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Whispers Across the Atlantick: General William Howe and the American Revolution Kindle Edition
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Smith's book deals with both Howe brothers, William and Richard, an admiral better known to history as Lord Howe. The two men served together in America. While O'Shaughnessy titles his chapter "The Peace Commissioners" Smith focuses less on this aspect of their tenure in North America and more on their efforts as military commanders assigned the task of ending the rebellion through force of arms.
Of the two biographers, O'Shaughnessy is the more forgiving. The Howe who emerges from Smith's study seems the more genuine, a man who made so many excuses for himself that he does not require others, like O'Shaughnessy, to do it for him. A rigorous personal integrity is something Howe seems to have lacked, replaced by a willingness to blame everyone but himself for his failures.
Clearly, there was plenty of blame to go around for the failure of British efforts in North America and Lord George German, the American Secretary, must shoulder his share of it. But the picture that emerges of Howe is of a man whose successes came because he could hardly have lost and his failures because he could hardly tried less.
There is a telling episode in Smith's accounting, where Lord Germain puts together a list of questions about Howe's strategy (or lack thereof) during his three years in America, and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the answer lies in the questions themselves. Germain should never have appointed Howe (nor kept him so long) and Howe should never have lobbied for a task he had the least idea how to perform.
The key to Smith's account is the excellent use he makes of the draft copy of Howe's speech before Parliament when he returned from America. This draft reveals a great deal more of his thinking than the speech actually given, and Smith seems to hit the nail upon the head when he summarizes,
"It had been a long speech, and not nearly as entertaining as the House might have hoped. Howe had progressed at much the same rate he had in America, and in much the same manner as well, his route bypassing most of the serious issues, while making long and irrelevant detours."
William Howe seems to have been a competent, if not brilliant, tactician, but he was never a strategist of any note, and his failure in North America does not seem surprising in hindsight.
A book of history should be written because it has something new to say, and Smith has more than succeeded on that score. In the absence of Howe's personal papers, the draft of his speech is probably as close as we'll get to his thinking on the war he had just lost.
Smith's biography is an excellent and insightful addition to any library of books on the American Revolution and I read it with great pleasure. A highly recommended five stars.
General William Howe was the British Commander in the colonies from Lexington and Concord through the first two years of the war. He didn’t really lose the war during this time, but he didn’t really win it. As a result, he was not especially well thought of, and sought to clear his name in front of the British Parliament. This book is the story of his service in America, and his “trial” in front of the House of Commons.
=== The Good Stuff ===
* David Smith writes in an easy-to-read style, and avoids overly complicated sentences, long paragraphs and obscure vocabulary. The book was easy to read, and it made its point clearly. There was a minimum of direct quotations from 18th century journals, something that I always have trouble understanding very well. Even the direct quotes that are in the book seem selected for their ease of comprehension by modern readers.
* The author does his best to tell the tale from the point of view of the British generals in command. George Washington is a minor figure in the book as we concentrate on the actions and motivations of Howe, General Sir Henry Clinton, General John Burgoyne, General Cornwallis and a few lesser British Generals and Admirals. There is also enough of the correspondence between the military and political leadership (Lord Germain, Lord North) to give a feel for the conflicts and struggles between these groups.
* The book is written around Howe’s defense of his actions in front of Parliament. He was accused of being overly cautious, squandering his troops and resources, neglecting the official British strategy and of losing--- or at least not winning --- the war in two years. During this defense, we see General Howe throw his German allies under the bus, cast aspersions on other British Generals, and be abandoned by his supposed friends in the officer corps.
=== The Not-So-Good Stuff ===
* Howe either comes across as naïve, confused, and not too smart. It seems unlikely that such a person would rise to the level of theater commander in the British Army, so the reader must wonder if we just do not understand Howe’s position and motivations. He gives a less than convincing defense of his own actions and you can help but wonder if he has another agenda. Perhaps covering up for someone else, or avoiding conflict with his political masters for some future payoff, or maybe he just didn’t want to risk too many British subjects in what he felt was a “civil” war. Maybe he sees the writing on the wall, and wants to be relieved of his command before the final British defeat. David Smith abandons the readers to solve this for themselves.
* The needed material is likely lost to history, but a portrait of General Howe never really emerges. He is described as having a great temper, of being somewhat naïve in his understanding of tactics versus strategy, and we see his difficulty in dealing with talented subordinates. But the book comes up a bit short on what makes the man tick.
=== Summary ===
I enjoyed the book, and found it to be a refreshing look at the American Revolution from the other side of the battle. None of the British Generals seemed to consider Washington a master tactician, even if he did get lucky on occasion. They point out the many fundamental errors he made in the battles of Long Island, Brandywine, and others. However, as the author points out, they never quite caught on to the strategy of Washington-he could afford to lose almost every battle and still win the war, as long as he didn’t lose too badly.
Generals Giap and Westmorland would re-enact this same scenario 200 years later.
=== Disclaimer ===
I was able to read an advance copy through the courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley.
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