Archive for the ‘history’ Category

A groundbreaking history of the first, horrific day of one of the most notorious, bloody offensives of all time, from its inept planning to its disastrous execution.

It took several million bullets and roughly half an hour to destroy General Sir Douglas Haig’s grand plans for the first day of the Somme, 1 July 1916. By day’s end 19,240 British soldiers were dead, crumpled khaki bundles scattered across pasture studded with the scarlet of poppies and smouldering shell holes. A further 38,230 were wounded. This single sunny day remains Britain’s worst-ever military disaster, both numerically and statistically more deadly than the infamous charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava in 1854. Responsible were hundreds of German machineguns and artillery batteries waiting silently to deal death to the long-anticipated attack. Someone had blundered.

Working back from the “butcher’s bill” of mass casualties on the battlefield, to the inept planning in London’s Whitehall, the author penetrates the “fog of war” to explain how and why this was a human disaster waiting to happen. Told fully from both the British and German perspectives for the first time, this book sheets home blame for the butchery (a total of almost 60 thousand casualties) directly to widespread British intelligence and command failure. It further finds the outcome was very definitely a German victory over a so-called British defeat, and, again for the first time, identifies how talented German commanders mostly outclassed their opposite numbers and inflicted the galling bloodletting. Taking that terrible first day of battle as his focus, Andrew Macdonald casts new and damning light on the true causes of the disaster.

First Day of the Somme: The complete account of Britain’s worst-ever military disaster

Andrew MacDonald

HarperCollins

Supplied by HarperCollins New Zealand

Reviewed by Steve

The Battle of the Somme during WWI got off to a poor start for the British army, resulting in their worst one day military losses ever. Naturally, this has attracted many authors and historians, New Zealand historian being the latest. His book benefits from examination of not only British but also German archival documents.

The Somme Offensive needs to be placed in context of the overall military and diplomatic situation of the war. MacDonald does this, as well as examining the geography and weather leading up to and on the day. Both were important. Equally important was the intelligence the Germans had gathered observing British preparations and interpreting the behaviour of the forces opposite them. If General Haig had wanted a surprise attack, events beyond his control prevented it.

MacDonald examines the first day of the battle from both British and German perspectives, with diary entries adding colour. The Germans, for their part, after suffering several days of bombardment, were itching for revenge. Surviving the bombardment depended on the quality of the German commander.

As a general rule, the day’s events are mapped out from north to south, although one British Corps is seemingly discussed out of order. The book would have been stronger to have this corps lead. Completion of objectives set by Haig improved the further south one went. This was due to a number of factors, not least German strategic appreciations. MacDonald also comments on and compares French performance during the battle with that of the British.

Military disasters are not usually due to one cause, and MacDonald goes to great lengths to prove this. He also examines the broader length of the Battle of the Somme, demonstrating that what started as tragedy ended as an Entente victory. For those interested in WWI, this is a worthwhile book and I thoroughly recommend it.

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This landmark work answers two fundamental questions – how, and why, did the Holocaust happen?

Laurence Rees has spent twenty-five years meeting and interviewing survivors and perpetrators of the Holocaust. Now he combines this largely unpublished testimony with the latest academic research to create the first accessible and authoritative account of the Holocaust in over three decades.

Through a chronological, intensely readable narrative, featuring the latest historical research and compelling eyewitness testimony, this is the story of the worst crime in history.

The Holocaust

Laurence Rees

Viking

Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Steve

Lawrence Rees asks two important questions: how, and why, did the Holocaust happen? By this, he does not limit himself to the treatment of the Jews, but all those subjected to the destructive genetic practices of the Nazis. Anti-Semitism, racial hygiene and a hierarchy of races were ideas that had been floating about since before World War One. The Nazis, under Hitler’s direction, took this to the (il)logical extreme: not only were they to be excluded from the Nazi society, they were to be removed from society and by death if necessary.

Rees plots the development of the Holocaust in 18 chapters, over 430 pages plus prologue, epilogue and endnotes. He follows a chronological sequence, examining the development of the various strands of the Holocaust as the Nazi party and then the Nazi state adopted and then promulgated its racial agenda. Rees also follows the two main strands of the Holocaust’s implementation: exclusion, and elimination, from society.

These two actions, exclusion and elimination, slowly developed in the Nazi state, even though they had been heavily foreshadowed in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Rees explores why this was, and why certain eugenics programmes were pushed harder than others. He also explores the reaction to these programmes, both in the Third Reich, its conquered and allied territories and the wider world. And why some of these programmes continued even in the face of Nazi Germany’s imminent defeat

Lawrence Rees is a respected historian with a considerable corpus of work, much of it devoted to WW2 studies. This is another fine volume from him: well written, well researched and well presented on a subject that fascinates as much as it horrifies. Buy it. Read it.

I thank Penguin Random House New Zealand for the review copy and apologise for the lateness of this review.

Hitler is determined to start a war.

Chamberlain is desperate to preserve the peace.

The issue is to be decided in a city that will forever afterwards be notorious for what takes place there.

Munich.

As Chamberlain’s plane judders over the Channel and the Führer’s train steams relentlessly south from Berlin, two young men travel with secrets of their own.

Hugh Legat is one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries; Paul Hartmann a German diplomat and member of the anti-Hitler resistance. Great friends at Oxford before Hitler came to power, they haven’t seen one another since they were last in Munich six years earlier. Now, as the future of Europe hangs in the balance, their paths are destined to cross again.

When the stakes are this high, who are you willing to betray? Your friends, your family, your country or your conscience?

Hutchinson

Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Simon

Munich, Robert Harris’s latest offering, is a political thriller set during the ongoing political foment of late 1930s Europe. The story is told from two points of view: one is Hugh Legat, a Foreign Office staff member attached to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s office; and the other is Paul Hartmann his counterpart and former friend in the German Foreign Office in Berlin. Paul is also a member of the anti-Nazi German opposition – resistance being too strong a word.

The latest crisis is Hitler’s proposed invasion of Czechoslovakia due to settle the Sudetenland transfer once and for all. That invasion is opposed by the British, French and Czechoslovak governments, and also by large parts of the German regime because the German army, and the German populace in general, is unprepared for war.

Munich the novel centres round the four day period covering the diplomatic negotiations, and attendant espionage efforts of the German opposition, held in Munich that prevented the outbreak of war in 1938.

I found the novel to be an easy and enjoyable read as it re-emphasised the personal nature of Anglo-German relations and the horror of another major European war held by most political leaders of the time.

 

irector Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick examine the dark side of American history, from the beginning of the twentieth century right up to the Obama administration. They ask whether America’s involvement in countries around the globe really reflects its much-vaunted democratic ideals, or self-interested action for poliitcal and economic gain. The Untold History is a meticulously researched and shocking picture of the American Empire, and its influence on the century’s defining events.

Ebury Press

Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Steve

Every country has a myth that its citizens usually subscribe to. In the United States’ case this is that they are the champions of liberal democracy and democratic freedoms. In this political history, Stone and Kuznick offer a view at odds with this myth by examining the behaviour of several administrations during key events of the twentieth and twenty first century. It is safe to say that the myth does not survive unscathed.

Oliver Stone is well known as a movie director, and is known for his views on the American involvement and conduct in the Vietnam War. Peter Kuznick is a history professor at American University, Washington D.C. with a speciality in Nuclear Studies, often taking a position critical of the American myth. They also assert that the United States is an imperial power, de facto if not de jure.

After the introduction, which lays bare their thesis, the book delves into Wilson’s presidency which they see as being a starting point of US imperialism. It then follows Roosevelt and The New Deal, Truman and successive presidents to Obama. Stone and Kuznick examine the degree various presidents were at the sway of their advisors and whether they had their own agenda regarding foreign and domestic policy. They also point out that US politics is frequently dominated by powerful lobby groups, whose ends and means are often in conflict with the American myth.

This book does a good job of presenting its case; that the American myth is just that and the United States administrations frequently pays lip service to these core ideals. It also explains why North Korea is dogmatically opposed to caving to US pressure. It is a welcome antidote to the Whiggish interpretation of US history that is often paraded before us.

Read this book. Alternatively watch the TV series it engendered.

 

Sharon Murdoch, 2016 Canon Cartoonist of the Year, is a bold new voice in New Zealand cartooning. As the regular cartoonist for the Sunday Star Times and the Press, she provokes and delights readers with her witty and often hilarious observations, and her hard-hitting and insightful social and political analysis.

In Murdoch, Melinda Johnston’s commentary sets the cartoons within their historical context, while her introduction locates the work within New Zealand’s cartooning history. Featuring over 150 full-page cartoons, which highlight the breadth and depth of Sharon Murdoch’s work, this book will entertain and educate any reader with an interest in New Zealand’s contemporary social and political history.

Potton & Burton

Supplied by Potton & Burton

Reviewed by Steve

As a working cartoonist, Sharon Murdoch has been around for over 20 years. As a political cartoonist, the timespan is considerably shorter. And as an editorial political cartoonist… Melinda Johnston provides the text that puts the selected cartoons in context – when a topic is hot, cartoons need no explanation, but several years later, even key players may need to be re-identified.

The book covers the range of Murdoch’s career: Munro the Cat from the crossword page of the Dominion Post, cartoons for the Xhosa Community and Child Development Centre when she worked in South Africa, commentary cartoons, and political cartoons. Her style is distinctive and more caricature than, say, Tom Scott or Neville Lodge who preceded her at the Evening Post.

What sets Murdoch apart from most other New Zealand cartoonists is both she is a woman and is of Maori, Ngai Tahu, descent. This gives her a different perception of events. Frequently, Murdoch will draw a strip cartoon, instead of a single frame, which allows a narrative instead of a one line. Again, this is a departure from the norm for political cartooning.

A book of cartoons is naturally going to be a quicker read than a series of essays. Johnston’s text is not intrusive and the selection of cartoons is good. I enjoyed the book immensely and recommend it to anyone.

Three thousand years ago a war took place that gave birth to legends – to Achilles, the greatest of the Greeks, and Hector, prince of Troy. It was a war that shook the very foundations of the world. But what if there was more to this epic conflict? What if there was another, hidden tale of the Trojan War?

Now is the time for the women of Troy to tell their story.

Thrillingly imagined and startlingly original, For the Most Beautiful reveals the true story of true for the first time. The story of Krisayis, daughter of the Trojans’ High Priest, and of Briseis, princess of Pedasus, who fight to determine the fate of a city and its people in this ancient time of mischievous gods and mythic heroes.

Doubleday

Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Jacqui

This is apparently an attempt to write the events of the Iliad from the point of view of the female characters… to re-write an ancient story of war as romance. The problem with this is that Homer doesn’t give you a lot of female characters to work with. So the author decides to choose Krisayis (Chryseis) as her central character. The problem with this is that Chryseis has a tiny role in the Iliad with no connection to Troilus, and her story wasn’t developed into the romance of “Troilus and Cressida” until medieval writers got hold of it. So, we’re already several steps away from Homer.

And that was only part of what irritated me… Maybe it’s just that I’m not into love stories. Or maybe it was that the attitudes of the characters seemed strikingly modern. Or simply that I read too many of Mary Renault’s excellent historical novels when I was young, which set the bar too high. But I failed to get past the first few chapters of this work, before casting it aside in annoyance. I suspect others like it better, but for me it was definitely opportunity lost.

 

When of hundreds of Japanese captives arrive at Featherston POW camp, the tiny town is divided. Tensions run high and then, on 25 February 1943, disaster strikes. Three boys are there at the moment the storm breaks – and terrible, unforgettable events unfold before their eyes.

enemy-camp

Puffin

Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Jan

It’s 1942, and the tiny farming town of Featherston has a prisoner-of-war camp that can house hundreds of Japanese soldiers in it. Ewen, whose dad is a guard there, can’t stop wondering about the enemy just down the road. Some say the captives are evil and cruel and should be treated harshly – or shot. But when Ewen and his friends ride out to the camp to peep through the barbed wire, the POWs just seem like . . . well, people.

Written as a journal Ewen keeps, this tells the events of the NZ POW camp through the eyes of a typical kiwi kid. Ewen and his best friend Barry ride out to the camp to see what the Japanese are like.   They take along Barry’s little brother Clarry in a carrier attached to one of their bikes, as he had polio and his legs are weak.

The boys are given Japanese lessons from an English speaking Japanese officer called Ito. From him they learn that for the Japanese in the camp “for us to be prisoner is to be dead person”.

They realise people aren’t all good or bad and everyone is a fellow human being, regardless of race or religion.  An important message to learn, especially in this turbulent time.

I was really interested in this story as my Poppa was one of the guards – I found out after he died as he was ashamed of the Featherston massacre.

Aimed at 9-14 yr olds, this is an addictive read for all ages.  David Hill has written another enjoyable, fascinating book based on true events in NZ’s history.