Sunday, 21 December 2014

Books read in 2014

I haven't been reading as much this past year. I'm tempted to say the reason is that now I'm retired I'm  too busy (which is true) but it's really because I no longer have the dead time of two-and-a-half hours on a train every day.
Twelve-and-a-half hours every week is a lot of reading time and I do sort of miss it. I now spend the time between 6pm and 7.15 watching Pointless and Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two, which is diverting but isn't really improving my mind (not that the canon of work by George R R Martin did much for my mind).
Anyway, my list of books read in the past year is much shorter than it was in 2013. Here it is:
It has been interesting (as a local) following the story of Flag Fen. It started years ago when I was working for the Peterborough Standard. They found the wooden remains of a causeway going out into the fen between Peterborough and Northey Island, where Whittlesey now stands. Then they found  what looked like a village on an island of logs, with masses of well-preserved timber.
The story has moved on - it's now almost certainly some kind of ceremonial structure linked to a religion or form of worship we no longer know. There are only a couple like it in the world and speculation is that worship was moving away from stone/wood circles and towards water as a sacred medium.
The book tells you everything that's known about Flag Fen, also quite a bit about the pre-history of Peterborough and Fengate. It's academic, but also very readable.
I read a little about the Ottomans last year - the struggle between Spain and the Ottomans for control of the Mediterranean and also the fall of Constantinople. I followed up with Osman's Dream, a full history of the Ottoman Empire.
The Enemy at the Gate tells the story of the Turks' siege of Vienna in 1683 and it's quite a story. For the Turks to send an army as far as Vienna and then lay siege to the city (and be within a whisker of taking it) was an amazing feat.
Equally amazing was the spirited defence of the city, led by Count Rudiger von Starhemberg and its relief thanks to Charles, Duke of Lorraine, and the Polish King John III (Sobieski). Had the Ottomans (led by Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa in the name of Mehmed IV) succeeded, then the Hapsburg empire may have fallen with its emperor, Leopold I. Indeed Leopold I may have been Leopold the last!
George of Hanover (later George I of England) brought 600 cavalry and fought in the relief force as Europe's warring kings and princes finally showed some unity, bankrolled by Pope Innocent XI.
If Kara Mustafa had taken Vienna, it wouldn't have meant Europe turning Islamic, but it would have extended Turkey's influence. It may have prevented the First World War, or it may just have substituted one player for another. Imagine a German-Ottoman alliance against Russia and France ...
As it was, after a bitter battle, the Turks were routed and Prince Eugene of Savoy, who had fought in Charles' bodyguard became the commander who drove the Turks out of Budapest, Belgrade and the Balkans over the next couple of decades. The Ottoman empire never really recovered.
Wheatcroft has an easy narrative style without simplifying his facts or analysis. It's very readable.
The film Zulu has made this conflict more famous and more glamorous that it really deserves. It wasn't the British Empire’s finest hour; it was (I suspect) fairly typical of what happens when opportunists and chancers get to be in charge of a country and see a way of feathering their own nests.
Bartle Frere, the governor of the region, wanted to expand his territory into Zululand and he was supported by Lord Chelmsford, a man desperate to make his name. The Zulus were a pretty warlike bunch, but happy enough to sit behind their border (most of the time).
A war was started by Frere by making demands that the Zulus couldn't meet and despite a British commission supporting their border claims, Frere and Chelmsford invaded Zululand with three columns.
Chelmsford was not a competent leader or general. His plan was simple, he thought if he marched troops into Zulu territory, the Zulus would join them in battle and be mown down by rifle and Gatling gun. The flaw in his plan was that the Zulus, inconsiderately, decided not to line up and be shot.
Instead they used hit-and-run tactics, made best used of the terrain and Chelmsford ended up with one column massacred and another besieged in a forward base. A furious British government now had to send more troops to win a war they hadn't wanted to be fought in the first place.
The end was inevitable, the Zulus were eventually mown down; Frere was sacked and Chelmsford's reputation in tatters. No-one came out of it well, least of all the Zulus. The author does a good job of pricking the bubble of glamour that has surrounded the war thanks to the excellent, but historically flawed film Zulu. The injustices are laid bare, both sides' tactics analysed and personal bravery (and cowardice) highlighted. Chelmsford's complete incompetence is thoroughly exposed.
Max lent me the book (he'd found it in a second-hand bookshop) and I left it with Lucy's uncle in Ecuador. He runs a British language library in Quito and this sorry tale of colonialism should sit well in a land that's suffered similar ills at the hands of the Spanish.
Loos 1915 by Nick Lloyd
I had discovered that my grandfather, Richard Little, had fought at the first battle of Loos in 1915 and I wanted to read a little more about it.
A former colleague and fellow pension fund trustee, John Spencer, is something of an authority on the First World War and has a small business leading battlefield tours. He recommended Nick Lloyd's book as the best account of the battle.
Loos, like many battles during this war, shouldn't have been fought at that time or place. It was a hopelessly optimistic objective in a wider plan to support a French attack further down the line. Just as the Somme offensive sought to relieve massive French losses at Verdun, Loos was intended to draw German resources away from another part of the front to allow the French to break through.
Reading it made me quite angry. Here was incompetence on an incomprehensible scale. The book might have been titled 'How Haig Almost Killed my Grandfather'.
The British command failed to learn from earlier battles that year which tactics worked best and which didn't, so they employed those that didn't; they used poison gas for the first time and were so determined that it would work and it should be used, they persisted even when the wind was blowing in the wrong direction.
Worst was that there was conflict between two British commanders - French and Haig. Haig commanded the battle, but French wouldn't give him control of the reserves, so they were positioned too far behind the lines to effectively reinforce the front or quickly occupy territory taken in the first wave of attacks.
The reserves often had no maps, they didn't have a clue where they were, they arrived late, artillery support was inadequate ... the list goes on.
My grandfather was in the 10th battalion York & Lancaster Regiment, raised in south Yorkshire during 1914. He was among the first of Kitchener’s new recruits and he and his comrades were about to get a bitter awakening. They were in the reserve, but managed to reach their objective and relieve the first wave of troops by midnight after the first day of the battle. They were expected to launch a fresh assault on the German second line on day two.
The battle was a complete shambles. Logistics broke down completely, everyone was late, no-one knew where they were and battlefield intelligence was completely missing. Nick Lloyd's account of what happened to the 10th York & Lancaster Regiment is at odds with the war diaries of the battalion. He says orders were misinterpreted and they moved into an exposed position, German artillery spotted them and shelled the hell out of them.

The war diary (and I've read it in detail) has them in position and attacking their objective. They take ground, but are under murderous fire from a number of machine gun positions, which they cannot locate. They fight off a counter-attack and then try again to take their objective, but suffer the same fate. They lost around 350 men out of a total strength of less than 800 and were relieved later in the day.

Casualties at Loos were higher per capita than the Somme. The area immediately in front of my grandfather's position was called Corpse Field, which gives some idea of the situation.

Such losses are incredible and highlight the thoughtless slaughter allowed by high command. A battalion is thrown into the battle, loses almost half its strength and is withdrawn in less than 24 hours, to be replaced by another hapless set of cannon fodder.
My grandfather was one of the lucky ones, a survivor (although he may have been injured). I hope to visit Loos in 2015 – the 100th anniversary of the battle – to see where he fought. I'll be referring to Nick Lloyd again, but I'll have to buy a paper copy of the book - I read it on Kindle and maps just don't render well enough to allow me to reference places properly.
The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer
If Loos in 1915 sounds pretty grim, it was a walk in the park compared to the Russian front in the Second World War.
The Forgotten Soldier is a war diary by Guy Sajer, a Frenchman with a German mother, who volunteered to fight in the German army.
Posted to the Russian front, it’s a tale of unremitting misery, you wonder how anyone could survive (and of course, many didn’t). Most of the time Sajer had no idea what was going on or why; he just followed orders and did his best.
His account illustrates graphically the confusion of war, he didn't have the big picture, just his small part. It’s not easy reading, but it is compelling.
Cold by Ranulph Fiennes
Max bought this book for me and it’s signed by Fiennes himself (he came to give a talk to the Dulwich College geography group).
An account of Fiennes’ travels and adventures, its main focus is the famous trans-globe expedition of the 1970s, when Fiennes became the first man to reach both poles by land and circumnavigate the globe by sea and land.
It’s a pretty amazing story and a pretty amazing life, but it’s also a lot more than a simple account of his difficult journeys. Fiennes looks at the history of exploration, the men who first visited and opened up these areas; also the people who lived there and how they survived. He's a surprisingly good writer (for an explorer/adventurer). Cold is a cruel extreme, this is a book to read beside a nice warm fire or tucked up in a comfy bed.