Pen And Sword – August Roundup

 

In this roundup you’ll find the following, all reviewed by Steve Earles:

The Black Death: A Chronicle of the Plague’ by Johannes Nohl

The Buccaneer King: The Story of Captain Henry Morgan’ by Graham A. Thomas

1918: The Last Act’ by Barrie Pitt

The Great War Explained’ by Philip Stevens

Images of War: The Crimean War’ by John Grehan & Martin Mace

The Black Death: A Chronicle of the Plague’ by Johannes Nohl

Westholme Publishing

Reviewed by Steve Earles

This fine book was originally published in 1926, so it’s very welcome to see it in this accessible format. The New York Times aptly described it as “unusually interesting bothas history and sociological study.” That’s quite an appropriate comment. It isn’t a dry book but a very human one. It’s invaluable as a chronicle of the various plague epidemics that raged across Europe over the centuries. Its scope and detail is highly impressive. Nohl really knew his subject well and we can be thankful his words are still available today for modern readers.

With 270 pages spread over 12 chapters, The Black Death is just the right length to cover its subject in detail but not so lengthy that it overwhelms the reader with sheer volume of facts.

It is staggering to realise that the Black Death killed off a third of the population from 1348 onwards. Nohl’s research is superb and he really humanises the victims of the Black Death, elevating them from dusty manuscripts and books to become people again.

The impact of the Black Death was massive on those who survived, previous standards of behaviour were discarded and law and order broke down. And yet, some survivors found their lives suddenly had value and they were able to improve their lot, much to the horror of landowners who had used them as virtual slaves. Every cloud…

It’s particularly interesting to read that people felt the plague was a kind of divine retribution. It is every human nature to try and ascribe reasons to events they cannot understand. Comets were seen as stars of ill-omen, harbingers of doom. The plague also lead to sects such as the flagellants: see Terry Gilliam’s excellent film Jabberwocky for a wicked spoof on these lunatics.

I’ve read other books on the plague such as Benedict Gumer’s excellently titled The Scourging Angel (well worth reading but focused solely on England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales), but this has to one of the best, the author’s research, depth of understanding and sheer ability to tell the story are unprecedented in his field.

The cover of the book is excellent, using The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel, which was used as the cover for Black Sabbath’s Greatest Hits. There are also some amazing interior illustrations such as Dance of Death by Michael Rentz and woodcuts by Holbein the Younger. It’s worth getting the book for the artwork alone

It’s a powerful and thought-proving book, the reader will wonder if they could survive a plague-wracked world. It’s worth noting that while this book deals with the past, another epidemic could break out at any moment. We live in a world with a vastly larger population that the world of the Black Death, connected by rapid air, road and train transport- if a plague or pandemic comes again, it’s likely to be even worse that the events described in this essential and thought-provoking book.

www.westholmepublishing.com

The Buccaneer King: The Story of Captain Henry Morgan’ by Graham A. Thomas

Published by Pen & Sword Maritime

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Henry Morgan was one of the most brutal buccaneers of the Golden Age of Piracy, but unlike many of the pirates of this period, Morgan was considered a hero in England.

Morgan really started to make a name for himself in the wake of the 1660 Restoration of Charles II to the throne of England. By this time Morgan was a privateer, that is to say a licensed pirate, in his case, licensed by the English Crown to prey on England’s enemies such as, at various time, the Spanish and the Dutch.

Morgan’s forces took Providence from the Spanish and turned it into a town run by pirates, though this state of anarchic affairs didn’t last long as the Spanish soon retook the town.

Morgan knew one of the secrets in life is that to be successful you have to look successful, so he always dressed well. This, and positive word of mouth helped him to recruit the best available pirates for his raiding expeditions.

Morgan also attacked Puerto Principe, Portobello, Cartegena de Indias, and Maracaibo.

Morgan went too far with his attack on Panama, which was something of a disaster for the Welshman. The Spanish managed to move much of the city’s wealth to safety (a pity they didn’t place a higher priority on protecting or moving the population). Morgan’s men tortured the inhabitants in the hope of discovering treasure they might have hidden but found little. As the icing on a cake of atrocity, Panama was burnt and had to be rebuilt in a different location where it still stands today.

Because this attack was a violation of the 1670 peace treaty between Spain and England, Morgan was arrested and returned to England. However, the canny survivor Morgan was able to prove he knew nothing of the treaty. By 1674 relations between Spain and England had so deteriorated that Morgan was knighted and went to Jamaica to take up the post of Lieutenant-Governor in 1675. By 1681, Morgan had fallen out with King Charles II and was replaced in his post. Morgan started to drink heavily, his weight ballooned and his health deteriorated. He died in 1688 and was buried in Palisadoes cemetery, which, since it sank beneath the waves in a 1692 earthquake, meant that Morgan indirectly received a burial at sea.

Morgan has, however, achieved something of an immortality through his appearance in film’s ranging from 1935’s Captain Blood to 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curseof the Black Pearl (albeit a brief mention).

This is a fine, well-presented book to discover the truth behind the myths of Henry Morgan

1918: The Last Act’ by Barrie Pitt

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

By 1918, the First World War had raged for over three years with terrible losses on all sides and little progress made. But by 1918, two very different factors had entered the equation. Firstly, Russia had collapsed in revolution, anarchy and a bloody civil war, one still far too little known in the West, particularly when you consider its outcome helped reshape the 20th century. Secondly the entry of the United States of America into the war gave the German army a greater urgency to bring the conflict to a conclusion. The Russian collapse freed up a great number of German troops from the Easter Front and they were thrown into the maelstrom of the trenches in the hope of achieving victory.

Thus, on 21st March 1918, the Kaiser’s Battle began in the hope of forcing a resolution before overwhelming US armed might was brought to bear.

Originally published in 1962, Pen and Sword have done a great service by bringing it back into print, the author did a fine job on piecing together the events of 1918 into a well-researched and accessible book (complete with some good maps and photographs). His writing is extremely fair and he pulls no punches in his contempt for the leaders and contrasts them with the squalor and suffering of the men in the trenches.

Sometimes there is a tendency for scholars of the Great War to concentrate on well known aspects of the conflict like the Somme to the neglect of others. For instance, look at the paucity of literature on the Easter Front (or indeed on the Russian Civil War, surely a conflict, the outcome of which had a huge bearing on the history of the 20th century deserves to have a little more written about it). So, ‘1918: The Last Act’ opens the readers eyes to elements of the conflict that deserve more exposure.

Interestingly, this book was compared to Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August when it was first published.

One of things revealed in ‘1918: The Last Act’ was the huge gulf that existed between the higher and lower ranks in the Great War. This doesn’t surprise me, as I researched and wrote about it for my story Bitter Harvest in the World War One Anthology To End All Wars (published by Soaring Penguin Press). My story tells the tale of how, at the end of their stand at Etruex in 1914 the captured Allied prisoners were allowed to bury their dead. The Allied officers were buried in one area, the ordinary ranks in another. So, even in death, the British class system operated and all men were not treated as equal, though they had fought and died together.

Pitt sums up this attitude well when he quotes an unnamed British military leader at the war’s conclusion saying: “Thank heavens the war is over…Now we can get back to somereal soldiering.’ Even in 1940, this ignorant public school attitude still existed where officers were picked because of their rank in society, the school they (and their father) went to, their connection and their wealth, but not necessarily for intelligence and ability.

Pitt’s horror at the loss of life on all sides is right and proper, couple that with his meticulous research and I can say that if you only read one book on the last year of the Great War, make it this fine tome.

The Great War Explained’ by Philip Stevens

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

The Great War is very much in the public eye at the moment with its centenary. Philip Stevens’ book is ideal for understanding many key aspects of the conflict that shaped the 20th century.

Stevens’ book is very accessible and the perfect book for anyone exploring the history of the Great War for the first time. The author was a soldier and is an expert on the Western Front and it really shows.

It’s a great undertaking to try to explain the Great War in a single book, and the fact the book is a manageable length will go a long way towards drawing readers to it. It does a grand job of living up to its title and for that alone, it should be commended. The writer has done a fine job and on the strength of this book I would certainly read more of his work. The binding and presentation is up to Pen & Sword’s usual high standards.

To sum up, a useful concise, well-written guide to the Great War.

Images of War: The Crimean War’ by John Grehan & Martin Mace

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

One of the failings with some books of military history is their lack of photographs- this is something Pen & Sword really rectify with their excellent Images of War series.

The Crimean War was a war between the Russian Empire and an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire and amazingly, Sardinia!

In some respects the Crimean War was the first modern war, using telegraphs and railways.

Both sides made some horrendous errors (such as The Charge of the Light Brigade) and the loss of life was appalling. This led to the work of Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale, which was the genesis of modern nursing practices. It was also the war that led to the establishment of the Victoria Cross. It was one of the first wars to be photographed, many of which can be seen in this unique book.

There is a very poignant photograph of an Irish soldier, Private Clemence Brophy, discharged following the loss of his arm fighting at Sevastopol. Sadly, his courage was almost certainly rewarded with a shortened and miserable life.

The well-written text tells us the officers were well-fed and spared the appalling conditions their men had to endure- it appears they brought their class system with them.

It’s unfortunate that there are no pictures of the Russians, perhaps there weren’t any available. Whatever the reason, their absence has to be regretted. But overall this is a very dramatic and useful book.

www.pen-and-sword.co.uk