British navy men exercise with artillery shells
I’ve been interested in military history from about the time i started reading. With the recent commemoration marking the centenary since the start of the First World War, I though I’d include a round up of some of the military themed books I’ve read recently.
Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War – Max Hastings – Despite its magnitude and importance, much of the average person’s knowledge of the events surrounding The Great War remains shrouded in a fog of misconception, ignorance and growing indifference. With the centenary of those fateful opening shots just recently passed. attention is once again pivoting towards those cataclysmic events which shaped the modern era.
Hastings examination of the events is limited in scope to the first 5 months from the War’s outbreak. His goal is to present the reasons behind the four year conflagration focusing on the principle battles of those early months, the emerging technologies that forever changed tactics and strategy, and the total incompetence of military leaders incapable of adapting to the new demands of warfare. Hastings persuasively challenges many of the more popular myths and misconceptions concerning the war’s causes and its legitimacy. Taking not just a strategist’s telescopic view of the battlefield, Hastings is also skilled at interspersing accounts with the stories and pathos of the common soldier and non combatant.
His journalistic style interjected with his own personal, qualified opinions make for an accessible and compelling analysis. I fully recommend you checkout this very important work. I’ll definitely be putting Hastings other books on my future “to read list”
Favourite Quotes – (on German discipline) – (Hungarian) soldiers were issued with tinned emergency rations…to the embarrassment of the Hussars officers, within an hour the barracks were littered with empty tins. “They were just like children!” wrote Vladamir Littauer in exasperation. He contrasted their behaviour with that of German stragglers whom they later captured, some of them starving. So disciplined were the Kaiser’s soldiers that, in the absence of orders, not a man had touched his emergency rations.
“The Second World War” – Antony Beevor – While previously focusing on particular battles as subjects for his other books, Beevor this time turns his attention along with a culmination of his life’s research to tackling the epic task of piecing the complicated jigsaw of people and events together into this definitive, chronological 2 volume narrative. He disputes prevailing myths, shreds the saintliness of leadership “heroes” and presents emerging discoveries that continue to shape our knowledge about the war. I guarantee that whatever your level of knowledge surrounding this conflict you will certainly pick up facts and stories you never knew before. I can’t recommend this enough.
Too many quotes to mention – but the anecdote about the young Korean soldier that bookends the beginning and end of both volumes was a fascinating allusion to the level of human disruption that occurred and in Beevor’s words, “And it underlined how the average individual had no control over their own fate.”
“In June 1944, a young soldier surrendered to American paratroopers in the Allied invasion of Normandy. At first his captors thought that he was Japanese, but he was in fact Korean. His name was Yang Kyoungjong. In 1938, at the age of eighteen, Yang had been forcibly conscripted by the Japanese into their Kwantung Army in Manchuria. A year later, he was captured by the Red Army after the Battle of Khalkhin Gol and sent to a labour camp. The Soviet military authorities, at a moment of crisis in 1942, drafted him along with thousands of other prisoners into their forces. Then, early in 1943 he was taken prisoner by the German army at the Battle of Kharkov in Ukraine. In 1944, now in German uniform, he was sent to France to serve with an Ostbataillon supposedly boosting the strength of the Atlantic Wall at the base of the Cotentin Peninsular inland from Utah Beach. After time in a prison camp in Britain, he went to the United States where he said nothing of his past. He settled there and finally died in Illinois in 1992.
“Kokoda” – Peter Fitzsimons – The 71st anniversary of the Kokoda campaign this year marks one of the most pivotal battles in Australia’s wartime history. Described as “Australia’s Thermopylae”, Fitzsimons weaves a fascinating narrative around the events surrounding how nail-bitingly close the Japanese came to invading our shores. After having their assess handed to them at Singapore, the British basically told the Australians not only to take a flying fuck in expecting any support in the defense of the mainland, but also diverted many of our own key divisions for British use elsewhere. Australia had little choice but to commit it’s inexperienced and woefully under-supplied 39th militia division, otherwise referred to as “chocos” because they were expected to melt under the first heat of battle. Although the US can be fully credited for saving our butts, MacArthur’s American divisions were too busy muff diving in Melbourne to lend any effective support and when they did commit, spent the entire time tripping over their dicks and making bumbling asses out of themselves. Definitely a different breed of Aussie back then; staunch and as hard as fucking nails – we can only be grateful for their sacrifice. Great read. 4.5/5
Tobruk – Peter Fitzsimons – My great-grandfather, a champion regimental boxer, served and died in the Tobruk campaign, so I was keen to read more about the “Desert-Rats” involvement in a battle largely unknown to most Australians. Until that point in the war, no other troops had defeated the German Blitzkrieg on first meeting it and the Australian garrison was expected to quickly capitulate. Fitzsimons retells the events in an interesting and at times overly jingoistic and parochial narrative that often treads the fine line of compromising factual integrity and historical objectivity. Fitzsimons is scathing in his criticism of the widespread cowardice and sheer ineptitude of the Italian forces who proved not only to be an utter embarrassment in every theater of war they participated, but were an added thorn in the side of their German allies. The heroism of the Australian forces in the Tobruk campaign however, cannot be denied. A good read that makes the events accessible to the layperson. 4.5/5
“What It’s Like To Go To War” – Karl Marlantes – Drawing heavily on a diverse range of cultural traditions, philosophy and psychology, Rhodes Scholar, Yale Graduate and Vietnam Vet, Marlantes examines the metaphysical experience that is warfare and its effect on the human psyche. Marlante’s recount of his own experiences act as both catharsis and treatise on how and why the minds of a nation’s warriors need better preparation for the often irreparable toll exacted by battle. 4/5
Favourite Quotes” – “War is society’s dirty work, usually done by kids cleaning up failures perpetrated by adults.”
“The least acknowledged aspect of war, at least these days, is how exhilarating it is. It makes people very uncomfortable. It is not only politically incorrect; it goes against the morality taught in our schools and churches.… There is a deep, savage joy in destruction, a joy beyond ego enhancement. Maybe it is loss of ego, I’m told it’s the same for religious ecstasy.”
“We mistakenly assume that bodily survival has a higher precedence than ego survival. This is simply not generally true. Ego will happily destroy the body for its own sake. Look at overweight executives headed for heart attacks on the way to getting their pictures in Fortune or anorexic models suffering slow starvation on their way to getting their pictures in Vogue. Protecting ego is the general case.”