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Review: The German Offensives of 1918 (Passingham)

The German Offensives of 1918: The Last Desperate Gamble.

This is the second book by Passingham that I’ve read, and in it he persists with his sometimes puzzling use of vocabulary which makes the reader do a double-take and re-read the sentence, wondering if what was written was what the author really meant to say. He also adopts a breezy, slangy style that casts the pall of “pop history” over the topic, obscuring what would have been better presented as a serious analytical work.

It’s a slim volume that seems to have been generously padded to increase its length: The chapter titles are printed in an enormous font size, although it’s not a “large print” book. The author frequently interrupts the narrative with lengthy, large bold-print subtitles (often labeling only one paragraph of text), which are also listed in the table of contents, where they do little good because they tend to be “catchy” rather than helpfully descriptive. And how often do we really need to have a commander identified by his full title, full name (including additional birth names), plus his nickname, when the experiences of the forces under his command again become the topic of discussion? Some of those names take up most of a whole line of text. Occasional use of “gray space” also extends the length of the book, in boxes of text that purport to highlight technical or biographical information that break up page flow in the manner often seen in academic textbooks of much larger size.

The line maps are no better than most I’ve seen in all my reading. The relatively few end notes refer back to inline citations that, for the most part, are irrelevant enough to make the reader wonder why the author bothered to interrupt the text with them. The numerous appendices consist mostly of order-of-battle listings, with a table of German ranks and a redundant essay about German tactics and weapons thrown in for good measure. There’s a lengthy bibliography, but the index is superficial and inadequate.

The dramatic front cover photo of German troops in action and the high quality hard cover binding make an excellent presentation on the shelf, but what’s found within doesn’t match; indeed, the text points up the hyperbole in the back-cover description.

The book’s only redeeming feature is its nicely reproduced glossy center section of photos and other illustrations, although they’re not all unique. The photos of German children in uniform (dead as well as alive) may be disconcerting to some readers (discretion is advised for homeschool use).

I can’t say that I won’t refer to it again while doing research for my novel-in-progress, but there are better history books out there that cover the last year of the Great War.


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Review: The First World War (Strachan)


The First World War. 

This single-volume history of the Great War is apparently the companion volume to a television documentary series. It’s well written, especially the section “The Tools of Victory” in the final chapter. I enjoyed the author’s voice and writing style; in particular, how he showed his sense of humor, and his occasional use of very short sentences to grab the reader’s attention when introducing a new paragraph, or when making a point.

Nicely executed line maps of the theaters of war preface the text. The book is heavily illustrated with black-and-white photographs, and although many of them are of a small size and dark enough to frustrate a reader interested in seeing details, they are almost all unique, making a valuable archive for the researcher. An excellent feature is the central glossy section of rare, genuine color photographs from the period (not colorized), which had been produced using the potato starch technology discussed in this article in the online Smithsonian Magazine. There is no bibliography, but the end notes are well documented, and there is an adequate index.

Unfortunately, I cannot give Strachan’s The First World War an unqualified recommendation, because of the following issues:

The first is the presentation of the book. This edition is a sturdily bound hardcover that should be able to stand a lot of use as a reference work; however, the dust jacket leaves much to be desired. In addition to its being an amateurish composition, the photo chosen for the cover falls somewhere on a spectrum that runs from poor taste to outright insensitivity, because it seems to portray a French soldier in action, at the moment of his wounding or death. After all my years of research, poring over hundreds of battlefield photographs in order to get a feeling for the times and places and events, I feel inured to gruesome sights of the shell-shocked, wounded and dead (sometimes long-dead), but the placement of this picture smacks of a discomforting disrespect for its subject.

My second and third gripes will be familiar to my regular readers: the issue of War Guilt, including the Kaiser’s role; and the character of Douglas Haig. The author of this history is one of those who take the stand that none of the belligerents was really “responsible” for the war; he scoffs at the idea of Germany’s having distinct imperialistic aims for a war of conquest from the beginning (he does not even mention Fritz Fischer’s comprehensive research in this area); and the little he says about Kaiser Wilhelm II is a bit too soft a treatment for my taste. Haig is also handled with kid gloves, with very little said about his true beliefs (which are revealed in the man’s own diaries), as well as a startling assertion of his “loyalty” to his subordinates, when details documented elsewhere provide contradictory evidence.

Finally, the author’s statement, “Given that the United States was itself a community made up predominantly of immigrants, Wilson’s presumption against multi-ethnic empires was arrogant and naive,” exhibits an utter misunderstanding of the role of the immigrant in the United States of America. Immigrants voluntarily came to the USA to leave behind the oppressive conditions they lived under in the “old country,” in which most of them were subjects of monarchs, not citizens of nations. Their goals included becoming United States citizens with fundamental rights that were not abridged because of their ethnicity. This is in distinction from multi-ethnic empires whose laws generally favored a dominant ethnic group, which resulted in universally discriminatory political and socioeconomic classes.

There is no doubt that during the early 20th Century there was widespread stereotyping of ethnic groups that often became overt prejudice, but as time passed, assimilated immigrants and their descendants began to move out of the segregated ethnic zones they had originally inhabited (such as “Little Italy,” Chinatown, Polish neighborhoods, and “company towns” built for French coal miners), and into the general population. Only two ethnic groups still encountered widespread difficulty with assimilation in the 20th Century, partly due to the persistence of their segregated settlements, and partly due to mismanagement of their legal status during the 19th Century: indigenous Americans (who had been displaced to reservations by immigrant settlers), and blacks (many of whom were descendants of slaves who had been imported early in United States history, and whose legislated rights were abrogated by former Confederates reacting to conditions imposed on them during post-Civil War reconstruction). Otherwise, ethnicity in the USA assumed a different role, as naturalized immigrants and their descendants identified themselves as Americans of a particular descent, as manifested by their surnames and the cultural traditions they chose to retain (typically religious, food, or festival-related, not political).

I can speak from experience on this subject, because my ancestors came to the United States at the very end of the 19th Century and during the first few years of the 20th. My grandfathers were immigrants, and my grandmothers were first-generation Americans born to my immigrant great-grandparents. I knew several of my immigrant ancestors, who refused to reminisce fondly about life in the Old Country (which tended to be nasty, cold, brutish and short), adamantly maintaining that that was the past, and they were Americans, now.

Enough said. Read Strachan’s The First World War for its factual information value, and to enjoy a style of telling history that’s not as stuffy as many history books end up being written.



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Review: Fall of Giants (Follett)

Fall of Giants.

This is the second time I’ve read a book by Follett, and it’s a second dismal disappointment. There will not be a third. Here’s why:

The book is a thinly fictionalized history book about the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 – and a revisionist history, at that. The characters seem to have been inserted in order to substitute for a historian-narrator, by spouting historical information to one another in unconvincing dialogue.

It wasn’t until page 876 of 985 pages (88.9% of the way through) that I finally encountered two sentences that resonated with me:

The sound of Breton bagpipes was everywhere.  Gus could have done without the bagpipes.

I laughed out loud at that set of statements, because the only kind of bagpipes I can endure are Irish uilleann pipes. And yet, I felt sorry for the author, because this was one of many missed opportunities to more fully develop one of the book’s characters. Here is how I used a reference to bagpipes to help develop a character in my first novel, Irish Firebrands:

The upstairs room was crowded, but when Frank gave his name to the head waiter they were guided directly to a table by a small window crowded with a window box of colourful flowers. After Lana was seated, several musicians entered from another door and took seats on a bench at the side of the room. One bore a guitar, another a flute, the third a fiddle and the last carried a collection of tubes and straps, a stomach-shaped bag and an apparatus that suggested a fireplace bellows.

“What on Earth is that?”

Uilleann pipes,” Frank said. “They’re bagpipes, but instead of blowing, the piper pumps that bellows with his elbow. ‘Uilleann’ means ‘elbow’.”

“Bagpipes! Uh-oh, I don’t know about this.”

“Why, what’s wrong with bagpipes?”

“They have the same effect on me as harpsichord music.”

“That being?” He raised his eyebrows.

Lana leant towards Frank and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. “They arouse in me an overwhelming desire….”

He leant towards her in turn, fascination written on his face. “A desire?”

“To commit axe murders!”

He gaped at her, and then he winced. “Ouch!” Struggling to suppress his laughter, he drummed the tabletop with his fingertips to express his merriment.

Irish Firebrands © 2012 Christine Plouvier. All Rights Reserved.

All of the characters in Fall of Giants badly want development. None of them stand out as main characters with whom a reader can identify or empathize; in fact, there are far too many characters for the reader to even care about what happens to them. It’s as if the author had ideas for several different early 20th Century stories, but he couldn’t be bothered to thoroughly develop any of the plots, so he lumped all of them together, with only superficial connections between them.

Moreover, the author spends far too much verbiage on the graphic details of the characters’ sex lives, to an extent that would have been considered pornographic a couple of generations ago. Sexuality is a natural part of human behavior, but unless one is writing a textbook about it, it’s better to leave much of the process to the imagination of the reader.

This is the first volume of a saga; nevertheless, I have no intention to follow up with Follett.


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