Sunday, 16 November 2014

Two book reviews

Back in July I won a prize from Millsy and Evan's giveaway on their Canister and Grape blog. The prize was a copy of War at sea in the ironclad age and I promised that I would do a review of the book. Well, it is only a couple of months since I finished reading it, so I guess a review is possibly ever so slightly overdue.
Yes, this is exactly the same image I used last time.

This book is part of Cassell's History of Warfare series, of which I already own two other volumes - The Renaissance at War and Warfare in the Eighteenth Century. This is a great series written by some very good historians (Jeremy Black writes the 18th Century volume and it delivers a broad narrative of the period without being Eurocentric), and Ironclad Age is no different. For such a small period of time that the era covers, Richard Hill has written a comprehensive and easily digestible tome here.
One thing upon reading through is that the title of the book is misleading. This is not just a book about war at sea, but the impact that the ironclad age had on military operational strategy. This was the era of 'send a gunboat', and the book reflects this admirably.
The chapters start with the technical background, and this is written in a way that landlubbers like myself have no problem understanding. The technological changes of the nineteenth century had a decisive effect on the way that wars were waged, and it is important to summarise just how revolutionary those changes were.
Next up is navies and their people. This short chapter looks into the personnel who were in charge of the fleets throughout the nineteenth century, and the fashion of a naval career.
Following this is theories of sea-power. This follows the key naval thinking of the era, from British strategy as espoused by John and Philip Colomb - 'the frontier of our empire is the enemies coastline'- to the French jeune ecole , to Alfred Mahan. Tirpitz is considered, and his influence on Wilhelm II. It continues naturally to look at the different approaches of either seeking a decisive battle or of imposing blockades and raiding tactics. Finally it looks at tactical theory and the manoeuvre drills that all went so horribly wrong with the Camperdown in 1893.
The fourth chapter focuses on the American Civil War. To be honest this was a chapter that I thought I would gloss over. It isn't a war that overly interests me and I felt that having read about Hampton Downs once before, I had enough information for my little brain to hold onto. However, I found the chapter really interesting, from the coastal actions and blockades to the Mississippi River campaign it tied up the naval element of the war very succinctly. I guess what I found from this chapter was that I now know more about the American Civil War's naval dimension - probably all that I really need to considering it isn't an area of intense interest for me.
Chapter five is navies and imperial expansion, and this is where this book really comes into its own. Not only do we have naval actions covered, but also the influence of naval personnel and guns on colonial campaigns. One does not normally expect to see a map of the battle of the Modder River in a book with the title 'war at sea' - but it is here along wit hthe siege of Ladysmith because of the involvement of the naval guns in these battles. The Taku forts, gunboats on the Nile in the Sudan, the French in Taiwan, are all covered. There is even mention of the naval brigade and river gunboats in the New Zealand Wars!
Chapter six is the one we have all been waiting for - Fleet Action. Except that there aren't many. Lissa in 1866 is covered and it is interesting to see what an influence commanders can have in pitched naval battles. Von Teggethoff, the Austrian commander was aggressive and dynamic compared to his Italian opposite di Persano, and the result reflects this despite the inferiority of the Austrian fleet. Angamos Point where the Chileans and Peruvians faced off in the War of the Pacific is covered. It is a relatively minor skirmish really, but the results were decisive in terms of Chilean control of the sea and their eventual victory in this war. The same can be said of the battle of Santiago Bay between the US and Spain.
Finally we come to the masters of fleet action in the Ironclad age - the Japanese. The Sino-Japanese War and the battle of the Yalu is covered in depth, as is the Russo-Japanese War with the Battle of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima. The book ends with Tsushima, commenting that the same month HMS Dreadnought was laid down and the Ironclad age was effectively over.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Naval warfare is not my forte, but I do love the nineteenth century and War at sea in the ironclad age had me looking around various sites at the possibility of building some ironclad forces to complement a land based project. The Russo-Japanese War, War of the Pacific and Austro-Italian War 1866 are all contenders. Especially given my latest acquisition...
The Battle of Tsushima, just for some inspiration.

I'm a fan of Neil Thomas's wargaming books. His rules are simple, but well thought out. I've used them for ancient games and for Napoleonic games very successfully, although I always tweak them a little, usually with morale and skirmishers. So it was with eager anticipation that I bought a copy of his Wargaming Nineteenth Century Europe 1815-1878.

I bought the Kindle version from Amazon, as the bookshelves are really a bit overloaded at the moment. It is a pity, because there are none of the colour photos (which usually have nothing to do with the rules but always make nice eye-candy) in the Kindle version. What there is is one of the best wargames books I have bought in a long time. 
Neil starts off the book with a survey of the evolution of warfare in the nineteenth century. He then goes on to explain the thinking behind his rules. He consistently harps on about the importance of simple rules that do not detract from the game, and I can imagine that this might annoy some people, but as I agree whole-heartedly with him, I'm not too bothered. What he does do is boil down some key observations of the warfare of the period into some effective and simple rules. Some people might be a bit taken aback by things such as infantry lines that cannot move or units may either move or fire but not combine both, but Neil argues cogently the theory behind these mechanisms.
The rules themselves are simple but effective. The only thing that I don't like about them is the morale rules as I like my units to stagger and then rout when they get into trouble. I find the expedient of removing a base for a failed morale test to be a little too simplistic. I also like to have generals with the ability to rally troops. The other thing I want to take into consideration is the effect of losses on a unit's morale. As a result I have put together a table that gradually decreases morale with every lost element so that the odds of a unit routing when it has only 1 element left are increased. I also like the idea of skirmishers who can form up as close order troops and of being able to add figures to a picquet line from line battalions. As such, my skirmishers are based 2 to a 1/2 base, and one element of the each infantry formation is also based the same way in order for them to join a picquet line if so required by the scenario. I have to emphasise that the picquet rule is a special one which I apply only to certain armies like the British in the Crimea. Neil accounts for skirmishers operating around their parent units in his rules, and I accept his rationale.
Where this book surpasses his previous works is in the scenario sections. There are five general well thought out scenarios that will all give an enjoyable game in any rules system. Then there are the army lists followed by specific scenarios based on historical battles. Unlike previous books there is no attempt to stick to 8 units a side - forces contain anywhere from 13 - 18 different units. I realised that I don't have enough figures to wargame the Alma scenario - is that a sign that more buying must happen? 
The army lists contain special rules - for instance the British can advance in line; the Russians must use column etc. There are also optional command mechanisms to reflect the increased difficulties of battlefield control in this period. All in all, this book is very well thought out.
I bought this book mostly for my Crimean War project, but what I have found is inspiration to delve into other periods. I've always had a soft-spot for the Franco-Prussian War, but at the moment it is the 1866 Seven Weeks War that is really calling to me. I'm not sure if it is the Bohemian theatre or the Italian theatre I find more interesting - maybe I could do both! The other possibility is The War of the Pacific. Outpost Wargames do a nice 15mm range for this little known conflict at very reasonable prices.
So here I sit, enthused about the prospects of wargaming nineteenth century (and early Twentieth Century) battles thanks to both of these books. Both are highly recommended.



  1. Two terrific reviews, Nate! I am partial to Thomas' Wargaming 19th Century Europe, myself. Really a fantastic book. Looking forward to seeing more of your new 19C project.

    1. Thanks Jonathan. I get the feeling that this is really one of Neil's 'pet periods' and that his previous books were covering the bases until he could get to the one that he really enjoyed. Not that there is anything wrong with his previous books, just that this one seems to have had more love lavished on it.

    2. You could be very well correct about Thomas' preferences. I am drawn more and more into the mid-19C conflicts too so I understand completely.

  2. Excellent reviews. Two periods that I find quite intriguing but know little about. I may have to track down one or other of these books when I'm ready for something different :-)

    1. I think I'm getting hooked. I've been reading the Custoza articles from Practical Wargamer over again...

  3. Great reviews Nate! Interesting books!

    1. Like I need another period, but that is the danger of reading something different!

  4. So glad to see that your prize has provided some inspiration for further gaming - that was an unexpected bonus.
    : )

    I look forward to more of your book reviews as well; they make for good reading!

    1. Thanks Evan, for the positive comment and for the prize. But with so many 19th century conflicts, just which one will I choose?

  5. Nate, the mid-19th Century is my main area of interest. I have large collections of the Austro-Prussian War, including the Italian army. If you need any information on those armies I have lots on hand and I am happy to provide - it might take a few days to pull it all together.

    1. Thanks for the offer Mark. It is a period I've always had an interest in, especially the Franco-Prussian War. But I'm going to remain resolute and concentrate on getting a couple of projects finished in 2015. 2016 on the other hand... I'll be in touch.