‘The Hall of Mirrors’ is perhaps the first analysis of the wars and warfare of the 20th century as a whole.
What can we learn from war, and warfare, in the 20th century? Surprisingly, the question has not been addressed.
After the First World War four empires ceased to exist. Eight new countries were born in Europe. After the Second World War, Japan and Germany renounced militarism and ceased to be major players on the world stage for decades. The border of Russia effectively moved 800km west, to the Oder (if not the Elbe). War is hugely important. It is not futile, although it sometimes seems so to those taking part.
But how effective, for example, was the allied Combined Bomber Offensive in the defeat of Germany in the Second World War? There is, in practice, no real consensus. How did the western navies win the Battle of the Atlantic, when there were far more U-boats at sea late in the war than in the early years? There is very little discussion, and apparently no agreement, as to how the western allies defeated Germany in north west Europe in 1944-5. Was it just superior numbers? (No.) Yet all of those campaigns took place over 70 years ago. Why are those questions unanswered?
Some of the book’s findings are quite startling. For example, the so-called ‘Falaise Pocket’ of August 1944 was misunderstood by the senior commanders involved. The critical period was 16-19 August 1944. But was the pocket to be closed along the line of the River Orne, or the River Seine?
In practice thousands of Germans escaped across the Orne. The great majority of them, and many others, also escaped across the Seine. 23,000 vehicles were also evacuated.
‘A wide ranging and thought-provoking analysis of warfare in the last century, outlining enduring and essential lessons. Reading it will make you reconsider what you thought you knew.’
General Sir Rupert Smith KCB DSO OBE QGM
‘A highly stimulating, thought-provoking analysis of warfare in the twentieth century … clear thinking, full of insights and never shy of controversy.’
Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely KCB MC
I’m the author of two other books. ‘The Human Face of War’, based on the doctoral thesis I prepared under the guidance of Professor Richard Holmes, was published in 2009. ‘King Arthur’s Wars’, which provides a revolutionary re-assessment of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of England, was published by Helion in 2016. A revised paperback edition is available now.
I’m not an historian. My first degree was in civil engineering; my master’s is in defence technology. I see myself as an analyst. I try to follow the evidence, wherever it may lead, and no matter how uncomfortable that may be. I also try to think critically what the evidence tells us.
Although British, I could be considered a bit of a globetrotter. We lived in four different countries (and England!) before I went to university. I then served as a Regular infantry officer for 25 years. My service took me to many different countries. Since leaving the Army I’ve worked as a consultant, writer, researcher and analyst. I’ve taught and lectured in several countries.
I’ve now started work on my next book, which will look at the tactics of the unfought battles of the Cold War. After that I’m thinking about a book on command: the organisations, structures, processes and people.
The Hall of Mirrors: War and Warfare in the 20th Century can be ordered here.
Anyone beginning to research the uniforms of the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars will very quickly come across two small books published by the long-gone and much lamented Almark – Regiments at Waterloo and Soldiers of the Peninsular War, both books written and illustrated by one René North. A little more research will soon bring up references to North’s hard-to-find ‘Paint-Your-Own’ series of uniform cards. Although he published only four books including these two titles (he translated at least one more however), without a doubt René North was in the forefront of the early study of the uniforms of the British Army, indeed he was perhaps the foremost of the second generation authorities (if we take C C P Lawson, P W Reynolds, Percy Sumner and their ilk as the first generation and the originators of the study).
During World War Two René North had served in the Royal Artillery and then in the Intelligence Corps. After the war he was a ‘consultant to theatrical and advertising agencies on matters of military dress’. Around 1950 he was retained by Norman Newton Ltd (the owners of the ‘Tradition’ shop in Piccadilly) to take over as the artist on their ‘Tradition, Uniforms of the British Army’ series of plates.
The first two plates of the series had been drawn by Charles Stadden, the well known and highly respected figure sculptor and artist (‘Stadden Miniatures’ are still available today, almost a half-century after their original sculpting). The first plates, drawn by Stadden, showed the uniforms of a single Regiment from its raising until c1815 but René North changed the direction of the series and each of these almost A2 sized plates would in future show a single regiment over a much shorter time period, almost always the era c1800 to 1815. The plates, like the Huber series (see below), were printed in outline and then hand coloured before sale, mostly by the same woman. Some copies may have been sold uncoloured as I have a single example that is so, but this could simply be ‘one that got away’.
Towards the end of the publication of the Tradition plate series in 1956, René North was contracted by Francis S Huber, also a London based publisher, to draw a similar series of plates. Unlike the Tradition series, the Huber Series of Plates were published as a limited edition – only between 25 and 50 copies of each plate were printed, each hand numbered, and for this reason alone they are exceedingly hard to find today. The first eight of the series, which eventually ran to almost 50 plates, covered two regiments to each plate but from plate nine this changed to a single Regiment per plate. Each plate was a little larger than A4 and folded into a booklet form and, unlike the Tradition series, accompanied by one or two pages of text of additional information, sources, etc.
The Huber series of plates came to an end around 1962 (the illustrations for the last plate are dated 1962), but a couple of years earlier North had begun to publish his on-going researches in the form of the ‘North’s Paint-Your-Own cards’ for which he is best known. The figures in ‘North’s Paint-Your-Own cards’ set 1 (Austrian Artillery 1809-15) and set 2 (Swiss Regiments in French Service 1805-15) both carry the date of 1959 but may have actually been published in early 1960, thereafter the sets were published at the rate of approximately four sets every four months. The cards came in sets of six and were printed on high-quality heavyweight card, intended, as the name implies, for the purchaser to colour them themselves from the colour details supplied. Initially the colouring information was on the actual card, but on later sets it was moved to the accompanying text sheet leaving the card purely for the illustration itself.
This idea of ‘paint-your-own’ kept the cost of the sets down in the days of expensive colour printing. In 1975 when John Edgcumbe was publishing the cards sets 1 to 65 were 80p per set and 66 to 113 were 45p per set (and there had been some price rises since North had died!) Each set was supplied in a small brown envelope usually bearing no identifier beyond the set number although later some sets had the set title handwritten on the outside.
The cards were essentially in two series, although numbered in one sequential run (rather like British Cavalry Regiments I suppose…): one series (90 sets) covered the Napoleonic Wars from c1800, the other (23 of the 113 sets) the two decades immediately before 1914, the period of the last full dress uniforms of the old European Armies.
Both the Huber Plates and, after the first few sets, the ‘Paint-Your-Own cards’ came with a sheet of notes that not only gave additional information but also the sources for the illustration itself together with details of any variations given in other sources. It is to be regretted that many modern artists do not give similar details for their illustrations and admit where they have made assumptions.
North also produced and published two other uniformology items. The first was a series of ‘Uniform Charts’, essentially the sort of tables of facings and uniform colours, which are now commonplace in uniform books but were unknown in the 1960s and 1970s (Austrian Infantry, French Dragoons, British Line Infantry, etc.). The second of North’s other publications was a small number of sets of cardboard soldiers in 30mm (25mm had yet to arrive on the scene although there was a range of “one inch” figures), again to be coloured by the purchaser. These were essentially forerunners of Peter Dennis’ excellent ‘Paper Soldiers’ series published by Helion but, as said, were black and white.
René North died in 1971 although even by that time both the Tradition and the Huber plates were long gone. The paint-your-own cards, uniform charts and paper soldiers were all taken over by John Edgcumbe, who also published the two sets of cards that North had drawn before his death but had not published (set 112 French Regiment d’Isenbourg c 1809, and set 113 Royal Canadian Mounted Police 1890-1900, oddly in my example the cards of these two sets are neither signed nor dated). These two sets brought the total to 113 sets showing over 700 figures (set 100 had two figures per card as did a number of single cards in other sets). In the 1980s Edgcumbe passed the publishing and sale of the cards to John Heayes, but a year or so later they disappeared from sale and their current whereabouts is now unknown.
It’s worth mentioning that at no time during their publishing history were the cards available from anyone except the publishers (North, Edgcumbe and Heayes as appropriate), with the single exception that they were in Jack Scruby’s catalogue for sale in the USA. This lack of a distributor or reseller probably accounts for the cards’ relative obscurity despite the high quality of the information that they contain.
René North’s name is rarely mentioned today, except perhaps in relation to the Military Uniforms book that he wrote for Hamlyn (published in their “all colour” series in 1970, and which ironically René North didn’t illustrate) but his work is the foundation of many of the studies of British Napoleonic Uniforms and he deserves to be better remembered.
René North is a much-neglected populariser of what is now called uniformology. My earliest memory is of a small, rather dapper pencil-moustached individual who lurked at the top right hand corner of British Model Soldier Society meetings in the old Caxton Hall venue in Victoria in the mid to late sixties.
Draped in a grey gabardine belted overcoat, he furtively dispensed upon whispered enquiry those little brown envelopes of six monochrome cards and a single sheet of colouring instructions from a battered brown briefcase.
He was modest and softly spoken with a gentle twinkle in his intelligent eyes, which made him a very accessible figure to us overawed young beginners in the hobby.
I loved the little cards, which were excellent value for money. They clearly reflected his love of the subject and were painstakingly rendered in pen and ink. If his drawing ability was limited in comparison to the many talented artists we’d seen on the Bucquoy cards, his passion for detail and delight in bringing us all the variations available to him of the costumes of a single corps made him head and shoulders above his few British contemporaries.
I treasure to this day many sets of his cards and recall with great affection the order, scale and comprehensiveness which he brought to his card series and his many illustrations in those early Almark publications.
The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same…
Veillons au Salut de l’Empire”
I had the privilege of meeting René North only once when I was taken as a young guest to a BMSS meeting. Emir Bukhari’s email sums up my memory very well.
 I have been unable to find anything about this publisher or, indeed, anything else that he published!
 If you can find a copy the American edition of this book is to be preferred; it corrects a couple of typos from the Hamlyn version AND it is a hardback!
The reading rooms of the National Archives at Kew present a curious sight on any given afternoon. Imagine a care home for the massively over-educated and terminally under-employed, and you will have a fitting conception of many of the inhabitants. The emblematic animal of the archives, and their notional spirit animal, is the swan, and a beautiful family of swans skim the ponds of the Kew forecourt. It is a not-inapt metaphor for the operation of the archives: the staff are all apparent grace and dignity, but beneath the surface, there is frenetic action, powering the perpetual cycle of documents from readers to storage and back again.
There are not many swans amongst the readers. A broad sweep of the detritus of the reading rooms might harvest a few spirit sloths who have carried their slippers from home, plenty of dishevelled wombats apparently unacquainted with a barber, and the occasional neophyte as startled giraffe, swivelling its neck in nervous wonder. Spending a lot of time in this atmosphere one begins to feel at home among this often vague, but also minutely focussed motley herd. You unthinkingly adopt their quiet padding lope to the return counter, and their lolloping shuffle of anticipation taking them to the arrived document pigeon holes. From there, it’s a short step to master the thousand-yard stare at the coffee counter down in the lobby, as one struggles to drag the mind back from mortgage rolls of the fifteenth century to deal with the mundane choices of various caffeine-based cups.
I spent enough time amongst these people to feel at home when researching my latest book there. It involved thumbing many tens, even hundreds of thousands of document and folio pages, and while doing so, one becomes aware of other subterraneana lurking under the surface of the documents themselves. My particular haunt was the labyrinthine military bureaucracy and associated government apparatus of the early nineteenth century. Handling the correspondence between the lugubrious assistant second secretary to the deputy-assistant-adjutant-general at Horse Guards and his wizened counterpart at the Clothing Board in Great George Street can be a fairly dry experience, but after a while one comes to recognise their handwriting, and know their idioms of speech, and you begin to feel at home in their company. After joining the family of bureaucrats in their everyday procedures, and feeling them come to life again while thumbing through their letters, it’s just a few steps further to imagining you are part of that family. When you listen to their long lost voices asking after the health of the housekeeper’s cat, you wonder why on earth they would let a cat into a room used for storing textiles. Imagine the hair everywhere! One can sympathise with the custodian of the pattern-room who battles rheumatism and the cat with equal stoicism.
There are frustrations amongst the papers too, to balance these homely pleasures. In correspondence concerning the pattern room (a storage place for sealed patterns of military uniform), one is all too frequently brought up short by the constant references along the lines of, ‘see pattern item attached’. This starts to become something of a litany to lost wonders, as the pattern was always attached to the original correspondence, and not included in the letter-book. When one is concentrated on the subject of these elusive patterns, to be always brought up short and reminded of their absence, is to exist in a state of perpetual disappointment. But there are exceptions. Sometimes after a long day reading letter-books recording the ingoing and outgoing correspondence of the pattern office, one turns the thousandth page and is confronted by a splash of glorious colour. Some marvellous new clerk has failed to remove the pattern item or drawing and file it properly, and it survives, as fresh as the day it was deposited. Below are two examples of these survivals, calculated to raise the spirits of even the most jaded wombat of the reading room.
These two samples of uniform lace illustrate the lace worn by the buglers of the 71st Regiment in 1819 and 1820. The practice of buglers wearing reversed colours had fallen out of favour by 1811, and they were to be distinguished by a different lace to that of the other ranks instead. This was a utilitarian alteration, intended to prevent the disproportionate targeting by the enemy of buglers, who were a vital part of the command and control hierarchy, owing to their role in transmitting orders.
This expertly rendered coloured drawing of the new 1812 pattern infantry cap plate pre-empts the issue of the infantry clothing warrant of that year, indicating that The First, or Royal Scots, Regiment had followed the advice of the clothing board of 1811 and prepared their issue of the new model caps in advance.
Further examples of these fortunate survivals are recorded in the author’s two new volumes on the regulation material of the British army, Regulating Fashion, Fashioning Regulation.
‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness’: When those words were written in the Declaration of Independence, Africans had been enslaved in British North America for approximately 140 years, and African Americans had been fighting in the Continental Army and states’ militia for 14 months.
‘They Were Good Soldiers’: African–Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775–1783 examines the subject in some detail, including black soldiers’ personal experiences before, during, and after their military service.
The role of African-Americans, most free but some enslaved, in the regiments of the Continental Army is not well-known; neither is the fact that relatively large numbers served in southern regiments and that the greatest number served alongside their white comrades in integrated units.
‘They Were Good Soldiers’ begins by discussing the inclusion and treatment of black Americans by the various Crown forces (particularly British and Loyalist commanders, and military units). The narrative then moves into an overview of black soldiers in the Continental Army, before examining their service state by state. Each state chapter looks first at the Continental regiments in that state’s contingent throughout the war, and then adds interesting black soldiers’ pension narratives or portions thereof. The premise is to introduce the reader to the men’s wartime duties and experiences. The book’s concluding chapters examine veterans’ post-war fortunes in a changing society and the effect of increasing racial bias in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
My intent from the start was to make extensive use of black veterans’ 19th century pension narratives. For those unfamiliar with the Revolutionary War pension applications (deemed by one historian, ‘one of the largest oral history projects ever undertaken’), they are the best way to hear the men’s stories in as close to their own words as is possible – to almost hear them speak. Add to that, personal details, available nowhere else, are revealed by the veterans themselves or people close to them. In essence, my wish is to present their experiences as soldiers, as citizens, and as individuals, and pension narratives are the best way to accomplish that.
Here are several examples showing the range of their experiences:
Connecticut veteran Cezar Shelton: ‘Before he enlisted, he was in the Militia … he was wound[ed] at Horse Neck [Landing], he was just relieved from guard and had lain down with his pack on & fell asleep when he was awaked by an order, surrender[,] he jumped out of the window and escaped to the bushes, but received one blow with a cutlass across his back, he was also struck by a [musket] ball on the skin at the same time …’.
New York soldier Joseph Johnson, aka Thomas Rosekrans, at the Battle of Newtown, August 1779: ‘Major James Rondecrants … gave me orders to stay with the pack horses, I did so a short time, but becoming uneasy I left the horses, took my Gun and engaged in the battle for which I was censured by Major Rondecrants’.
Jim Capers, South Carolina, ‘was in the Battle of Eutaw Springs, at [that] … Battle he received four Wounds, Two cuts upon the face, one on the head with a sword & one with a Ball which passed through his left side, killing the Drummer immediately behind him …’.
Virginian Thomas Mahorney, ‘declares that he is a planter on a little farm not his, and is rendered unable to pursue it by reason of his age and infirmity and that his family residing with him are as follows: Viz: his wife Maima[?] and his son Jack both of which are slaves, he the said Thomas Mahorney being a free man of colour who served in the war of the Revolution, and is unassisted by the labour of his family’.
Four Appendices close the book, covering the role of officers’ servants (both black and white), deserter notices for African American soldiers, and men of color in Virginia’s 1780-81 draft to fill its Continental regiments. Appendix 2 discusses African American women with the army, including Sarah (also called Rachel), a runaway ‘Mulatto slave’, pregnant and accompanied by her son Bob. Sarah and her son were present in 1778 with the 1st Maryland Regiment.
Finally, here is a teaser from the only known letter written by a black soldier during the war, published for the first time in ‘They Were Good Soldiers’: John Lines to his wife Judith, “November the 11 1781 … i am well and hopeing these lines may find you and the Children Well … we lay at fishkill now … I have lived a-11-day With Bread [only] … I re mane your loveing husband un tel death.”
Lines and other veterans returned home to a changed and changing nation. Despite the waning of Northern slavery, with the ratification of the 1789 United States Constitution black bondage was cemented as a political and economic fact, and detrimental racial attitudes hardened, especially after 1800. Thirty-five years after the war black Revolutionary veterans, along with their white comrades, were eligible for service pensions, but, even in that system, they experienced the effect of increasing bias. Still, black Americans continued to fight for their nation, as 81-year-old Judith Lines related in 1837, ‘my youngest son died of a wound recd in the last war [War of 1812], his name was Benjamin, the wound was recd. at the Battle of Chippewa [5 July 1814]’. And black Revolutionary veterans remained proud of their service, as attested by Artillo Freeman, who in a tally of his belongings, totaled the whole at $15.75. At the end of the list he added one more item, ‘Revolutionary Uniform – Invaluable’.
Buy a copy of ‘They Were Good Soldiers. African-Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775-1783’ here.