Tag Archives: research

Review: Sniping in the Great War (Pegler)

pegler

Sniping in the Great War.

A helpful little book filled with technical details on the guns, scopes, practices and personalities behind the performance of sniping among various Commonwealth and Regular troops of the BEF. The German side of the story is given generous, if not as thorough, treatment as are the British. An overview of the history of wartime rifle use in other times and places is included.

It’s well enough written, with few grammatical errors, but it’s obviously been padded with a great deal of repetitive, almost literary, verbiage, without which it would have been a much shorter book. There are detailed photographs of the arms, and pictures of proponents of the skill.

My big gripe with the book is that although published in hardcover with a fine, glossy dust jacket, the pages started falling out – and it was purchased new.

Otherwise, not a bad investment for those who want some in-depth, albeit brief, background on this aspect of trench warfare.

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Review: The Somme (Foley & McCartney)

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Book shown drawn out of brown slipcover.

The Somme: An Eyewitness History

Two innovative approaches make this book by far the most readable of the Great War histories that are based on participant testimony.

First, the chapters are organized topically instead of chronologically: the reader doesn’t have to struggle to keep a mental place on the timeline of the battle, or to keep connected the separated segments of each individual’s experiences while moving between many different first-person accounts. Second, the emphasis is given to the quotations rather than to summaries and interpretations by the historians, by reversing the usual format for font usage: the participants’ accounts are printed larger than are the editorial interpolations, making for a much smoother, easier reading experience.

Separate pages of glossy photos are scattered at restful intervals in the text. A single-page map at the beginning serves to orient the reader to the Western Front, while a separate larger map of the Somme battlefield resides in a plastic pocket inside the back cover. This second map suffers from “busy” syndrome, because it documents all the lines of advance for the whole campaign, and does so in solid, dashed, and dotted-dashed lines that are all in black, superimposed on the black line-drawn topographical features (German positions are shown in red).

The end matter includes definitions of military terms and acronyms; an appendix that explains Britich and German army composition; end notes; reading recommendations; a bibliography entitled “Acknowledgments;” and a reasonably thorough index. The sturdily bound hardcover book is housed in a heavy slipcase which fits so snugly that it can be difficult to return the book to its box.

This history is on the pricey side because of its elegant binding, but it earns its keep because of its accessible presentation of events. Highly recommended.

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Review: The Somme (Barton & Banning)

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The Somme.*

Most of the books I review on this blog I have read twice. I’m working my way through my third trip into this one, and it’s slow going.

Its approach is not out of the ordinary: quotations and commentary interspersed with photographs and maps; however, its composition on the page vastly complicates the job of reading it.

The book is printed in landscape format, the better to accommodate the multi-fold panoramic photos, the perusal of which entail lengthy digressions from the text. Moreover, the text is distributed across three columns that are distractingly broken up by numerous small illustrations, many of which are period monochrome photos that are too dark to provide helpful detail in contact-sheet size; but many of these are popular or iconic images, so researchers likely will have access to much larger copies in other books.

The other interrupting illustrations are excerpts from period campaign maps, and in the main are too small to be enlightening. Large sections of the maps are also provided, but while they have the advantage of color-coding, which is lacking in the line-drawn reproductions found in most books, the original maps still suffer from the same confusing clutter that curse most such diagrams. The accompanying panoramic photo spreads may have been meant to help ameliorate this difficulty, but a reader looking at a photo still lacks the three-dimensional immediacy that would have made the maps meaningful to soldiers at the front. In other words, “You had to be there.”

Diagrams of trench construction features provide helpful insight into the complexity of static warfare. Many period panoramas are accompanied by color photography of the modern landscape, which alleviate some of the monochrome monotony of a work of this magnitude. Quotations from battle participants are typeset in italics, which simplifies their identification, but can become difficult to read in long passages.

The sections and chapters in the table of contents are creatively entitled in theatrical terms as acts and scenes. The appendices include a timeline and a hierarchy chart to explain army structure; further reading is suggested; sources and pictures are credited in separate sections. The index, spread over five pages of five columns each, does its job. The book’s format and weight make almost imperative the use of a table or large lap desk for comfortable reading.

This book is clearly meant for the serious researcher. It may make a good gift for an armchair general who has the leisure to delve deeply, but not for anyone who wants only a quick battlefield stroll.

* The cover of my copy bears the subtitle, The Unseen Panoramas, and neither that nor the pictured subtitle appears on the title page.

 

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