. This book is his second one about Napoleon. His books tend to be stacked high with facts and statistics; they are, therefore, rather lengthy. This one is nearly 900 pages, including notes and bibliography both of which are extensive and excellent. His style, however makes for easy reading.

Born in Corsica in 1769, Napoleon was one of 8 children (5 others died soon after birth), his rise from a poor background was meteoric. Roberts plots this rise with meticulous detail. He acknowledges that where Napoleon is concerned there are worshipers and detractors. After 1815, opinions about Napoleon swung violently. He was 'a man of blood', or 'a Corsican ogre'. This changed later in the century to idolatry. After the horrors of the Great War his reputation again was sullied. To this day he remains an enigma. After all, this man was often used by mothers in Victorian England to chastise their children. Bad behaviour would be greeted with :'if you don't behave Boney will get you!'

As the title indicates, the author considers Napoleon to be Great ( he is not the first to do so ), many historians, however, would disagree. Roberts gives a very detailed analysis for his opinion of Napoleon. Readers must decide whether or not they agree.

Over 2500 books have been published about Napoleon, plus hundreds of articles in scholarly journals. He has been compared to Attila, Genghis Khan, and Alexander the Great. I liken him to a mixture of General de Gaulle and General Douglas MacArthur. His military exploits and victories have led to him being described as a battlefield genius.

Other writers have castigated him as a usurper, the creator of a regime based upon treachery and violence. His love of warfare and imperial splendour has been bitterly criticised. The author tackles such views as this head on.

Roberts recognises the paradox of a man who was a despot and ruthless military commander and yet, at the same time, was a law giver and upholder of the key principles of the French Revolution. Napoleon was, and is, seen either as a patriot who defended with blood what had been won in the Revolution of 1789, who gave the French glory, or as a tyrannical conqueror. Roberts is clearly in the first group.

The author has researched his book extensively. He has visited 53 of Napoleon's 60 battlefields, read 33,000 of his letters and paid a visit to St Helena. The outcome is a detailed and elegantly written book that, thankfully, includes an analysis of Napoleon's non military accomplishments; his military campaigns having been, like those of Wellington, covered in numerous books. The military side, nevertheless, is the main focus of this book. The horrendous casualties, the growth in the size of armies, and the new tactics that Napoleon used are all discussed in some detail.

What is refreshing is the detail given of Napoleon's administrative, legal and political reforms. These were carried out in Italy, Spain and Malta, and they were massive. Taxation was reformed, slavery abolished, the navy reformed along with the police. Monasteries were abolished, and restrictions on Jews lifted. In France, he ended the Terror, sorted out the Directory and fostered equality before the law, religious toleration and efficient administration. These achievements convince the author that Napoleon deserves to be called Great.

This does not blind Roberts to Napoleon's many faults: the 1.3 m French casualties, the horrendous defeat in Russia, which is decribed in vivid detail, and failure at Waterloo, his love of the trappings of power, his egotism, and his abandonment of his army in Egypt. These, however, have to be weighed in the balance of becoming a general at 24, winning 53 of his 60 battles, perfecting new uses for artillery, and instilling in his soldiers a very high morale based on honour and love of country. Very few commanders have been as sensitive to their soldiers' needs. He looked after the wounded, and even arranged for the relatives of the dead to get a pension. He converted a rabble of an army when he took command in Italy in 1796 by inspirational talks reminiscent of Montgomery's morale boosting talks in the desert. He was a fine orator, and an inspired leader with an inquisitive mind. The author describes his subject as:'the Enlightenment on horseback'. He adds:'there has never been another ruler in history to match him'.

There is always room for more than one opinion about great leaders be they military or not. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to contest the claim of Napoleon Bonaparte to a pre-eminent place in the pantheon of history. He possessed single-mindedness, ruthlessness, high intelligence (he was an excellent mathematician), an ability for sustained hard work, a magnetism akin to charisma, and a phenomenal memory. Wellington said:'his hat on the battlefield is worth 40,000 men'.

In this impressive account written with verve and packed with fascinating information, Andrew Roberts has reminded us that more than any man, Napoleon left an indelible mark on Europe, ushering in the modern nationalistic age. His contribution to the art of war remains to this day central and important. Nemesis followed hubris but here was no common mortal.As Hazlitt wrote:'He stood on the necks of kings'.

Superb. Highly recommended. Lord Roseberry wondered many years ago if there would ever be:'a sound biography of Napoleon'. This is likely to be it. It will be the definitive source for many years to come.

Reader who wish to immerse themselves in Napoleon's military campaigns should read David Chandler's brilliant: 'Campaigns of Napoleon'. Published in 1966 it is 1,350 pages of outstanding scholarship. The book received high praise from senior commanders in five countries. In addition. It also recently received high praise from President Putin!
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 24, 2014 1:06 PM BST


England, Arise: The People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381
England, Arise: The People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381
Price: £8.96

2 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Revolting Riot., 7 Oct 2014
Barker has written books on Agincourt, the Hundred Years War, and the Brontes.
Her latest book is another useful account of the so-called Peasants' Revolt of 1381 but it is not exceptional. There is very little in this book that has not been common knowledge for many, many years. The author tries, without succeeding, to introduce new material and information. For example about the young King Richard but her evidence for so doing is unconvincing. To say that she believes the king supported the rebels at Mile End is fanciful, if not plain silly. Where is the evidence? From whence would a young poorly educated king have aquired his views? His court of upper class nobles and cronies are hardly likely to have preached the virtues of the masses, and he certainly did not walk among them. Also, as parliament reminded the King after he granted the rebels a host of things, including the abolition of serfdom, he had no authority to grant anything without their approval. The King was a boy of 14. The author appears to know very little about adolescents.

Similarly, her belief that the preacher John Ball (he was not really a preacher at all in the true sense) did not utter at Blackheath the oft quoted lines:'When Adam delved and Eve span' is hardly new.

The author also fails to make clear at the outset something that is crucial wnen writing about this period of history, namely that the sources, even primary, are highly suspect, hence the raging controversy among historians. Resources are fragmentary, biased, and very contradictory. Grappling with them is like trying to nail a jelly to the wall. For example, the statistics quoted for the deaths in the 1347/8 pandemic are highly speculative, as are the deaths that occurred during the 1381 riots.The role of Richard 11 is anything but clear as is that of Tyler, who was anything but a peasant. Many key documents were destroyed by the rioters and by fires in later years, remaining ones are open to very wide interpretation.

The author seems to be unaware that the term:' Black Death' was not used until almost a hundred years after the event. At the time (1347/8) it was called the 'Great Death' or the pestilence or simply the plague. Despite her book focusing on England in 1381, she could have given more space to the global impact of the pestilence, and the fact that the riots in 1381 were replicated in many parts of Europe. In France, for example, in 1380-81 serious riots affected Paris and other large towns. The cause of these was the cost of war with England not taxes.

The term 'Peasants' Revolt' is, of course, a misnomer. The rioters were artisans covering numerous trades and occupations as well as agricultural labourers. Many were relatively well off. In Lincolnshire,for example, which does not get a mention, many such supported the King and government during the riots. In this county the anger was mainly directed at the widespread corruption in the clergy and growing resentment at villeinage, not the third poll tax, a tax imposed not because of wars but because of collapsing revenue from properties resulting from the burning of houses during the pestilence.

The riots were caused, like all riots, by a multitude of factors but, given the evidence so far available, not by a depressed poverty-stricken labour force (a false thesis beloved, of course, by marxists) but, as the author admits, by a growing affluence that had begun some 15 years before. This raised expectations which were ignored by many in the upper classes and by the King. When the supply of labour fell throughout Europe as a result of the pestilence, (it had been falling for many years before this) simple economics kicked in. However, it is wrong to say that the demand for higher wages was ignored in England. In fact, initially these demands were met by the government. This however changed, and the government passed the savage new Statute of Labourers in 1381.

The consequences of the 1381 riots need more research, difficult though that is. What is apparent so far is that they indicated a growing politicisation of the workers, an unwillingness to be treated as bonds of the lord. But this must not be exaggerated. The same sector of society was still demanding a fairer playing field in the 19th century. The riots ( they had been festering for years) came close to paralyzing the government but after the ringleaders had been dealt with they had little long term effect. To argue they were the beginnings of a middle class is an argument too far. In fact this thesis has been disproved in scholarly journals.

The long term consequences of the global 1347/8 lethal pandemic were far greater and more important than a short-lived outbreak of riots 34 years later, important as these were at the time.

It is worth noting that during the rioting in London the rioters deliberately targeted and murdered hundreds of Flemish merchants, other foreigners and Jews. These 'peasants' were not, as is sometimes implied, simple nice yokels driven by adverse conditions to rebel. If so, why did they destroy the superb Savoy Palace, the Knights HQ, the Archbishop of Canterbury's residence? Why did they murder the Archbishop and the Chancellor and cut off their heads (this is not a new thing)?Many behaved in the same way as did the rioters a few years ago in London. They used any excuse to plunder and create mayhem. They did so by rampaging through London, burning, raping and murdering those they had hated for years. And note, this 'revolt' only affected on area of England, East Anglia. Of course, the author's politics unfortunately do not permit facts like this to win over whimsy.

A marxist interpretation of the revolt, it exists, gives the impression that it was all about some evil, rich, uncaring Lords grinding down the depressed starving poor. In short, very like , but not so bad, as Stalin's rule of terror from 1928.

The author says that claims that London streets were awash with dirt and filth are exaggerated. Again she is wrong. Those streets were unbelievably filthy with human and animal waste, as were most homes, some 500 years later! Read the new book 'Dirty London', about 18th century London, as well as others on this subject.

A disappointing book that fails to be objective. There is a gross failure to put this event in context. There are far better accounts.


Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts
Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts
Price: £8.03

7 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars You Cannot Parley With Evil., 4 Oct 2014
The author was a former chief of staff to Tony Blair. The thesis of this book is that the West should talk to terrorists in order to resolve conflict. He cites in support the former head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller. He could have cited many others who share this view. He focuses mainly on resolving the war against al-Qaeda but his views are equally applicable to dealing with its progeny, ISIS.

There are hundreds of definitions of terrorism. Essentially, it is a tactic used mainly by non-state actors to create a climate of fear in order to compensate for their lack of legitimate political power. It is worth stating here that ISIS despite its name and claim to be a caliphate is not a state. It is a Sunni jihadist group active mainly in Iraq and Syria. It was founded in 1999 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It is also known by the names Da'esh, AQI and ISIL, there are others. It promotes religious violence, and rejects any innovations in Islam because they corrupt it. It totally rejects the political divisions in the Middle East set by the West after 1919. ISIS has a very well established propaganda centre which targets a Western audience. It publishes a digital magazine, Dabiq that encourages attacks on infidels and apostates. Its social media is regarded as being as sophisticated as most in the West. It is funded by ultra rich people in the Gulf, and through ransoms and many other criminal activities. Its ranks are filled with well trained fighters armed with modern weapons.

Terrorism is always violent. Destruction and self-destruction are key aims of groups like ISIS. They are not medieval, a silly description by David Cameron, and they are not clinically psychotic. They are morally insane. And, as outlined above, they are very well organised. It is a criminal conspiracy of extortion, piracy, abduction, bigitory, hatred and slaughter. It's objection is to what liberal democracies represent: religious liberty, the rule of law, sexual equality and freedom of speech. Members of ISIS are theocratic fanatics who revel in murder.

Powell spent some twenty years mediating between governments and terrorist organisations. In this book he argues that no conflct, however bloody, is insoluable. To resolve any conflict, he continues, we need to talk and negotiate. He illustrates his views by drawing on conflicts in Colombia, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Northern Ireland and South Africa. He runs Inter Mediate, a charity for negotiation and mediation that focuses on difficult and dangerous conflicts, where others cannot operate. He played a significant role in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland. Six years ago he said Western governments should open talks wiith the Taliban, Hamas and al-Qaeda. He is the PM's special envoy to Libya. He is the author of: 'Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland'.

So far so good. Most sensible people would prefer, as Churchill said: 'jaw, jaw to war, war'. But, unfortunately, even when dealing with states, as Chamberlain discovered, some people don't want to talk, or if they do they have no intention of telling the truth or abiding by it( see in this regard the current example of Communist China and its agreement in 1991 to the Basic Law, an agreement it never intended honouring).

When dealing with terrorists, the major weakness of Powell's premise is how do you talk to modern day terrorists if they regard you as infidels, and they have values that are a million miles away from yours? So one has to ask the author this: when dealing with barbarous absolutism what do you talk about? He appears not to understand that there are some demands that are non-negotiable.

Talking to terrorists the likes of Mandela, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuiness, and Arafat is not the same as talking to representatives of fanatical terrorists groups like ISIS. The former repugnant groups had political aims that could, after a lot of lies and subterfuge, be negotiated. Those like the IS have moral values akin to those of an invading alien force from an evil distant planet. Talks with them would be a dialogue of the deaf. Powell's views, therefore, are regrettably naive when they are applied to terrorists like ISIS whom I would describe as fanatical pirates of the desert. It is no use asking whenever a beheading occurs:'how could any human being do such a thing?'. Today's terrorists can because they are evil personified. Also, their bloody acts are a form of communication, communication to strike fear in our minds. Thus every time the media gives them news time they give them oxygen and a sickening satisfaction. As bereaved relatives have recently discovered, you cannot negotiate with those who have no intention of ever negotiating. Indeed they regard negotiation as a process of the weak.

Faced by terrorists who have no regard for human life, who look forward to being killed in order to dwell in some heavenly paradise, you have, sadly, only one viable option if you wish to survive, namely force. We should also not be so naive as to believe that the Northern Ireland peace process was brought about purely by talk, there was, as we now know, in addition a large dollop of horse-trading, as there was in South Africa and Colombia. 'Swallowing toads' was necessary. The key difference with the IS terrorists is that they desire to establish a new state based on sharia law, a state that propagates hatred of the west. They aim to achieve this at the polnt of a gun and blade. The idea they will sit down and talk compromise is laughable and dangerous.

There are always misguided people with little or no knowledge of history who believe you can talk and negotiate with anyone. No doubt they believe this includes evil men and women like Hitler and those many Germans who willingly helped in the slaughter of millions. There are also those who deny evil even exists! Such people usually end up dead.

One thing is certain Powell, talk of negotiation is pointless. However, the force that is being currently used, namely bombing, will fail. No serious conflict has ever been resolved by bombing alone. It is dramatic but is unbelievably expensive (the recent raid by two 30 year-old Tornados cost almost £1 million) and this to take out a pick-up truck plus possibly three terrorists. Bombing also frequently stiffens the resolve of the enemy, and inevitably civilians will be killed or injured.

ISIS can only be defeated by troops on the ground. Unfortunately, the public here and in America have no stomach for this given the ill advised and disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the former based on a tissue of lies by Blair and Bush-they continue to lie today. Whether troops from the Gulf region, including Kurdish troops who have been secretely trained by the Israelis for a number of years, are willing to shoulder the burden long term is at the moment unknown but one fears unlikely.

Powell's own father had been injured by an IRA attack and his brother was on their hit list for 8 years when working for Margaret Thatcher. The thesis of this book is, therefore, in many ways admirable arguing as it does that one should always seek a peaceful resolution of conflicts. Unfortunately, it errs in thinking that the enemy always wants to tango when in fact some wish to destroy you.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 19, 2014 11:53 PM BST


Head of State
Head of State
Price: £6.64

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Ludicrous Plot Even In Ludicrous Times., 30 Sep 2014
This review is from: Head of State (Kindle Edition)
First, Marr thinks he is an historian, he is not, second he now thinks he is a novelist, I don't.
He is a journalist, he should stick to what he knows.
The plot of this book is so absurd it lacks any kind of credibility. Rory Bremner can't be too.pleased even to be mentioned.
The novel smacks of desperation to publish. It should have been left in draft form and forgotten.
Marr should read Morpurgo's novels, he might then learn what a true novelist reads like.
At the moment his overblown prose reads like a newspaper article that he has been ordered by the editor to write in 20 minutes or less.

I am afraid his performance at this year's Cheltenham gathering did little to enhance his reputation as a writer.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 8, 2014 12:27 PM BST


Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence
Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence
Price: £9.51

15 of 25 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A Rather Unnecessary Journey Through Fields Of Blood., 28 Sep 2014
This book by a former Roman Catholic nun provokes thought. Unfortunately, Karen Armstrong goes to a great deal of trouble to formulate a thesis that is very easy to disprove, and she takes 400 pages and almost 1,500 footnotes to state the falsifiable. The author attempts to prove that it is wrong to claim there is something inherent in faith that fosters wars and even violence-hardly a novel claim. In brief, Armstrong argues that religion has become: 'a scapegoat'. Her premise is, easy to disprove for I seriously doubt that the majority of the world's population believe that religion is inherently violent or the sole cause of violent conflict. Where is the evidence that they do? In brief, by overstating her case she makes it easier to disprove.

She claims that in the West the 'idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted'. Sorry Karen this is simply not true. It is a gross exaggeration without supporting evidence. I know of many people, academics in many disciplines, and others, who do not share this view. It is true that often faith is blamed for a particular war, for example the present conflct in Iraq, Syria and the everlasting one between Israel and Hamas. But this is not the same as saying that every war has been fought in religion's name. Many atheists, of course, do claim that religion is a major cause of war, for example,Richard Dawkins.

The author's assertion that warfare is not part of man's nature would be challenged by many anthropologists, historians, psychologists and political scientists. Warfare has been endemic in human affairs since the earliest times. To argue that an army is necessary to wage war is disingenuous. How big an army? The Comanches, for example, fought numerous wars against other tribes using only small bands of warriors. Many tribal wars among primitive peoples did not involve an 'army' as we understand that term today. The author says :'warfare requires large armies, sustained leadership and economlc resources'. I am afraid it does not.

Furthermore, her claim that systemic violence only began in the Agrarian age because prior to it hunters were too busy to fight is highly contentious. Archeological finds many years ago indicate that group fights between hunter-gatherers, were often bloody,and were commonplace. Protection of ones hunting grounds was vital for survival. Greed and envy were causes of conflict then as they are often important causes today.

The author argues that religion was used to:'support the structural violence ot the state'. True but this was often a convenient excuse for launching a war. Followers of a faith were frequently heavily involved in wars, for example popes, and preachers galore. This is well documented but we do not then say this proves religion was the only cause of the conflict.

There is a surprising lack of scrutiny of Muslim beliefs and texts. This is in sharp contrast to her criticisms of the Bible. I wonder why? Armstrong also fails to mention that Muslims do not distinguish between religion and politics.

The notion that the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 that ended the thirty years war heralded the beginning of 'secular war' is also false. She goes too far. Many non-secular conflicts occured over the next 150 years. Some historians have indeed argued that there was a sharp decline of religion as a political factor after 1648. In the realist school it was once a prevalent view that 1648 marked a turning point, a watershed. The enlightened age of reason, they argued, had now replaced religious wars. This view is still dominant in some quarters. From around 1980 this view has been heavily critised by writers such as Holt and Davis. Cultural historians have attacked the very definition of religion. They argue it is a sociological phenomenon not a set of dogmatic beliefs. If you follow this line of argument then some secular wars become heavily permeated with faith. For example:the war of 1665-67 against the United Provinces; Switzerland's plague of religious wars during the 17th century, and the Seven Years War. These make Armstrong's thesis appear over simplistic.

Who would be so foolish as to blame religion for the Crimean War, the Russo-Japanese War, the Great War or the Second World War. These were not caused by the Pope. Did the West topple an Iraq dictator for religious reasons? Far more important than faith were other factors and ideologies. Historians do not blame religion as the sole cause of the Crusades or the thirty years war, although faith played an important role in both. Economics, politics and adventure also played key roles. However, one cannot deny the major role of religion in jihadis, the Crusades, and the long running conflict involving the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. It is very difficult in fact to separate religious from political and economic motives in such a way that religious motives are innocent of violence. It is sometimes argued that there is an essential difference between religions and secular ideologies like marxism, and nationalism. It is an argument that is hard to sustain.

All conflct is multifaceted. Political factors are as important as religion in insurgencies and terrorism. I know of no book, and there are hundreds, that mentions religion as the cause of the Vietnam or Korean wars. Armstrong also argues that faith has often been used for peaceful purposes. Only those ignorant of history would disagree. Faith has throughout history often been a force for good and peace.

This reviewer is very surprised that Armstrong quotes S.L.A.Marshall's book about US soldiers in WW2 as evidence that man will do everything possible to avoid killing his own. She clearly is unaware that this book has been heavily criticised and the evidence it is based on found wanting.

So we leave this book's main thesis where we started. Many very bloody wars have indeed been rooted in religious hatred, for example, the French wars of the 16th century, and Muslim conquests. Religion is indeed a significant generator of human conflict but the principal causes of warfare throughout the ages are two: culture, and greed for land, resources and power.

Armstrong has simply argued what we have always known to be the case. Religion has played a role, often a major role, in wars but it is not true that it is blamed for all wars, this would be nonsense no matter how religion is defined. The author makes the major error of claiming that religion is the cause of no major wars, and comes very close to saying or of violence. I don't think those who suffered at the hands of the Inquisition, or Jews throughout history would take too kindly to these assertions. Are the grotesque and babaric actions of ISIS not too a large degree motivated by religion?

I am afraid, therefore, that I remain unconverted by this mass of poorly digested material. Frankly, it's very badly organised. I find it hard to understand why it was ever published.

Readers may find the following books far more authorative and very useful: 'Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace', by Roland Bainton; 'The Myth of Religion' by W Cavanaugh. There are many more.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 15, 2014 6:51 AM BST


Listen to the Moon
Listen to the Moon
Price: £4.35

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Alfie and Lucy., 27 Sep 2014
Michael Morpurgo a former primary school teacher is a prolific novelist, playright, poet and librettist who is best known for his childrens novels. He has received many awards and prizes for his writings. He is a graduate in English of King's College, London. As a young man he was heavily influenced by the writings of Hemingway and Hughes. In 1976 he and his wife Clare set up the charity 'Farms for Children'. It has proved extremely successful in introducing children to the countryside. Both have been awarded honours. Michael also attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. A number of his books, this one included, contain a war theme,for example,the poignant:'Only Remembered', and 'War Horse'.

This latest book by the author of over 100 books, including:'Half a Man', is a riveting novel that will hold your attention from the opening lines to the end. In 28 chapters Morpurgo describes in exemplary English an extraordinary tale of the sea against the backdrop of the Scilly Isles and the First World War.

It is about the author's Grandma, it is her story, a story that the author says has been a lifelong fascination for him, almost an obsession. He does not exaggerate when he writes: 'it happens to be the most unlikely and unbelievable story I have ever heard'. I am sure you will agree once having read this delightful novel.

If you relish fiction which is tender, exhilarating, delicately oblique in its narration, and exquisitely well written, then this is for you. It is replete with tension, mystery and unforgettable descriptions .Almost certainly, it will be made into a film in due course. It would also make a superb text fot study by GCSE pupils because this is fiction writing at its very best, a wonderful blend of History and Englsh prose.

Autumn is upon us. This is a rattling fireside yarn of the sea. A must as a Xmas present, perhaps for Grandpa or Grandpa?

Very highly recommended.


The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo
The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo
Price: £6.99

11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Place of Skulls., 25 Sep 2014
'The Crowning Carnage' (Byron); 'that world earthquake, Waterloo!' (Tennyson).

This short book by Cambridge historian Brendan Simms deals with the defence of the farmhouse at La Haye Sainte during the battle of Waterloo. Books on this battle have recently been published that cover: the final four days, the 24 hours on the final day, and now this one that focuses minute by minute on the defence of the La Haye Sainte farmhouse on the afternoon of the 18th June 1815.

The author's recent work :'Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy' is a superb account of the period 1453 to the present. This book is on a much smaller scale altogether. Among his key points are: the importance of the battle for the whole of Europe, and the importance of the use of a 'united nations' force to overcome Napoleon. In 1945, Churchill used this in a conversation with the US President when discussing setting up a United Nations after the war. The author admits the story of the battle is well known. However, he argues that, while this may be so, the defence of the farmhouse has been neglected. This is debatable as I can think of a number of accounts that deal with this defence by 400 men of the 2nd Light Battalion King's German Legion, admittedly not in this detail. In fairness to the author he adds that this account includes unpublished material from the Hanoverian archives.

This book together with the previous two I have recently reviewed form the opening salvo of a bombardment that threatens to get much more intensive as we approach the anniversary of the battle. Whereas the others focus more on long narrative this concentrates more on what one unit did at an important stage of the battle.

Simms has written a gripping story of raw courage. His book is one of a few that discusses the political context of the battle. This is vital for a true understanding. The elimination of Napoleon was the political and military objective. Russia told Wellington he could: 'save the world' by doing this.

The author has decided to avoid counterfactuals, unlike some. Instead he concentrates on the experiences of the soldiers who fought at the farmhouse. This guarantees tension and high drama , and is fine but the micro event must be put into the context of the four days that preceded it.

The author tells of Ney's three attacks on the farmhouse and how the men of the King's German Legion were running out of ammunition before being driven out of their staunchly held position. Of the original 400 defenders , barely 42 were still on their feet and able to fight their way out. Crucially, they had won time for Wellington.

Any attempt to analyse the outcome of this battle has to look at the bigger picture. It is essential to differentiate between psychological and physical factors. ; morale and leadership, numerical strength, weapons, tactical doctrine and organisation. And never forgetting 'friction'. Hence, nonewithstanding the bravery of those who fought so gallantly at La Haye, they did not win the battle. No one cause resulted in victory. It was, like all major battles, the product of a combination of factors, tangible and intangible. National bias-British, French and German-has unfortunately served to cloud the issue.

Napoleon's 1815 strategic scheme was brilliant, Wellington admitted as much : 'the finest thing ever done', he said in 1920. However, his battle control was, for once, poorly exercised. There was a lethargy and indolence about Napoleon's performance that is impossible to explain. Rumoured illness was undoubtedly exaggerated to excuse defeat, although he may have suffered from a pituitary condition since the age of 40, and haemoroids at Waterloo. Nevertheless, he still proved to be a redoubtable opponent, and he very nearly won. A book will soon be published that rexamines how the battle ended-this has always been contentious.

Wellington, on the other hand, showed weak strategic thinking but superb tactical skills. Despite early errors, he proved to be a master of the defensive battle. He acknowledged the contribution of Blucher. The majority view today among military historians is that Waterloo would not have been won had not the Prussians arrived. Their contribution was vital. As in so many later wars it was cooperation that won the day.

Few campaigns in all history have been shorter in duration, more dramatic in conduct, more decisive in outcome, or more celebrated in fact and legend. In the words of Field-Marshal Blucher: ' Quelle Affaire'. The promise which the battle seemed to portend was, unfortunately, not borne out in practice, or not in forms that might have been anticipated. Yet it has left an indelible imprint on the popular mind. One enterprising Englshman even bought the famous elm tree which marked the spot on the ridge of Mont-Saint Jean, where Wellington spent part of the battle, had it cut into thousands of pieces and then sold these as souvenirs.

General Sir James Shaw Kennedy, who had fought in the campaign, wrote in his:'Notes on the Battle of Waterloo:'so long as the art of war is studied, its great features, and most important details, will form subjects of anxious enquiry and consideration by military men'. True, but he could have added:not only military men.

Recommended.


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