Monday 28 October 2013

The Bloody 1860s

Some musings on a historical period that fascinates me, the latter half of the 19th Century, "the day before yesterday" in historical terms

In the popular mind in Britain the Victorian era, indeed the entire period from Waterloo in 1815 to the opening of the Great War in 1914, is often seen as something of a golden age of peace. So too it was for Britain, interrupted only by small wars in distant places, and two medium ones in the Crimea and South Africa. From a British perspective this perception was largely correct, mainly because whatever fighting was involved was done by the top and bottom layers of society – the sons of the landed gentry and aristocracy on the one hand, and those of the underclass on the other. There was little impact on the middle classes and on what was recognised as “the respectable working class”.  
Retaking of Suzhou city from the Taiping Rebels by Imperial Manchu troops

If a global perspective is however adopted the picture changes significantly and the 1860s in particular may well have represented the bloodiest single decade in human history up to that time. Conflicts that raged at this time either during the decade or overlapping it, included:
  • The Tai-Ping Rebellion in Southern China, 1850 to 1864, in which upwards of 20 million people are estimated to have died.
  • The American Civil War 1861-65, which killed more Americans (roughly 625,000) than all that nation’s other wars combined and which saw the largest armies seen up to that time operating on a vast geographic scale.
  • The “Tripartite War” of 1864-1870 in which Paraguay fought the three allied nations of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay and in the process lost 390,000 of its combatants and approximately 1.2 million of its entire population, civilian and military. This equated to approximately 90% of the pre-war population and the conflict is regarded in relative terms as the most bloody in recorded history.
  • Prussia’s wars against Denmark in 1864 and Austria in 1866 were relatively bloodless, though the victory at Königgrätz in 1866 cost the Prussians 2000 casualties and the Austro-Hungarians 31,000. These two “medium wars” were the prelude to the murderous Franco-Prussian War which would break out in 1870.
  • As the decade opened the Second Italian War of Independence was still in progress, winding up a vicious campaign that had seen the French, Piedmontese and Austrians slaughtering each other at the Battles of Magenta and Solferino in 1859, the casualties at the latter being so terrible as to inspire Henri Dunant to establish the Red Cross.
  • The French intervention in Mexico lasted from 1862 to 1866 and escalated what would have been a sufficiently nasty civil war into something greater in scope through France’s efforts to establish the Hapsburg “Emperor” Maximilian as its puppet ruler.
  • Almost continuous Russian campaigns in Central Asia resulted in the conquest of Turkmenistan in the late 1860s, with further expansion in the decade that followed.
  • The Polish Rising against Russian rule was mercilessly put down between 1863 and 1865.
  • Civil Wars in Japan from 1864 onwards were a vital element in modernisers confronting traditionalists as the nation faced the challenge of opening up to the world outside.
  • In 1868 the vicious “Ten Years War” commenced in Cuba as insurgents sought independence from Spain. This conflict was indeed the precursor to three decades of almost continuous guerrilla campaigns that culminated in the Spanish-American War of 1898.
  • In Spain itself the revolution that toppled Queen Isabella II in 1868 was the precursor to several years of civil war, including the Third Carlist War that would rage from 1872-76.

The list above takes no account of lesser colonial conflicts, or now-forgotten wars which included the Colombian Civil War of 1860-62, the Colombian-Ecuadoran War of 1863, revolt against Ottoman rule in Crete and the Dominican Republic’s liberation from Spain between 1863 and 1865.

Forgotten many of these conflicts may now be, but each represented loss, tragedy and misery for all those they touched.
Tripartite War: Brazilian forces (in blue) engage the Paraguayan army (in red or shirtless) 
Russian troops advancing into the breach of a Central Asian fortress
 Farewell to Europe: defeated Poles being transported to Siberia in 1863
(The artist, Aleksander Sochaczewski is himself the figure to the right of the column)
Prussian Victory at Königgrätz in 1866

Friday 18 October 2013

Creasy’s 15 Decisive Battles of the World – and 10 suggested additions

In 1851 the English historian and jurist Sir Edward Shepherd Creasy published his “Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World. A different outcome of each of these battles would have resulted in a significantly different course of world history, and as such they still influence the world we live in today. As such they represent major “points of departure” for alternative histories.

File:Steuben - Bataille de Poitiers.png
Tours (Poitiers) 732: Charles Martel repels the Muslim invaders of Northern Europe
Each chapter of Creasy’s book describes a different battle. The fifteen battles chosen are:
  1. The Battle of Marathon, 490 BC: Persian expansion into Europe halted
  2. Defeat of the Athenians at Syracuse, 413 BC: The end of Athenian power
  3. The Battle of Gaugamela, 331 BC: Opened Asia to Alexander’s armies
  4. The Battle of the Metaurus, 207 BC: Guaranteed Rome’s survival and triumph over Carthage
  5. Victory of Arminius over the Roman Legions under Varus, AD 9: Ends Roman expansion into Germany
  6. The Battle of Châlons, AD 451: Roman victory over the Huns saved Western Europe’s Future
  7. The Battle of Tours (Poitiers), AD 732: Stopped Muslim expansion into Northern Europe
  8. The Battle of Hastings, AD 1066: Essential First step towards Britain as a World Power
  9. Joan of Arc's Victory over the English at Orléans, AD 1429; The end of English power in France
  10. Defeat of the Spanish Armada, AD 1588: The beginning of the end for Spain as a World Power
  11. The Battle of Blenheim, AD 1704: Britain’s emergence as a Superpower
  12. The Battle of Pultowa, AD 1709: Russia’s first step to Superpower status
  13. The Battle of Saratoga, AD 1777: Secured the survival of the United States
  14. The Battle of Valmy, AD 1792: Ensures survival of French Revolutionary power and thinking
  15. The Battle of Waterloo, AD 1815: France never again achieved Superpower status

File:Marten's Poltava.jpg
Poltawa 1709: Russia's first step to superpower status
It is notable that due to Creasy’s focus on European (and North American) power, and because little was then known in the West about Far Eastern history, no battles were listed which refer to China’s consolidation and survival as an imperial power, the failed Mongol invasions of Japan or to Japan’s failed bid for conquest of Korea in the 15th and 16th centuries and the implications that had for subsequent Japanese history.  The Mameluk victory in 1260, over the Mongols at Ain Jalut, in Galilee, which was critical in stemming Mongol power, was also omitted. Taking these and other Asian battles into account Creasy’s list might rightly have been extended to 20 or even 25 at the time he wrote. There is also good reason that he should have included the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto, which led in due course to United States acquisition of a vast areal percentage, and an economically vital one, of the modern nation.

 Since that time various writers have added to the list of post-1851 battles. Given the increasing pace and scale of conflicts since then it is not inappropriate to add at least 10. As a starting point for discussion and speculation, and with all due lack of modesty I’m suggesting the 10 post-1851 decisive battles as below:

1)       Gettysburg (and Vicksburg) 1863: though fought in separate theatres, but at almost exactly the same time, these battles made the defeat of the Southern Confederacy inevitable, not least by ending hopes of international recognition. A long attritional grind lay ahead but Union victory was now inevitable.

2)       Sedan1870: Not only did Bismarck’s Germany crush France decisively, and usher in the new German Empire, but it was absolute enough to ensure that the French would ultimately settle for a peace that ceded Alsace and Lorraine, thereby planting the seeds for WW1.

3)       Manila (and Santiago) 1898: Two naval victories half a world apart that announced the arrival of the United States as a global power and established its position in Asia that would be critical in WW2.

4)       Tsu Shima 1905: Japan’s victory over the huge Russian fleet was perhaps the most absolute in naval history. It marked the arrival of Japan as a major power and encouraged ambitions that would ultimately lead to WW2 in the Far East and the Pacific.

5)       The Marne 1914: Decisive in the sense that Germany could not achieve the quick victory in the west that it had built its strategy on. From this moment on Germany was on the back foot in the West. The Western Allies bought time that would ultimately lead to their defeat of Germany.

6)       Warsaw 1920: Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War was almost absolute when the Red Army was launched westwards to carry revolution into Central Europe. The new Polish state worked a miracle in defeating it. It saved Europe but at the cost of stoking Russian resentment that would exact a terrible revenge in later decades.

7)       The Atlantic 1939-45: Though the struggle to secure Britain’s supply lines climaxed in 1943, the fight went on from the first to the last day of WW2. Churchill described the U-Boat menace as the thing that frightened him most – and with good reason. Without victory in the Atlantic, no Allied victory in Western Europe.

8)       Stalingrad 1942-43. The name says it all. No need to say more.

9)       Saipan 1944: I’ve identified the conquest of Saipan rather than the Battle of Midway as being the decisive battle in the Pacific in WW2. My reasoning is that though Midway was critical in weakening the Japanese Navy, the United States would still have prevailed, though over a much longer time scale, if it had lost the battle.  Saipan was critical in identifying the type of war that had to be fought to beat Japan, leading in due course to the decision to drop nuclear weapons, At Saipan not only did the Japanese military fight to the death, but huge numbers of civilians, including women who killed their own children, were prepared not only to resist but to commit suicide rather than surrender. This was the first US encounter with a Japanese civilian population and it highlighted just how costly an invasion of the Japanese Home Islands would be. From this point on I believe that use of nuclear weapons was unavoidable.

10)   The Battle That Never Was 1983-90: The US commitment to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI – “Star Wars”), whether it was ever technically feasible or not at the time, was believed to be feasible by the Soviets.  Their military budgets were already an unsustainable percentage of their total economy and the pressure to compete with Star Wars was possibly the greatest single factor in bringing about the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union. Not a shot was fired and the tyranny hundreds of millions had lived under for seven decades died not with a bang but a whimper.

The list above is obviously subjective and I’d be welcome to hear comments.     

Warsaw 1920: The Miracle of the Vistula
Poles advance past Marshal Pilsudski to achieve the impossible

Friday 11 October 2013

An Aid to Plotting: Maps and Thumbnails

Both the world I write about - that of the Late Victorian Era -  I tend to take maps as a starting point not just for imagining the scene of action but for recognising the challenges and constraints it may have for the plot. Realism demands reflection of the realities of space and time, not to mention nature of terrain, seasonal weather and the ease or difficulty of travel in the period in question. These challenges are of particular importance when one is linking the plot of a historical novel to actual events, as in the case of my own novel, Britannia's Wolf, which plays out in the last months of the murderous Russo-Turkish War of 1877/78 when a British officer, Nicholas Dawlish, is seconded to the Ottoman Turkish Navy. The action shifts from the Turkish and Russian Black Sea coasts to the province of Thrace on the approaches to Istanbul from Bulgaria. Given this wide geographical canvas then the process of getting from A to B, even though every step may not be described in detail, is in itself a major factor that may sometimes constrain, sometimes enhance, the possibilities of the plot.

A map is for me therefore an essential tool in the plotting and writing process. That for Britannia's Wolf is shown above. The larger scale map proved essential for plotting the actions taking place at sea, while the smaller inset map, to a larger scale, was critical for describing land action which is critical to the plot. An added bonus in these times is that Google Earth is an invaluable tool for provision of detail on locations one may have visited in the past and for jogging memory. Caution must however be exercised. Given the speed and extent of urban growth in much of the world over the last century extreme care needs to be taken in assessing what may - or may not - have been on the ground in the period of the novel. Major buildings such as mosques, churches and palaces present no problem but envisaging the likely extent of urban sprawl almost a century and a half ago is a greater challenge. What today may be substantial two-lane highways may still follow the same routes as previously, but were in most cases no more than tracks which became all but impassible in rain or snow.

I also adorned (if that is the word!) the map with two thumbnail sketches of ships which play a key role in Britannia's Wolf. I've had good feedback from readers about these, even it they lack the artistic merit of the embellishments such as dolphins and Neptunes with which 16th and 17th Century cartographers adorned their maps. I am at present finalising the text of my next Dawlish Chronicles novel - Britannia's XXX - with the Xs still be be revealed to the reading public. I've also been sprucing up the working map I initially created as a plotting aid and then referred to constantly during the writing process. In this case I'm providing four thumbnails of vessels which appear in the story. I'm reproducing two of them below and I wonder if anybody will be able to deduce from them where and in what circumstances Britannia's XXX is set?

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Sir Edmund Gosse - stuck in the basement!

I first read "Father and Son" by Edmund Gosse (1849-1928) well over 40 years ago and I've re-read it several times since, as well as delighting in a talking-book version. It's Gosse's memoir of a bizarre Victorian childhood and it's simultaneously humorous, tragic, generous and honest. The narrative centres on Gosse's relationship with his marine-biologist father, whose fundamentalist Christian beliefs were thrown into turmoil by the publication of Darwin's "Origin of Species". To describe this man as "difficult" would be an understatement and yet the mutual love between him and his son shines through every page, including those that involve the most farcical events (the incident of the Christmas Pudding takes beating!). Gosse's account of his mother's illness and death is heartrending but it is pleasing to read of his relationship with his father's second wife, a thoroughly good woman.

As an adult, and after a painful break with this father on spiritual matters, Gosse went on to be a poet, author and critic. He was responsible for bringing Ibsen to the attention of the British public - indeed he translated Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and The Master Builder. He knew just about every notable literary figure between 1870 and 1928 and the list of his own achievements is daunting.

I've always liked Gosse - he seems to have been the sort of man one would have enjoyed knowing. He was also involved with the London Library, in St.James's Square, which is from were I draw much of my research material. Founded in 1841,this is the largest (and possibly best) subscription library in the world and has been a vital resource for thousands of writers and scholars. The bound copies of the Illustrated London News - another great Victorian institution - are located in the basement and I consult them regularly. On the way I pass a bronze bust of Gosse that has, shamefully, been placed there rather than in the entrance hall.  On occasion some irreverent soul has lent him a baseball cap which, strangely, rather suits him. I always doff my own cap metaphorically to him as I hurry past but a few days ago I paused to snap a photograph of him on my Smartphone. Here it is - my own small tribute.

Thank you Sir Edmund. You were a good man.