Book reviews: World War I – history, military, politics

Irishmen In The Great War: Reports From The Front 1915

by Tom Burnell

Published by Pen & Sword Military

For many years, for a variety of reason, the subject of Ireland’s involvement in the Great War was a taboo subject in Ireland. Tom Burnell is an expert on this subject, a former soldier and Research Curator at St. Mary’s Famine and War Museum, County Tipperary, he is the ideal man for this book that he has painstakingly compiled.

It truly gives you an impression of what the public thought at the time and what the public were told, and indeed is an important book, not just for those with an interest in the subject of the Irish in the Great War but anyone with an interest in the Great War itself, for Irish involvement is an important part of the overall picture.

Caught In The Revolution: Petrograd 1917

by Helen Rappaport

Published by Hutchinson

In the coming year there will be many books published about the Russian Revolutions of 1917. I have no doubt that many of them will be worthy but they will have to be very good to equal Helen Rappaport’s ‘Caught In The Revolution: Petrograd 1917’.

And make no mistake, this is an important book, the Russian Revolutions of 1917 helped to shape the post-World War One 20th Century world, and indeed, its influence can be felt strongly today. It was both a world-maker and a world-breaker.

That Helen’s research is superb is no surprise, nevertheless, as someone well-read in the history of Russia of this period I was constantly surprised by what she has unearthed. Plus, she has a novelist’s talent for telling her tales, providing multiple viewpoints, observations and anecdotes on one of history’s turning points. If ever a book deserved a documentary series of its own, it is this one.

Helen’s genius inspiration is to tell the story of the Russian Revolutions of 1917 from the point of view of the many foreign nationals resident in Petrograd (Its name was changed from what he considered to be the German-sounding St. Petersburg during The Great War, now known by its correct name once again).

I was astounded to read of the great English suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst who had journeyed to Petrograd to inspect the astonishingly titled Women’s Death Battalion (a creation of Kerensky in the hope of improving the shattered morale of the war-ravaged and disintegrating Russian Army) led by a certain Maria Bochkareva (who would later re-emerge in Russia during the savage Russian Civil War).

We hear from the British military attaché Major-General Sir Alfred Knox (Who would also play a part in the Russian Civil War as a major supporter of the ill-fated Admiral Kolchak), who witnessed the chaos of the Revolution first-hand. Make no mistake Petrograd in 1917 was a dangerous madhouse: ‘All over the city, police stations and the homes of police and judges were attacked and sacked.’ (It was an easy tasks for rioters to locate the homes of judges and the like, all prominent people had their names and addresses in the phone book)….’During the February Revolution there were far too many incidental acts of murder of policemen for an reliable record ever to have been taken of the numbers killed.’

Overall, a superb and vital contribution to literature on the Russian Revolutions of 1917, I’d like to see Helen tackle the Russian Civil War next.

The Great War Illustrated 1916: Archive and Colour Photographs of WWI

by William Langford and Jack Holroyd

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Every picture truly does tell a story, the impact of this finely complied book of photographs is very high. Previous volumes have been superb and this one is exception. 1916 was the year of even more brutal fighting that 1915 and 1914.

With such an eventful and tragic year to cover, the book is practically split into five chapters. The first concerns the British defeat at Kut, in Mesopotamia by the Ottoman Empire. Not the most well known aspect of the Great War, the book is worth purchasing for these photographs alone, which cover both the British and Turkish perspectives. Not the British Army’s finest hour. The next chapter concerns technological advances, including the future game-changer, the tank. Of course the Battle of Verdun is a huge part of 1916 and is covered in great detail, you can only gasp at the pointless waste of human life on both sides, and the photographs have a huge emotional impact. The Battle of Jutland is next, being the only full-scale naval battle of the Great War, again, the book is worth purchasing on the strength of this alone. Finally, of course, the book concludes with the carnage of the Somme…and the impact of this in pictures is truly powerful.

With over 1,300 restored photographs, and a thirty-two page full colour section (and this is amazing, we are so used to seeing only black-and-white images of the Great War), this book truly is a tremendous achievement. The text is just right, putting the photographs in proper context, without overwhelming them with words.

Food for thought here, this beautifully designed, printed and presented book (a credit to Pen & Sword, even by their own high standards) will stand the test of time. A hundred years from now it will still be as accessible and important, how many of today’s trendy gadgets can you say that about.

Deborah and the War of the Tanks 1917

by John A. Taylor

Published by Pen & Sword Military

When no less a personage than Dan Snow calls your book a ‘great achievement’, you know you’ve written something special.

‘Deborah’ is the name of a Great War tank literally risen from the grave following her excavation more than eighty years after the Great War ended.

Truly a remarkable event. Deborah played an important part in the Battle of Cambrai, the battle that changed the face of warfare forever, and now is a moment to that battle. Deborah was the second tank to bear that name, the first taking part in the Battle of Passcehndaele.

This a very human story, as much about the tank crews as the tanks themselves. It is as much a book of archaeology as it is of military history, and one told in a most engaging style, indeed this book would make the basis for a great documentary.

An engaging book and one that would appeal to a wide audience.

Betrayed Ally: China in the Great War

by Frances Wood and Christopher Arnander

Published by Pen & Sword Military 

Pen & Sword are publishing some very valuable books in this period of the centenary of the Great War, and this book on China’s role in that war is especially valuable.

Following the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, President Yuan Shikai took power. In August 1914, he offered Britain 50,000 soldiers to recover the German colony in Shandong. The offer was turned down.

In 1916 China supplied a huge amount of labour to the Allied war effort, making a huge, if largely unknown today, contribution.

Finally in 1917, China declared war on Germany.

However, China was betrayed by the Allies following the Great War’s end when the Japanese, who had made virtually no contribution to the Allied war effort, were awarded the former German colony in Shandong, thus giving the green light to further rapacious Japanese expansion in Asia.

Furthermore, this emboldened the Japanese to treat the Chinese in any fashion they saw fit, culminating in much misery and suffering, including the disgraceful war crime of the Rape of Nanking.

Well-researched, well-illustrated, and very accessible, this is an important story that deserves to be known, and indeed, would make the basis for a very good documentary.

British Armoured Car Operations in World War One

by Bryan Perrett

Published by Pen & Sword Military

It is indeed good to see a new book from the great Bryan Perrett in print. Bryan is co-author (with Anthony Lord) of ‘The Czar’s British Squadron’, a book that Pen & Sword should truly consider reprinting.

The research in this book is meticulous, covering such events as the adventures of Dunsterforce (you truly couldn’t make this up! An amazing tale!), the exploits of the marvellously named Locker Lampson, and the aforementioned Czar’s British squadron of armoured cars.

While the research is first class, the book is also written in an exciting, engaging style and truly would appeal to a wide audience.

The design and illustrations are particularly good, all in all, an excellent read.

Steve Earles is author and co-author of numerous projects, including To End All Wars: The WWI Graphic Anthology, available summer 2014 (