My first book, published by Helion in 2007, was a two volume history of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, a subject in which I have always had a profound interest. In volume 2 of that book I was particularly interested to explore the second phase of the war, after the battle of Sedan and the fall of the French Second Empire. That period has been covered much less thoroughly than the campaign that led up to Napoleon III’s surrender at Sedan. As the war began thereafter to spread to the rest of France, there immediately followed the siege of Metz, where the French Army of the Rhine, under Marshal Bazaine, was surrounded by the besieging Prussian army under Prince Frederick Charles.
I went on to write a number of other books, some on the Franco Prussian war, and some on other subjects, but then came back to the history of the Army of the Rhine and the subsequent trial of its commander. As a lawyer, that trial interested me enormously, and so I began to research the book which has now been published by Helion under the title Bazaine 1870. Working on the book, it was not long before I realised that in my original history I had not done him justice, having in some instances followed the prevalent opinion of a number of other historians; as a result my analysis of him was unpardonably superficial.
This became very apparent to me when I read Bazaine: Coupable ou Victime? This, written by Generals Edmond Ruby and Jean Regnault, was published in Paris in 1960. It is a hugely impressive demolition of the popularly held view of Bazaine. In now publishing my own account of the course of his career as it progressed towards the events of 1870, I hope that I have made good my previous lapses of judgement. Much of the contemporary literature about Bazaine, and his trial, was ill informed, politically motivated and unremittingly hostile. Some later historians, such as Sir Michael Howard, have produced a more balanced account; but not all, as for instance the American historian Geoffrey Wawro, previously the author of a brilliant history of the Austro Prussian War, who in his history of the war of 1870-1871seems to have swallowed the anti-Bazaine narrative hook line and sinker.
The only comprehensive account in the English language of the tragic story of François Achille Bazaine was that written by Philip Guedalla in his vivid dual biography of Marshals Bazaine and Petain, published in 1943 under the title The Two Marshals. Guedalla succeeded in bringing to life the career of a man whose motivations remain to this day difficult to discern with any clarity. What was overwhelmingly clear, though, was just how unfairly Bazaine was treated. France needed a scapegoat for her shattering defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and in Bazaine one was found ready to hand. For surrendering Metz he was tried for his life on military charges devised by the first Napoleon, enraged by the surrender by General Dupont at Baylen in 1808 during the Peninsular War. The transcript of the lengthy proceedings, held in the Grand Trianon at Versailles, is of absorbing interest. Looking at Bazaine’s decisions during his command, I have no doubt that his conviction (the death sentence was commuted to one of imprisonment) was monstrously unjust, and I am glad to have had the opportunity of setting the record straight.
‘Bazaine 1870. Scapegoat for a Nation’ is now available to buy here.
No study of the British Army’s senior command in the Great War is complete without a reference to Sir Henry Hughes Wilson. Like the villain in a Victorian melodrama he usually makes an early appearance, then skulks in the background only to reappear in the final act to stab his friends in the back. There is no doubt that Wilson was, and remains, a Marmite-character, but was he quite so black as his enemies painted him?
Wilson died before he could tell his own war story, and his reputation was shredded by a well-intentioned biography initiated by his widow and written by a friend and colleague, C.E. Callwell. That book was based in large part on Wilson’s detailed and highly entertaining diaries, in which every evening this most political of soldiers recorded his thoughts on his friends, his enemies, and war policy in general. Unfortunately for his reputation, Wilson’s often intemperate late-night scribblings found their way into the biography, much to the irritation of his contemporaries.
For those who disliked or distrusted Wilson (or both), here was proof-positive of his Janus-like character. For his friends and admirers (and there were many), it was disappointing to find themselves criticised behind their backs. Here, surely, was the ‘real’ Henry Wilson. The late Keith Jeffery’s excellent political biography (Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: A Political Soldier, 2006) was a much more balanced account of this fascinating man. Notwithstanding Jeffery’s work, Wilson is still too many a one-dimensional character; untrustworthy, flippant, ambitious, admirer of politicians. The antithetical British army officer.
I encountered him first while studying Britain and the Great War for my master’s degree at Birmingham University. When I was considering a doctorate, he seemed like the ideal candidate. But what was there to say that was new? Viewing Wilson’s diaries at the Imperial War Museum it became clear that there was, in fact, quite a lot.
Although Wilson’s first biographer had squeezed the diaries for many a juicy reference, there were plenty more for the picking. Writing in the 1920’s, when many of the main characters were still alive, Callwell had understandably often anonymised his references, and skated over others. Pouring over his less than copperplate jottings, it soon became clear to me that there was far more to Wilson than the glib characterisation which had served as a shorthand for his character for almost a century.
Wilson wrote up his journal each evening after dinner. He usually used a W.H. Smith page-a-day hardback diary and, if what he had to say took more than the supplied page, he continued on any spare page elsewhere in the diary, or in a separate notebook. [A note here for researchers: Wilson’s diaries were microfiched in the dim and distant past and it is impossible to tie the daily diary with the additional notes’ pages in this format; remember to ask to examine the originals!] What became clear early on was that Wilson’s grumblings and criticisms were his way of ‘venting’ his feelings after a busy day – very much like modern fancy for late-night social media rants which, in the cold light of day are often regretted, and rarely acted upon. Wilson was writing for himself, not for public consumption; if he couldn’t grumble in his journal, where could he do it?
The diaries, his official papers, and those of his contemporaries together revealed a much more complex character than I had originally expected. Certainly, Wilson liked politicians (or some of them), and some of them liked him. But he was no fool, and no dupe. Henry Wilson was, unlike many officers of his rank and class, happy to mix with the ‘frocks’ and in so doing hoped to further both his career and his view of how the war might be won.
As if a cheeky ease with politicians wasn’t enough to place him in bad odour with his fellow officers, Wilson was also seen as a ‘Francophile’. This label was appended to Wilson because he spoke the language, and in the pre-War period had make it his business to study the French army and make friendships with French officers. These skills meant that for much of the war his main contribution to the British effort was not strategic command, but inter-allied liaison. Wilson was a friend, and sometimes adversary, of Ferdinand Foch. In the final 18 months of the war both men finally achieved great power and influence over their respective countries’ war policy.
This role as ‘soldier diplomat’ dominates Wilson’s War and will, I hope, add a new dimension to our understanding of a complex, yet fascinating soldier who had a far greater impact on British military policy both during and after the Great War, than many might originally believe.
My research has now returned to that other enigmatic and fascinating Great War general, Sir William Robertson. I have contributed chapters on ‘Wully’ to Spencer Jones’s three collections of writings on the Great War, all published by Helion. I am now working on the fourth, Robertson in 1917, the year in which the bluff Chief of the Imperial General Staff clashed directly with Henry Wilson; two more dissimilar characters can hardly be imagined.
You can now buy ‘Wilson’s War. Sir Henry Wilson’s Influence on British Military Policy in the Great War and its Aftermath’ here.
The name Lord Kitchener might not mean much to many today, however his face as the poster ‘Your country needs you’ is almost internationally recognised. At the turn of the 20th century Henry Horatio Kitchener was the British Empire celebrity of the day, yet for those of us growing up in South Africa, his name was (and for some still is) synonymous with butcher, scorched earth, and concentration camps. In Britain, for many he’s linked with ammunition shortages, and sending young men to be needlessly slaughtered on the battle fields of the Western Front.
With 53 biographies on the man, what more could there be to write about him? Most of them recount the same story in different words or focus on a particular encounter he had with individuals such as his five-year conflict with Viceroy of India Lord Curzon, his reliance on sword-arm Ian Hamilton, disagreements with Lords French and Haig and his failure at the War Office. The most comprehensive, detailed and balanced biography has to be that by John Pollock. So where does Kitchener: The Man not the Myth fit in? Especially as there’s a book similarly entitled, Kitchener: The Man Behind the Legend by Philip Warner. While Warner has tried to understand the personality behind the man known as Kitchener, K of K or simply K, he has kept to the traditional themes covered in previous studies, none of which answered a question I had stumbled upon when completing my thesis between 1998 and 2004: why did Kitchener not want to go to war in East Africa in 1914 and 1915?
Superficially, this question was answered for my thesis using Pollock and a few others: Kitchener owned a coffee farm in, what is today, Kenya and had been involved in Zanzibar Boundary Commission having actually walked the land. A subsequent discovery of correspondence with General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien about his appointment to command the forces in East Africa suggested there was far more to Kitchener’s anti-war position than self-preservation of his farm. Trying to reconcile my perceptions of Kitchener with the man who stood his ground on the East Africa campaign resulted in the discovery of a personality hitherto unexposed and unexplored in the existing biographies.
While most biographers tend to regard Kitchener as a complete man, that is the same at the end of his career as at the start of his career showing a consistency of action and behaviour over time, in Kitchener: The Man not the Myth, I have explored the development of the man, how he learnt from past experiences, the challenges he faced in being a British citizen but not of the establishment or culture. It is only in understanding how much of an outsider Kitchener was in the British Army that one can appreciate his decision-making and actions. As with all human beings, he had faults but it’s how he managed these to achieve what he did that turned him from being a pariah in my books to a hero.
Researching Kitchener, although straightforward in the sense of reading as many of the existing biographies as possible and focusing on the ‘glossed over’ statements alongside some archival investigation to clarify earlier interpretations of statements and views, presented some difficulties in terms of insight. While most biographers infer Kitchener’s dislike of women and insistence on having unmarried men on his staff, the sources presented a different picture. The result is a section on Kitchener’s women to compliment that on Kitchener’s ‘band of boys’. His encounter with Millicent Fawcettt in South Africa over the concentration camps and his relationships with his nieces, one being Fanny Parker, sheds interesting light on his attitude to the suffrage movement and use of women in war. Another challenge was presented by his seeming aloofness and sulking when things did not go his way contrasted with the number of occasions subordinates were surprised by tears running down his cheeks. His foresight in using and embracing technology was an unexpected discovery as was his linguistic ability, and attitude towards religion and the use of indigenous forces. Kitchener’s clear sense of priority and allegiance to his monarch and his views on how an army should be run led to him being misunderstood on many an occasion, sometimes with unfortunate and sad consequences such as the death of Hector MacDonald.
It’s worth saying this book is not a military study. While the Sudan campaigns and the 1899-1902 war in South Africa including Paardeberg are mentioned, they are not discussed in detail as other more qualified authors have done this. Whether Kitchener was right in reforming the India Army and his ensuing conflict with Curzon has also been left to others more qualified. What Kitchener: the man not the myth does is provide alternative interpretations for his actions and extract from these events what Kitchener learnt on his route to being asked to fill the role of Secretary of State for War. His anomalous position as a civilian in authority alongside not relinquishing his military role, in what Prime Minister Herbert Asquith described as an ‘experiment’ provides evidence of the breadth of skill and knowledge Kitchener was seen to have in Britain’s time of need, yet his very strengths led to his fall from grace despite this experiment and his achievements.
As with all studies, more questions have been raised. For myself, these concern the East Africa campaign of World War One and the role of railways in the African campaigns. For others, I hope this new insight into Kitchener will lead scholars to consider his and other senior military officials of the time’s military actions in new lights.
Dr Anne Samson is a specialist of World War One in Africa, with a particular focus on British East, Central and Southern Africa. She runs the Great War in Africa Association (https://gweaa.com) and has numerous publications to her name on the African campaigns. These, together with talks she’s presented, are listed on her website http://www.thesamsonsedhistorian.wordpress.com
You can buy ‘Kitchener: The Man not the Myth’ here.
Nicholas Kaizer explains why the War of 1812 still has such a resonance in today’s Canada.
‘A six pounder is not an army, no more is 450 men, except in our puny war’ wrote one Upper Canadian in a Halifax newspaper in 1813. Even contemporaries living in the British North American colonies (what is today Eastern Canada) recognized that the scale of the War of 1812 was tiny compared to the titanic campaigns being waged in Europe. By this point in the Napoleonic Wars, field armies could comprise hundreds of thousands of men: over 600,000 men made up Napoleon’s Grand Arméewhen he invaded Russia (1812), and the colossal Battle of Leipzig (1813) involved 600,000 soldiers in all. The British army that invaded and burned Washington DC (1814), by contrast, fielded just over 4,000 redcoats. The colonials also recognized, that to the wider British Empire, their Anglo-American conflict was a bit of a sideshow.
Still, 19th century Haligonians were engrossed by the campaigns in Canada, just as they were by those of Lord Wellington in Europe. The naval actions of the conflict were not neglected, either. Most shockingly for Halifax, USS Constitution, the famous American heavy frigate, defeated two Royal Navy frigates in single ship actions. A third frigate was captured by her sister ship, USS United States, and by March 1813 three British sloops of war met the same fate. During the 19th century, Halifax was a fiercely British city – proud subjects of the King and proud of the Royal Navy. Haligonians, who had enthusiastically followed the exploits of Admiral Horatio Nelson, were shocked by the losses, and struggled to come to terms with them; how could the Royal Navy be defeated by the upstart Americans?
Today, we Canadians cling to our national prowess in hockey and celebrate our athletes. The Toronto Raptor’s Championship win in the summer of 2019 briefly drew the attention and admiration of the country. In the early 19th century, our sports heroes were the officers and men of the Royal Navy’s frigates – figures who held a great degree of star power. They captivated Halifax’s youth and inspired many to seek a career in the navy, including a young Provo Wallis, who won fame during the War of 1812, and would go on to reach the highest rank in the Royal Navy. Beamish Murdoch, a future Nova Scotian historian who was a boy during the conflict, remembered the ‘sad series of disasters’ which, while ‘they are only connected with the history of our province indirectly,’ their impact ‘on the minds of our people was great, stimulating their patriotism and loyalty instead of depressing them.’ Faced with the losses of 1812, Halifax’s papers sought to defend the reputation and honour of their naval heroes, clinging to the fact that USS Constitution and her sisters vastly outclassed the RN frigates which they defeated. It was a remarkably similar tune to that sung by the press in England, which too sought to defend the honour of the Royal Navy and its sailors. This is still the understanding of today’s British and Canadian historians. The historiography of the War of 1812, alas, has always been steeped in national biases.
When I set to work on the project that would culminate in Revenge in the Name of Honour, I quickly noticed that not all contemporaries seemed to agree that the American victories could be sufficiently explained by their marked advantage in sire and firepower. None other than James Dacres, the captain of HMS Guerriere during her crushing loss to USS Constitution, declared at his court martial that the disparity in force had little to do with the defeat, and that he wished ‘to be once more opposed to the Constitution, with [his old crew] under my command, in a frigate of similar force to the Guerriere.’ The attitudes and actions of the Royal Navy’s captains following the losses suggest that Dacres’ rather bold interpretation was not unique. More than one officer sought revenge and contemplated putting their ships and crew into unnecessary risk to do so. The boldest was Captain Philip Broke of HMS Shannon, whose tiresome and risky efforts to bring about a single ship action with an American frigate paid off on 1 June 1813, when in a brief action Shannon captured USS Chesapeake.
The victory reinvigorated the British. It was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic, and Broke was showered with praise and honours from Halifax and British society. Halifax continued to celebrate the action well into the following century, and it became a staple of cultural memory and local literature. Its centenary in 1913 was marked by major events, and the 150th anniversary was celebrated with a naval spectacle, attended by warships from the Royal Navy, the still-young Royal Canadian Navy, and even from the United States Navy, once a bitter enemy but now united by a camaraderie built over two world wars. Alas, as with most aspects of the War of 1812, it had largely faded from public memory by the bicentenary in 2012, when the Government of Canada again commemorated the war, as part of a wider mission to celebrate a nostalgic vision of Canada’s colonial past.
While the general public in Halifax has largely forgotten the conflict, the naval-interested public still hold a certain delight in this particular bit of history. It has taken up more than its fair share of curated space in museums and public places in the city, which is hardly surprising; not only was Shannon’s senior surviving lieutenant a Haligonian (Provo Wallis), but Canadians delight in any arena we can claim a victory over our cousins to the south. It was no different in Halifax in 1813, when the small town flocked from Sunday church to the waterfront to cheer on Shannon and the Haligonian officer at her helm.
Terminus ‘MiG-23’, perhaps even ‘Flogger’, is likely to appear at least ‘common’ to many of readers. Yes, that’s that arrow-like design from a stable of well-known, Soviet-made fighters, many of which were captivating our minds during the times of the Cold War, back in the 1970s and 1980s. Younger readers are going to recognize it from several recent – indeed: ongoing – conflicts, like those in Libya but especially Syria.
The MiG-23 was never a ‘star’: although once manufactured and rolled out in numbers hard to imagine in these days, and widely exported, it was easily overshadowed by the Mach-3 capable MiG-25, the type the ASCC/NATO code-named the ‘Foxbat’. On the contrary, and although famed not only by the Soviets but even in diverse Western intelligence assessments shortly after its service entry, the MiG-23 was something of an anti-star: the type belittled by many. In the West of nowadays, it is best-known as something like an ‘awful’ aircraft to fly, technically unreliable, problematic – if not outright impossible to control, and then one the reputation of which was definitely ruined by heavy losses the Syrian Arab Air Force is claimed to have suffered during the Lebanon War of 1982, not to talk about the defection of a Syrian pilot with a MiG-23 to Israel, seven years later.
Actually, these were only two episodes in the history of this type – and then two actually minor episodes in a long history.
Far more important is that the MiG-23 was never studied within the context in which it came into being, nor within which it was originally expected to be operated. Not only multiple researchers in the West, but all the Russian-language researchers are usually concentrating on revealing the technology-related secrets of this family only: very little attention is paid to its operational service, and even less so to a comparison
The aim of the book ‘MiG-23 Flogger in the Middle East’ is to set that record straight: it is a culmination of 30 years of related research, in the course of which I wanted to find out what do ‘those’ MiG-23s flown by diverse air forces in the Middle East look like, who was flying them, what were their experiences, and how effective they have proven themselves.
The MiG-23 came into being along ideas of the General Staff (‘GenStab’) of the Soviet military: a cast of highly-qualified military minds indoctrinated to think in best traditions of von Clausewitz. Back in the early 1960s, the GenStab envisaged the type as a ‘hands-off’, ‘remotely controlled’ interceptor – a literal ‘missile with a man inside’, carrying a radar and missiles capable of hunting F-104 Starfighters and USAF’s F-105 Thunderchiefs, armed with nuclear bombs and underway at very low altitudes over Central Europe. This type was not expected to ‘waste time’ with searching for its targets, in dogfights or any other discipline of air combat: it was supposed to operate with full support of a well-developed network of ground-based early warning radars and electronic warfare stations, to take-off, catch its target, fire, kill – and return to base. It was supposed to bring the emphasis of air warfare to the point. For this reason, it carried a bare minimum of necessary avionics.
So much for planning. In reality, even the best plans tend to come apart as soon as they encounter the enemy. In reality, it was so that because the GenStab changed its requirements several times, it took too long to develop the MiG-23. By the time it appeared, it was de-facto obsolete in comparison to its Western competitors.
Nevertheless, by then it was too late: even Moscow could not argument pro a project that meanwhile took billions of Rubles and seven years to develop – without pressing it into service. At least as important was the fact that diverse of Soviet customers in the Middle East were demanding an advanced interceptor, something better than the MiG-21 – droves of which were shot down by Mirages and Phantoms of the Israeli air force, equipped with vastly-superior armament, in early 1970s. Some of customers in question conditioned the state of their relations to the Soviet Union on deliveries of such aircraft. Unsurprisingly, the Soviets rushed to deliver: in a matter of two years, more than 200 MiG-23s have reached Syria, then Egypt, followed by Iraq and Libya. As proud as always, the Soviets famed their new interceptors as at least matching, if not clearly outmatching anything the West was likely to deliver to its local allies. With exception of the Algerians, most of their local customers were more than happy to buy this version.
It turned out that rushing is never a good idea – especially not when it comes to the research and development of an advanced combat aircraft. Early MiG-23 variants were suffering far more from incomplete testing and poor manufacturing quality, than to combat attrition. Eventually, it took them years of additional efforts – including hiring of US test-pilots who then wrote a new flight manual for the type in Libya – to turn the aircraft of this family into combat-effective platforms.
Meanwhile, diverse variants of the MiG-23 saw combat in most diverse conflicts – and nearly always without the kind of support from the ground as originally envisaged. While often not declared into ‘Soviet supported’, even the Syrian military did not receive the equipment necessary to provide proper support for its MiG-23s, and this is not to talk about the Iraqi military, or that of Libya. Egypt meanwhile abandoned the idea of continuing the acquisition, while Algeria de-facto went its own way.
Nevertheless, advanced variants of the MiG-23 did enter service in Iraq and Libya of the mid-1980s, and these then saw more of intensive combat operations in these two countries alone – than in all other air forces around the World, combined.
In the early 1990s, the MiG-23 rapidly fell out of everybody’s favour: no matter what variant, the entire fleet became block-obsolete due to the appearance of such types like MiG-29 or Sukhoi Su-27. Thus, only air forces out of condition to replace it have continued to keep their MiG-23s in operational condition. But, and once again, exactly such air forces – those of Iraq, Libya, and Syria – were to see more combat action over the last 20 years, than most of other air forces around the Globe.
The story provided in ‘MiG-23 Flogger in the Middle East’ remains incomplete: the type is still in operational service with three air forces involved in diverse wars. And plenty of details remain outside my reach. However, thanks to the cooperation of nearly two dozen active- and former-MiG-23-pilots from six different air forces, this book provides a host of exclusive insights, and de-facto re-writing the operational history of this type.
MiG-23 Flogger in the Middle East: Mikoyan I Gurevich MiG-23 in Service in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria, 1973-2018 is available to order 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.