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Battleground: The Greatest Tank Duels in History, ed. Steven J. Zaloga (Osprey Publishing 2011)

A big, solid book about a big, solid weapon: the tank. But tanks are mobile too. Their contradictions are part of what’s so fascinating about them. On the one hand, they’re terrifyingly powerful. They can crash through houses, wreak havoc with a single shot and grind human beings to bloody pulp. On the other hand, they’re horrifyingly vulnerable. The same armour that protects the crew can trap them:

On the defensive side, the T-72’s armor was vulnerable to the Abrams 120mm gun and its unshielded ammunition meant that penetrations usually led to catastrophic fires which incinerated the tank, often too quickly for the crew to escape. These spectacular explosions were profoundly demoralizing to the crews of neighboring tanks, who sometimes abandoned their own vehicles after witnessing such frightening conflagrations. (“M1 Abrams vs T-72: Desert Storm 1991”, “Analysis”, pg. 355)

That’s from the final section of the book, which covers the confrontation between American and Iraqi tanks in the Gulf War of 1991. Before that, the expert contributors discuss “T-34 vs Panther: Ukraine 1943”, “Tiger vs Sherman Firefly: Normandy 1944”, “M26 Pershing vs T-34-85: Korea 1950” and “Centurion vs T-55: Golan Heights 1973”. This is a work of serious military history and there’s a lot of technical, technological and tactical detail. But tanks aren’t just interesting: they’re exciting too and this book is also about the “mortal danger and adrenaline rush of combat” (pg. 119), whether that’s explicit or not.

And the first two sections are about the dark glamour of Nazism. Aesthetics and associations always mattered to Hitler’s death-cult, which is why exotic Panthers were fighting utilitarian T-34s in Ukraine and menacing Tigers were fighting feeble-sounding Fireflies in Normandy. German weapons and uniforms looked good too, as you can see in the short biography devoted to the “Tiger tank ace” Michael Wittmann:

… Wittmann served in the bitter defensive stands the Germans enacted in and around Caen during July [1944]. Yet on August 8 – by which time the now SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Wittmann had claimed 139 combat kills – the Panzer ace met a warrior’s end during a desperate counterattack launched against numerically superior Allied forces. (pg. 133)

Tanks are the modern equivalent of cavalry and the glamour that went with the latter now goes with the former. Like cavalry, tanks can transform battles in a single sudden burst of speed and violence. But cavalrymen were often thought of as gallant but stupid, as Conan-Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard proves. Tankmen have to be clever and courageous. And cool under pressure. As technology advances, the minds of the men who use it have to adapt. Those who adapt best, fight best and survive best.

War has always been about technology and technological advance, whether it was iron weapons surpassing bronze weapons millennia ago or computer viruses wrecking centrifuges in the 21st century, but tanks were a particularly big innovation. They combine the killing power of artillery with the mobility of cavalry and the toughness of fortifications: what could Alexander, Julius Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus or Napoleon have done with them? As it was, they appeared in a war whose generals are generally regarded as buffoons, not geniuses. That was the First World War, which this book acknowledges but doesn’t discuss at length. Tanks weren’t a perfected weapon then, after all.

They still aren’t, but they had got a lot closer by 1939 and the Second World War, which was their first great chance to show what they could do – or rather, what they could be. And what could they be? The difference between victory and defeat in battle. They were the basis of the Wehrmacht’s initial success, then of the Allies’ fight-back and eventual triumph. After that came the Korean War, the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, and Desert Storm. All of these are covered here and all have their lessons for the military historian and their excitement for the tank-buff. The text enlightens and the graphics illustrate. You even get to look through the gunsights. If you like tanks, you should like this book.

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Dream Cars by Sam PhilipDream Cars: The Hot 100, Sam Philip (BBC Books 2014)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The UK would be much better off without the Three C’s: cars, canines and coos (i.e., pigeons*). I don’t like cars and I’m not interested in them. But I’m interested in why I’m not interested.

One reason is that I don’t find cars attractive. For me an attractive make of car is like an attractive breed of dog: it’s unusual. Ugliness is the rule with cars and dogs, not the exception. Planes are more like cats: ugliness is the exception, not the rule. But I can still find an ugly plane (like the A-10) interesting. And I like tanks, which are much more brutish than cars. However, tanks can be elegant too and they do something interesting: kill people and blow things up. And they have tracks, not large and obvious wheels like cars. The wheels on a car put me off. I think part of it is the way they contradict the chassis. A chassis points somewhere and looks purposeful. A wheel doesn’t, because it’s circular.

A-10 Thunderbolt

A-10 Thunderbolt


So this book did nowt for me. I don’t find cars attractive or interesting, I never have and I hope I never will. For me, the best thing in this book was linguistic, not locomotive: the two words “Lamborghini Murciélago”. They’re almost incantatory. But I have to admit that the car lives up to them: a “bewinged, four-wheel-drive beast capable of hauling from nought to 60mph in 3.2 seconds and running all the way to 212 mph” (pg. 139). I think “hauling” should be “howling”, though. That’s what beasts do, after all, and in their “promotional bumf, Lamborghini proudly boasts” that the car “emits a range of noises from ‘the trumpeting of mighty elephants to the roar of a raging lion’”.
Lamborghini Murciélago

Lamborghini Murciélago


But men make the beast. Italians, in this case. They’re one of four nations whose cars get sections to themselves: Great Britain, Germany, Italy, USA. Everyone else, from Sweden to Japan, is filed under “Rest of the World”. Like guns, cars demonstrate the importance of genetics for technology. Light-skinned races living at high latitudes are the only ones that matter, because they have the necessary intelligence. But the invention and innovation come from Europe. Within Europe, the art comes from Italy. I don’t feel it much myself, but I recognize that cars can be works of art. Lamborghini would make good use of Leonardo if he came back to life.

So I don’t agree with the claim that “when it comes to cars, Britannia still rules the waves” (pg. 7). But this book is aimed at fans of Top Gear and provocative opinioneering is part of TG’s USP. And it later notes that: “Top Gear has long maintained that you can’t be a true petrolhead until you own an Alfa [Romeo].” Being a petrolhead isn’t one of my ambitions, but that’s an interesting observation for a British programme to make. The presenters don’t write here, but there are constant references to “Clarkson” and his sidekicks Phil Hammond and James May. Sam Philip successfully mimics their slangy, ironic/hyperbolic, public-schoolboy style, presumably because he has the same background. And again I have to admit: though I hope I never see it again, Top Gear is an entertaining programme and I enjoy Jeremy Clarkson’s political incorrectness.

But he’s still a yob and an example of something I do find interesting about cars: their effect on human psychology. The late great Peter Simple prophesied Clarkson long ago when he invented J. Bonington Jagworth, who leads the militant Motorists’ Liberation Front and defends “the basic right of every motorist to drive as fast as he pleases, how he pleases and over what or whom he pleases”. Jagworth would have liked Dream Cars, although even he might have thought the cardboard 3-D glasses and blurry 3-D double-spreads were a bit undignified.

The 3-D photos didn’t work for me when I tried the glasses, so they went well with the glossy normal photos, which didn’t work for me either. Sleek shiny machines for driving fast in. Yawn. Give me planes any day. Or tanks. Or cats. But petrolheads will feel differently. As the introduction says: “If you love cars – and if you don’t, what are you doing here? – there’s never been a better time to be alive.” What was I doing here? Trying to understand better why I don’t love cars. I’ve succeeded.


*No, seriously.

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Trench by Stephen BullTrench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front, Stephen Bull (Osprey Publishing 2010)

This is a detailed history of trench warfare in World War One, from the early days of improvisation and error to the later sophistication of flame-throwers, phosgene and tanks. One thing that stayed constant was slaughter: the war involved hundreds of highly intelligent men devising ever better ways of mincing, mashing and maiming bodies and minds. Hundreds of thousands of men in the trenches then put those ideas into operation:

The infantry battalion soon included grenades of many types, new machine guns and snipers, catapults and light mortars. The Engineers adopted gas, flame and other examples of frightfulness. … For some this was the start of a new age, when, as Ernst Jünger put it, “the spirit of the machine” took possession of the battlefield and new leaders were born. (Conclusion, pg. 255)

But artillery was the biggest killer, responsible for “two-thirds of all deaths and injuries on the Western Front”, Stephen Bull concludes in chapter one, which examines “The Armies of 1914 and the Problem of Attack”. That problem arose from an important and overlooked point he makes in the introduction: “trenches were designed to, and did, save lives” (pg. 8). Wars are won more by ending lives, not saving them, so each side sought to overcome the protection offered by trenches to the other side. Gas was one solution; tunnelling to lay explosives was another. And the tank was, in a way, a mobile trench. It wasn’t decisive in this war, but it was indirectly responsible for one of the war’s most memorable photographs: New Zealand troops “holding a German ‘T-Gewehr’ anti-tank rifle” in a “captured German emplacement near Grévillers, 25 August 1918” (ch. 9, “The Tank”, pg. 215).

New Zealanders with T-Gewehr anti-tank rifle

New Zealanders with T-Gewehr anti-tank rifle


The grins and the gun are included here with many other photos and illustrations: churned mud, stagnant pools and tree-stumps (pg. 99); a “male Mark IV tank ‘Hyacinth’” stuck in a ditch (pg. 201); a “German NCO and his Soldatenkunst [trench-art]” on brass shell cases (pg. 88); laughing British troops wearing captured German helmets (pp. 146-7); a “louse hunt” conducted by “Württembergers of the 123rd Grenadier Regiment ‘König Karl’” (pg. 189); a “bullet-riddled steel loophole plate” (pg. 155); a canvas-and-steel “dummy tree” used for artillery observation (pg. 198); and gas-masks for horses and dogs and a “gas-proof pigeon box incorporating air filters” (pg. 137). Bull discusses the Western Front from all three perspectives – Anglophone, Francophone, Teutophone – and describes how the three groups both fought and thought in distinct ways:

Interestingly many pictures of German soldiers in the latrines exist, whilst British sensibilities make this subject something of a rarity. George Coppard of the Machine Gun Corps – no stranger to hardship or death – professed himself shocked by such exhibitions. (ch. 1, “Trenchtown”, pp. 76-7)

The three groups looked distinct too: the faces and expressions differ both between the big nations and within them. But one photo could be of any nationality and from almost any war of the past hundred years: “Snipers of the US 168th Infantry” wearing camouflage hoods and garments “in May 1918” (pg. 163). They look both anonymous and ominous and though the photo is black-and-white, it might have been taken in the Second World War or in Iraq or Afghanistan in the twenty-first century. What happened in the First World War carries on now and learning about any war tells you something about all wars. But trench-warfare will probably never return on this scale and if you want to understand what it was like, this is a good guide.

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Front cover of Shots from the Front by Richard HolmesShots from the Front: The British Soldier 1914-18, Richard Holmes (HarperPress 2008; paperback 2010)

This book is a well-judged mixture of interesting photographs and enlightening commentary. Richard Holmes is good at pointing out how scenes are staged and spotting when subjects are playing games: “it is clear from his mates’ expressions that the centre soldier, shovelling a huge spoonful of mashed potato into his mouth, is engaged in a wind-up” (pg. 26).

And those soldiers have “just come out of the line”, with the crumpled and mud-stained uniforms to prove it. There was a lot of mud and misery in the First World War, but there was fun too and even fraternization, like the football played between British and German troops on Christmas day in 1914. There are no photographs of that: cameras weren’t everywhere and the photographs wouldn’t have been officially approved anyway.* History is divided into B.C. and A.C. – Before Camera and After Camera – but that doesn’t mean history was always more accurate or truthful when cameras arrived. Sometimes the camera simply meant new ways to lie.

But back then there were things it couldn’t lie about. Some of the faces, expressions and postures in this book look like what they are: a century old. But some could be from much more recent wars. There’s actually a lot of genetic information here, because faces are a record of ancestry and race. So are machines, in another way. Military technology is the application of high intelligence to low extermination. It’s part of what Richard Dawkins calls the extended phenotype and it evolves much faster than the bodies it’s intended to destroy – or simply injure, because a wounded soldier can be more harmful to the enemy than a dead one. But for the most part armies haven’t innovated in their weaponry, merely refined what was being used a century ago: the guns, the grenades, the bombs and the first tanks, military aircraft and gas attacks.

Those last three made the First World War something new, separating it from everything that had gone before. Bullets are like arrows or slingshots and even artillery has ancient parallels: Roman siege-engines threw boulders and fired bolts, for example. But the tank made “its first appearance on the Somme in September 1916” on the British side. The German response was a huge anti-tank rifle, a captured specimen of which is being shown off by grinning New Zealanders on page 148. But the tank wasn’t a wonder-weapon: it was slow and liable to get trapped on bad ground. It was also difficult to communicate with and from: one of the photographs shows a carrier-pigeon being released through “an armoured port in a tank”. Holmes comments that this is a “perfect illustration of the way in which the war often combined ancient and modern” (pg. 91).

Another example is the photograph of a “highly successful mounted charge” in 1917 by the “4th Australian Light Horse Brigade” on page 155. That was in Mesopotamia and although the authenticity of the photograph is disputed, it’s certain that cavalry were used on that front. By then there was aerial combat over the fields of France in sophisticated aircraft. But this book is about soldiers, so the only aircraft shown is an “Australian kite balloon” being inflated on page 103. Aircraft are implicit elsewhere: there are three aerial photographs of “Faffémont farm, near Combles on the Somme”, taken from great height before and after bombardment. You can see trees and buildings in the first photo, taken in April 1916; rubble and matchwood in the second, taken in July; and a landscape of craters in the third, taken in September.

Other photos show the effects of such a bombardment from the ground: dead men and dead horses. But this isn’t a ghoulish book and there aren’t many corpses, partly because photographs of them were thought bad for civilian morale. So there are more photographs here of living men preparing to create corpses: fitting fuses, loading shells, sighting machine-guns, digging tunnels to lay explosives, sitting at the top of poles to spot for artillery. Fig. 100 “shows two Australians preparing jam-tin bombs at Gallipoli”. And they were literally jam-tins, filled with gun-cotton and, in this case, with “sections of barbed wire” to increase their lethality. Holmes notes that the two men are wearing “felt slippers, for this was no place to light a spark” (pg. 133).

Small facts like that help you understand the war better. So do small facts like these, included below a group photograph of some scruffily dressed troops:

That winter the first goatskin coats arrived. They came in a variety of colours, but were often unhelpfully light. Although they attracted both moisture and mud, and were noticeably goaty even when dry, they were very popular in that first chilly winter of trench warfare. (pg. 126)

And on page 237, Holmes notes something that the photographer almost certainly didn’t intend to capture: behind a machine-gun crew, a soldier is “‘chatting’, removing lice, ‘chats’ in soldier’s slang, and their eggs from the seams of his greyback shirt”. This familiar routine was “almost never photographed”. War is a big thing that is affected by small things like felt slippers, goatskin coats and lice. It’s also a bad thing, as the lice suggest, but that’s part of why it’s interesting. This book isn’t intended to be a history of the war and it won’t help you understand the strategists and generals. It’s about ordinary soldiers and their officers, joining up, fighting, sometimes dying, sometimes surviving.

The final section is called “In Parenthesis?”. The words are from the title of David Jones’ “great poem” about the war, but the question mark was put there by Holmes. Jones thought he had stepped outside the “brackets” of the war in 1918. But the 1920s and 1930s were actually between brackets: he hadn’t fought in the war to end all wars. The Second World War was more and worse and its origins can be seen in this book. But the First World War also looks back to the nineteenth century, when the Scottish quartermasters in fig. 45 must have begun their service. One is fat, one looks ferocious. They both have extravagant moustaches. Those men and their moustaches are long gone, but the First World War is still important. This book is a good way to understand what it was like to fight then, but an index would have made it even better.


*Update 31/v/14: In fact, there are photos of that.

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