Book Reviews: Pen & Sword July 2015

Tank Battles of World War 1 ’ by Bryan Cooper

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

It is fair to say that the failure to exploit the military potential of the tank greatly extended both the length of World War One, and the death and suffering of the men on both sides.

Look at the battles of the Somme, Passchendael and Ypres for proof.

An experienced writer, Bryan Copper vividly tells the tales of the early tank battles, bringing to life these metal behemoths, the likes of which had never before being seen on land. The tank crews faced not just enemy fire but terrible and dangerous conditions inside their tanks: poisonous exhaust fumes, showers of lethal shrapnel, and the constant threat of being burnt to death.

As is usually the case with Pen & Sword, the book is well illustrated with diagrams and photographs. In fact, I’d make the case that there is great potential for Pen & Sword to produce a fine book of photographs of the tanks of World War One.

So, a well-written, well-researched, and engaging account of a significant aspect of the history of World War One.

Images of War: 1918 The German Offensives: Rare Photographs From The Wartime Archives’ by John Sheen

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

By 1917 the Russian Revolution had effectively taken Russia out of the Great War. With the Americans now on the Allies side, massing men and materiel to join the fight, the Kaiser and his generals knew that it was now or never if they were to knock the Allies out of the war. The Russian Revolution had freed up many thousands of seasoned troops, and for the first time since the war began, Germany would be able to concentrate on the Western Front with the Eastern Front no longer siphoning off men and resources.

Interestingly, the German High Command had been shocked at the effectiveness of the British tanks at Cambrai, so not having many tanks themselves, they came up with a novel solution. Special units were formed to recover disabled British tanks, badly damaged ones would be used to cannibalise for parts to repair lightly damaged ones.

Pictures very often speak louder than words, and the ‘Images of War’ series of books is a fine idea. It is like watching a well made documentary unfold before your eyes. The photographs and their reproduction is superb, moreover John Sheen’s text is just right, giving you the context of the photographs, but never swamping them with too many words. You realise looking at this book, just how close Germany came on more than one occasion to winning the Great War. The courage of its soldiers can be in no doubt as one looks at these striking images.

One of the striking things about this book is that we are used to static images of trench warfare, yet here, as the German offensives took place, all is movement and action. It really changes your view of the Great War.

For me, the most outstanding chapter is Chapter 7: Tanks, but the whole book is a superb piece of work, highly recommended, and I’d certainly like to see Pen & Sword do more books in their ‘Images of War’ series, as they are really leading the way here.

Battle of the Bulge’ Edited by Peter Tsouras

Published by Greenhill Books

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Peter Tsouras has proven himself the leader in the field of editing books on alternative military history, exploring how slight changes in decision and circumstance can radically alter the outcome of events, which not only stimulates the study of history, but also makes the readers think. The future is uncertain, and it could go a great many different ways.

All the stories are excellent, if I had to pick one I’d say it has to be Peter G. Tsouras’s own ‘Ardennes Disaster’, which really shows what can be done with this format.

The fact that all the writers are military historians of great note leads the reader to learn as much about what did happen, as what could happen.


Tanks On Somme: From Morval To Beaumont Hamer’ by Trevor Pidgeon

Forward by David Fletcher of The Tank Museum

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

In 1916, at the Battle of the Somme, tanks were first used in battle, and warfare would never be the same again.

Expert Trevor Pidgeon has written on this subject before, but he here he covers the later tank operations during the Battle of Some.

Sadly, Trevor Pidgeon died before he could complete this book but his friend Graham Keech has finished ‘Tanks On The Somme’ for him. He must be complimented on the fine and respectful job he has done on completing it.

It would be hard to found a better telling of the dangers faced by a tank crew than this book. Tanks were dangerous to their crews and very much untried in the field, so the Somme was very much their baptism of fire.

As is usually the case with Pen & Sword, photos, maps, illustrations ect are first class. To sum up, for anyone with an interest in tanks, the Great War, and indeed, history in general, this is a fine and useful read, especially with its impeccable research.

War of the White Death: Finland Against The Soviet Union 1939-40’ by Bair Irincheev

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

On the 30th of November 1939, the Soviet Red Army under orders from Stalin launched what they thought would be a devastating attack on Finland. The Finnish army was massively outnumbered and ill-equipped.

But, in one of history’s most astonishing feats, the Finnish Army checked the Red Army’s advance, giving them many casualties, and destroying some of the divisions attacking them.

By March 1940, the Red Army prevailed but only by massive use of numbers and force. Finland was forced into giving territory to Russia but the moral victory was theirs. They displayed great courage and organisation in the face of the reckless disorganised nature of their enemy. (Stalin’s insane purges of the army in the years leading up to the invasion of Finland contributed greatly to this).

This would come to have a great influence on the Red Army, a trial by fire.

Bair Irincheev’s research is extremely good, bringing together war diaries, eyewitness stories, battle reports from both Russian and Finnish archives to give a superior reconstruction of this war which is in no way as well known as it should be.

He also delves into the reasons for the Red Army’s poor performance.

His ability to invoke the reality of winter combat is unprecedented. The weather was as much an enemy to both sides as they were to each other.

Hearing the words of the men who actually fought in the war gives this book a great authenticity.

I don’t understand why there isn’t a higher profile for this subject. This book would make a great basis for a documentary series. No higher compliment can I pay it!

Tank Action in the Great War: B Battalion’s Experiences 1917’ by Ian Verrinder

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

This engaging book tells the tale of Harry Moon and eight other members of the Royal Sussex Regiment who volunteered for B Battalion, Heavy Branch, Machine Gun Corps in January 1917 (which became the Tank Corps) to serve in the Mark IV tank.

This book gives thorough insights into the experiences of Harry Moon and his companions, including action at Messines, Cambrai, and the attack on Fontaine-Notre-Dame.

Ian Verrinder’s research is very good and he has a genuine empathy for his subject.

I must compliment Pen & Sword on the excellent selection of photographs, and again, I’d say Pen & Sword doing an entire ‘Images of War’ book on tanks in World War 1 would be a fine idea, and popular with the readers.

Cold War Hot: Alternate Decisions of the Cold War’ Edited by Peter G. Tsouras

Published by Greenhill Books

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Post World War 2, the uneasy partnership between East and West quickly dissolved into animosity, but in the case of countries like Vietnam, Korea, and Afghanistan, it spilled into a war by proxy. At any time, any of those conflicted could have ignited the Third World War, which by dint of it almost certainly involving nuclear weapons would be worse by far that the two terrible World Wars that preceded it.

Peter G. Tsouras and the team of talented writers he has assembled for ‘Cold War Hot’ are experts in military history. It is this expertise which allows them to explore alternative outcomes from real historical events. They give alternative outcomes to such real events as the Korean War and Vietnam War.

The Quebec separatist scenario is particularly interesting, is Chapter 6’ Soviet Invasion of Communist China.

An intriguing and thought-provoking book.

Chinese Hordes and Human Waves: A Personal Perspective of the Korean War 1950-1953’ By Brian Parritt

Published by Pen & Sword Military.

Reviewed by Steve Earles

In a word already gripped by the Cold War in 1950, the Communist North Korean attack on South Korea came as a deadly shock. After initial setbacks, the U.N intervention pushed the North Koreans back, then the Chinese intervened in great numbers, and the West considered using nuclear weapons.

It is truly chilling to see how close the world came to World War 3.

Parritt actually fought in the Korean War as a young gunnery officer at the infamous Battle of the Hook, where the UN soldiers held back massive Communist attacks. Add to this first hand experience, his qualification as a Chinese interpreter and latter a senior military intelligence officer, enabling Parritt to produce a unique and engaging memoir.

This is and important book, one that sheds further light on a war that is nowhere near as well known as it should be.

Bully Beef & Biscuits: Food In The Great War’ by John Hartley

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

It is famously said that an army marches on its stomach, but there was precious little marching for the trench-locked troops of World War One.

However, despite the danger and misery of their conditions, at least they were fed regularly. Think about it, three meals a day for millions of men.

John Hartley’s book is well-researched, well-written, humorous and engaging. In it he tells the story of what the soldiers ate, how it got there, and most importantly, what those who had to eat it actually thought of it.

Food parcels were a much hoped for treat, and eating under fire was an extraordinary experience. Hartley also covers the conditions at home: rationing, and how women were taking the place of men.

The book is beautifully presented and bound, with some very witty captions for the photographs.

So, a book not just for those interested in military history, but for food lovers too, a book that deserves a wide audience, and one that will make you grateful for the sheer abundance of quality food available to us in the 21st century.

Swords and Cinema: Hollywood VS The Reality of Ancient Warfare’ by Jeremiah B. McCall’

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

The sieges, wars, battles and conflicts of the past have long being a source of great inspiration to filmmakers with such film as Spartacus and The Vikings and many more.

Recently, there has been a revival in the genre, think of Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’ and Kingdom of Heaven’, ‘The Eagle’, ‘Alexander’, ‘Troy’, Neil Marshall’s excellent ‘Centurion’, the Spartacus TV series, the ‘Rome’ miniseries. The list goes on, and the well is far from dry!

Jeremiah has produced a well-researched book, with the great original notion of comparing Hollywood with History! I won’t spoil any of the book by going into his conclusions, but it is a must have for both history and/or film buffs.

I have a constructive suggestion: While there are some excellent photographs illustrating the historical side of the book, there are no stills from the films discussed, not even on the cover. This is a shame as if the book had used such photos it would greatly have enhanced its appeal and sales, perhaps for future editions such photos might be used.

But overall, a unique and superb book that I highly recommend.